The dark end of the graveyard still calls him.
That is where Phillip believes his dead brother, Charles, told him to go when he was sniffing the gasoline. That was before social workers apprehended Phillip from the woods, put him on a bus and sent him to a locked-door treatment facility for children who were addicted to high-octane gas in plastic bags. There they were watched 24 hours, given all the time in the world to sleep off the fumes.
Two years after the abduction, Phillip, the 13-year-old who was seen nationwide with a green bag sealed to his lips, is back in his community, in his father's house. He says he doesn't sniff gas anymore. But sometimes he can still hear his dead brother, Charles, calling him, and he can still remember the night when his brother burst into flames after a bag of gasoline he was sniffing spilled near a candle. Charles ran toward him, ablaze. But the fumes on Phillip were strong, and he ran away from his brother because he didn't want to catch fire, too. Now, he is haunted.
Phillip was one of the youngest sniffers then, stumbling in and out of the woods outside this hillside settlement of an aboriginal people in Canada's north called Innu. He huddled with other sniffers, inhaling fumes to forget problems. When the children began sniffing on the streets in broad daylight, not running when tribal leaders glared at them, the community knew it had a crisis. Chief Paul Rich made a public appeal to the government to do whatever it took to help 39 children in the village known to be sniffing gas.
The government did, and today the treatment program stands out as one of the few success stories in the battle of Canada's aboriginal peoples against some of the highest rates of substance abuse in the world. Sheshatshiu is now known as the village that got its children off the gasoline -- most of them, at least. Though the program was expensive, many people hope it can serve as an example for other aboriginal communities seeking to save their children.
Two years later, many of the children look better. Their lips have stopped bleeding. They no longer have gasoline blisters cracking their faces. They no longer stare with blank eyes. They no longer sleep in the woods holding their bags of gasoline like pacifiers.
Still, many of the adults here wonder how long the success will last. In so many other ways, this settlement overlooking the wilds of 85-mile-long Lake Melville remains a center of despair, where people forced to end nomadic wanderings a generation ago lead a stationary existence they cannot understand. "We are the lost people," said Rich. "Thirty years ago, we lived in tents without running water. When change came, we had to live another culture. We weren't ready to live another culture."
Today, spouses still beat spouses in Sheshatshiu and guzzle smuggled liquor. Children stand outside bingo halls, crying for their mommies. Adults recall abuse by Catholic priests sent to "civilize" them. It's all but impossible to find a job here. So, many people wonder, what will the children who sniffed gas do now to cope with this life? How will Phillip deal with those lingering images of his brother aflame?
In Phillip's house, beige sheets are nailed to windows to create privacy. Hanging from nails on wood-paneled walls are photos of children. One is a blowup of Charles, bigger than life. There are two notes taped to the dead boy's photo. "Charles I miss you Charles. From Georgina. You are an angel now." There is no food in Phillip's house -- not an egg, not a bottle of milk, not a microwaveable hamburger in a plastic bag, which is all Phillip wants for dinner tonight.
Phillip is in a blue Adidas shirt. He is much taller now. When he was sniffing the gas, he was able to talk about his brother. Now the words choke him, so he doesn't say them. He slips out of the room when his father begins to talk about Charles.
"When we talk about his brother, he gets flashbacks," says Lionel Riche, 46. "Phillip is doing all right now. Gradually, he understands what happened to him two years ago when he was on gas."
Riche is sitting at a table. He admits that he still drinks, and this may be a reason why Phillip sniffed. He says he and his wife plan to get treatment, perhaps in a few days, perhaps in the new year. Phillip peeks out of a bedroom. But his father is still talking about the night Charles burned. Phillip closes the door.
"I felt very sad when my son was caught on fire," Riche said. "When he was playing with matches, I wasn't there when he caught on fire. I heard somebody knock on the door. They said Charles is on fire. We chased the ambulance. We never caught the ambulance. We went to the hospital. I said look what happened to you. You burn yourself. He said, 'Dad, you were right. I shouldn't be sniffing.' He was sent to St. John's. He stayed in St. John's. He died in St. John's."
Jolted Into Action
Charles's death was not the catalyst for the community's cry for help. What brought action was local adults suddenly realizing that they were no longer shocked at seeing children sniffing gas on the streets.
Lyla Andrew, social health programs coordinator for the Sheshatshiu Band Council, the tribal government body, remembers the day. "We were having an interagency meeting," Andrew recalled. "The Band Council program director of [the] treatment center was on her way to the meeting. She had been stopped and told some kids were sniffing in the woods. It was beginning to be more common. The children were walking around with bags in hands, and they weren't trying to hide. She went into the woods. There were children sniffing. One was a child of 5."
That was the jolt.
Council people started making calls: Where can the children go? Using gas this way was not illegal, so there were no judicial means to deal with the issue. And "nobody wanted to make criminals of the kids," Andrew said.
They called the social services office, run by the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and voiced a radical demand. "We expect you to apprehend these children," Andrew said. "We made a list of kids. Take them into care. The band knew there would be some angry parents who felt we were going over their heads."
The provincial government answered that it did not have the resources to take on so many troubled children. They would need 24-hour supervision, therapy and care-giving. So the Band Council began calling agencies of the federal government.
A few days later, a team of social workers drove to Sheshatshiu. They enticed 23 children -- those thought to be most addicted -- one by one into a bus with promises of pizza in Goose Bay, a town about 20 miles away. Waving goodbye as if they were going to an amusement park, the children were driven to Goose Bay and put into a makeshift treatment facility hurriedly created in a military barracks.
