Labrador Innu of Sheshatshiu consider alcohol ban after deaths, accidents

Band councillors in the Labrador Innu community of Sheshatshiu say it’s time to consider banning alcohol after a string of recent deaths, accidents and arrests.

Leaders are getting legal advice for a possible bylaw that will be publicly discussed later this summer and would be voted on by residents, said council member Greg Pastitshi.

Recent incidents, including the death of a 32-year-old woman who died when the car she was driving crashed into a tree July 20, have many people questioning the role of booze and drug addictions.

“I think we have a lot of problems when it comes to drugs and alcohol,” Pastitshi said from Sheshatshiu. “I think it’s really sad to see young people try to commit suicide.

“And I think the community is starting to wake up and say: ‘Let’s do something. Let’s help our kids. Let’s help our people.'”

Pastitshi said a community gathering is planned for August to gauge support for an alcohol ban similar to one passed in the more remote Innu community of Natuashish five years ago. Police there have linked the prohibition to decreased crime but alcohol smuggling is an ongoing issue that drives up the price for illicit liquor.

“We know that people will still find a way to bring alcohol in the community,” Pastitshi said. He also conceded there’s little council can do if people drink in nearby towns such as Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

But Pastitshi said a ban would send a strong message enforced by police.

Alcohol and drugs, such as cocaine, are the cause of frequent police calls in Sheshatshiu, said RCMP Cpl. Rick Mills.

“There’s no doubt it’s a problem. I can certainly attest to that,” he said in an interview. “It’s a continual thing we’re dealing with, not just in this community but most of Labrador.

“I don’t want the public to have the perception that everything is alcohol-fuelled and drug-fuelled and that it’s out of control. But certainly substance abuse is a real issue in Labrador.”

It’s too early to say whether increased earnings from projects such as the $7.7-billion Muskrat Falls hydro development are escalating the problem, Mills said.

But what’s clear is that RCMP officers in Labrador are among the busiest in the country.

Caseload measurements used by Statistics Canada and the Mounties both suggest that the numbers are far higher in Happy Valley-Goose Bay than the national average.

Statistics Canada said in a 2011 report that the number of incidents per police officer across the country was just over 30 in 2010. That compared to 36.5 incidents per officer in Newfoundland and Labrador but jumped to 129 for the Happy Valley-Goose Bay region.

There were 32 calls for service in Happy Valley-Goose Bay plus 30 in Sheshatshiu for the weekend of July 19 to 21 and many were alcohol-related, Mills said. Populations for the two communities are estimated at 7,600 and 1,300 people respectively.

Jack Penashue, social health director for Sheshatshiu, said red tape involved in admissions to addictions treatment centres leaves people in crisis waiting for weeks.

“That’s a big step for individuals when they come in and say: ‘I need support.’ ”

A ream of applications and forms generally means a lag of at least two weeks to start treatment programs that work best when attended away from an addict’s home base, Penashue said.

“For individuals attending a treatment program within their region, it’s not very successful because they know the individuals, they know the community, they know the area,” and are more prone to drop out, he explained.

Penashue said the time for community action has come.

“It’s to the point where it’s really out of hand. And I’ve already said to the leadership that we need to step back, look at our own community and fix some laws.”

Sheshatshiu resident Mike (Rich) Rossignol said a big step would be to stop what he said is a devastating flow of booze into the community at band election time.

“Every two, three years every single family is affected. I don’t drink but, last election, the house next to mine was just a beer dispenser. I’ve seen elders come out of there in the worst shape you can imagine, just appalling, and it would go on through all hours of the night.

“I call that unnecessary suffering.”

Asked directly about the issue of increased alcohol in the community at election time, Sheshatshiu Chief Andrew Penashue said that alcohol and drugs are a problem in general that the band council is trying to tackle.

“We’re working on that,” he said. “There are lawyers working on that. We’re trying to have a community meeting to make some sort of bylaw.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.