Bob Appatok spends his days and nights on the roads of Kugluktuk, Nunavut, in Canada’s eastern Arctic, chasing down stray dogs, ticketing snowmobilers, and helping sick or hurt people get to the medical centre.
But his job as bylaw officer also gives him a special perspective on how the community has changed since alcohol restrictions were lifted about two months ago.
Appatok said it’s affected his own circle of friends.
“I’ve seen them go down real real quick, ordering as much [alcohol] as they want.”
He looks down at his hands and shakes his head. “[They] ended up being black and blue already, the wife and the husband.”
In October, Kugluktuk voted by a slim margin to remove alcohol restrictions. Like many northern communities, the hamlet had limits on the amount of alcohol a household could import from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories every two weeks.
He said he’s seen many 15- or 16-year-olds “carrying mickey bottles walking around town … walking down the main road without a jacket or even just in a T-shirt,” Appatok said.
He said he’s also seen younger children on the street, “crying, looking for a dad or a mother. You know, just wondering what’s going on.”
He blames bigger and more frequent parties that he says seem to be stocked with more and more alcohol.
Restrictions felt colonial
Prior to the restrictions being lifted, residents had to fill out an application to import alcohol. Then a local liquor committee would accept or reject the application based on safety concerns and criminal records.
It’s this process, said Johnny Keadjuk, that bothered some residents, and perhaps swayed the vote. He said many people resented being judged like that.
Keadjuk, who volunteers with the hamlet’s wellness program, said he felt “pretty happy” when he found out the restrictions were lifted.
He said for many Inuit the restrictions felt colonial, and brought back painful memories of outsiders telling them what they can and can’t do.
But Keadjuk admits there is a downside with this new freedom. With the increase in drinking he’s concerned the community could find itself in a repeat of the suicide crisis that precipitated the restrictions in 2007.
“I think it may come back for sure because alcohol is a very strong thing. It’s a depressant … and a lot of people start getting sad about things.”
Number of calls to police skyrockets
The RCMP, Canada’s federal police, in Kugluktuk reported a roughly 170 per cent increase in calls for service in December 2018, when the restrictions were lifted, compared to the same month in 2017. In December 2017, RCMP received 49 calls to service for alcohol-related incidents, in 2018 that number was 78.
Even though there appears to be other factors at play (calls for service were also way up in November before the restrictions lifted), RCMP told the hamlet council in their December report that “the significant increase in this month’s call for services, as well as alcohol-related issues, can be somewhat attributed to the recent unrestricting of alcohol in the community.”
Tristan Havioyak, 20, shrugs her shoulders when first asked if she thinks lifting the restrictions is harming the community.
“I don’t really care … maybe a mickey won’t cost so much at the bootlegger’s.”
Several people have confirmed to CBC News that a bootlegged 375 ml bottle of liquor typically sells for $100 in the community.
But then Havioyak shared a story about how alcohol upended her own childhood, which was spent in and out of a group home as her family struggled with addiction.
Since restrictions were removed in December, Havioyak said she’s noticed more problems in the community, like kids taking their parents’ alcohol after the parents pass out.
“It makes me mad seeing kids younger than me drunk because [they could get] taken away from their families,” she said.
“So there’s a 50/50 about it. It’s a good thing, but at the same time a bad thing.”
Havioyak said she’s also worried about even more serious consequences of alcohol abuse, and recalls two of her cousins who died by suicide.
“Talking about it now it still hurts me because me and my cousin were both close … they wanted to talk to their parents about their problems, but they were mostly drinking and stuff.”
“All the parents should stop drinking and bootlegging because it’s hard on the younger ones.”
Alcohol is a challenge to overcome
Savannah Angaluak runs Kugluktuk’s youth centre, and the children and teens who frequent it clearly love her.
On a Thursday afternoon, as the place is filling with kids, a seven-year-old boy coaxes her into a square dance that they had practised the week before, which ends with both of them having a good laugh.
You’d imagine Angaluak could be against the lifting of the alcohol restrictions, but she’s not.
“I was OK with it. Yeah, I was OK.”
Angaluak isn’t naive about the damage alcohol has done to her community, but she believes it’s a challenge to overcome and she wants to see a day when alcohol is normalized in the community.
To do this, she says, education is key.
“We need to put a plan forward on how to teach youth how to drink responsibly, how to show them the right path, and how not to over-drink.”
Over the past five years, she has helped send about 20 young people down south for leadership training; they’ve gone on to help run programs, ranging from sports to after-school care.
Angaluak said this is her way of helping create role models she hopes will pave a new path for her community’s relationship with alcohol.
Related stories from around the North:
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