Saturday, April 16, 2011

The trials of Nunavut: Lament for an Arctic nation - Part Five

Part V

If Nunavut has any shot at beating back its demons, it needs to dry out first. On average, Nunavummiut spend $940 each a year on alcohol, more than almost anywhere else in the country, according to Statistics Canada. That doesn't include black-market purchases, which easily run as high as $100 for a 375-millilitre mickey of vodka. Such sums cripple household budgets as much as the booze cripples household health – a whole society in a state of cirrhosis.

“I'd say nine out of 10 – heck, even 10 out of 10 – things we deal with stem directly from alcohol,” Constable Pottie said. “We cut down the booze, we cut down the crime.”

And this is despite the country's most draconian alcohol regulations. Since 1976, Nunavut's hamlets have had a choice of three types of booze control: open, restricted or dry – with respective efficacy rates of limited, not much and nil.

Just as American Prohibition was a paradise for the likes of Al Capone, Nunavut's scattershot liquor laws have been a windfall for smugglers and bootleggers whose influence has continuously undermined the territory's efforts at social stability.

Iqaluit is among five “open” communities. Even there, residents can't legally buy liquor in stores. They must order it, for personal use, or drink inside select establishments. Seven Nunavut hamlets are currently “dry” and the remaining 13 are “restricted.”

One of those 13 is Cape Dorset, where one Tuesday evening, a skinny young woman, 19, sat fidgeting in a chair, waiting to appear before the town's Alcohol Education Committee to apply for her first alcohol permit.

“I want to start off slow, ask for a 60-ouncer at first,” she said. “Then I'll work my way up.”

This panel of prominent locals scrutinizes individual alcohol orders, deciding to reject, accept or reduce each request based on its assessment of a person's ability to hold his or her liquor. In light of the Incidents, the five-person committee was considering new monthly alcohol limits: 72 cans of beer, five 750-millilitre bottles of hard liquor, 30 bottles of wine. They did not seem to discuss what a doctor might think of someone chugging 30 bottles of wine a month.

“We want to be helpful without restricting people,” said Chris Pudlat, one of the committee members.

Yet the biggest problem with alcohol in Nunavut is not how much people drink, but how much they drink all at once. Darryl Wood, an assistant professor at Washington State University and the only criminologist who has studied alcohol policies in Nunavut, characterizes it as “low frequency, high quantity” – consumption habits that stretch binge drinking to dizzying new levels. It is common for people to guzzle a mickey of vodka straight, barely stopping to breathe. Inebriation sets in immediately and forcefully.

“I once saw a little girl slugging back a bottle,” said Constable Alex Benoit, one of the Cape Dorset policemen involved in the Incidents. “When we stopped her and asked her what she was doing, she said she was trying to pass out. That was the goal. Not to have fun or enjoy herself. It was to black out. Alcohol is used differently here.”

Last April, Mr. Peterson struck a task force dedicated to solving Nunavut's alcohol problem, which is entertaining the counterintuitive idea of opening beer-and-wine stores to combat liquor consumption.

Many people argue that the open sale of lower-proof alcohol would break the vodka-bootlegging trade and reduce the extremes of intoxication.

But few issues in Nunavut are as politically combustible as liquor legislation.

Thirty-five years ago, residents of Iqaluit (then called Frobisher Bay) could buy booze at a regular liquor store. But when a drunk driver struck and killed a child, a full-fledged temperance movement developed, soon amassing such fervent support that the territorial commissioner ceded to popular demand and shuttered the Iqaluit liquor store.

“Since then, few local politicians have dared propose that the Iqaluit liquor store be reopened for retail sales,” Mr. Bell wrote in a recent Nunatsiaq News story on the issue. “It's still a radioactive issue, capable of incinerating all who go near it.”

After a little while, the Cape Dorset Committee called in the young woman.

“So you want a 60-ouncer?” Mr. Pudlat asked.


“How old are you?”


“What will you do with it?”

“Just mix a few drinks. No parties.”

The committee conferred for all of 10 seconds.

“Yes, one 60-ouncer is fine,” Mr. Pudlat ruled.

The teen smiled. But if she had been turned down, she would have had other options.

“Black market,” she said. “That's where I get it now.”

White, Patrick. 2011. "The trials of Nunavut: Lament for an Arctic nation". The Globe and Mail. Posted: April 1, 2011. Available online:

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