Lifting booze ban may have adverse effects on youth in Northern communities, researcher says

A researcher who studies liquor bans in the North reflects on the possible after-effects of lifting a liquor ban in communities like Behchoko, N.W.T., based on her new study.

'There's a reduction in risk of drug and alcohol use in dry communities,' says Colleen Davison

A sign that reads 'alcohol prohibited' on the road to Behchoko N.W.T. where the community voted to lift an alcohol ban last week. (Curtis Mandeville/CBC)

Lifting the liquor ban in Northern communities like Behchoko, N.W.T., may result in more substance abuse in teens and more youth going to bed hungry, according to a researcher who studies liquor restrictions across the North.

"We have been finding some differences in substance use for adolescents... There's a reduction in risk of drug and alcohol use in dry communities," said Colleen Davison, a professor and researcher of public health with Queens University.

A dry community is a liquor prohibited community; meanwhile, wet means there's no liquor ban. A damp community has some restrictions on alcohol. Introducing alcohol policies in Northern communities began in 1972 with Fort Simpson, N.W.T. Behchoko was the first community to introduce complete prohibition in 1976.

"We're also seeing some interesting social and family outcomes," said Davison. "[In] dry communities, we're seeing it's less likely for young people to be going to school or bed hungry because there's not enough food at home."

Colleen Davison lived in Behchoko for five years completing her PhD on Indigenous youth and their engagement in school. (submitted by Colleen Davison)

These are findings from her most recent study that looks at youth substance use and consumption patterns across 66 communities in the North. The study is still in progress and is not yet public.

But according to another study released in 2011, Davison said injury rates among young people aren't that different between dry and wet communities.

Both of Davison's studies rely on a 2010 census of students from grades six to 10 across the North. The Health Behaviour in School-aged Children survey, an international study used in 42 countries, asked youth about substance use as well as family and school experiences. 

Behchoko residents voted 346 to 95 in favour of lifting the liquor ban last week. Only 33 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the community of about 2,000 people. The 2009 ban will remain in effect for a few months until legislation is changed.

Davison and her daughter Catherine, who Davison was pregnant with while she was doing her PhD in Behchoko. (submitted by Colleen Davison)

Like decriminalizing marijuana

Lifting the ban could help transform substance abuse into a public health issue rather than a criminal one, said Davison.

An Alcoholics Anonymous sign at the Tlicho Friendship Centre in Behchoko. (Curtis Mandeville/CBC)
"We say currently, marijuana is criminal for most of us to use. So when it's decriminalized, it allows us to then think of it as a public health issue… And we can approach programming in that way."

Davison said communities that lift alcohol bans should be thinking about programs geared towards youth to discourage substance abuse and to promote health.

"In the longer term, it's very similar to other communities that are not dry," said Davison. For instance, addictions and management programs should also be introduced as substance-related problems grow in wet communities.

Effect on surrounding Tlicho communities

Now that the ban is set to disappear, some in communities outside of Behchoko are concerned.

Davison says that wet communities need to focus on introducing programming for youth. (submitted by Colleen Davison)
"I don't like the results of the vote in Behchoko because it will now affect places like Whati, Gameti and Wekweeti. They all travel to Behchoko where they will be able to get liquor and bring it back into their communities," said Whati elder Pierre Beaverho in Tlicho.

Whati, Gameti and Wekweeti are currently dry communities.

"As Tlicho, we should all support each other. But Whati didn't have a say in lifting the ban in Behchoko."

"I really share his concern," said Davison. "There's a lot of records of... Illicit alcohol travelling between communities.

"The reality is that the increased volume in Behchoko will likely mean increased volumes in these communities too."

She said that the three surrounding communities should recognize the "black market issue" and focus on both enforcement and community programming, "recognizing this is likely going to increase or become even more of a problem than it may already be."

with files from Lawrence Nayally, Joanne Stassen, Harriet Paul