Porch Views: All the winos drank cheap sherry: Alcohol and the Valley

It’s been too cold to sit on the porch. Even if I did, I doubt I’d be able to see over the snowbanks. Social media, however, provides another means to observe and comment on local issues.

One item that recently caught my attention was a My Barry’s Bay Now Facebook post on January 18: Renfrew County Drinks More Than Recommended, Compared to the Rest of the Province.

I shared it adding the cynical message, “Are we surprised by this?” but that headline, and the responses I received from my share, disturbed me. I needed to do some reflection and research, and that work had to be personal, historical and statistical.

Personal: Vodka in the schoolyard

In Grade Seven I tried the vodka a classmate stashed between the roots of a red pine tree in the schoolyard. I spent my sixteenth birthday with friends drinking in a licenced establishment. (For the record, it was not the Balmoral Hotel as the proprietor there was my uncle and he knew my age.) Shortly after that, I had a very close call with my dad’s new Malibu racing the backroads with two friends to get to a pub for last call after drinking at a bush party. I also spent a night in the woodshed with the dog when I was too drunk to find my keys and let myself in the house. Once, these were amusing, coming-of-age stories, but I have changed my tune. I endangered my health, my life and the lives of others

Coping with drunkenness was part of my life growing up in Barry’s Bay. As a child, I was warned to avoid the winos who drank around the old CNR water tower or on the hill, but also to avoid certain relatives when they were “hitting the sauce.” I remember being challenged to a fist-fight by a drunken uncle at a family wedding when I was twelve; he was fifty. I knew of kids whose drunken fathers beat them and their mothers after a week working in the bush. One dad, in a drunken state, grabbed his rifle, lined-up the family in the living room and threatened to shoot them all. These things were certainly not condoned, but they were tolerated insofar as adults knew about them and said nothing.

Historical: Hardships and disappointments

It has been suggested that we Valley folk are more accepting of heavy alcohol use because of the hardships and disappointments suffered by our forebears. I believe there is a genetic component to addiction, but I know that the attitudes and habits we develop regarding alcohol acceptance and consumption are patterned and learned in our families and communities.

Historically, one need only consult Larry Cotton’s Whiskey and Wickedness series which catalogues drunk and disorderly conduct, and the activities of moonshiners and bootleggers. We may find these stories amusing but it is not hard to imagine the negative impact excessive alcohol consumption has had on Valley families and communities over the years.

Recently, I read Joshua Blank’s paper Stills in the Hills: Moonshine Memories from Around Canada’s First Polish-Kashub Community which will be published in the Spring 2019 edition of Polish American Studies. While Blank’s research focusses on a particular group, it includes significant insight into alcohol acceptance in culture that developed in lumber shanties, on stone-strewn Canadian Shield farms, and in Opeongo Line stopping places. That Valley culture transcended ethnic boundaries. As a matter of fact, three of my Irish tavern-keeping ancestors are mentioned by name in his paper for breaking liquor laws.

Blank resists the tendency to sanitize history and acknowledges that while alcohol was used in the Valley to “heighten life or supress its sorrows and physical pains” it had a dark side. Referring to the violence associated with alcohol abuse, he writes:

… [M]any suffered on the remote farms in the wilderness and people were not to talk about such matters.

Statistical: Studies from the County and beyond

Since the original post reacted to statistics released by the Renfrew County and District Health Unit, I read Health Inequities in Renfrew County and District (2018). There were many interesting aspects, but regarding alcohol it was found that the percentage of County people exceeding Low Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines was 47.9 compared to 38 provincially. As well, 4.2 percent of Renfrew County mothers reported drinking during pregnancy compared to a 2.5 percent Ontario average.

A Canadian Cancer Society report, The Truth About Alcohol (2016), identified alcohol as one of the top three causes of cancer deaths in Canada. It also noted that only 28 percent of Ontarians were aware of the link between alcohol consumption and cancer. The 2018 Renfrew County study revealed that Renfrew County’s cancer mortality rate per 1000 was 2.1 percent but only 1.7 for the province.

A Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse technical report from 2015 explored urban and rural student substance abuse. That report suggested that rural high school students were more likely to report excessive consumption of alcohol (defined as five or more drinks on one occasion) and driving after drinking or driving with someone who had been drinking. These conclusions were corroborated by the 2011 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey which revealed that 60.2 percent of rural students compared to 41.2 percent of urban students reported alcohol use within the previous year; 51 percent of rural students indicated consuming five or more drinks on one occasion compared to 25.2 percent of urban students; and 4.3 percent of rural students reported drinking and driving or being a passenger in a car with a driver who had been drinking compared to 2.2 percent for urban students.

Elizabeth Payne’s article, What Lanark County is Learning from Iceland’s Approach to Reducing Teen Drinking (The Ottawa Citizen, November 26, 2018), explained that health officials in an Eastern Ontario  jurisdiction comparable to Renfrew County have adopted a program from Iceland to address teen drinking. Alfgeir Kristjansen explained how Icelanders tackled an “entrenched, widespread and worrisome” teen drinking culture and reduced the number of teens reporting alcohol abuse by 15 percent in 20 years. They did this by introducing prevention programs and encouraging communities to offer arts and sports programs. In a similar vein, the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse has suggested that rural youth substance abuse could be diminished by greater access to prevention resources and treatment services and encouraging communities to improve part-time job opportunities and recreation programs.

The toughest goddamned people

In my first year of university, I was assigned to a mentorship group led by a sociology prof. Our first and only meeting occurred at a wine and cheese party. When I introduced myself, he smiled patronizingly and announced that Barry’s Bay had the highest alcohol consumption rate in the province. Noticing that he was sipping sherry, I pointed to his glass and said,

That may be so, but all the winos there drink cheap sherry.

I wasn’t going to let a stranger trash my hometown or its people even if I knew deep down, and from personal experience, that he was probably right.

Would I do the same today? Maybe. I am still proud of my community and its history, but in thirty-five years, I have learned important lessons. Real history, whether it be personal, family or community, is made up of complex human beings with strengths and virtues, weaknesses and flaws. We have to identify and address problems, past or present, to overcome them. I am certainly not promoting temperance leagues or dry communities, but I am thinking about health, personal habits and community culture at a time when governments are making alcohol and other substances more accessible.

Joshua Blank concluding his paper quotes J.D. Vance:

We … are the toughest goddamned people on this earth … [but] are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?


Photo: ChrisF on pexels


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  2. William Enright

    Great article Mark. Having grown up in Ireland and spending half my life there and the other half in the Netherlands, US and Canada, there is a huge cultural/historical aspect to drinking and drinking culture. I have several friends in Ireland that are alcoholics (some reformed, some not admitting it) and many man friends that drink way too much. So, my feeling is that R.C. has a drinking problem but less than that in Ireland. In my opinion, the biggest health issue in R.C. is obesity (which of course is linked to alcohol consumption). The real curse of “the demon drink” vs. obesity, smoking, etc., is that it can and does have a huge effect on the innocent, be they family, friends or strangers (driving or walking on the road).
    the other thing that makes me “smile” (more like squirm) are the many many people who worry about the (often unproven) effect of pesticides (e.g., Roundup), “chemikilz”, etc. etc. on cancer while they guzzle alcohol which is a known 100%-proven and very effective Class A1 carcinogen! Hypocrisy, irony, looking for blame elsewhere… ?

  3. Sandra Luckasavitch

    Love the article. Your honesty and openness is truly admirable. When you talk about the tough subjects, I appreciate the way you open up the whole story, not just poke at the surface or jump to the end. I always look forward to your articles.

  4. David Goulet

    Superb article. I’m one of those few Valley scions who has never had a drop of ‘the drink’. My reasons are my own and I don’t judge others who take a different view. Jesus turned water into wine after all. But as a non-drinker most people will dismiss any criticisms I may have of alcohol. “What does he know?” I’d simply note that anyone who grew up in the Valley has seen the fruits of the vine in some way or another. It has been a costly fruit for many. So it is refreshing to see someone who imbibes reflecting on its impact to the community. Hopefully it gives others cause to pause and reflect as well. In all things…moderation.

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