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Mushuau Innu move underway

DAVIS INLET, Newfoundland - Moving a single family in the middle of a Labrador winter is a challenge to say the least, but the Mushuau Innu are finding out that moving their entire community at this time of year is almost impossible.

About three dozen of the band's 680 members made the trek on Dec. 16 to the entirely new and modern community of Natuasysish about 10 miles away on the Labrador mainland. They crossed a frozen channel called Daniel's Rattle on snowmobiles.

The federal government is funding a $152 million (Cdn.) project to relocate the troubled island community, which currently lives without central heating, indoor plumbing and running water, but there have been countless delays that threatened to divide the community.

The labor problems, weather and material shortages have prevented completion of the project. Only 50 to 60 of the town's 133 homes were built on time.

The first wave of relocation followed a public meeting Dec. 11 between the band and Ian Gray, director of Newfoundland and Labrador for the federal Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.

Cajeton Rich, the band official in charge of the move, said before the meeting "Some people do want everyone to stay until everyone can go, but there are a lot people who want to move as soon as their houses are ready. We need to accommodate them because there's overcrowding and people are living with no water and no heat."

Davis Engineering and Associates, Ltd. the Canadian government contractor for the construction of the new Cape Cod-style homes advised Ottawa in the beginning of December that it would be unable to meet the Dec. 14 moving date and that all of the homes would not be finished until April or May.

Davis president H. Laban Davis was in Labrador and could not be reached for comment on the project's status at press time. He did, however, earn harsh criticism from band leaders when he suggested the move be put off until spring when all the houses were complete, according to the Dec. 16 edition of The Globe and Mail.

Senior civil engineer for the firm Mario MacDonald also did not respond to ICT requests for comment.

Some Davis Inlet residents feared leaving behind their neighbors and family members to suffer through the harsh winter in unacceptable living conditions. They worried about reduced police protection against lawlessness and vandalism.

Dividing the community would put strains on the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's ability to maintain the peace. It would also strain the ability of the federal government to recruit enough teachers for isolation duty in time to staff schools in both communities once the upcoming Christmas recess is over.

The Mushuau are a nomadic people who survive on traditional hunting, fishing, and trapping.

The move to Davis Inlet in 1967 is a story in itself. The band contends that it was pressured by Newfoundland and the Roman Catholic Church to move to the island it called Utshimassits, meaning "the place of the boss" in the Algonquin dialect of the Innu. The isolated island is cut off from the hunting and trapping grounds on the mainland by weather and ice break-up for several months of the year, a condition that has led to poverty, substance abuse, serious accidents and a shockingly high suicide rate.