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'It saved my life': How managed alcohol program changed Nunavut man

Six months ago, Simeonie Kunnuk was binge drinking every day, now he's reaching out to other Inuit to help them manage their addictions.

Simeonie Kunnuk joined managed alcohol program 6 months ago; is given 15 drinks a day

'I used to drink until I was passed out or blacked out,' says Simeonie Kunnuk, who's originally from Igloolik, Nunavut. He says a managed alcohol program has saved his life. (submitted by Ray MacQuatt)

Six months ago 57-year-old Simeonie Kunnuk was a different man.

"I used to drink until I was passed out or blacked out," Kunnuk admits.

For almost two decades, Kunnuk, who's originally from Igloolik, Nunavut, has been an alcoholic — drinking every day until he was drunk or incapacitated. But now he's part of a managed alcohol program in Ottawa, where he's given set amounts of liquor throughout the day to help manage his addiction and keep him safe.

Before entering the program, Kunnuk recalls waking up many days in the hospital or in jail, confused about where he was or how he got there.

Simeonie Kunnuk (left), Annie Ainalik, Ray MacQuatt and Elisa Pewatooalook. MacQuatt is program manager at Ottawa's The Oaks, which houses the managed alcohol program; the others are participants in the program. (submitted by Ray MacQuatt)
"A couple of times I had scary experiences," he says.

"One time the nurse told me I was found passed out in the middle of the road."

The drinking got so bad that Kunnuk lost his home, as well as contact with family and friends. He spent his days collecting cans and used the recycling fee to buy alcohol. The only days he was sober was Christmas and New Year's Day, when the liquor stores were closed.  

Drinking brought out the worst in him.

"I was yelling at everyone on the streets," he says. "I was angry about colonization and discrimination against Inuit."

15% of participants are Inuit

Kunnuk says he turned to alcohol to mask the effects of childhood trauma experienced during his time in residential school, lingering issues that he's still working through today.

'It’s much better than the alternatives, the rubbing alcohols, Listerine, hairspray, and binge drinking harder alcohol,' says Ray MacQuatt, of the managed alcohol program. (submitted by Ray MacQuatt)
Approximately 30 to 35 per cent of the participants in the managed alcohol program at Ottawa's The Oaks are Indigenous, and Inuit make up about half of that group.

A turning point for Kunnuk came when he heard Prime Minister Stephen Harper's 2008 apology to Canada's residential school students.

"I took that to heart," he says.

The apology gave Kunnuk new hope to tackle his drinking. While he was able to cut down, he says he lacked the resources to get his addiction under control.

Finally, six months ago Kunnuk decided to give the managed alcohol program a try. Now, not only is he getting his own life together, he's also working with a team of Inuit at The Oaks to reach out to others who need help.

The group includes 55-year-old Annie Ainalik, originally from Cape Dorset, who has been in the program for a year.

Ainalik says the program has helped her regain focus.

"Now I can carve and sew again," she says.

Annie Ainalik is originally from Cape Dorset. She's been in the program for a year at The Oaks. (submitted by Ray MacQuatt)
The group, called the Inuit Task Force, has created outreach tools and events to educate other Inuit about the managed alcohol program. They're also helping staff at The Oaks learn about their culture in order to better relate to Inuit clients.

'A room of my own'

The majority of the participants in the program are chronically homeless, according to program manager Ray MacQuatt.

The monthly cost of residence at The Oaks is $1,500, which includes a private room and board as well as access to mental health and support services. Participants also pay between $75 and $100 for alcohol and tobacco.

"Alcohol is a very powerful and dangerous substance," says MacQuatt.

"It's much better than the alternatives, the rubbing alcohols, Listerine, hairspray, and binge drinking harder alcohol and more of it."

Elisa Pewatoalook and Jasper Towtoonie, part of the Inuit task force, with an invitation to a country food feast designed to attract Inuit to MAP. (submitted by Ray MacQuatt)
Kunnuk is one of 45 residents who are given about one glass of wine every hour, with a maximum of 15 drinks per day.

He now drinks enough to function.

"Now I have a home," Kunnuk says.

"I have a room of my own — it's the first time I have my own space."

He admits that when he started the program he would try to sneak drinks between the monitored alcohol servings, but he's moved on from that phase. He's also regained contact with family and friends.

"My mind is more open to ideas," Kunnuk says.

"It saved my life."

About the Author

Sima Sahar Zerehi

Sima Sahar Zerehi is a reporter with CBC North. She started her career in journalism with the ethnic press working for a Canadian-based Farsi language newspaper. Her CBC journey began as a regular commentator with CBC radio's Metro Morning. Since then she's worked with CBC in Montreal, Toronto and now Iqaluit.