The community of Chisasibi is in mourning. Four months after the deaths of three of its community members in an alcohol-related car accident, the town is still trying to come to terms with what happened.
Christopher Cookish, Lydia Petawabano, and William Matthew died this past summer on their way back from Radisson. Charges have been laid against the driver, Irene Petawabano. The charges include three counts of impaired driving causing death, and one count of impaired driving causing bodily harm. The other individual in the car, Bruce Matthew, survived. The case is slated to go to court in November.
Chisasibi Police Director Harry Snowboy says it’s not only a police issue and that in order to deal with this problem effectively, the community has to police itself. “We’ve averaged over 900 incarcerations a year, and a lot of those incidents are alcohol-related.”
He also noted that not all the blame lies within the community. “I spoke with the Corporal of the SQ detachment in Radisson, and informed him that in order to keep the roads between Chisasibi and Radisson safe, they would have to deal with the people who are driving under the influence there and then coming over here.” Snowboy’s childhood friend ended up taking his own life because of alcohol. Partly because of this, he feels a step in the right direction would be to make Chisasibi a totally dry community. That means no alcohol on the reserve, and if someone was to be caught, his or her alcohol would be confiscated and destroyed.
Working towards a dry community is something Chief Abraham Rupert also thinks is part of the solution.
“It (the accident) was devastating to the community. You have to ask yourself how many times do we have to go through this before we come to an understanding that alcohol just takes away, it doesn’t give.” Because of this stance, the Chief and council have re-installed the “gate”. Located on the edge of town on the access road into the community, the gate is manned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Rupert was personally affected by the tragedy: his niece is Irene Petawabano, who was the driver of the vehicle and is now facing serious jail time.
The Chief realizes that there is a much more powerful solution that needs to be brought forth, and that is the education of the people. “The people must be educated about the use of drugs and alcohol. In the same respect, they’re cutting something (alcohol or drugs) and you cannot take without giving. That’s where the teachings of the elders will come in, to make our people understand what these substances do to us, to our lives, to our community and to our people as a whole.”
“We’ve been meeting with the elders to try to set up a support system for the people who’ve abused alcohol and drugs, and their families,” said Rupert.
One glaring problem remains, however. The lightly trained community members stationed at the gate are as yet, unarmed. If someone wants to get through the gate or becomes unruly while yielding a weapon, there is not much the gate security can do about it. They will be in constant contact with the Chisasibi Police Force, but the police are not always close by when they are needed.
More training, and the eventual arming of the gate security guards is the longterm solution to this problem, Rupert stated.
Alan Neacappo, who works on the Cree Hunters and Trappers security board thinks enforcing the ban on alcohol and drugs is one way to go about eliminating them. “This is supposed to be a dry community, I believe we should have more control. I don’t know what effect it would have if every vehicle was checked at the check point, but from what I can see there are other means of getting alcohol and drugs into the community.”
One of Neacappo’s relatives, Bruce Mathew, was involved in that fatal accident. Fortunately for the family, he was also one of the survivors.
Annie Bearskin, who works as the executive secretary at the Cree school board (CSB), thinks that the gate is a good idea because there is too much alcohol in the community, but that there should be a gate set up outside of Radisson as well.
“People are fearful to go to Radisson because of drunk drivers,” said Bearskin.
Banning alcohol altogether may not be the solution, however, because “the bootleggers are the ones who will get richer. It would be better if the teenagers were taught how to control the consumption of alcohol. One of the ways to help control the drinking is by showing that it can be done in a social, respectful way. Instead of hiding it from my son, who’s 19, I’d rather educate him about it so he can drink responsibly in the future,” she said.
Delores Audet Washipabano, who works as the executive assistant at the Cree Health Board (CHB) sees a growing trend in the education of the community pertaining to alcohol. “The students who went down south to go to school saw alcohol in a different way because it was accessible. Although the abuse of alcohol remains a problem, there are now more people who drink in a social way.”
“When I first heard about the accident, there was a deep feeling of sadness. I think one way to reduce these incidents is to educate the people. I think that people have to realize that when they abuse alcohol, there are harsh consequences. The same as when you abuse anything else. When you abuse something, you go beyond the reasonable way of doing things.”
“Maybe there could be an opening of a social club within the community. That way they are learning how to handle alcohol before they go down south. If it’s controlled here, I feel the risk of abuse goes down. People will always go down south, we’re not isolated anymore like we used to be, so this way they can learn how to drink responsibly here,” she said.
Eric House, a band office councilor who also works for cross-cultural concepts at the CHB, doesn’t blame the people involved, he blames alcohol. Ever since the introduction of alcohol into the community, there has been nothing but heartache, according to House. “The Europeans have been drinking alcohol for a few hundred years longer than us. As native people, we are not yet used to what alcohol does to our body and mind.”
“An elder once said that the people who came across from Europe brought the bottle, and they brought the bible. When they dropped the bottle, they gave us the bible, and vice versa.”
“The recent tragedy hit the whole town, and directly affected 17 children who lost someone very close to them,” he said.
“I don’t blame the people who get into these accidents as much as I blame alcohol itself.”
The biggest victims in a tragedy such as this are the children. The children are the ones that have to deal with this for the rest of their long lives in a way that none of us can ever comprehend.
Educating the children was a common suggestion when talking to the people of Chisasibi. The question is, will they listen?