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Davis Inlet Innu get new home.

An announcement last week that the long-awaited move from Davis Inlet to Sango Pond would go ahead with federal and provincial backing was greeted with skepticism by Chief Katie Rich and the people of Davis Inlet. In spite of an agreement between the Innu Nation and the governments of Canada and Newfoundland and Labrador, the move is still dependent upon approval of the federal cabinet.

"I guess I could say that they've been saying this to us for the last few months," Rich said. "Every time I tell that to my people, I've been like a broken record. It didn't really matter that they said this to me this time."

There have been promises in the past, but each one has been broken. That the deals have not been made has variously been blamed on a need for further study, cabinet approval or lack of agreement between all parties.

This time, though, the announcement was made publicly, and DIAND Minister Ron Irwin said that he can foresee no problems in getting the cabinet to approve the agreement.

"The cabinet has been supportive from Day One," he said. "We are firmly committed to making the move from Davis to Sango Bay." (Rich explained that the proper name for the site is Sango Pond. The site is widely called Sango Bay in the mainstream media.)

Another hurdle now out of the way is Clyde Wells, the former premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. He didn't agree with a move to Sango Pond, preferring instead to settle the community in a larger centre, such as Goose Bay. Current Premier Brian Tobin is a former cabinet colleague of Irwin, and is eager to reach an agreement. The governmental eagerness is heightened by the potential mining developments in the Voisey's Bay area, approximately 40 km north of Davis Inlet.

Sango Pond is only seven or eight km west of Davis Inlet, but the site will allow the construction of a proper wharf and airstrip, and a community with clean water and indoor plumbing, things that have been unattainable dreams on the island.

"Apart from Davis Inlet being an island," Rich said, "and my people being cut off for so much of the year, there was no room for expansion and no water.

"It's only now that all the outstanding issues with the province have been resolved," she continued. "Hopefully, we'll be doing some work within a couple of weeks." Construction will really begin after the wharf and the road from the wharf to the townsite are completed, and the whole move will be done within four or five years.

The problems of Davis Inlet were put under an international media spotlight three-and-a-half years ago because of a home video detailing the despair into which the youth of the community had sunk. Davis Inlet was shown to be riddled with problems, the most serious of which still include widespread substance abuse, poverty, suicide and physical and sexual abuse.

The proposed move is only a part of the tripartite agreement which will, it was announced in Ottawa, be signed in Sango Pond in the fall.

"One of the other things we've been negotiating with the federal government is in regards to the devolution of programs and services [from the federal and provincial governments] to the band government," Rich said. "Hopefully, by the time we reach Sango, [the negotiations] will be completed."

Band control of such things as social services, supplies, schooling and a medical clinic, as well as the move back to the mainland, will give the community the means to escape the cycle of poverty and abuse.

Davis Inlet, on a small rock and clay island off the Labrador coast, was originally settled with the large population base in 1967 by the provincial and federal governments' forced move of many Innu from the mainland. The island was unable to support the community in dozens of ways--four or five studies have concluded that there is no source of water on the island sufficient to keep the approximately 525 people alive, and even outhouses don't work because of the clay soil.

The worst effect of the move, though, was the isolation of the people from their traditional lands. Davis Inlet becomes a virtual prison for three or four months each year, when the water becomes too difficult to cross either by boat or over the ice. For the nomadic Innu hunters, such conditions were intolerable.

The move will be funded with federal government money -- approximately $85 million--and the province will supply the site.

"The thought of moving and the amount of dollars, all that work and all that money coming to the community, it scares me," said Rich. "But the community knows what they want and they've accomplished what they wanted to do. We've worked hard at it, and we made our story available to the media and the public worldwide. That helped."
COPYRIGHT 1996 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:R. John Hayes
Publication:Wind Speaker
Date:Aug 1, 1996
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