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Booze ban on Northern Manitoba First Nation not the solution, community leaders say

Community leaders say alcohol prohibition only makes people go to dangerous lengths to get intoxicated.
Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation Chief Angela Levasseur.

A temporary ban on alcohol was recently imposed in one northern Manitoba First Nation to see if banning booze could solve some of the many issues plaguing that community. But community leaders now say a booze ban is not the solution, because it only makes people more desperate and go to dangerous lengths to get intoxicated.

According to Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation Chief Angela Levasseur, the remote community located about 850 kilometres north of Winnipeg and about 65 kilometres west of Thompson, imposed a total ban on alcohol between March 24 and April 11.

NCN residents are typically allowed to bring small amounts of alcohol per person into the community, but during the ban, officials at check stops checked all vehicles, and confiscated any booze that they found before it made its way into NCN.

Levasseur now says there were both positives and negatives that came out of the ban, and admitted there was a lot of good that came out of it, while it was in place.

“The RCMP reported there was a reduction in calls,” she said. “As well, we saw less people going to the nursing station, and a reduction in calls of violence.

“Alcohol has been an ongoing issue here, and strongly correlates with violent incidents, so seeing those numbers go down was a positive thing.”

Despite the positives that came out of it, the ban was lifted after April 11, because Levasseur said people wanting to get intoxicated were resorting to other more dangerous substances.

“If you get rid of the supply, you still have the demand,” she said. “We saw people using more harmful substances and chemicals that really are life-threatening, so we really had to consider those negatives.”

She added that if a total alcohol ban were made permanent in NCN, leaders believe people would go to dangerous lengths to get alcohol into the community, both for their own consumption and to sell to those looking to get their hands on it.

“We have seen bootleggers bypass check stops on snowmobiles, or by walking into the community in more remote areas, and that is so dangerous,” Levasseur said. “It is often dangerously cold, and when people go to those lengths they are endangering their own lives.”

She added when communities ban booze, it allows bootleggers to sell alcohol at greatly increased prices.

“Often the bootleggers bring the alcohol in water bottles and a water bottle of hard alcohol that would normally sell for $30 can be sold for as much as $80, because if people want it they will pay what they have to pay to get it,” Levasseur said.

“And that is why I say we need to reduce the demand, and not the supply.”

She said she also believes that provincially regulated liquor stores have to do a better job of regulating how much alcohol they are selling, because she said some who buy large amounts of alcohol are in turn selling that alcohol in First Nations communities.

“Nobody needs to be purchasing alcohol in those large volumes, and it should set off alarm bells immediately,” she said.

Levasseur said her and others have decided that the way to decrease the demand for alcohol in NCN is through healing, and not though prohibition.

“In our view the answer is resources and funding for things like grief counselling and addictions treatment, because what many of our people have been through has created a lot of harm, and in many cases people are drinking or using drugs because they are self-medicating.”

The Winnipeg Sun reached out to Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries for a response to accusations that overselling of alcohol at provincially regulated liquor stores was leading to bootlegging.

MBLL said in an emailed statement they are working to fight bootlegging, but admitted customers can buy as much alcohol as they want at most Liquor Marts in Manitoba.

“Provincial liquor legislation does not set any bottle limits on retail store transactions, and as such in the majority of Liquor Marts, as allowed under law, customers may purchase as much liquor as they choose,” an MBLL spokesperson said.

“However, MBLL has worked closely with the communities of Thompson, Leaf Rapids, Lynn Lake, Wabowden, Snow Lake, Gillam, and Riverton to set bottle limits at the Thompson Liquor Mart, and other nearby liquor vendors.

“These efforts were first undertaken more than 20 years ago to help the community and local law enforcement minimize the negative outcomes resulting from bootlegging.”

— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the government of Canada.

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