Doing a Google search for Natuashish, an unflattering Wikipedia entry is followed by two CBC stories about alcohol abuse, house fires and suicide in the remote Labrador community.
For Sonny Gregoire, getting away from the problems that have plagued his hometown is not enough.
He also wants to help shine a light on some of the positive aspects of life that do exist in Natuashish and Innu culture in general.
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Gregoire, 17, has been living in Corner Brook for the last two years and is now preparing to graduate from Corner Brook Regional High School in June.
For him, hockey was the avenue to find a better life than what Natuashish could offer him. Encouraged by coach Juan Strickland to come to the island to play major midget hockey, Gregoire jumped at the opportunity.
Playing sports was the best way to keep busy and not get lured into trouble, said Gregoire, but he knows there is more to life than sports.
“You can go places with hockey, but you need an education first,” he said.
Before he gets his high school diploma, he wants to educate his friends, fellow students and school staff about what Natuashish is like beyond the news headlines.
“There are a lot of good things that happen in Natuashish that you don’t hear about,” he said.
The people from his hometown are quite friendly, he said, and there are plenty of other stories of people like him who have risen above the problems associated with the community. In fact, he followed the steps of Donovan Rich, a young man one year older than him who came to Corner Brook to play hockey under Strickland a year before Gregoire did.
Rich is now a top defenceman paying junior A hockey with the West Nipissing Lynx in Ontario.
Paula Grudic is one of Gregoire’s teachers at Corner Brook Regional High School. She said his influence on others goes beyond hockey as he has been giving his classmates lots of interesting insight into Innu culture.
One of the most poignant moments was when the class watched Prime Minister Justin Trudeau deliver an apology to residential school survivors in Labrador last November.
“Sonny made that very real for us because of his Indigenous background,” explained Grudic. “We felt we could really see it through the eyes of someone with Indigenous roots. That was really moving for us.”
Grudic said Gregoire’s story of relocating also shows other students that sometimes sacrifice and tough choices need to be made to follow one’s ambitions.
“It’s been really useful for them to see how he has been able to fit in, not with just a new town, but a different culture,” she said. “It’s been seamless from what I have seen and he has been a good role model for these kids.”
Mark Randell and Lucas Vincent are two of Gregoire’s hockey teammates and some of his best friends in Corner Brook.
“He’s a good friend who gives you a different perspective sometimes,” said Randell. “He’s always respectful of everybody around him and he’s a good person. All we ever hear about Labrador is they are different, but he fits right in with us and he is no different.”
Vincent agreed, calling Gregoire a great teammate on the ice and a great guy off the ice. He said Gregoire dispels the perception that Natuashish is nothing more than a troubled community.
“He definitely gets rid of the stereotype that’s there,” said Vincent.
Gerard Lowe, a guidance counsellor at Corner Brook High, said Gregoire is the third student from Natuashish to study at the school in the last few years. He said the same positive comments can be said of all of them.
“I don’t ever judge but, if I were to judge from the kids I’ve met, I would think Natuashish is a great place to visit,” said Lowe.
In fact, Lowe has told Gregoire he’d love to spend some time with him there in the summer when Gregoire returns home.
“All we see is the negative, but all I’ve seen from these kids is nothing but positive,” said Lowe. “There is nothing from them that would indicate any of the problems that we hear on the news about Natuashish. None. They are good kids and we’ve really enjoyed having them.”
While hockey has brought Gregoire to Corner Brook, Lowe said there are many other pursuits others who wanted to leave Natuashish could follow if they wanted.
When Gregoire does go home, he works with kids at the arena in Natuashish. He said he tries to instill the idea of there being a world of opportunities waiting for anyone else who has a desire to explore beyond Natuashish and encourages them to chase their dreams if they have any.