The mayor of Arctic Bay, Nunavut has written a letter to politicians asking for mental health staff for the community because alcohol use is on the rise and causing problems.
“We feel that there are severe social problems developing in our community and that we are being left with little or no resources to handle these issues,” the letter reads.
It was sent on Jan. 3 to Nunavut’s minister of Family Services and the minister of Health, Arctic Bay’s MLA David Akeeagok. Nunavut’s member of parliament and the RCMP were cc’d.
Frank May says the community of less than 900 is without a social worker, mental health nurse or wellness coordinator — a position he says has been vacant for a few years.
The Department of Health says a mental health nurse has been hired and will start soon and it is actively recruiting for a wellness coordinator. The position has been renamed “mental health outreach worker.”
Arctic Bay is a restricted community according to Nunavut’s Liquor Act, which means that an elected committee approves the quantities of alcohol community members can order.
Community members submit a form and the alcohol education committee decides if they will allow the order, if an individual has had trouble in the past, the committee may call them to appear in person.
But May says the committee is regularly being bypassed, as liquor is arriving by mail or in people’s luggage from the Iqaluit beer and wine store.
“I have long felt that the biggest importer of illicit drugs and alcohol into Arctic Bay is the Department of Health as a large amount of the bootleg trade is carried out by people on medical travel,” May said in the letter.
May says many factors are contributing to increased alcohol use in the community, including healthy Baffinland mine incomes.
Increasing crime stats
May says he’s worried about alcohol’s role in crime statistics in Arctic Bay. In the last year there were 30 charges laid in the community and 25 of them had liquor as a contributing factor according the RCMP.
Alcohol played a role in all 148 people held in jail in 2018. They were there either as drunk in public, which is a “non-charge,” or because alcohol contributed to their charges.
While 148 is high for the community, the numbers fluctuate over the years — in 2017 there were 88 people held in cells, but in 2016 there were 105. So far in 2019 there’s already been 18.
There are two RCMP officers stationed in Arctic Bay and May is worried they’re burning out. In the last 10 months the officers were called out after hours 195 times.
The officers are up all night “dealing with drunks” so they don’t get any sleep and don’t have time for visits to schools and other community policing tasks, May said.
The RCMP says the officers attend more than 30 after hours meetings a year and participate in as many events as they can, but service calls take priority.
In an email to CBC, the RCMP acknowledge alcohol is often the reason for a police call, as is the fact “there has not been a permanent social worker or mental health nurse in the community for the last 9 months.”
“I don’t think we can go backwards to the days of prohibition,” May said. “To me it’s trying to get the counsellors in place.
Nunavut’s Department of Finance, which manages liquor sales in the territory, says it won’t sell to those without permission to buy alcohol, but it doesn’t have a way to stop the illegal import of booze. Instances of bootlegging should be reported to the RCMP, the department says.
Alcohol across the territory
Arctic Bay’s plea for help with alcohol, comes after a year or so of loosening alcohol restrictions across Nunavut.
In 2018, Kugluktuk and Baker Lake voted to lift liquor restrictions and be governed only by the Nunavut’s liquor laws, and in 2017 Rankin Inlet and Cambridge Bay voted to get their own beer and wine stores, similar to Iqaluit, which got its store in September 2017.
Dan Young, the government of Nunavut’s director of Liquor and Cannabis, cautions against saying that’s a trend.
In the past 12 years Nunavut has had 25 votes about liquor restrictions, and while the last two were in favour of loosening restrictions, he says the previous seven failed.
So many plebiscites fail, because they are brought as petitions to the government of Nunavut by individuals, which if they have enough supporting signatures, is turned into a vote by the government.
In October 2018, a person from Sanikiluaq presented a petition to have a “restricted quantities system” in the community.
If it passes it will be the first of its kind in Nunavut. Other communities opt for one of three options: prohibited, restricted with an alcohol education committee, or unrestricted.
The proposed quantity restrictions are one litre of liquor, four litres of wine, and 18 litres of beer per person every 14 days.
Sanikiluaq is scheduled to vote on Feb. 4. Like all Nunavut liquor plebiscites, it will require a 60 per cent majority to pass.
Related stories from around the North:
Canada: Northern Canadian community adjusting to end of liquor ban, CBC News
Finland: Finland’s alcohol consumption declines by 15%, Yle News
United States: Envisioning recovery and rebuilding a life in the Alaskan Arctic, Alaska Public Media