Natuashish votes on alcohol ban

The chief of a small Innu reserve on Labrador's northern coast has had a last-minute change of heart on the value of a ban on alcohol in the community.
Residents of Natuashish in northern Labrador will decide Friday whether a prohibition on alcohol stays in place. ((Julien Lafille/CBC))

The chief of a small Innu reserve on Labrador's northern coast appears to have had a last-minute change of heart on the contentious issue of an alcohol ban in the community.

Newly elected chief Simeon Tshakapesh has said the ban on alcohol is not working. ((CBC))

Simeon Tshakapesh called for a repeal of a controversial prohibition on alcohol immediately after his election as chief of Natuashish earlier this month.

But as residents of the reserve headed to the ballot box on Friday to decide whether the ban will stay or go, Tshakapesh is now indicating that the ban will stay.

"If the non-drinkers like myself, I don't drink, and the people who are the social workers, we combine one another we can still have a dry community, I think," Tshakapesh said.

Tshakapesh has been critical of the ban for several weeks, including during an often contentious public meeting on Tuesday, when the chief refused to allow RCMP officers to explain why the force supports the ban.

The RCMP said its statistics show overall crime in the community has dropped by 40 per cent, and violent crime has been cut in half since the ban came into effect in 2008.

Tshakapesh, who admits he is an alcoholic and who also faces a charge under the ban for bringing alcohol into Natuashish, has criticized how the original ban came into effect two years ago.

At that time, community members indicated where they stood on the issue by where they stood at the meeting: supporters lined up on one side of a gymnasium, while their opponents stood on the other side.

The chief's call for a new vote has raised tensions in Natuashish, whose people have had a long history with substance abuse. Starting in 2002, community members were relocated to Natuashish from Davis Inlet — an island community that became internationally notorious because of images of gas-sniffing children.

Tshakapesh gave only a few days notice for Friday's vote, which will be held through the day at the band council office.

Indian and Northern Affairs Canada recommends sending each band member a letter 10 days before such a vote.

But Tshakapesh said that would not be necessary.

"There's been radio announcements on local radio and everyone's aware of what's going on," he said.

Results are not expected until late Friday.