A night at the Booze Can
Nunatsiaq News takes a peek inside the establishment police raided last weekend
IQALUIT – “Red door,” my escort tells the cabby.
I don’t know the house number of Joe Morneau’s West 40 building, the location of a now infamous Iqaluit after-hours club and would have felt odd saying: “Booze Can, please!”
I’ve been writing about the place for months and now I want to check it out. I want to see if I can get in – without getting tossed out.
“Yeah, I already brought a few people out there,” says the cab driver, shaking his head slightly as he pulls out of the parking lot and toward the road leading out of the town.
The car speeds through the dark between towering snowbanks on its way to the place where Elisapee Sheutiapik, Carmen Kootoo and Ross Bennett proposed to locate a new licensed bar. Because of a decision in January by Nunavut’s newly formed liquor board, they won’t have their licence any time soon.
On this early Sunday morning there’s no sign of police cruisers lurking outside the building. After raiding the bar a few times police began asking departing patrons for help in prosecuting the speakeasy’s operators.
“No one would say they bought alcohol from him,” one police officer had told me.
The cop was talking about Joe Morneau, the Booze Can’s former manager (he says another man has taken over). Morneau faces a Liquor Act charge of selling alcohol without a licence, but my companion’s deadbolt key turns in one of two locks in the red door leading to what was once known as the Explorers’ Club, and inside the Booze Can is warm and smoky and dimly lit.
We pass through a little hallway with mirrors and a surreal outer-space scene painted on one wall. There’s a tiny booth on the right, and then it opens to where the bar is. An awkwardly placed pillar partially obscures the view of a room with a pool table and paintings of naked women.
The first real person I see is a woman who has her shirt unbuttoned a little too far down. I look around. Joe Morneau is standing at the bar next to another woman. There are maybe 13 or 14 people in the bar. Besides Joe, I recognize two.
It looks like a bar, my brain concludes anti-climactically. A dimly-lit bar, a little smaller than my one-bedroom apartment. Not exactly the den of iniquity I’d pictured. I’m under-whelmed.
Sure, the paneling on the walls evokes a sort of Hull-Quebec-strip-bar atmosphere, but overall it looks like a regular every-day ordinary bar. The air-brushed nudes even look a little bored. And unlike the bars in Hull people can actually hear each other over the music. “Red Red Wine” is playing.
I feel like a teenager at a high-school dance afraid to talk to anyone. Except that it’s about 1:45 a.m.
“It’s really dead in here,” my friend says. “Not like last night.”
Morneau comes over to the table and shakes my hand, says to make myself comfortable and to have fun. He’s wearing a sports jacket and golf shirt. He says it’s OK if I take pictures — just not pictures of the patrons, who might react badly. I look over at the guy with the shaved head and pool cue and take his word for it.
At the bar, I ask the bartender what kind of beer he has.
“What do you want to drink?”
“I’m doing a story about the bar. I just want to know what kind of beer you have.”
“No beer. We don’t have any beer here.”
The person beside me at the bar sips her Molson Export. A few feet away someone sets down a Labatt’s Blue.
“You ask me for a beer I can show you a beer.”
This is where I run into a dilemma. A police officer has told me it’s not illegal to go to the bar, just to buy alcohol there. The last thing I’m going to do is buy a drink and then write about it. Maybe if I was gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, but I’m not.
I ask him for pop and feel stupid. After a confab with Morneau the bartender brings it to me.
After making me promise not to write about him, the bartender tells me the patrons are just like anywhere else — some good, some bad. There are no bouncers at the Booze Can, he says. He and the other bartender deal with problems themselves, but he adds that’s no different from some of the other establishments in town.
“People come here to have a good time, have a drink talk and be quiet.” Though Iron Maiden’s “Number of the Beast” blares out of the sound system as he says it, the place doesn’t have the same manic atmosphere as the Legion. There’s no huddled mass of people outside the door begging to get in. And they don’t make their patrons line up at the bar like school children either.
“We treat people with respect,” the bartender says.
As the morning wears on a few more people trickle in from town. Some of them I recognize, but don’t really know. Two others walk in that I do know. They see me and look like they want to bolt.
“What are you doing here?” one of them asks with a nervous grin.
“Doing a story.”
“Not about you. I’m not going to say who I see.”
“Oh… Where’s your drink?”
“On the other side of the bar,” I tell her. It is. A half-drunk glass of ginger ale. I don’t tell her what it is.
“Oh. That makes me feel better.”
I ask Joe about the bar and his legal problems. Cigarette in hand he tells me, “That’s just a bunch of foolishness that’s going to get thrown out of court because there’s nothing to it.”
“The irony of it all is I’m not even the manager anymore. I’m now just member number 52.”
“Why is your beer $7, Joe?” Most other places it’s $5.50.
“That’s the real irony. It’s that price because we have to pay for import permits. You won’t find a bootlegger in town that does that. And yet they come after us!”
Joe launches into a tirade about how the Booze Can has been operating for the last six years without the police ever having to be called. He complains the police raids have frightened away some patrons and that cash is a little bit shorter than it used to be. He gestures at two new washrooms they don’t have the funds to finish.
I notice an outhouse smell wafting from the existing washrooms. My friend wrinkles her nose.
Morneau says the club started when employees at a contracting company that operated out of his building asked him if they could build a small bar. Morneau said he agreed to the idea, and the original members took turns ordering beer and paying for it together. Then arguments started over members’ friends not paying. So began the memberships and the road to $7 beer.
I never get around to asking patrons why they come. They look at me like I’m a narc and my friend says she wants to go.
Under-whelmed maybe, but I know I’m going back again. During the cab ride home I realize I didn’t pay for my soda.