Wintertime in Natuashish brings deep, hard-packed snow to the woods trails and barrens, opening up unlimited access to the isolated town for people on snowmobiles who want to run alcohol into a community that has banned it for the past six years.
And there’s no shortage of customers for smuggled booze.
The Innu community of more than 700 people was divided on imposing a ban in the first place. Fed up with social problems exacerbated by alcohol, the band council asked residents to vote on a ban in 2008 — it passed by just two votes.
In 2010, another referendum was held on whether to maintain the ban. At that time, 188 people voted to keep the ban, while 125 voted against it.
Still, the numbers suggest a client base for smugglers who see the opportunity to turn a profit in the town nestled on the cold north coast of Labrador.
One 40-ounce bottle of liquor, for instance, can fetch hundreds of dollars.
And smugglers have been apprehended by police for trying to bring in dozens of bottles.
For the RCMP, the winter brings new challenges. Snowmobiles are the main mode of transportation for the town’s population, a high percentage of whom are under 18 years of age.
Still, the detachment’s enforcement efforts have met with success.
From September 2013 to February this year, RCMP in Natuashish have laid 51 charges under Section 85 of the Indian Act, related to breaches of the liquor bylaw in the community.
The charges cover illegal alcohol possession, consumption and intoxication on the Natuashish Innu Reserve.
The RCMP points out that multiple people in the community have been charged — it’s not always the same individuals.
Sgt. Cal Barter said winter is exceptionally difficult for controlling the smuggling of alcohol since snowmobiles provide easy transportation for those bringing in liquor from other areas.
“The difficulty we have here is that it’s more access to get in and out of the community by snowmobile — two hours for Hopedale and three hours to Nain,” Barter said.
“All year long we do spot checks of aircraft coming into the community. We check the bags of people coming in by plane and on the coastal boats. So, people know we are doing these checks and that is a deterrence,” Barter said.
“It’s more difficult in winter. We can’t police every inch of the reserve.”
From September to February, the RCMP seized approximately 100 bottles of liquor and five dozen beer — either within the community or destined for Natuashish.
Hard liquor can’t be purchased on the coast of Labrador, so purchases are made in Happy Valley-Goose Bay or Nain, and beer can be purchased in Hopedale.
While the overall number of calls for service to the RCMP has dropped noticeably since the alcohol ban was put in place, there’s a spike in calls whenever a shipment of alcohol has made it in and been distributed.
The increase in alcohol availability and related intoxication contributes to increased calls on other criminal matters throughout the community.
“We’ll go and find someone intoxicated in public,” Barter said. “And social issues arise from alcohol use. Our calls for service go up regarding domestic issues, being intoxicated in public, disturbances, mischief, etc.”
Sometimes the offences are of a more serious nature, such as dangerous driving while under the influence, assault, or weapons-related crimes.
Once someone is convicted of bringing booze into the community, a first-time offender can receive anything from a suspended sentence to probation, with repeat offenders receiving anything from fines to jail time.
In addition to enforcement, RCMP officers visit schools to talk to students, and take part in breakfast programs and other initiatives to help educate young people on the problems with alcohol and substance abuse.
The people of Natuashish have had their share of social problems over the years.
It’s a relatively new community — the Innu have been moved there from the island community of Davis Inlet in December 2002 and early 2003.
That move was basically set in motion in 1993, after a videotape went nationwide of Innu children in Davis Inlet sniffing gas and getting high on the fumes, and saying they wanted to die.
The Innu of Davis Inlet — once the nomadic Mushuau Innu tribe — pleaded to be moved to a new community away from the rundown houses and squalor that had developed in town.
By 2001, Davis Inlet’s troubles were making national headlines again when 35 children from Davis Inlet and nearby Sheshatshiu were sent to the old Grace Hospital site in St. John’s for substance-abuse treatment.
By Christmas 2002, dozens of Innu families in Davis Inlet had packed their belongings and begun travelling across the ice and snow to Natuashish — a community built by the federal government at a cost of more than $150 million.
Within a year, there were indications that gas sniffing by some youth had resumed. Parents continued to drink and a few years later, the band council called for a vote on the alcohol ban to help deal with the problems.
Alcohol abuse by adults and gas-sniffing among children and youth remain problems to this day.