It’s all too easy to walk briskly past the intoxicated people we sometimes see staggering down the street.
But not for Gilbert Merasty.
As a former First Nations justice advocate, he knows many of the Flin Flon-Creighton area residents who have turned to alcohol to stay numb.
Merasty aims to hear them out and, more importantly, see if he can help them turn their lives around.
“These people don’t know how to quit,” he says. “I’ve asked them many times, ‘Why do you keep drinking?’ They say they just don’t know how to quit.”
How many area residents are alcoholics? That’s a mystery. It’s not exactly a question that gets asked on the census, and the problem tends to manifest behind closed doors.
The alcoholics who draw the most attention are those whose addiction is on public display. They stagger down streets, sleep in the drunk tank and huddle in back alleys or the bush.
Merasty estimates this group consists of about 20 people, a 60-40 split between men and women. He says they tend to be aboriginal, in their 20s, 30s or 40s and, in a handful of cases, homeless.
Their beverage of choice varies, with accessibility the key determinant. They commonly drink cheap wine, mouthwash and even hairspray.
“If you can get rid of those three, I’m pretty sure it’d be a happier place, a more quiet place,” says Merasty.
Hairspray, which contains denatured alcohol, is especially dangerous since long-term consumption can damage vital organs. Merasty estimates five or six residents have died over the past decade as a result of hairspray abuse.
Merasty says the Duck Pond in uptown Flin Flon was once a common drinking spot. Now he tends to see empty bottles and cans on the walk between Creighton, where he lives, and Flin Flon.
What motivates a person to abuse alcohol in such visible, destructive ways? Addiction, of course. But what lies at the root of that addiction?
Merasty says there are different factors at play, but he points to one in particular.
“They never had any love in their family and they were never told by their parents or their grandparents that they loved them, or hugged them or anything like that,” he says. “Just the way [their parents and grandparents] were taught in residential schools not to show love to anybody except God. So these kids felt unloved, so they want to drown that feeling. When we get a headache we’ll do anything to get rid of that headache, so we take a pill. They take booze. It’s self-medication.”
Merasty believes a homeless shelter, as has been considered by the Flin Flon Aboriginal Friendship Centre, would help the situation.
“A lot of these people that break into garages, these past five, six, 10 years, maybe, in Flin Flon and Creighton, a lot of them it’s because they have no other place to sleep,” he says. “So they take a chance to break in. At least they have a roof over their heads.”
Merasty says a fair number of the alcoholics want to quit but feel they have nowhere to go. He says waiting lists for addictions programs are too long.
He hopes two First Nations bands with many local members – Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation, of which he is a member, and Mathias Colomb Cree Nation – will hire a counsellor who can work directly with the alcoholics.
Merasty believes it’s important counsellors truly understand alcoholism and First Nations issues.
“If you wanted to know how to catch big fish, you don’t go just anyplace and catch fish. You hire a guy who knows, [about
fishing],” he says.