Two years ago, the Labrador community of Natuashish voted to ban alcohol from the remote town.
But like so many efforts to improve the plight of the Innu in the community, the push to eliminate alcohol has served to highlight how deeply embedded the town's social problems - substance abuse in particular - have become.
Earlier this week, RCMP intercepted a pre-Christmas shipment of 85 bottles of liquor. While a band official said the town was noticeably quieter as a result, the scale of this week's bust also served as a reminder that the smuggling-fed black market is flourishing.
"It's quite common," RCMP Constable Glenn Dudley said yesterday from the community, which is not accessible by road. "As soon as you make something illegal you increase the market for it."
Some residents in the town of about 700 say crime has gone down and people seem healthier since they banned alcohol. But like many of the measures that have been tried over the years, it hasn't solved the town's substance-abuse problem.
Natuashish was created seven years ago, after a series of tragedies and near-tragedies involving the children of Davis Inlet drew international attention to the rates of substance abuse, suicide, family violence and extreme poverty in the community. Images of children sniffing gas helped to push the federal government to spend millions relocating the Innu about 15 kilometres west to Natuashish, in the hope that a new community with better living conditions would help to ease the social problems.
But the move did not eliminate the town's problems. Early in 2008, residents voted to go dry. But the move was divisive, with only half of the community showing up to vote and people having to make public their choice. It passed by two votes.
Now, continuing problems show that many residents are still getting alcohol - they're just paying a higher price.
Residents pay the black market rate of about $350 for a 60-ounce bottle of liquor. That's a 600-per-cent markup over the price in Goose Bay and big money for the people of Nuatuashish.
Their willingness to pay such a price for alcohol points to a host of underlying problems that were not addressed by bringing in a ban, said band chief Prote Poker.
In the bust this week, police say they received a credible tip about a commercial airplane at Happy Valley-Goose Bay. They searched it Wednesday night and found the contraband, mostly big jugs of cheap rye. No one was arrested and the investigation continues.
"The alcohol is not eliminated but we're still working with the RCMP to reduce the amount coming in," Mr. Poker said.
Constable Dudley said that smugglers are constantly thinking up new tricks. Catching them is a bit easier at this time of year, he noted, because the coastal boat is not running and the ice is not yet thick enough for snowmobiles. Planes are the only way in and out. He said busts are common but they can't know how much alcohol slips through the net.
The chief said that the town gets noticeably quieter after a big bust such as the one this week. Constable Dudley made the same point, saying that critics who call them killjoys ignore the ugly social problems caused by drinking.
"Eighty-five bottles, that's probably enough to get every adult in the community drunk for one night," the officer said. "A lot of people I've talked to say [they're]just trying to celebrate the holidays, but no question without alcohol it's quieter."