P.A.’s drinking DILEMMA
A sobering look at the city’s fight against alcohol abuse
Many of the calls that Const. Lisa Simonson of the Prince Albert Police Department responds to are alcohol related.
But there are a number of people and agencies fighting to fix the problem. Please see story on
Hailey’s voice is wrecked.
She’s been yelling ever since she stumbled from the back of the police pickup truck in handcuffs.
Inside the lobby of the police detention area, her slurs echo off the pale concrete walls.
“What the hell! You got nothing. What the hell you got?”
This verbal barrage is part of the daily routine inside Prince Albert’s drunk tank.
“PROHIBITION ISN’T THE ANSWER. BUT I DO BELIEVE THAT GOVERNMENT NEEDS TO STEP FORWARD AND BE PART OF THE ISSUE.”
Every night, people like Hailey are placed in the 30 small cells with glass doors. Every morning, they are let go.
Officers like Const. Lisa Simonson hope Hailey won’t be back tomorrow, but chances are good that she will.
“That guy told me we were going to detox,” Hailey slurs at Simonson as she preps her for booking.
“Detox is full, my dear,” Simonson replies.
Prince Albert has a drinking problem, and this is where the fallout lands.
The sun hasn’t even set on this overcast spring day, but already the arrests for public drunkenness are flowing in.
The eight beds inside Prince Albert’s only brief detox unit are full. Like countless others, Hailey will spend the night inside a police detention cell.
They say the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.
Perhaps more than any other city in Canada, Prince Albert is taking that step.
“Do we have a problem with alcohol? Yes we do,” Simonson says once Hailey is booked in and she returns to patrolling the East Flat district, a residential neighbourhood that borders the city’s downtown.
“Yes, we do have a problem with alcohol in our community and we want to be able to turn that around.”
Prince Albert is home to more than 40,000 souls and people here consume a disproportionate amount of booze. According to the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority, there are 48 establishments selling liquor in the city. P.A. is also home to two of the province’s three drive-thru off-sales, where people don’t even have to leave their vehicles to pick up a case of beer.
A study conducted by the Centre of Responsibility (COR) found average perperson alcohol spending in P.A. was $1,249 in 2011. The provincial average was $703 per person.
For years, hard drinking has been filling up police cells. In 2013, Prince Albert police say they arrested and detained 3,180 people whose only crime was public intoxication. By comparison, police in Saskatoon said they made 1,866 arrests for public intoxication that year.
According to data provided by police, this year P.A. police expect to put an average of 10 people a day in the drunk tank.
“I can tell you that it fuels a lot of our business,” Simonson says.
The city’s attempt to slow that business down isn’t just in the hands of police. Mayor Greg Dionne has joined the ranks in the fight against booze.
Since his upset election in 2012, Dionne has made combating booze, addiction and the social ills flowing from it a cornerstone of his time in office.
“I don’t want everyone to think that on every street corner we have a drunk. That’s not true,” Dionne says. “We have problems like everybody. Ours is maybe a little bigger.”
Mayors don’t have much control over liquor regulations. They can’t change provincial liquor laws or toughen penalties for drunk driving. But Dionne can count some small victories.
He vocally opposed opening bars early when Canada played for the hockey gold medal at the Olympics, making Prince Albert the only place in Saskatchewan to opt out of opening bars early for the game. He also lobbied successfully to make it illegal for people to take taxis through drive-thru liquor stores.
Sitting in his office on a Friday morning, the reality of Dionne’s fight comes through in the form of telephone call notifying him that a friend’s son died of on overdose the night before.
“We haven’t hidden the problem,” Dionne says after he hangs up the phone. “We are working around the clock to solve the problem.”
If Dionne is looking for a solution, than people like Martin could be considered the problem.
Martin stands underneath the only bridge out of town. Above him the traffic roars up Highway 2, the gateway to Saskatchewan’s north.
This place, the north bank of the South Saskatchewan River, is an ideal spot for drinking.
Despite the discarded needles and graffiti, Martin likes it here. He says he doesn’t mess with any hard drugs. His vice is rye whiskey.
Martin is at least a half a bottle deep, but still has his wits enough to talk politics — specifically the politics of drinking in Prince Albert.
“What does he want? He wants to kick us out and clean it up,” Martin says of the city’s mayor.
Martin and his buddy Johnny won’t give their last names, but they do consent to an interview and Martin agrees to get his picture taken. He says he’s from Manitoba, and he’s been visiting Prince Albert for the past two months.
