P.A.’s drink­ing DILEMMA

A sober­ing look at the city’s fight against al­co­hol abuse

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - FRONT PAGE - CHARLES HAMIL­TON

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.”

GREG DIONNE

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.”

Prince Al­bert Mayor Greg Dionne has joined the ranks in the city’s fight against al­co­hol-re­lated of­fences.

RICHARD MARJAN/StarPhoenix

PHO­TOS: RICHARD MARJAN/The StarPhoenix

Const. Lisa Si­mon­son, left, han­dles a com­plainant say­ing his fa­ther’s ve­hi­cle was his and that he reg­is­tered it in his fa­ther’s name for his girl­friend. The fa­ther says the son bor­rowed the ve­hi­cle and then wouldn’t give back the keys.

Const. Lisa Si­mon­son dur­ing a road­side stop.

Const. Lisa Si­mon­son san­i­tizes her hand­cuffs, which were just used.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.