Sports nights in Natuashish aim to defeat dangerous boredom

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Leon Rich sat in the bleachers, his eyes darting up and down the length of the gym floor. The home team was about to inflict a crushing victory and the 13-year-old couldn’t wait for the two teams to leave the floor, so he could get his turn playing goalie.

“This is my second time,” he explained, eager to put his newfound skills to the test.

It was another night of floor hockey at the Innu Gym, a recreation centre in Natuashish on the northern coast of Labrador. On other nights, the young people here play volleyball or dodgeball.

But it doesn’t matter what the sport is — the place is always packed.

Leon Rich Natuashish

Thirteen-year-old Leon Rich anxiously awaits his turn in net at the Innu Gym in Natuashish. (Bailey White/CBC)

From 5 to 10 p.m. each evening, the gym is not just a place to hang out — it’s a haven to stave off boredom, which in this town can lead to serious problems.

“I saw some people sniffing [gas] last night,” said Trent Rich, 16. “It’s pretty sad.”

Trent says people don’t use alcohol and gas for any particular reason — they’re just bored.

There’s no mall in Natuashish, no movie theatre, no restaurant, and in the scarce, overcrowded houses, there are no basement family rooms for kids to hang out in.

“There’s, like, nothing to do here. Just walk around. I don’t usually do anything,” Trent said.

Battling alcohol, drugs

The First Nation reserve of Natuashish is 300 kilometres away from any major centres, accessible only by air or by ferry in the summer.

According to Statistics Canada, 936 people live here. Nearly half, 440, were under 19 in 2016.

Alcohol was outlawed here in 2008, but bootleggers smuggle liquor to sell for between $300 and $500 a bottle. Drugs, mostly marijuana and cocaine, are easy to find. Like the booze, they are transported to the community hidden in airplane luggage.

There are plenty of temptations for young people in Natuashish. If they can’t afford alcohol or drugs, some will resort to sniffing gas to get high.

This spring, two children were badly burned in an abandoned house known to be a gas-sniffing hangout. An 11-year-old is still in hospital.


Almost half the population of Natuashish is under the age of 19, and young people there say they need more to do. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

Sports nights at the Innu Gym are among the few organized activities for the booming population of young people.

For senior recreation director Jimmy Nui, it’s about something much bigger than fun and games — it’s about keeping kids safe.

“The intention of our programs is to take them off the street, to more or less keep them away from the influence of other people that are using drugs, and basically to protect them,” said Nui.

‘I would love to see other parents more involved in their kids’ lives but it will take a miracle around here.’ – Jimmy Nui

Nui says his department would offer more programs if he had the resources. He hired a few students to organize games, but what he really wants is parental support.

“I would love to see other parents more involved in their kids’ lives, but it will take a miracle around here, because some of the youth we have here, they lack role models.”

Jimmy Nui Natuashish

Jimmy Nui, the band council’s senior recreation director, says he needs more parents to volunteer to make his programs thrive. But he’s not optimistic. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

He says parents are giving in to the same temptations their kids face: drugs and alcohol.

Dealers and bootleggers are widely known — some are even employed by the band council, Nui said. That means more bad role models for kids.

Nui wants to see drug dealers fired from their jobs, something he says doesn’t happen because they haven’t been convicted.

But letting them keep their jobs “sends the wrong the message. It’s like someone going to a trafficker, patting him on the back, saying, ‘Keep this up, you’re doing a good job,'” he said.

“The trafficking of drugs, the selling of contraband booze has got to stop.”

‘I’m worried about my family and friends’

Chenille Benuen, 14, comes to the Innu Gym to play volleyball. Even when there’s no game, she and her friends will pass the ball in the gym foyer. She likes the activity because it takes her mind off more serious things.

‘My friend … he committed suicide and it’s just a bit too hard.’ – Chenille Benuen

“It’s just stressful. Like, my friend…” Chenille hesitated, looking for the words to describe what happened to 16-year-old Thunderheart Tshakapesh a few weeks earlier. “He committed suicide and it’s just a bit too hard.”

Chenille said she’s been having panic attacks and struggled to find the words to describe how she has been feeling.

“A bit depressed,” is how she put it.

“I panic about my family,” she said. “I’m worried about my family and friends too much.”

Chenille Benuen

Chenille Benuen, 14, says she has felt stressed out since her friend, Thunderheart Tshakapesh, took his life a few weeks ago. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

Like Jimmy Nui, Chenille wishes parents in the community were more involved.

She wishes it were easier to talk to adults about how she feels, and that she had more choices. She’d like someone to organize a bonfire, or go camping or spend more time with elders.

“They could just talk to you, ask you how your day is going,” she said.

Chenille thinks that if adults are patient, and start conversations, kids will open up.

She wants to talk more about her feelings but “sometimes us kids can’t put it into words.”

Natuashish Volleyball

Teenagers at the Innu Gym rally a volleyball. Volleyball is one of the most popular sports in the First Nation. (Bailey White/CBC)

Outside the gym, other teenagers talked about what’s wrong with their town — the gas sniffing, the vandalism, troubles at home.

They know that after the gym closes at 10, some of their friends don’t go home. Instead, they’ll find themselves in abandoned buildings or in the woods with a bottle or a bag of gas.

A gym isn’t enough to protect everyone — young people want more.

“We need a swimming pool,” one said.

“Faster internet,” said another.

As the giggling died down, one girl said quietly, “I want it to be a better place.”

Originally posted here – 

Sports nights in Natuashish aim to defeat dangerous boredom

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