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North to another world

Alcohol leaves permanent mark on community in Canada's Arctic

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Cameron Dueck tells the story of his sail through Canada's northwest passage, keeping his eye on climate change, political and economic challenges Inuit communities face and the history of other voyages through these waters in The New Northwest Passage: A voyage to the front line of climate change, published by Great Plains Publications. In this excerpt, from Chapter 8, he describes a visit to Cambridge Bay on the southernmost part of Victoria Island.

There's an element of power and privilege indicated by who 'takes an interest' in whom. Inuit don't go on ecotours of Montreal.

--Rick Salutin, 2009

Ikaluktutiak Elks Lodge No. 593 could have been in any one of a thousand small towns across Canada. The lodge was part bingo hall, part bar. Flags and a dartboard hung on the wall beside a trophy case full of Cambridge Bay pride, all in the clinical glare of fluorescent lights. A giant projection screen was showing a football game -- the Montreal Alouettes upset the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 39-12--and the place was filled with friendly, smiling people eating steaks and drinking beer.

It was the perfect end to the first half of our expedition. When Colin visited Silent Sound as she sat high and dry on Simpson Rock, he told us about the weekly Elks Lodge Friday Night Jamboree and invited us to join him at the party. Colin also told everyone at the party that he had found us stranded on a rock that was clearly marked on the charts and well known to anyone who had ever driven a boat into Cambridge Bay. Our folly produced endless jokes and soon everyone knew who we were. The crowd reflected a broad cross-section of the town--off-duty RCMP officers, giggling young women in tight jeans, boot-wearing men and grandmothers double-fisting rye and Cokes. This was the only Arctic town we visited where you could buy a drink in a bar setting, and everyone was making good use of the opportunity.

Severe alcohol problems across the Arctic have led to strict laws controlling the sale, possession and consumption of booze. In many towns, alcohol was either banned outright or heavily controlled, creating a booming market for bootleggers. Regardless of strict laws, alcohol abuse remains rampant. We were warned not to let people know we had a few bottles of whisky on the boat; locals might break into the boat to steal them.

In the Elks Lodge, the smiles were getting wider by the hour. I joined a table of off-duty police officers and the conversation quickly turned to their attempts to control booze. They explained the arcane and varied rules of buying alcohol in the Arctic. The rules range from towns being "dry," meaning it is illegal to possess alcohol; "damp," where you can import limited amounts of alcohol for personal use if you have a permit; and "wet," where you can import as much as you want or it is sold within the town. Cambridge Bay is damp; you needed a credit card and a permit to buy alcohol. The permits were issued by a special town council on a case-by-case basis. With credit, the police officers said you could have a bottle of liquor brought into town for about $100, about four times the cost in southern Canada. Once a bottle arrived in Cambridge Bay, it was often resold at $200 to $300 cash to those without credit cards and a liquor import permit. Unfortunately, that often meant the consumer had already proven they couldn't hold their liquor or did not have the financial stability to hold a credit card or afford overpriced bottles of whisky. About 75 per cent of the police work was alcohol-related, varying from drunks passed out in the street during the winter to booze-fuelled domestic violence. Towns with alcohol bans are often able to get by with far fewer police officers. Cambridge Bay sometimes introduces total bans on alcohol when the detachment is short-staffed. Late that night, after we'd left the party, a drunken brawl broke out outside the Elks Lodge, and the organizers worried it would jeopardize their permit for future jamborees.

Tuktoyaktuk was classed a wet town. There were no rules about how much alcohol you could import for personal use, but you could not buy booze in the town itself unless you were friendly with a bootlegger, of which there were many. A few months before we arrived, the town council implemented a one-week ban on drinking or importing alcohol to coincide with the Beluga Jamboree, their spring festival. Less booze meant less gaiety for some, but it also meant fewer fights and arrests for the police. The community had already been debating if it should hold a plebiscite on whether to restrict alcohol permanently, and the temporary ban during the festival was meant to give people an idea of what dry life would be like. Those caught bringing alcohol into town during the ban could be fined $2,000 or spend 30 days in jail. The town has also debated opening up further to allow liquor to be sold within the town, but elders oppose the plan.

Barrow, Alaska, has tried a few different approaches, from outright bans to allowing some alcohol in under a permit system. Despite the steady flow of international scientists, oil workers and tourists visiting the town, none of the hotels sells alcohol, and some display "No Alcohol Allowed" signs on their doors. Harold Curran, Barrow's chief administration officer, said the town was still struggling to find a workable solution. "We decided to go dry for a year, and it was a very politically volatile time. But the issue of drugs and alcohol have not gone away. Now, the mayor is emphasizing that people need to make healthy lifestyle choices," Harold said.

