February 15, 2008

CamBay residents reject booze controls

“It is essentially telling them what they can and cannot do.”

JOHN THOMPSON

Cambridge Bay residents defeated a proposal to curb the flow of alcohol into their community in a vote held Feb. 12.

Only 44 per cent of voters supported the plebiscite to give a committee the power to review all alcohol shipments and cut off unruly residents. The plebiscite needed support from 60 per cent of voters.

Only 279 residents voted, or 37 per cent of 762 eligible voters. Of them, 122 residents voted yes; 157 voted no.

Cambridge Bay already has an alcohol control committee - at least on paper.

But the committee, created in 1990, was only active for a short time before becoming defunct. Some long-time residents never knew it existed.

The plebiscite would have expanded the powers of the old committee, which was only designed to cut a resident off booze after receiving a complaint.

Peter Harte, a legal aid lawyer, led the campaign to further restrict alcohol.

He paints a grim picture of small children hiding under their beds or fleeing to the streets when their drunk parents arrive home, and says alcohol abuse is behind the majority of violent crime in Cambridge Bay.

The same children who watch drunk parents also often learn to drink themselves, Harte warns, sometimes as early as age 10. Then they learn other destructive behaviour.

"It is children who go hungry when parents waste money on bootlegged booze. It is children who are learning to drink to the point of passing out. It is children who are learning if you are drunk when you beat your spouse it is not really wrong," he wrote in a press release.

As a solution, he points to nearby Kugluktuk, where residents voted in favour of creating an alcohol committee in November. Since then, police report a decline in violent crime.

But Michelle Gillis, Cambridge Bay's mayor, said she wasn't surprised the vote in her community failed. She says many residents felt they were being treated like children by being told a committee should make decisions for them.

"It's essentially telling them what they can and cannot do," she said in an interview. "It's essentially a dictatorship."

Gillis told residents to vote however they wanted, but she also made it clear she didn't personally support the campaign.

"Inuit don't need saving. And if we do need saving, we're going to save ourselves."

But for that to happen, Gillis said residents struggling with alcohol addictions need to take personal responsibility and get help. If drunks want to dry out, they can get counselling at the community wellness centre.

She doesn't deny alcohol abuse is a big problem. But she says the current system of attempting to ban or restrict alcohol from certain communities doesn't solve the problem. People drink anyway.

And bootleggers earn a tidy profit, with a 60-ounce bottle of vodka selling for $300.

The Northwest Territories is currently overhauling its liquor act. Gillis suggests Nunavut needs to do the same, and provide more options for communities. She rarely drinks herself, but said that residents should be able to order a glass of red wine with their dinner.

She said it's also worth looking at what's happening in Greenland, where, in some communities, hard alcohol is banned, but beer and wine may be easily bought. The policy is meant to deter the sort of heavy binge drinking of hard liquor that's so common in Nunavut.

Besides, Gillis said, alcohol isn't the root of crime. It may let the anger out, but the anger comes from elsewhere - past frustrations and, often, abuse.

Some people lose control while drunk. But Gillis also worries that drinking has become an excuse for people to behave badly.

And she says the justice system fails residents by letting abusive men off with orders to do community service, rather than sending them to prison.

Stiffer sentences, rather than a stronger liquor committee, would make a far bigger difference, she contends.

"If men are beating their wives," Gillis said, "they need to be dealt with, and thrown in jail."