Go to main menu Go to main content Go to footer

Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Learning to live with the demon rum

BY Neil Diamond May 22, 2023

There’s an old comedy bit by the late Canadian comedian Norm Macdonald about a friend of his who’s suffering from the disease of alcoholism. It begins with Macdonald telling his buddy that he has the best disease because he gets to drink all the time. 

Macdonald winds up the sketch by comparing alcohol addiction with another disease, giving a solid example of why this other ailment may in fact be better. “You meet a woman who has the same disease as you in a bar and you take her home and…” 

The rest is up to your imagination.

There was a community meeting held at a gym here in Waskaganish recently and the subject of alcohol came up again. The result of that discussion was a referendum on whether people should be allowed to bring in beer and wine for their personal use (more on that in a future issue), and perhaps to allow the sale of alcohol at certain events. 

Supposedly, this would curb the illegal sale of alcohol. According to many people (none of whom I have ever met, of course), this trade in banned booze is rampant; not just here, but in pretty much all Cree communities. And this, even in Whapmagoostui, which has two bars that are open every night of the week.

The band council attempted a zero-tolerance campaign back in the mid-1990s. There were roadblocks and searches on the winter road and at the airport. All those efforts accomplished was the seizure of a few cases of liquor and to enrage many embarrassed travellers who hadn’t had time to wash their dirty laundry. 

Predictably, there were smugglers who found an easy way around the authorities. A driver would drop off a package by the roadside before he reached the roadblock. Another adventurous local with a skidoo would sled through the bush, load up the cargo and bring it into town. Others, meanwhile, would brave the five-to-six-hour trek to Moosonee and return with a sled load of beer and hard liquor. 

Eventually, the salaries of the hard-working men at the checkpoint became a price too high to pay and the whole idea was dropped. It was another miserable failure, in century full of them, of attempts to banish the demon alcohol.

The same thing was attempted in a community further north. The weapon of choice there was an empty 45-gallon fuel drum. Seized hard liquor was poured into it throughout the day. Anyone approaching the checkpoint could catch a whiff of it from nearly a kilometre away if the wind conditions were just right. One imagines the security personnel warming (if not immolating) themselves over the roaring flames once they put a match to a barrel filled with liquor. 

The Nisichawayasihk First Nation near Thompson, Manitoba, tried a pilot project in which they declared a 19-day ban on alcohol coming into their community. Small amounts of alcohol and marijuana had been usually tolerated in Nisichawayasihk. Once the temporary ban was in place, however, calls to police concerning violence decreased at the same rate of the increase of reports of people using other substances containing alcohol such as hand sanitizer and Lysol. You get what you pay for, they say. Whoever they are.

Not to mention, though we will, that the always-clever smugglers again came up with ways to avoid the authorities. Their solution, of course, was the old liquor-hidden-in-a-skidoo trick. Go figure. 

Needless to say, though we will, that the once-apparently great idea of banning alcohol was quickly dropped.

Cree people have had a relationship with alcohol at least since the 1600s with the coming of the English and the French. An old man from Whapmagoostui told the story of one of the first Cree men to board a European ship. The first gift he received was to be serenaded by the sailors. The second was a shot of what one could presume was the highest-quality Caribbean rum. 

With this fruitful cultural exchange, the Cree soon learned to make home brew from raisins, beans, potatoes and wild berries. 

Prohibition in the United States early in the previous century merely created organized crime in great world cities such as New York, Chicago and Akwesasne. The best intentions of its supporters were used to pave the road to hell, true, but at least they inspired great stories that made newspaper publishers rich, sold shiploads of books and produced those great black-and-white movies that we still enjoy today. 

Indeed, who – apart from the third of the Cree Nation that learns their history from video games – hasn’t heard of Al Capone? We owe so much to those earnest teetotallers. In fact, without the Volstead Act, our beloved city of Montreal would not be the wildly entertaining place that we use so many bottomless expense accounts to visit. In other words, a place where proper people go to gamble, drink, and be wildly entertained. 

Alcohol is here to stay, folks. It’s been around for a long time and it ain’t goin’ anywhere anytime soon. The best we can do is to learn to live with it. 

LATEST ᒫᐦᒡ ᑎᐹᒋᒧᐧᐃᓐ

Neil Diamond is a filmmaker, writer, founder and owner of the Nation. He currently resides in his home community of Waskaganish.