Over the course of the summer, Arctic newspapers reported on two towns that voted very differently on alcohol control, while other towns met to discuss their options. Pangnirtung, a large town on the east coast of Baffin Island, voted to remain completely dry following a petition from some townsfolk who wanted the laws changed. But even as a dry town, police said the vast majority of crimes committed in the area were alcohol-related due to rampant bootlegging. Some residents said that going dry wasn't effective enough. They argued local government needed to maintain an alcohol-education committee to counter the effects of bootlegging. In Rankin Inlet, a wet town on the northwest coast of Hudson Bay, residents voted on whether restaurants should be allowed to serve alcohol with meals. The proposal received 52 per cent approval, short of the 60 per cent majority needed to change liquor laws.

Alcohol has left its mark across the Arctic. In Cambridge Bay, kids ran wild on the streets throughout the night. This despite the nightly wail of a siren marking the town's 10 o'clock curfew for children under 16. Late into the night, far after we'd gone to our bunks, children roamed the town on foot and on bicycle. Many were too young to be allowed to cross a city street on their own, but here they had the run of the town. While some of their freedom could be attributed to the midnight sun and warm weather, as well as the Inuit laissez-faire approach to child-rearing, some of the kids pointed to a more sinister explanation. One night, I climbed up on deck in the wee morning hours to get some fresh air and encountered a group of children playing on the dock. "Why are you kids not at home in bed?" I asked.

"'Cause Mom and Dad are drinking," a little boy answered.

The children in Cambridge Bay were a constant source of chatter and amusement for us, but they had a wild streak. Each time we returned to the Silent Sound after running errands in town, we'd find another scattering of gravel on our deck, thrown on in one chubby handful at a time. Sometimes the rocks would be complemented by a mutilated fish or some other bit of rubbish they'd found. The children were fearless in jumping down onto our deck and playing with or trying to pilfer anything not bolted down. The crystal-clear water around the town dock revealed a selection of bicycles at the bottom of the harbour. We began pulling up the various toys that had been given a sea burial over the years, recovering a collection of fishing rods and bicycles. We pulled one bicycle up, still in good condition and ready to ride, but as soon as we'd turned our backs, the kids threw it back in the water.

On the afternoon of our arrival, we had been docked for about an hour and were still on the boat when a little girl's voice called down to us. "Hey, the pigs are here to see you!" Greg, an off-duty police officer, was standing on the dock. I went up and said hello and had a chat with him, then returned below deck. The kids remained on the dock, hollering at us and throwing pebbles onto our deck. We were trying to ignore them in the hope they'd go away when a little voice piped up. "One of our friends fell off the dock and she's gonna drown if you don't help her." Yeah, right, I thought. But the kid wouldn't go away and she kept calling down the companionway to us, so I poked my head out for a look. She was standing beside the boat alone and looked worried. All of her friends were huddled together at the other end of the dock, looking down into the water. Some of them were kneeling and leaning over the edge. I climbed onto the dock and ran to them. Staring up at the children from below was a round face with even rounder eyes. A chubby little girl was hanging onto the edge of the dock by her fingernails, kicking her legs and whimpering. "Help me, help!" she squeaked. I grabbed her arms and pulled her to the dock. She ran off like a startled deer.

It probably won't be the last time she finds herself on the edge. Few Inuit youth complete high school, let alone go on to higher education. Inuit youth are three times more likely to leave high school before graduation than children elsewhere in Canada. We spoke to students at schools in Ulukhaktok and Gjoa Haven and were taken aback by the sullenness and lack of spirit among the children. They stammered out dull, unimaginative questions in stilted sentences, their attention span could be measured in seconds and the teachers were clearly worn out by the daily struggle. It wasn't for lack of facilities. School buildings were far better than the ramshackle facilities I had grown up with in the Manitoba countryside, but a few generations of unemployment, misdirected government programs and a loss of self-identity had robbed these children of their dreams. The problem with the children was clearly a community concern. Elders clucked their tongues and shook their heads in dismay when they spoke of their youth.

Copyright (2012) Cameron Dueck. Reprinted with permission from The New Northwest Passage: A voyage to the front line of climate change, published by Great Plains Publications.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 7, 2012 J3

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