Policy aims to change high rates, culture around heavy drinking in Cape Breton

SYDNEY, N.S. -- Archdeacon Brenda Drake chuckles when she describes what has become a traditional send-off for the dead in the Cape Breton community she has ministered to for the last dozen years.

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Funeral after funeral, the Anglican church leader says she has watched mourners tuck miniature bottles of booze, pints and even cases of beer into caskets in plain sight.

"I would love to know how much liquor is buried in Cape Breton because almost everybody goes with a bottle!" she said with a laugh, adding that she often receives bottles and liquor store gift cards from congregants.

"They may do that in other places, but they don't do it right in front of the minister....It's just so acceptable that it's become normal. We don't even realize that the rest of the world isn't the same as us."

The story highlights a problem that has troubled the small island for decades. Now municipal politicians, police and health-care workers are trying a unique strategy aimed at curbing a culture of heavy drinking that has yielded the inglorious catchphrase, 'Cape Breton drunk.'

Samantha Hodder, a mental health and addictions specialist with the Nova Scotia Health Authority, led a study into alcohol consumption in Cape Breton and has drafted a municipal alcohol policy that is expected to be adopted by council next month.

Hodder wants to change the acceptance of heavy drinking with policies that would designate some municipal facilities and events as alcohol-free, prohibit alcohol ads at family oriented events, not allow alcohol companies to have naming rights to municipal facilities and end 'Happy Hour' and 'last call.'

She says the policy, if accepted, would beef up the enforcement of existing liquor licensing regulations that forbid drinking in places like dressing rooms, baseball fields and parks on municipal land.

Overall, she says the messaging around alcohol needs a wholesale change in Cape Breton, which has some of the highest rates of heavy drinking in the country.

"We do not need to be exposing our children to these sorts of alcohol-related ads," she said. "We know that that plays a significant role in the emergence of the culture around alcohol."

The stats seem to bear out the suggestion that people drink more heavily in Cape Breton and start drinking earlier, at around age nine.

Over half the population of people aged 20 to 34 in Cape Breton said they drank heavily in one month, compared to the national average of 34 per cent, according to Statistics Canada in 2013.

A provincial drug use survey in 2012 also revealed the distressing case of a seven-year-old drinking a beer outside his post office. One paramedic reported bringing in highly intoxicated 12 year olds after finding them unconscious in ditches.

When asked why the small population has such high rates of excessive drinking, Hodder cites a bleak mix of chronic unemployment, outmigration and boredom that can lead to increased crime, depression and family breakdowns.

"You look at the determinants of health and it's a perfect storm here," she says. "One in three children in Cape Breton are growing up in poverty compared to one in five in Nova Scotia. All of those things are contributing factors."

Cape Breton Regional Police Chief Peter McIsaac, who co-wrote the municipal alcohol policy with Hodder, has seen first-hand the damaging effects of alcoholism and the 'normalization' of excessive drinking.

In one year he reviewed 100 police calls and found that 70 of them had some connection to alcohol use, whether it be impaired driving, domestic violence or petty crimes.

"I've seen so many family breakups and so many women assaulted where alcohol was a huge factor and I've seen so many children affected by it," said the 30-year police force veteran.

"At 13 years of age, youth in Nova Scotia and maybe younger in Cape Breton are being exposed to alcohol and this is becoming socially acceptable behaviour and it's wrong."

John, a recovering alcoholic who didn't want to use his full name, knows well the draw of his hometown's permissive attitude when it comes to alcohol.

Living in Ontario and Alberta years ago, he would survey the bar at the end of the night and find almost all of the patrons were familiar faces from the East Coast.

Still, he says he returned to Glace Bay because "drinking at home was a lot easier. It was more accepted."

"Why is that? It's our culture -- drink, drink, drink," says the 65-year-old former miner who's been sober for two decades. "There's a saying in Cape Breton -- 'You got to get right out of her, boy.' That's not normal.



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