The end of the dry reserve?

Aboriginal communities say decades-old bans on alcohol failed to curb abuse. Not everyone agrees.

The end of the dry run
Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/CP

As a young man in the mid-1980s, Glenn Pelletier took elaborate steps before coming home to the Cowessess First Nation, the reserve in southeastern Saskatchewan where he grew up. Pelletier, who was working in Calgary at the time, would pull over his 1972 Mercury Montego before reaching reserve land so he could stash his weekend supply of whisky in his rusted hulk of a car. Cowessess was a dry community—or so Pelletier thought. “I figured if I got stopped there and the cops found my liquor, they’d take it away,” he says. “So I’d put it under the seat, in the trunk, in a suitcase. Wherever.”

Years later, Pelletier learned the truth: Cowessess was not officially dry in those days, and never had been. All that time, his elders had hoodwinked him and his friends, throwing around the phrase “dry reserve” so often the youngsters assumed the band had passed a bylaw imposing prohibition. It was a masterpiece of brainwashing—and testimony to the power of an idea. At the time, the “dry” movement was sweeping Aboriginal communities across Canada, where leaders saw it as a means of curbing the catastrophic effect of alcohol abuse on their populations. Why wouldn’t Cowessess do the same?

Much has changed. Pelletier, now a band councillor, hasn’t taken a drink in seven years. And prohibition is an idea that he and many Aboriginals are happy to leave behind. In February, 67 per cent of residents in the remote Arctic hamlet of Kimmirut voted to rescind their dry status, bringing the number of dry communities in Nunavut to six, down from eight just a few years ago. Voters opted instead for a system where residents wishing to ship liquor into the community can apply to an “alcohol education committee.” The decision stunned outsiders, because Kimmirut had been the site of an alcohol-fuelled shooting of a young RCMP officer in 2007, an incident that drew nationwide attention to the hamlet’s substance abuse problems.

In Saskatchewan, the RCMP estimates that fewer than 10 communities still have full prohibition in effect, and lament the thriving black market in those that remain. Residents of Norman Wells, N.W.T., ended 30 years of alcohol restrictions in a plebiscite in February. Aklavik, a village on the Mackenzie River delta with a long history of alcohol-related problems, voted two years ago against restricting the flow of liquor into the community.

In each of these instances, critics and community leaders have pointed to the model’s glaring flaws—most notably the rampant bootlegging it spurs. In dry communities located in the Far North, the price of a 26-oz. bottle of hard liquor can soar to $300, because it must be smuggled in by plane. And with the financial incentive to smuggle so high, towns and reserves that bill themselves as dry are typically anything but. A recent study funded by Health Canada found that youth in Kimmirut between the ages of 11 and 20 are twice as likely to drink than their peers in the rest of Canada. Participants reported getting liquor easily through bootleggers who were 18 or over, the legal drinking age in Quebec.

Meantime, alcohol problems have been eclipsed on many Aboriginal reserves by abuse of prescription drugs, like the recently discontinued drug OxyContin. Yes, most liquor-free communities also ban illegal drugs, says Cpl. Rob King, who speaks for the RCMP in Saskatchewan. “But drugs are easier [for smugglers] to hide,” he says, “and a bag full of pills or morphine can keep a lot of customers happy for quite a while.”

Tack on concern about the costs of channelling drinkers into the criminal justice system, and you have a system under siege. Which may not be good news, because the few people who have assessed the efficacy of dry-town bylaws say they do produce results. One is Darryl Wood, a professor from Washington State University who compared rates of violent crime in Nunavut’s dry communities to those in wet ones (including those with liquor education committees). His findings? “Places that are dry are safer relative to the places that are wet,” he says from his home in Vancouver, Wash. Indeed, over a 20-year period ending in 2006, wet communities had fully three times the number of homicides as dry communities and almost double the number of assaults.

Wood found similar differences in a study of communities in Alaska—this time using assault-injury numbers reported by hospitals. Together, the studies constitute a success story that remains largely untold. “We don’t hear about the places where prohibition works,” says Wood, “because they’re not having the police shootings and all these other problems.” Generally, the police concur. “Seize a shipment of liquor, and you’ve immediately taken 10 headaches out of that community for the night,” says King, the RCMP officer in Saskatchewan. “It drives up the price, but it gives our members a tool to work with.”

Why, then, would First Nations jettison it? In part, due to pride. Four decades ago, when the dry movement took root in Canada, many viewed it as empowerment—Aboriginal leaders solving Aboriginal problems. Today, many regard the bans as one-size-fits-all policies that treat them as children, as if natives are unable to control their behaviour.

Then there’s the law. Last year, federal legislation came into effect extending the Canadian Human Rights Act to natives living or working on reserves. The change for the first time threw open the door to complaints against band councils and their bylaws, raising the prospect of someone claiming liquor bans, in effect, discriminate against natives. In short, the days of band or hamlet councils telling Aboriginals they can’t drink may be numbered.

Pelletier, who has worked as an addictions counsellor, says that’s just as well. He and other Cowessess leaders are about to implement a middle-ground model, which requires band councillors and employees to submit to alcohol and drug tests. The idea, he says, is for community leaders to set an example for young people, without resorting to the “d” word. Once a First Nation publicly announces it is dry, he explains, “people assume it has some sort of problem. The issues are there; there’s no denying that. But we don’t want to be labelled as drunken Indians.”