Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Super juice crisis a symptom of a bigger problem

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I heard about super juice a few years ago, when my cousin invited me on a day trip to Garden Hill First Nation. It was part business, part fun. I went along to check out the healthy living programming they were doing up there. We got a ride from the local airport to the television station, which was really just an old shack with a table, some chairs and a video camera. We hosted a makeshift phone-in show on healthy eating, which aired live.

One of our props really got the phone ringing. Our viewers saw that we'd brought along a 10-kilogram sack of sugar as a visual aid to explain how much hidden sugar is in everyday food and drinks. But calls started rolling in from people wanting to buy the sugar.

My cousin said off camera that super juice was pretty popular up there. Super juice? Home brew, he explained. Sugar is one of the main components of super juice along with yeast and water; it's a valuable commodity.

My cousin worked as a teacher up north. He kept having neighbours coming to his door, asking to borrow a cup of sugar. After a while he caught on to what it was for.

Now, Island Lake First Nation youth leaders are calling on the province to ban sales of yeast to First Nations people across Manitoba. It's not possible, considering human rights laws: You can't deny a race of people a product based on their race.

But it's admirable these young leaders are trying to solve an epidemic causing violence and death in their communities. However, stronger solutions are needed.

Even if you banned yeast sales to First Nations people, there's no doubt a few enterprising folks will figure out new ways to break the rules, like fermenting fruit or vegetables. They always do. Do these kids want all of the food groups in the Canada Food Guide banned next? It's why dry reserves don't work.

Bans create lucrative industries and bootleggers. People just end up paying more to kill themselves. A slow death just gets slowed down a little more.

Community policing could be stepped up further, people searched more vigilantly as they step off a plane and into the community. Night watches and community patrols could increase. Suspicious mail could get checked. Offer up big rewards for tips about bootleggers. But the real solution is to look at the addictions themselves. Why are people drinking super juice in the first place?

It's not just because it's a cheap way to drink on a dry reserve. Many drinkers are alcoholics. They could be self-medicating to deal with problems such as sexual abuse or low self-esteem. Or maybe they're kids who start drinking out of boredom.

From what I remember from my visit up to Garden Hill, the recreation centre was tagged with gang names and closed down because there wasn't any money to keep it open.

Violence often happens when people are binge drinking -- having five or more drinks in one sitting. People binge drink because they think it's normal to drink so much.

Along with teaching about alcohol abstinence, lessons about responsible drinking should be out there too. You don't want people to drink, but if they're still going to do it at least teach them to drink in a less harmful way.

The super-juice crisis is a symptom of a bigger problem. You've got to treat the addiction.

Addiction treatment is costly, but badly needed. Individuals don't need isolated treatment -- whole communities need treatment if it's really going to stick. What's the sense in treating someone only to parachute them back into the same circumstances?

Patience is needed. Our social ills weren't created overnight. Healthy communities will take many years to flourish, especially when real solutions fall victim to federal funding gaps that have existed for generations.

Colleen Simard is publisher of Urban NDN.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 10, 2009 a15

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