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Davis Inlet children sniff gas in 2001, the year before Simeon Tshakapesh first headed the band council. (Arlene Gottfried)
Davis Inlet children sniff gas in 2001, the year before Simeon Tshakapesh first headed the band council. (Arlene Gottfried)

Globe editorial

Prohibition that lacks consensus Add to ...

Dozens of aboriginal reserves have alcohol bans with good results. It's disheartening to learn, then, that one Labrador community - which drew international attention with its footage of gas-sniffing children - may lift its prohibition.

Natuashish chief Simeon Tshakapesh - who as a former police officer videotaped those haunting images of Innu children - says the alcohol ban is not working. His proof: Bootleg alcohol continues to get into the remote community of 725 people. A 40-ouncer of cheap rye goes for $350 on the black market.

"I don't think the crime rate has gone down," he told The Globe. "There's a lot of criminal activity in Natuashish that doesn't get reported because people are drinking and worried about being charged under the bylaw."

But crime figures suggest the two-year-old ban is having an impact. RCMP figures show service calls fell by 33 per cent, disturbance-related calls dipped 59 per cent, and crimes against persons dropped 37 per cent.

Prote Poker, the former chief, said that, for five years before the ban started, the community averaged six suicides and alcohol-related deaths a year. Since the ban, there have been three such deaths. He credits the ban with saving nine lives.

Its impact on the problem Mr. Tshakapesh videotaped of Davis Inlet children in 1993 is less clear. Eventually, the entire community was moved to Natuashish, an area to the southwest that had clean water, indoor plumbing, a wharf and an airstrip. But social problems persisted.

Booze was smuggled in. Gasoline, rubbing alcohol and antifreeze are still used; they are not included in the ban.

Mr. Tshakapesh says he must respect voters' wishes and has called a public meeting for March 23 to evaluate whether the ban is working. Others want a referendum.

Davis Inlet/Natuashish is a divided community. In 2008, the alcohol ban passed by a narrow margin - 76 to 74 - and then only when two people showed up at the last minute.

Remote northern reserves provide a depressing life for many who face a grim reality and a grimmer future: Only 3 per cent of aboriginals have a university diploma, the single biggest predictor of future success.

When life's prospects are poor, alcohol becomes the balm for human misery. Bans are an excellent idea, but only if most residents want one.

No matter how well intentioned, prohibition cannot be forced; history has taught us that repeatedly.

Natuashish residents alone will bear the consequences of their choice, which is less about alcohol and more about their future. They must decide what legacy they want to pass on to their children and what they want to make of their second chance.

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