Labrador is the northeasternmost part of mainland Canada—a stretch of
rocky and rough land along the north Atlantic coast. It has long been the
homeland of two Native peoples, the Inuit and the Innu, who are a branch
of the Cree Indian peoples. Starting in the late 1960s and intensifying relent-
lessly since then, both Native peoples have been experiencing interwoven
epidemics of substance abuse—mostly gasoline sniffing and alcohol—plus
youth suicide, domestic violence, and high rates of children born damaged
because their mothers drank alcohol while pregnant.
During the fall semester of 2001 I was living with my family in St. John’s,
Newfoundland, doing research on the declining Newfoundland fishery. Lab-
rador is part of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and
the Newfoundland media were then full of reports both about these epi-
demics and about the mostly ineffective measures that Newfoundland and
Canada, who had shared responsibility, were taking in their attempts to help.
By 2001 I had been working on the historical anthropology of Newfound-
land fishing villages for three decades. As a great many fishers from northern
Newfoundland had been going, seasonally, to fish from the Labrador coasts,
and had been doing this for over 150 years, I knew a bit about the history of
What caught my attention in 2001 was the fact that the media were re-
porting a widespread consensus—among government officials, academics,
consultants, and media pundits—that the epidemics of communal self- and
collective destruction were provoked by the forced relocation of Native peo-
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