WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Joachim Selma's experience with Newfoundland and Labrador's child-protection system goes back a long time, intertwined with someone who's no longer around to tell his own story.
"My story goes back in the '70s," said Selma at the Healing Lodge in Natuashish this week during community meetings for the Inquiry Respecting the Treatment, Experiences and Outcomes of Innu in the Child Protection System in Labrador this week. "It's for my brother because he cannot speak for himself."
The inquiry is gathering testimony of experiences with and opinions on the child protection system, as well as Innu history and culture, in hopes of creating recommendations to help the Innu take over their child protection system.
Selma is one of the people who chose to speak publicly — speaking privately is also an option — to the two commissioners in Natuashish, Anastasia Qupee and Mike Devine. Commissioner James Igloliorte had to leave Natuashish early due to personal reasons.
Selma said he grew up on the land, immersed in Innu culture. His younger brother Peter was a chubby baby and beginning to crawl when he was taken from Sheshatshiu for medical reasons to St. Anthony, Selma said — and never came back.
"As far as I know, the police came with papers for my mother to sign. My mother didn't know what she was signing. It's believed she signed the adoption papers," Selma said.
Selma said his father had died and his mother was on her own. For years, he said, they looked for his baby brother, and when he was eventually found, the Innu Nation funded a reunion trip for the family.
Joachim Selma addresses commissioners at the inquiry in Natuashish on Tuesday afternoon. (CBC)
"My mother was overjoyed. She had tears in her eyes," Selma said. "When we spoke to each other, my mother, sisters and I in our Innu language, he kept saying, 'What are you guys saying?' He had a lot of questions and so did we."
Selma said social workers told Peter his family had to initiate contact, while the family was told Peter had to.
He didn't understand our culture. He didn't feel Innu. - Joachim Selma
As an adult, Peter moved to Sheshatshiu and had his own family, Selma said, but he struggled with addictions. Selma said the addictions were rooted in the trauma of being removed from his family, language and culture as a child and not knowing who he was.
"He didn't understand our culture. He didn't feel Innu," Selma said. "What hurt him the most is that he could not communicate with our mother."
Selma said the addictions led to medical complications, and Peter was taken to St. John's, where he died in hospital.
"I went to my mother. She was crying so hard and said to me, 'I lost your brother years ago and found him but only to lose him again forever,'" Selma said. "The system broke my family apart. The system broke my mother's heart twice."
Selma said the child protection system took his brother's language, culture and family away from him as a child. To this day, he said, he doesn't understand why only his brother was taken away while he and his two sisters were allowed to grow up immersed in Innu culture.
Community meetings to hear from any Innu
Inquiry commissioner Devine said it's important for the inquiry to hear from the people in the community with experiences in the system.
"It's really focusing on the community that this is their time to they tell the story that they may not have had opportunities to tell before," he said. "So I think it can provide a very healing sort of environment too for people if they're ready to tell the story."
Commissioners James Igloliorte, Anastasia Qupee and Mike Devine stand at the first hearings of the Inquiry in February 2023. Devine said the inquiry will hear from anyone in Natuashish who would like to speak. (Heidi Atter/CBC)
A mother's guiding hands
Mary Catherine Rich spoke to the commissioners publicly about her past and present, showing the journey back to her culture and traditional ways after trauma.
Rich said she grew up in an alcoholic home, experiencing trauma and over the years abusing others. Rich said she has been working to ask for forgiveness from those she has harmed and finding her way back to her culture.
Rich said she grew up in Davis Inlet watching her mother create boots, mittens and hats. Before the troubled community moved to Natuashish in 2002, there was a gathering at the Natuashish site. Rich went but her mother was sick.
"People were given the canvas in the community and she was thinking, you know, who is going to do my tent? Who's going to make my tent, 'cause my mother is very sick?" said Rich through translator Nympha Byrne.
Rich decided to try it on her own and began to cut the canvas. When she did, Rich said, something unexpected happened.
"I feel like my mother was right behind me and it's just like telling me to do it this way, to cut it up this way," Rich said.
Rich wanted to share the experience with someone and went to speak with one of the local nuns.
"Sister Joan told her that her mother really cares and loves her very much," Byrne told the commission.
Since then, Rich has been working to connect with her Innu culture. She's created mittens, hats, moccasins and more. She learned them all by watching her mother.
"I was teaching, started teaching the young women how to sew," Rich said. "They really knew how to sew their moccasins, they did complete their sewing. They learned how to do it and they know how to make them now."
The inquiry meetings continue Thursday before a community feast on Thursday evening. The inquiry will then resume in January with formal hearings on six children who have experience with the child protection system.
The Inquiry website contains phone numbers for anyone in Natuashish, Sheshatshiu, or elsewhere in the Labrador-Grenfell region, looking for healing and crisis help.
Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.