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Cape Breton grad parties gone wild

This file photo shows people drinking beer at an outdoor party. According to Cape Breton Regional Police Chief Peter McIsaac, warmer weather and high school graduations means more parties with large numbers of teens, often drinking alcohol.
This file photo shows people drinking beer at an outdoor party. According to Cape Breton Regional Police Chief Peter McIsaac, warmer weather and high school graduations means more parties with large numbers of teens, often drinking alcohol. - Submitted

‘We have a problem with underage drinking’

SYDNEY, N.S. — Cape Breton Regional Police Chief Peter McIsaac said this time of year is frightening for law enforcement officers.

That’s because the combination of warmer weather and high school graduations means more parties with large numbers of teens, often drinking alcohol.

“We were here talking about this last week … The time of year always scares us, as police officers and myself as police chief. I can tell you in this area we have a problem with underage drinking,” he told the Cape Breton Post in a phone interview on Wednesday. 

Peter McIsaac
Peter McIsaac

“We’ve got a culture, actually, of overconsumption of alcohol in this community for a long time. It’s something that I’ve seen as a youth, in my teenage years and in my 35 years as a police officer.”

Grad parties are a hot topic around Cape Breton since the death of Joneil Hanna, 17, Sunday morning. The North Sydney teen died from injuries sustained after being struck by a vehicle and his family believes he was walking home from a grad party in the area when it happened.

It was a party that police received calls about and officers responded to twice; the second time they stayed near the party to ensure the safety of people leaving. Two people were charged with underage drinking and another with being under the influence while police were there.

McIsaac said, according to his officers, there were as many as “several hundred to upwards of 1,000” people at the party, which attracted teens and young adults from many different areas.

“Young people and alcohol and inexperienced drinking drives the risk up. Look, we hold our breath. We’re not surprised when tragedies like this happen, but we have to start having the discussion as a community as to how we deal with this,” McIsaac said.

“It will happen again unless we do something about it ... When tragedies like this happen, you can’t turn back the clock.”

Provincial Liquor Control Act

Underage drinking: Fine $467.50

Supplying a minor with alcohol: Violation dealt with in court

Possible penalties: Determined by judge

Fine - judge determines amount

Jail - 1-3 months first offence

Jail - 4-12 months second offence

Providing a venue for underage drinking: Possible civil liabilities

The parties continue all summer, although the number of people attending them does decrease until September, when McIsaac said there is a brief rise until the weather starts to cool down.

When responding to complaints about parties like this, McIsaac said it can be difficult to shut them down for various reasons. Sometimes these parties are held outdoors, in the woods, and officers arriving with lights and sirens can cause partygoers to run into areas they aren’t familiar with.

At a house, it may be easier to shut the party down, unless the number of people there is too high for the number of responding officers.

“Sometimes it’s a matter of resources. How can four or five officers deal with 1,000 people?” he asked.

McIsaac believes the “accepted culture of overdrinking” needs to be addressed before the problem can be solved and it’s a community effort to do this.

Studies like “In Our Words: What Alcohol Looks Like in Our Towns” and “Cape Breton Regional Municipality Alcohol Policy Working Group” show that Nova Scotia is one of the leading provinces in alcohol consumption. The average age of introduction to alcohol (consuming it) in the province is 12 and McIsaac said he believes that age is as low as nine in Cape Breton.

“If that’s not concerning to people, then it should be,” said McIsaac, who is married with children of his own.

“It’s been a part of the culture of Cape Breton for too long. It is sad … people think they can’t have fun without alcohol … It’s a huge issue and it’s not easily solved.”

McIsaac said the community needs to band together to help stop “normalizing” binge drinking, urging that people should talk about the problem, educate youth about the dangers of binge and underage drinking and stop the advertising of alcohol at family events.

“It’s not about prohibition. It’s about safe and responsible consumption,” he said.

The Cape Breton Regional-Victoria Centre for Education hosts safe grad events at all of their high schools except one rural school, which spokesperson Michelle MacLeod didn’t name.

She said, via an email statement, that these events take place after graduation or proms, depending on the school, and that between 80-90 per cent of graduating students attend them. The events are usually co-ordinated by students and parents, who will fundraise for the event. They will also be sponsored by staff committees and police.

“Our senior high principals continuously promote student safety in all activities … Each school tailors safe grad to their particular school community but the message is consistent. The emphasis is always on student safety,” she said.

Schools also hold alcohol education sessions with school liaison officers and guest speakers, such as representatives from a health centre or MADD Canada, to help promote responsible and safe grad celebration.

McIsaac said from his experience he thinks safe grads are well attended and “fun” but the reality is they aren’t replacing the alcohol-filled house parties or outdoor bashes.

“When they end, this other stuff happens,” he said.

“I am being very sincere. It’s so sad … honest to God, I think the problem is bigger here than other places.”

nicole.sullivan@cbpost.com

Related coverage:

• Things to know for grad party season

• Driver not impaired, say police - recent update to fatal collision

• Youth remembered

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