Like an iceberg, 1996 cont., “Choices”
The old bar in the Nunavik community of Kuujjuaq was an unnerving place. I went there one evening in the early 1990s for a beer. The bar was filled with smoke and people, maybe 150 men and women or more, a good percentage of the town’s adult population.
I stood at the bar, taking in the scene. A dartboard was on one wall, and some players were throwing darts from across the room, right over the heads of drinkers. I was glad not to be sitting down.
But for two weeks during the month of September in 1996, no more booze was flowing into Kuujjuaq. It looked as if Kuujjuaq could become a dry community. Mayor Johnny Adams had decided to do something about excessive drinking in his community.
He asked the Ikkaqivvik Bar to close down and requested that the Fort Chimo Co-op store no longer sell beer. The new Ikkaqivvik Bar, built in 1994, was open Monday through Friday evening, selling about 30 cases of beer at the bar every night. The co-op store sold more than 150 cases of beer every Wednesday and Friday.
“It was a difficult decision, but we’ve been facing difficult times,” Adams said. “Of the 11 burials we’ve seen the beginning of 1996, eight were somehow caused by too much alcohol.”
I was not in Kuujjuaq when the ban was put into place, so I called Adams on the telephone. I was still feeling bad then about my story on Kuujjuaq’s school. No matter what repercussions I suffered, I knew what I wrote upset him: the failure of education in Kuujjuaq was seen as his failure too.
I’d spoken with Adams before, about what it was like to be a journalist here. All I could do was to promise him to deliver the good and the bad about Kuujjuaq in what I said or wrote.
In 1996, Kuujjuaq and Kuujjuaraapik were the only two communities in northern Quebec that have bars or alcohol sales. Adams said he felt he had to take official action before anyone else died in Kuujjuaq.
The week before his decision in September, a young, intoxicated woman died when she lost control of her all-terrain vehicle and rammed into a tractor-trailer. Her death left three young children motherless. Since August, there had also been three other deaths in Kuujjuaq, all involving excessive alcohol consumption.
Another man, Jaypeetee Akpalialuk, the former mayor of Pangnirtung, who had grand plans of selling seal pelts to Japan, drowned in a few inches of water under a bridge. Another man died by suicide. A third man died of a gunshot wound received during a drunken dispute that turned violent.
In October, 1996, Kuujjuaq residents voted in a municipal referendum on whether to continue alcohol sales in the community.
Registered voters could answer “yes” or “no” to two questions: “Do you agree that the Ikkaqivvik Bar should continue to sell alcohol?” and “Do you agree that the Fort Chimo Co-op continue to sell beer?”
Students at Jaanimmarik School also held a referendum of their own and voted overwhelmingly to keep the bar closed and to sell no more beer through the co-op. The women’s shelter director said on the community radio’s call-in show that fewer women had come in for assistance since the ban was imposed. And the Kativik Regional Police Force had received only half their normal volume of calls.
But the workers at the Ikkaqivvik Bar said their establishment was being unfairly singled out as the cause of the community’s problems.
“It’s like people with guns — one person goes off half-cocked and everyone gets blamed,” said a bar employee.
With the closure of the bar, 15 people were out of work. But during the two-week-long ban, Kuujjuaq was a changed community, a tranquil place, with no all-terrain vehicles speeding around the streets.
As the season’s first snowflakes came down, people stayed at home, instead of heading out for a drink at the bar, and they weren’t drinking at home either, because no booze was available in town.
“It was the quietest two weeks we just had. It was great,” said the owner of the local motor vehicle sales and repair shop.
But Kuujjuaq’s period of calm ended when the people decided to bring booze back into the community — but not too much of it. Voters came out 70 per cent in favour of keeping the local bar’s doors open. Eighty-four per cent of those who vote also wanted the Fort Chimo Co-op to stop selling beer.
No one was surprised by the decision to re-open the bar. Bar revenues supported the local hotel, provided jobs and underwrote community recreation activities. Still, many had mixed feeling about the results. They weren’t sure whether cutting out retail beer sales would solve the alcohol abuse problem, although they said children might suffer less if drinking goes on outside of the home.
The municipal council also passed a by-law limiting orders for alcohol flown up from the South to four cases of beer a month and two litres of spirits or four litres of wine.
These new limits on ordering in booze were designed to cut off supplies to bootleggers because all requests for alcohol will have to go through the council.
The referendum would not be a cure-all, Adams said. He wasn’t even sure that all alcohol-related deaths and family violence would end.
“But I think there will see some reduction, although we’ll only see in a few months, whether it’s had an impact,” Adams said.
He told me that he was going out on the land for the weekend to clear his thoughts. Like him, though, I was feeling, at that moment, hopeful for Kuujjuaq, a community that seemed to want to get better.
In 2011 residents voted in another referendum to re-instate retail beer sales, along with wine sales, at the local co-op store, which again starts selling alcohol in 2013.
Police later maintained that crime — high enough still — had not risen.
The next instalment of “Like an iceberg” goes live May 5.
Did you miss earlier blog entries of “Like an iceberg”? You can read them here:
Like an iceberg: on being a journalist in the Arctic
Like an iceberg, 1991…cont.
Like an iceberg, 1991…more
Like an iceberg, 1992, “Shots in the dark”
Like an iceberg, 1992, “Sad stories”
Like an iceberg, 1993, “Learning the language of the snows”
Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., “Spring”
Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., “Chesterfield Inlet”
Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., more “Chesterfield Inlet”
Like an iceberg, 1994: “Seals and more”
Like an iceberg, 1994, cont., “No news is good news”
Like an iceberg, 1994 cont., more “No news is good news”
Like an iceberg, 1994 cont., “A place with four names”
Like an iceberg, 1995, “More sad stories”
Like an iceberg, 1995 cont., “No place like Nome”
Like an iceberg, 1995 cont., “Greenland”
Like an iceberg, 1995, cont. “Secrets”
Like an iceberg, 1996, “Hard Lessons”
Like an iceberg, 1996 cont., “Working together”
Like an iceberg, 1996 cont., “At the edge of the world”
Like an iceberg, 1996, more “At the edge of the world”
Like an iceberg, 1996, “Who speaks for Inuit”