Wemindji residents in the mood to party will soon have an alternative to bootleggers and the Radisson bar scene–a “social club” owned and operated by the band council.

Voters approved the establishment of a social club in a referendum on Nov. 17 by a margin of 137 to 45. In all, 183 people voted, more than the 145 needed for the result to be valid.

On the same day, the band closed a checkpoint on the road into town where cars had been searched for alcohol. Band officials said it was too costly ($9,000 a week) and did little to cut down on drinking.

The question asked residents if the band should open a social club “to encourage responsible drinking habits and discourage bootlegging.”

Tom Wadden, band treasurer, said a bar might mean fewer residents will go to Radisson to drink, reducing the number of impaired-driving accidents. “I think the council didn’t have a choice. I’d rather see them drinking safely here in town than getting into an accident on the road,” said Wadden, who said he was giving his personal opinion and not speaking for the band. ”

Prohibition has been tried in every civilization in the world and it didn’t work.” But some say it seems odd to suddenly open a bar when people with booze were being stopped not so long ago.

“Why all of a sudden such a turn-around?” asked local resident Clarence Tomatuk, who is deputy director-general of the Cree School Board and a critic of Chief Walter Hughboy.

Tomatuk suggested opening a bar may be just an electoral stunt by the chief who is worried about next year’s election.

“Nobody in the general public knows why they’re really doing this,” he said. “We don’t know what the impact will be.”

Tomatuk said Wemindji should study the possible impacts and find out what effects a bar had on Whapmagoostui. He also called on the band to do more to tackle social problems like alcoholism. Three other referendum questions were put to Wemindji voters.

The community agreed by a 135-to-46 vote to lease land to Hydro-Quebec for a substation near the mini-dam. The substation, which Hydro was supposed to have completed in 1993, will provide cheaper electricity to the community. Now, half of Wemindji’s power comes from a costly diesel generator.

Residents also voted 174-to-9 to take out a $372,000 bank loan to build rental housing. Wadden said the money is needed because of federal cuts to housing funds. They were also asked whether 14 Crees from other communities should be allowed to transfer to the Wemindji band registry. This question passed 153-29. One ballot was rejected because a resident didn’t answer the Hydro question and marked both “yes” and “no” To the other three.