by Jennifer Pritchett
Northern News Services
NNSL (Feb 10/97) - "The death of a young person is without a doubt the most serious result of alcohol consumption," says Cpl. Brian Winters of the Fort Smith detachment.
Without doubt, the sudden death of 16-year-old Rufus Rabesca, the Luselk'e student found frozen to death in January after attending a party in Fort Smith, shocked both communities.
As a result, two adults have been charged with supplying liquor to minors.
But Winters says that teenage drinking isn't uncommon, and he doesn't view Fort Smith youth as any worse than those in other areas of the North.
"There's a lot of substance abuse amongst young people in the communities," says Neil Gregory, an addictions and mental health specialist in Gjoa Haven.
"Alcohol is just one drug of many. There's a lot of solvent abuse and nicotine addiction as well."
Gregory says abuse goes on in liquor-free communities like Gjoa Haven, too.
"Just because the community is dry, doesn't mean the people are," he says.
"Drinking used to be part of a normal part of life," Gregory says. "We're now looking at it as a problem and as a symptom of other problems."
And Gregory says heavy drinking during the teenage years is often linked to a lifetime of abuse.
"Generally, our adult clientele (alcoholics) start as kids and continue to drink right through."
Whether the problem is alcoholism in general, or teen drinking in particular, recent events suggest finding a solution won't be easy. Even death -- as horribly tragic as the loss of life is -- doesn't seem to be enough to change habits.
Less than a month after the Rabesca tragedy, two Hay River teens, aged 18 and 16, were found drunk on a school bus while on their way to school in the morning.
RCMP arrested the girls at Diamond Jenness secondary school at 8:30 a.m. Police seized a bottle of hard liquor and kept one girl in custody until she sobered up.
Cpl. Jim Mitchell of the Hay River detachment says teenage drinking is becoming more of an overt problem in the North.
"If the kids can get access to the liquor, they'll drink," he says.
According to a 1996 government-commissioned survey on alcohol and drugs, nearly 90 per cent of western NWT residents aged 15 to 24 have consumed alcohol in the previous 12 months compared to 57 per cent in the east.
That same survey says 33 per cent of western NWT residents aged 15 to 24 drink alcohol at least once a week compared to 13 per cent in the east.