Current Problems

Child Welfare (1-5)

After years of delay, the inquiry into treatment of Innu children in care begins hearings

February 12, 2023

First hearings will take place in Sheshatshiu, focus on Innu history

Anastasia Qupee and Judge James Igloliorte have been named commissioners of the Inquiry into the Treatment, Experiences and Outcomes of Innu in the Child Protection System. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

CBC News: Nearly six years after it was announced, the inquiry into the treatment and experiences of Innu children in Newfoundland and Labrador’s child protection system will begin hearings in Sheshatshiu on Monday.

The inquiry, led by retired Inuk provincial court judge James Igloliorte, will examine the overrepresentation of Innu in Newfoundland and Labrador’s child protection system, explore systemic issues and provide recommendations for change. Innu with experiences in the child-care system will provide witness testimony. The inquiry will also investigate the deaths of six Innu children, youths and young adults who had experience in care or custody.

Members of the inquiry have already held community meetings in Sheshatshiu and Natuashish, two Innu communities in Labrador. “Folks are eager for this to get started and they see it as an essential part of the path towards Innu jurisdiction and Innu child welfare,” said Caitlin Urquhart, one of the lawyers for the inquiry.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2021 about one-third of children in Newfoundland and Labrador’s foster-care system were Indigenous, even though Indigenous people made up only about nine per cent of the province’s overall population. For years, the Innu Nation has been pushing to keep children in care in their home communities, with treatment that includes a focus on their culture and roots. 

Two people standing outside, one with his arm around the other.
Nathan Penashue, left, is serving as community liaison while Caitlin Urquhart serves as co-counsel for the inquiry into Innu children in care. (John Gaudi/CBC)

Nathan Penashue, an Innu Nation board member who has had his own experiences with the province’s child-care system, is serving as community liaison for the inquiry. “I’m very happy to be a part of this, and to work with the community as well and, you know, bring stories and listen to the families that have been through this,” he said. 

Innu elders to testify

The inquiry will begin Monday in Sheshatshiu with an opening prayer and commissioner statements. In addition to Igloliorte, sociologist Mike Divine and former Innu Nation grand chief Anastasia Qupee are also serving as commissioners. The first two weeks of hearings are set to examine the history of the Innu and will include witness testimony from elders.

According to the tentative schedule, the inquiry will hold private and community truth-sharing meetings in March, April and July, and begin investigations in June. Urquhart said a healing services team will provide support for community members throughout the process. The inquiry will also include healing, honouring and remembrance ceremonies.

People can share their experiences publicly or privately through testimony, art, stories, music and other means. The provincial government has allocated $4 million for the inquiry.

A long delay

Qupee and Simeon Tshakapesh, former deputy grand chief of the Innu Nation, led calls for an inquiry into Innu children in care. “People really felt that their experiences needed to be heard in a public forum and that everybody needed to know what was happening,” Urquhart said.

Tshakapesh’s 16-year-old son, Thunderheart Napeu Tsakapesh, died by suicide in 2017. Thunderheart had spent time in a youth treatment centre in Grand Falls-Windsor and a rehab centre in Regina — both far from home. “My son went into the care of the then Child, Youth and Family Services of the N.L. government two years ago, and it has ended with him taking his own life,” Tshakapesh said in July 2017.

Thunderheart Napeu Tshakapesh, an avid guitar player, died by suicide in May 2017. (Thunderheart Napeu Tshakapesh/Facebook)

Later that month, Premier Dwight Ball announced the inquiry into the experiences of Innu in care, saying it would begin later that fall. But the inquiry was delayed over and over again, to the mounting frustration of Innu leaders and the province’s child and youth advocate. In November 2020, Premier Andrew Furey said the inquiry was a top priority. “I do recognize the time frame is unacceptable and we need to move forward with it,” he said.

The provincial government appointed commissioners in 2021, and finally launched the inquiry in April 2022. Hearings are scheduled to last until August, and a final report is due by the end of October.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from John Gaudi