Nunatsiaq News
NEWS: Nunavut September 26, 2016 - 7:00 am

Western Nunavut circuit court a long look into alcohol-fueled misery

Vodka fuels assaults, family mayhem in Cambridge Bay

The view from the second-floor of the Arctic Islands Lodge in Cambridge Bay where Nunavut's travelling court met Sept. 19 to Sept. 22. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)
The view from the second-floor of the Arctic Islands Lodge in Cambridge Bay where Nunavut's travelling court met Sept. 19 to Sept. 22. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)
A stop sign, in English and Inuinnaqtun, in Cambridge Bay. Many wonder what will it take for the pain to stop in this community. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)
A stop sign, in English and Inuinnaqtun, in Cambridge Bay. Many wonder what will it take for the pain to stop in this community. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

CAMBRIDGE BAY—When you look out the window of the Arctic Islands Lodge in Cambridge Bay you can see neat rows of houses, stretching out to a beautiful horizon.

But inside the Lodge’s makeshift second-floor courtroom, you get a different view of what happens in this town of about 1,700 people, where bootlegged vodka can stoke all-night house parties that all too often end in physical and sexual violence.

While the most recent court session in Cambridge Bay, from Sept. 19 to Sept. 22, brought decisions such as a peace bond for a repeat sex offender and a short jail sentence to a drug-dealer, the four days of court were marked mostly by cases disturbingly similar to each other—due to the huge amount of pain caused by people downing big bottles of vodka.

In one case, an intoxicated teenager got into a fight with his mother, who fled their house with her three younger children.

Her teen son returned to find his mother at another family member’s home and left a 40-ounce bottle of vodka by his sleeping mother as a peace offering.

But later he needed more to drink—so he came back to get the bottle.

When he couldn’t find it, and his mother wouldn’t tell him where the bottle was, he started to trash the house, bringing the refrigerator to the floor, smashing a television set and kicking holes in the walls.

Nunavut Justice Sue Cooper noted the teenaged boy’s “high level” of intoxication and rage as she handed him a suspended sentence, a period of probation and other conditions, suggesting that a better way to show appreciation to his mother would be to bring her flowers or clean the house.

And then there was the drunken young man who disrupted a three-year old’s birthday party which soon degenerated into a fight with the toddler’s father.

“That’s a terrible thing to do, an awful thing,” Cooper said of the birthday-party brawl he caused, as she gave him a short jail sentence.

On another day, drunk again, he engaged in a “tug-of-war” with his girlfriend over their baby.

What you’re telling your daughter is that she should expect to be treated like that, Cooper told him, adding that parents need to provide their children with a sober and safe home.

But alcohol leads to many broken homes here.

As fathers, sons, boyfriends and husbands headed off to custody last week, the courtroom took on the look of a forlorn family gathering—with three generations, from elders to women packing babies on their backs—coming to say goodbye to their loved ones, not the first time for this ritual.

A young couple took a last smoke together outside the Lodge’s door as the RCMP prepared to lead the man away.

Always, alcohol was in the back-story, as these cases on the docket show:

• a 24-year-old flips his all-terrain vehicle, and then leaves his sister, who fell off, in the middle of the the road, only to flip his ATV over again and be apprehended by police;

• a couple takes a 60-ounce bottle of vodka on a springtime fishing trip, although the man, after the last complaint of an alleged assault against his wife, is on an undertaking not to drink;

• a teenager, drunk on 30 ounces of vodka, which she says she drank “straight,” gets into an argument with her boyfriend after he comes home—from a night spent in the drunk tank—and he wants her gone from his bed. They argue about whether the girl, pregnant then, will undergo an abortion, which he doesn’t want. She alleges he hurt her wrist in a struggle, but Cooper is not convinced by her string of “I don’t know” answers to lawyers’ questions, and accepts the boyfriend’s version of “it didn’t happen,” acquitting him; and,

• a young single mother of three, a witness in another case on the docket, talks about a boozy, all-night card-party this past summer in which a few people managed to drink two 60-ounce bottles of vodka and one 40-ounce bottle. During the party a couple goes off to have sex—twice—in the bathroom, leaving their underwear behind, during a night that the witness calls “really good.”

Alcohol-incited sex can also turn violent, other cases revealed.

Before his Sept. 22 court appearance, a 32-year-old man, father of four, had pleaded guilty to a sexual assault, involving intercourse with a sleeping woman, who, after she woke up, punched him before fleeing. He didn’t remember the rape on the sleeping woman, a phenomenon that is “all too common in Nunavut,” said Crown Prosecutor Barry McLaren.

“I’m really sorry for what I did,” the man told the court. But he said he had a “blackout,” and couldn’t remember anything of what people said he’d done.

Cooper is to issue a sentencing judgment on that case Sept. 27 by teleconference.

As for property crimes, these were mostly brought up in youth court—which was closed.

But clearly, no matter what age you are, the impact of alcohol in Cambridge Bay is devastating across the generations—for men, the majority of the accused who end up going to jail, for women, who remain behind, alone, hurt and angry, and for children, who witness extreme violence and may suffer lifelong harm from the alcohol their pregnant mothers consume.

And that’s coupled with the low levels of schooling, ranging from Grade 6 to Grade 10, among those who appeared in court.

The men, limited by their lack of education in this town where the grand Canadian High Arctic Research Station is now under construction, mainly gave their occupations as unemployed, fill-in “swampers” working on municipal water or sewage trucks, part-time guides or carvers. The women, also largely unemployed, had several children each.

The tools of the court to help offenders—sentences including jail time, probation, conditions and stern warnings from the judge or even the judicial Gladue principles to give Aboriginal offenders a break—and their victims—24-hour “cooling-off periods” and victims’ surcharges—seem too small for the huge job of fixing things.

To improve social conditions, earlier this month, the RCMP and the hamlet said they wanted to find ways to curb alcohol abuse, perhaps, some suggest, by opening a beer and wine store, which would, at the very least, discourage bootleggers and offer a less potent brew than vodka to drinkers.

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