An Innu community in Labrador with a long history of addictions and suicide voted narrowly Thursday evening to ban alcohol on its reserve.
By a count of 76 to 74, participants in the vote gave the Natuashish band council and police the authority to search materials flown into the northern coastal community for booze and drugs.
"It was too quiet for me the last couple of days not knowing which way it was going to go," said Katie Rich, a former chief in Davis Inlet, the community that residents abandoned in 2002 for a new life in newly built homes.
Davis Inlet attracted international attention when images of gas-sniffing children were broadcast around the world. Davis Inlet had dilapidated housing and poor social services.
Social problems, though, travelled with residents to the new community.
Chief Prote Poker, who advocated for the ban, said alcohol continues to divide the village, so much so that Thursday's vote would have resulted in a tie had two people not shown up at the last minute.
"It was a battle for us, because we had to get people to vote with us that are sober … and there were also people that are drinking that voted with us," Poker said.
There is no place to legally buy or sell alcohol in Natuashish, but that has not stopped a thriving bootleg trade.
The new bylaw forbids the sale, purchase and possession of alcohol.
Rich said the recent freezing deaths of two young girls at Saskatchewan's Yellow Quill First Nation, which itself had tried to go dry, underscored the ravages of alcohol abuse.
"This is one of the things that we spoke about at the meeting, that we no longer want to see tragedies in our community," she said.
Overnight change not expected
"You can only [go] as far as the grave site where there were so many suicides … and it hit home in some people," she said.
The band council does not expect an overnight change. Only half of eligible voters showed up at the meeting and bootlegging is expected to remain a serious problem.
"I don't think the bylaw will make our job any easier in the community of Natuashish," said RCMP Sgt. Paul MacDougall.
"I think it's just another tool available to us."
MacDougall said the ban would only work if residents are willing to step forward and lay complaints.