Canada

Getting off the booze

NANCY COOPER January 24 1977
Canada

Getting off the booze

NANCY COOPER January 24 1977

Getting off the booze

Canada

THE N.W.T.

In the Northwest Territories town of Frobisher Bay, the final outrage came when six-year-old Levi Inuqtaqau was thrown from a snowmobile driven by his

intoxicated father and killed. In the tiny Arctic community of Snowdrift, it was a series of drunken, violent brawls that finally spurred residents, and in Rae-Edzo local anger was ignited by gangs of drunks who created havoc nightly in a terror-ridden part of the hamlet known as Vietnam.

In all three centres, and in a rapidly growing number of other settlements across the Northwest Territories, the response of local authorities has been as dramatic as it has been unprecedented in the hard-drinking Northern frontier.* Convinced that chronic alcoholism is at the root of most violent encounters among native people, community leaders in more and more areas have begun turning either to outright prohibition, in the 1920s style, or strict liquor rationing. In the Dogrib Indian settlement of Rae-Edzo, 60 miles northwest of Yellowknife, the ban has been the strictest. There, under amendments to the North’s liquor laws, which enable each community to set its own policies, the people voted last year to make Rae-Edzo the only place in Canada where it is illegal to have liquor under any circumstances at any time. In Frobisher Bay, on Baffin Island, a petition from 300 citizens brought about the closing of the government liquor store, the busiest in the eastern Arctic, while in Pond Inlet and Fort Resolution, rationing systems have been established. This year, 15 more northern communities are expected to vote on liquor rationing.

The initial results, by any measure, have been impressive. In Frobisher, for example, RCMP Staff Sergeant Dick Vitt says every liquor-related crime in the book has dropped off substantially. The local jail’s “drunk tank” is virtually empty and the Baffin Correctional Centre, usually overflowing with Frobisher prisoners, is only half full. School principal Lynn Nash says school attendance in Frobisher has zoomed, fights among students have stopped and no longer does he see kids coming to school beaten or exhausted. Adds Nash: “In the library now, rarely do we see a kid dozing on the floor. We used to have a dozen kids hiding in the book stacks having a sleep because they were kept up all night by drinking and fighting adults.” Reports from Rae-Edzo and other banthe-booze settlements indicate similar positive results.

*In 1974, the annual liquor consumption rate in the Northwest Territories was 3.3 gallons per person, second only to the Yukon, with a per capita rate of 4.5 gallons, compared with 2.4 gallons in Ontario and2.2 in Quebec.

Not everyone, however, is happy with the effects of the prohibitionist moves. Rae-Edzo secretary-manager Peter Anderson says liquor is still being consumed in large quantities, although he concedes social patterns have changed since the ban. Says Anderson: “The previous drinking pattern was that one not only became intoxicated, one raised as much hell as possible. The end result of every weekend was a night in jail, an appearance in court, a few hours in the hospital. I’m not saying the drinking has stopped. I know people are drinking to excess (illegally), but they’re being quiet about it now.” A number of whites living in the North are also upset by the liquor rationing.

But many experts on the North are optimistic that the spreading support for liquor restrictions will prove beneficial in the long term for the native people. They point out

that widespread use of liquor is not an ingrained tradition, since northern natives were allowed to drink on the same basis as whites only in the late 1950s. But some major problems remain. Richard Whitford, a Métis territorial councillor from RaeEdzo, foresees a great danger that people will start driving to such major centres as Yellowknife, where booze is still perfectly legal, to do their drinking. Whitford himself says he travels the 60 miles or so to Yellowknife anytime he feels like “getting drunked up.” And there is a distinct possibility, he adds, that a few traffic deaths after a night of drinking in Yellowknife, or a case of a drunk freezing to death on the highway, will turn off public sympathy for prohibition. Says Whitford: “Nobody will know the result of this until the winter is OUt.” NANCY COOPER