People are risking the health of their locked-down community by sneaking out to buy booze and drugs, says the chief of Nelson House Cree Nation in northern Manitoba.
So it was a blunt Marcel Moody who warned “bootleggers” – he said included band employees – they would be the losers.
“…We will be taking action to cut off benefits, evict or banish people who refuse to abide by our laws,” the chief said in a community radio broadcast.
“Every time one of you goes to get a bottle of booze or drugs you are jeopardizing all the rest of us. You do not know who that bootlegger or drug dealer has been in contact with.”
Moody told APTN News his council was taking a hard line because the stakes were so high.
There were already two confirmed cases of highly infectious COVID-19 in the nearby northern city of Thompson and town of Flin Flon, he added.
“It cannot be stressed enough how critical all the measures we have in place are for the health and safety of our community,” he said in a telephone interview Monday.
“Locking down our community will help to reduce the chances of the virus killing a large number of our people, many of whom have diabetes and other underlying health conditions.”
Indigenous communities across Canada are trying to keep the novel coronavirus out by only permitting essential and emergency travel via day passes.
So far it’s working in Manitoba, where there is not a positive case on a First Nation of the more than 200 cases in the province recorded so far.
Moody said Nelson House or Nisichawayasihk, with 3,300 members on reserve and about 2,000 off, has closed land routes and opened checkpoints at its exits. Still, he said bootleggers using snowmobiles are willing to put their lives on the line.
“It has come to our attention that people, including some of our staff are bootlegging and are acting as runners to camps outside the community to bring booze and drugs back into the community,” he elaborated in a written notice to band members.
“We know some people are sneaking out of the community to get booze and drugs. Our safety patrol managed to prevent one of these people from freezing to death.”
Moody said his community safety patrol located a man in severe medical distress after he tried to walk home when his machine broke down.
“We cannot take a chance with the lives of people in this community because of the selfish, non-compliant behaviour of a few,” he said on the radio.
“We will not stand by and let people die because drug dealers and bootleggers have no respect for any of our lives. Starting immediately, anyone who refuses to return from a camp, who leaves the community to go find booze or drugs, or who is found to be selling booze or drugs will be cut off benefits and will face eviction and banishment.”
(Police confiscated alcohol, beer, cocaine and marijuana on its way to two dry First Nations in northern Manitoba last month. RCMP photo)
Moody said bootlegging and drug dealing has always been a problem in the dry community, about 800 km north of Winnipeg.
A week ago, community safety and RCMP officers seized more than 1,000 cans of beer, bottles of booze and bags of pot, and issued $7,000 in fines.
But Moody said provincial officials refuse to close liquor stores during the pandemic, fearing an addiction crisis would swamp a medical system on standby for virus cases.
He said the province won’t even limit the amount of alcohol it sells.
“They’re allowing people to buy cases,” he said, which bootleggers then turn sell for as much as $80 for half- or 12-ounce bottles on his reserve.
Invoking its withdrawal management plan is something his council has discussed and may be willing to do if it ensures the health of the rest of the community and reduces the number of people getting sick from home brew, Moody added.
“They call it Moose Juice,” he said, noting some people are so desperate for a drink they don’t give the recipe of yeast, sugar and fruit or berries enough time to ferment.
“They don’t know how to do it properly and come to the nursing station with abdominal pain.”
When that’s taken away, he worries people may turn to sniffing inhalants, creating another crisis for the community whose priority he said has to be the virus at this time.
So Moody’s relying on tough love and the threat of naming people publicly who break the rules.
“If you want to live in our community, then you must obey our laws. If you don’t want to then good-bye, find somewhere else to live, as you have absolutely no right to jeopardize the health and safety of the rest of us by your selfish actions,” he said in his community statement.
“The choice is yours. I hope you will make the right choice as it is you and your family that will suffer.”
Correction: This story has been updated with the correct name of the first nation and its chief.