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A sobering look at alcohol-free living in Atlantic Canada

Belle DeMont
- Belle DeMont

Shalyn Ward probably doesn’t even realize she’s a part of what seems to be a growing trend by choosing to never drink alcohol.

Over the past couple of years there seems to be an increase of blogs, social media accounts and online pledges are dedicated to being booze free – either taking a break for a month (Dry July) or taking the full year plunge (No Beer For A Year). Sober social clubs and alcohol-free bars are popping up in cities like New York (U.S), London (U.K.) and Montreal.

Instagram influencers are praising how much better they feel after taking a break from booze and questioning how much having fun and drinking alcohol go hand in hand and society sometimes questions why you wouldn’t want to drink.

For Ward, not consuming alcohol (or drugs) is inspired by her desire to stay away from the cycle of substance abuse she has seen in her community, Eel Ground (Natoaganeg) First Nation in New Brunswick.

“I have seen it, people I know who have (problems with alcohol),” said Ward who is an active volunteer in her community as well as a Ranger with the Girl Guides of Canada.

"I know some people my age who are starting to drink alcohol and use drugs. I just wanted to find a way to stay away from that.”

Turning to her Mi’kmaq culture as a way to focus on a life without alcohol, Ward started jingle and ribbon dancing at Powwows when she was 12 and spends most of her summer weekends traveling to different ones.

"It keeps me very busy. You are traveling all the time... And dancing for many hours every day,” said Ward who started tradition Mi’kmaq dancing when she was eight and now teaches jingle dance.

For Ward, spending hours dancing, performing and competing at Powwows is worth more than any night out on the town fuelled by alcoholic drinks. And it’s the same for Leah Doucetter, an Eskasoni First Nation (Cape Breton) woman who also dedicated herself to Mi’kmaq tradition when she gave up alcohol 15 years ago.

Then 22, Doucette had already been drinking for five years and her gut instinct was saying if she didn’t stop now there would be problems down the road.

"I didn’t drink like normal people. I drank to get wasted. I chugged my drinks,” said the single mother of two.

"I knew if I didn’t make a change, it would just be harder (to stop later) and I didn’t want my life to be like that.”

The single mother of two is also a jingle dancer and like Ward attending Powwows at various communities throughout Mi’kmaq territory (most of Atlantic Canada into parts of Maine). With her mother, father and other members of her family, Doucette and her daughters also travel to spiritual gatherings and try to live as traditionally as possible.

"To be able to pass down the traditions to my daughters is important,” said the seamstress who is known for mixing traditional Mi’kmaq detailing with modern Christians baptismal and communal clothing.

“It is important to me that I keep living as I do for my daughters and for me.”

Powwows, both competitive and traditional, are typically alcohol and drug free. Some see this as a way of staying true to First Nation traditions; there was no alcohol before colonial settlers introduced it. Without the settlers, alcohol wouldn’t have made it into cultural activities like Powwows.

For Ward and Doucette, they’re also a way to socialize without alcohol being an essential part of the fun.

But what about when you want alcohol-free fun and all social events seem to have a booze consumption requirement?

Atlantic Canadians have a reputation for enjoying their adult beverages and consistently have some of the highest annual per person alcohol sales across the country according to data collected by Statistics Canada. From 2016 – 2018, gross sales in Atlantic Canada have contributed to more than 16% of national revenue, even though less than 2.4 million of Canada’s 36.54 million population live here.

Em Donovan, 28, is a recovering alcoholic and drug abuser who finds it difficult to socialize in Cape Breton, where she is from, because everything seems to involve alcohol.

“There are triggers everywhere for drugs, but it’s a bit easier than alcohol. Alcohol is legal... and alcohol appears to be the norm in dealing with anything. And it’s the norm for celebrating too,” said Donovan who started drinking at age 12.

“I find myself not being able to hang out with friends because they always want to drink ... I can’t go camping or go to ball games or any event because typically there is alcohol. Even Pride events - I’m a lesbian and I’ve always loved going to Pride events but most of the events for adults have alcohol present.”

For people like Donovan, an alternative could be alcohol-free bars and clubs which are popping up in urban centres like New York City (U.S.A.), London (U.K.) and Montreal.

Isabel Taboada is co-owner of Mindful Bar in Montreal, which opened on July 18. Believed to be Canada’s first openly public alcohol-free bar, Taboada opened it with her partner Diego Bayancela after she quit drinking alcohol three years ago.

“When I was ready to go out (to clubs and bars) I would feel it was a very hostile environment... Not everyone was drunk but not the ideal place for someone who’s not drinking,” she said.

When she started looking for sober nightlife options, the options weren’t great and Taboada said when they did find non-alcoholic options at a bar or club, they had “very, very bad mocktails. It was the same options as you have at a kids party,” she explained.

Taking about two years to plan, fund and launch their non-alcoholic drinking hole on St. Denis, Taboada said business is good for their first month. They’ve hired a mixologist to make sure their drinks have the “flavour explosion” their boozy counterparts are known to.

“When we did our research (for our business plan) we found many people are looking for different options right now,” Taboada said, taking a break from working during family Sundays.

“We are hearing good things and we have a lot of people who are coming back.”

Although none have arrived on the East Coast scene yet, Donovan thinks alcohol-free bars are a good idea because she knows there are more than people struggling with substance abuse disorders who would use them.

“There are lots of adults who don’t drink, they just don’t want to, but the majority of things to do around here revolves around alcohol,” she said. “Being in recovery has shown me that I can have lots of fun and meaningful experiences with other people without needing to be drunk.”

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