Martin is drunk in the middle of the afternoon and by nightfall could easily be one the people sleeping it off in Simonson’s drunk tank. He is the kind of person Dionne wants to help.
Despite his intoxication, he is surprisingly articulate.
“What’s he so worried about? There are serious issues that happen in the ... world. Especially with those Russians invading Crimea. Those are the big issues,” he says.
While Martin might not think his heavy drinking is a big deal, business owners in the community are faced with the issue every day.
Ron Horn’s store Fresh Air Experience has long been a cornerstone of the city’s downtown business community. The store sells outdoor gear for people looking to explore Saskatchewan’s north.
On a daily basis, he sees the people out on the street struggling with alcohol ad- diction. It’s often people like Martin who are drinking in the middle of the afternoon.
“It’s the same guys week after week, day after day,” Horn says.
The mayor’s office focused on bar hours and limiting access to things like drivethru liquor stores. But Horn doesn’t believe that’s the answer. He likes the work being done by COR — a more inter-agency style approach focused on the repeat offenders.
“The people that you see creating the issue downtown aren’t the people sitting in the bars. They are the people drinking Listerine or the Big Bear bottle or whatever,” Horn says.
But despite the public perceptions and the highly visible people out on the street, the data shows Prince’s Albert’s drinking issues go beyond a select group of chronic alcoholics.
The hard drinking in Prince Albert doesn’t just fill up police cells: It also costs lives. Mayor Dionne said it’s systemic.
In 2012, a well-known business man, Ben Darchuk, was killed by a 22-year-old drunk driver.
In July of 2013, a pregnant woman named Brandi Lepine was hit and killed by another young drunk driver. Her baby Aurora Sky survived and just celebrated her first birthday.
Those are just two highprofile cases among many illustrating the need for change, according to Dionne.
“This is our struggle,” Dionne says.
The sweeping document called The Case for a Prince Albert and Region Alcohol Strategy also says binge drinking among youth has become a big problem.
The report cites a recent national study showing 48.4 per cent of Grade 10 students reported binge drinking. In Prince Albert, the number was closer to 67.9 per cent, the study says.
“We had two deaths in the last three years of youth related to binge drinking. Those incidents can be prevented,” Simonson says.
Simonson is still readjusting to life back out on the street. For the past 18 months, she was seconded to the courthouse where she helped develop The Case for a Prince Albert and Region Alcohol Strategy. The strategy is a collaboration between police, fire inspectors, Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming and health officials. While people in Prince Albert may have sensed alcohol abuse was a problem, this was the first time officials were able to back up those notions with actual data, she said.
Now back out on patrol, Simonson pays special attention to alcohol-related crimes. Sitting behind the wheel of her police SUV, she runs the plates of virtually every car she passes. It’s a relatively calm Thursday evening, but booze is involved in most of her calls. When she arrests a young man for shoplifting $150 worth of clothing from the local Wal-Mart, the first question was “how much did you drink tonight?”
“Two cups,” the young man replies.
While she deals primarily with the criminal side of drinking, her time working on the alcohol strategy has taught her it’s more about changing the attitudes of people in her city.
“That altered the tolerance we have as a community, that it’s OK to drink till you are so drunk. We see that, but we want to be able to change the behaviour,” Simonson says.
Glenis Clarke, an addictions counsellor by trade who worked closely with Simonson on the alcohol strategy, says while drinking often spills over into the realm of police, it’s also a community issue.
“We are not going to police our way out of this,” Clarke said in an interview inside her downtown office.
Clarke and others who work with COR believe Prince Albert needs a cultural shift in the way it thinks about drinking.
“It’s about every man, woman and child having these conversations at the dinner table. It’s about having conversation with friends, in classrooms, about how you are getting home from the staff party,” Clarke said.
The alcohol strategy is still in its initial phase. The data is there, but the solutions could still be a ways off. Clarke and the Community Mobilization Prince Albert team are continuing to talk to stakeholder groups to come up with some real solutions.
In the meantime, the police cells are still filling up. People are continuing to drink “de-natured alcohol” — things like hand sanitizer and mouthwash in order to get their fix.
And people are continuing to commit crimes while intoxicated.
But those startling statistics aren’t stopping the city’s mayor from dreaming big.
Dionne is still campaigning to get off-sale hours reduced. He wants a ban on glass bottles. But while he recognizes booze as a big problem in his city, he doesn’t want to take it too far.
“Prohibition isn’t the answer. But I do believe that government needs to step forward and be part of the issue,” Dionne says. “Yes we do have a problem with alcohol in our community and we want to be able to turn that around.”