Aboriginal leaders in Manitoba are debating the merits of banning alcohol on reserves in the wake of news a Saskatchewan reserve had tried to go "dry" a year before the possibly alcohol-related incident this week in which two children died.

Investigators on the Yellow Quill First Nation in Saskatchewan are trying to determine the circumstances that led to the death of a one-year-old girl and her three-year-old sister on the reserve earlier this week.

The frozen bodies of the two girls, dressed only in T-shirts and undergarments, were discovered in the snow hours after their father was taken to hospital, suffering from frostbite and hypothermia.

The man's sister told CBC he had been drinking heavily that day. Police have launched a criminal investigation into the incident.

The deaths might reignite a debate over whether the Yellow Quill First Nation should become a dry community, as it had tried unsuccessfully to do a year ago, the reserve's chief said Thursday.

22 dry reserves in Manitoba

But some Manitoba leaders question whether banning alcohol is a good idea. Twenty-two reserves in the province are dry, according to 2004 statistics.

Jim Moore, chief of the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation, says banning booze may not have helped.

Nisichawayasihk used to be totally dry but later changed its rules to allow alcohol in amounts considered suitable for personal use.

Only bootleggers benefited from the total booze ban, Moore said, and several people on the reserve died going to remote areas to pick up illegal alcohol.

"We lifted the ban because of the tragic events that happened," he said.

Bootlegging can be a lucrative business on some of Manitoba's dry reserves, where a bottle of whiskey that sells for $20 in any Manitoba liquor store reportedly fetches as much as $100.

Banning alcohol under the Indian Act today would be like going back to a time when Indians weren't allowed to drink, Moore added. In Canada, aboriginal people were banned from possessing and consuming alcohol on reserves until 1951.

Lack of enforcement

Another problem with prohibiting alcohol is that most reserves don't have enough police to properly enforce the bans, said Ron Evans, head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

"Some of the chiefs themselves actually go to the airport, especially in the more isolated places, and actually search themselves," he said.

A ban also doesn't solve the root problems of alcohol addictions, Evans said.

"For those that are addicted, they find ways to feed their addiction," he said. "There are places now in many of the communities that are dry where they're making superjuice," he said, referring to a home brew made with special yeast that produces more potent alcohol than regular yeast in just a few days.

The yeast is easy to smuggle into the community and is used to make a quick, cheap-to-produce moonshine that is sold at a high profit. Aboriginal leaders have complained it is having a devastating impact on dry reserves in the province.

'Prohibition doesn't work': Fontaine

Phil Fontaine, head of the national Assembly of First Nations, also rejected the idea of booze bans.

"We all know that prohibition doesn't work — and I say this being well aware a number of First Nation communities are dry reserves. There are others that see turning their communities into dry reserves as an answer to the challenges that these communities face," he said.

"The answer is not to turn First Nations communities into dry reserves, but to ensure that our communities have the supports that they need so that they can provide the kind of services and programs our people deserve," Fontaine said.

Under the Indian Act, a reserve seeking to ban the sale, purchase and possession of alcohol must draft a bylaw, which requires approval from 51 per cent of residents attending a special meeting.

The bylaw comes into immediate effect once it is enacted by the chief and council in a quorum, but a copy of the bylaw must be mailed to the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs within four days.