COLUMN: Barb Gustafson — July 23, 2014

Barb Gustafson
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Barb Gustafson

I don’t believe Coun. Ted Zurakowski intended to spark a public debate about alcohol problems in our city with his comments at city council last week, but he did get a conversation started. And that’s a good thing.

Zurakowski, the West Hill councillor, suggested that a request to support the Saskatchewan Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremonies be changed so as to not specifically support a wine-and-cheese reception. He argued that, given the problem in our city with alcohol abuse, it was inappropriate for taxpayer dollars to fund the purchase of wine. Other councillors agreed and the donation of $2,500 was made, but toward general expenses for the event that was held last week at the Art Hauser Centre.

It may seem like a shell game: The end result was $2,500 went to an event, regardless of the label attached to the money. Is this really the city taking a stand? Shell game or not, though, the topic caught the attention of the media and the public.

Saturday’s Saskatoon StarPhoenix included a feature article on the issues with alcohol in Prince Albert. Interviews were not limited to just administration at the police station or the mayor; the reporter also talked to downtown business owners and even a couple of whiskey-drinkers by the bridge. It was a well-rounded piece and it has sparked considerable public discussion.

Many of the statistics in the article, and quoted in Herald articles as well, come from the Case for a Prince Albert and Region Alcohol Strategy published very recently by the Centre of Responsibility (COR) group. I encourage you to check it out at http://www.mobilizepa.ca/.

One of the most startling statistics is the number of arrests for public intoxication in Prince Albert as compared to the much larger centres of Saskatoon and Regina. We log more arrests for public intoxication -- simply being drunk in public, not causing any other harm -- both as a percentage of all arrests and as cases. As with all statistics, however, one should be wary. The numbers may be true, but the conclusions may not be. Do we have more public drunkenness in our city? Or do we have a shortage of alternatives to arrest when the police are called and find someone intoxicated?

Despite the fairly recent change to focus more healthcare resources on addictions and having a brief detox unit, the demand for these services far exceeds the capacity. Other centres, such as Saskatoon, have more facilities that serve as alternatives for someone found drunk by police, reducing the number of people that end up housed in cells. In Prince Albert, the choice is more often limited to arresting the person and giving him a safe place for the night, because there is no other option. That ends up pushing the number of arrests up, not because we necessarily have more drunkenness per capita, but we have fewer options to look after those who are intoxicated.

Another startling statistic quoted in news articles is the average dollars spend on alcohol in our city. In the COR report, the figure of $1,249 a year on liquor purchases per person aged 15 or older in Prince Albert is compared to a Saskatchewan average of $703 per person. This looks shocking at first glance, but once again, statistics and how they are calculated often conceal realities. These numbers are based on sales reported by Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority. Take the Prince Albert sales ($34,743,440) divided by the number of people aged 15 or older living in the city, and you get this figure. What this doesn’t take into account is the number and volume of purchases by people who don’t live in Prince Albert. We are a retail trade centre and local businesses draw in a huge volume of sales from the rural and northern areas. Liquor sales are undoubtedly similar. A lot of booze is bought in Prince Albert, but it’s not all by residents.

Regardless of the statistics exact meaning, however, it’s clear we have a problem in Prince Albert. We’re had a problem for as long as I can remember, with the most public aspect being the antics in the downtown area. The less visible, but very real damage, done to lives and families by alcohol is immense, and affects all levels of our community from the homeless through to civic leaders. We do need to do more. So what can we do?

Starting an open conversation is a good place to begin, and we’ve seen a bit of that this past week. While the cheerleaders may cringe at the image of Prince Albert being portrayed in the media, admitting your problem is the way to begin, as Alcoholics Anonymous members will tell you.

Then, as a community, we need to find ways of dealing with it. Getting the resources needed to combat the addiction of alcohol means pressuring the province for dollars. Here is a task that city council can take on, working in conjunction with other agencies, and one that would have far greater effect than worrying about whether bars should be open to let people watch an early-morning Olympic hockey game. Council could also give full consideration to proposals for treatment facilities, rather than reject them because of dreams of redevelopment in the downtown.

There is also a responsibility on everyone, and especially on parents, schools and community groups, to think about how we view alcohol use and what we are teaching through actions and acceptance. Like the decision by council, each choice may be small, but it can be important, and it can get people talking. And that’s a start.

 

Barb Gustafson is a lifelong Prince Albert resident and a former managing editor and publisher of the Prince Albert Daily Herald. Email gustafsonba@gmail.com.

Organizations: Prince Albert, Art Hauser Centre, Saskatchewan Hockey Hall of Fame Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority Alcoholics Anonymous

Geographic location: West Hill, Saskatoon, Regina Saskatchewan

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