The children did get their pizza. "After that, they say we spend one night," said Phillip. "But I spent over a year there."
Dealing With a Crisis
Staff members were quickly hired. Some were Innu living in Goose Bay. They had a huge job on their hands -- to feed and house the children, watch over them day and night, and somehow break their craving for gasoline fumes. "We felt like we were inventing the wheel," Andrew said.
The children were given new jackets, boots and pants. They played cards and other games in the barracks. Social workers tried to create a nurturing atmosphere to combat the common problems they found in the children's backgrounds: exposure to chronic alcoholism and domestic violence; sexual, physical and emotional abuse; trauma caused by exposure to suicides; simple neglect.
As the gasoline started to wear off, the children became more active. A man sat by the door, so some children tried to escape out the windows. "It required a lot of manpower to make sure they stayed inside," Andrew said.
But as the children stayed away longer from the gasoline, their normal, healthy spirits started to emerge, and workers realized they could not keep 23 children inside forever. Special houses were established in Goose Bay, each taking four or five children. Most of the houses were equipped with computers for schoolwork. The children were still watched around the clock, even when they went to play hockey or swim.
Social workers were realizing that to keep the children gas-free, their parents had to change their ways, too. "Initially, you want to be mad at the parents," said Andrew. "Yet, we know [they] suffered, too. It's not because they don't love their kids. They are dealing with their own trauma of sexual abuse by priests and as children seeing their parents humiliated. That was the harder part."
The Band Council pushed the government for more money and started taking the children's families to an old fishing lodge for retreats. These included lots of talking and sharing of stories, as well as reviving Innu customs that have largely died out, such as hunting, in the belief that bringing them back might help mental health.
When the children were ready to leave Goose Bay, after staying as long as a year, they sometimes returned to parents who, for the first time in a long time, were sober. Other children went to foster parents who were paid not to work outside the home but to take care of the children and keep them away from gas.
Phillip won't say much about his year of rehab. But he does say that when he returned to Sheshatshiu, he was different: "I didn't feel like going back to gas sniffing."
There is a clear difference in the community now. Two years ago, the children walked the streets like ghosts with plastic bags sealed around their mouths. They smiled for the cameras that put their images all over Canada and much of the world. "Hasta la vista, baby!" Pien Jack used to shout.
But now he is quiet, as if the gas took away his words. Two years ago, Pien Jack was 12, and his nose was running, his tennis shoes were untied, saliva was dripping from his mouth, and he was stumbling around.
Today, he is taller, his baby fat is gone and he is shy, running to his room rather than talk about what saved him from the gas.
His uncle, Jerome Jack, 40, talks for him. "He was over at [the] treatment program for youth for four or five months. Pien learned about his own culture and how to stabilize his own life. And how to identify himself as an Innu." Pien, Jerome Jack is saying, felt abandoned by his parents. "Pien wanted his mother to stop drinking."
When Pien does talk, the words are often unsettling. "A lot of kids still sniff now," he said. "I don't know where."
In the settlement's school, Ann Hurley, the Innu vice principal, sits behind her desk and talks of the trouble the sniffers created. "Some used to run around the school and run outside in the trees," Hurley said. "They used to hang around, hang around the school, hang around throwing rocks at the windows."
But when the children were sent off, the school cracked down, too. "When we could smell gas on the child's clothing, we contacted the parents and sent them home. . . . When parents are drinking, you know how it is, the kids don't sleep. There is no food at home. That is why some were having problems."
Hurley says she hasn't had to send anyone home in quite a while. But she can see the effects of the gas on the children now, even after the smell has gone. "They are really slow at learning."
Hard Habit to Break
Irene Penunsi is one of the failed ones. She still roams the streets, moving in and out of the woods, in and out of jail. People point at her and say she is influencing the younger people. Penunsi wears her hair in two braids. She is a mother, of a 9-month-old girl who has been taken away from her.
For Penunsi, who started sniffing when she was 14, it's a hard habit to break. When she is not sniffing, the demons are bigger. "I see things like killing myself," she said.
Two years ago, people found her in the woods, in such a state that she was rushed to the hospital. "My feet were frozen," she recalled. "I couldn't walk on my feet. They were washing my feet. I feel the pain on my feet. I felt like it was burning."
She was in the hospital two or three days, then was taken to the barracks. "I stayed two weeks," she said. "I didn't like to sleep there. It was boring."
But she didn't want to stay. And because she was an adult, she didn't have to. She returned to Sheshatshiu and went to a women's shelter. "I was gas-sniffing, and two girls were watching me, looking after me. I stayed in the shelter one month, and they released me. I came home. I started sniffing the gas."
She promises she is going to treatment soon. "A family program," she said. Now that she's a mother, "I want to give it [sniffing] up." She wants her daughter back. "I have to go to the court again."
She recalls losing the child. She was walking down the street one day. "A social worker said I was gas-sniffing, and the social worker came up to me and said she would take my baby away. I got really mad. I told the social worker lots of people [are] drinking and you don't take the baby away. But I'm not drinking. I'm just sniffing. She said you should drink."
Penunsi said that after they took her baby, "I started sniffing again. I hardly remember what happened. I lost my memory from sniffing gas. I'm trying really hard to remember, but I can't."