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Q&A: How an Alcohol Ban Revived an Aboriginal Community

Shari Nijman interviews JUNE OSCAR, CEO of Marninwarntikura Fitzroy Women’s Resource Centre

UNITED NATIONS, May 22 2009 (IPS) - In 2007, a group of aboriginal women from Fitzroy Crossing in Western Australia decided that the only thing that could save their community from going under was to impose a complete ban on the sales of takeaway alcohol.

June Oscar Credit: Shari Nijman/IPS

June Oscar Credit: Shari Nijman/IPS

In the previous year, the community had witnessed 13 suicides and many alcohol-related deaths, resulting into a funeral every week. By pushing for a drinking ban, the women of Fitzroy Crossing hoped that the crisis would be resolved and the aboriginal community would regain its strength.

This week, activist June Oscar and others screened ‘Yajilarra’, a documentary about the women of Fitzroy Crossing’s quest to fight the drinking culture, at United Nations headquarters in New York.

Oscar and some 2,000 indigenous leaders from around the world are attending the eighth session of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues here from May 18-29.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

IPS: The women of Fitzroy Crossing have successfully pushed for a ban on the sale of hard takeaway liquor in your area. Do you think the drinking problem among aboriginals much larger than it is within non-aboriginal communities? JUNE OSCAR: I think the problem is actually a lot larger in non-aboriginal communities. But we are a minority in our country and we are more visible. Just because we don’t see the non-aboriginal people out in public drinking, I don’t think non-aboriginal people are not drinking at high levels. Alcohol is not just an aboriginal problem; it’s a problem in all societies.

We see a lot of non-aboriginal children drinking directly after they graduate from year 12. Also, we see a lot of drinking by people who aren’t aboriginal, at sporting events and other events in the country.

The type of drinking that happens among many of our people is binge drinking. When the money comes in, large purchases [of alcohol] can be made and there is a lot of activity concerning alcohol.

There are, however, many people in our community that are very responsible when drinking, or who don’t drink at all. But unfortunately, the ones that get highlighted are a small minority doing a lot of damage to their communities, their families and to themselves.

IPS: What kinds of changes have you witnessed in Fitzroy Crossing since the restrictions? JO: We have seen many improvements and changes. But we’ve witnessed new challenges as well. There has been a decrease in [alcohol-related] patients at the emergency department of our hospital from about 85 percent to around 35 percent.

For the very first time in years, the professional staff at the hospitals consists of people with permanent positions, rather than emergency personal. Before, we couldn’t get any hospital staff to stay and live in Fitzroy Crossing for longer than three months. Now, we have all our doctors positions filled and all our nurses positions filled.

We have seen an increase in school attendance. Furthermore, a lot more people have entered into employment, and people are generally looking a lot healthier. We witnessed people making better life choices and being a lot more responsible when they are using alcohol.

IPS Do you think a drinking ban should be implemented in the whole of Australia?

JO: I think there is a real opportunity here for some honest discussion about how alcohol is seen as part of the Australian culture. There is a need for a real discussion with the breweries, which profit from the production and the sale of alcohol. They have to be aware of the levels of damage that the governments of some communities have to pick up on.

You see it [alcohol] marketed to young people in a colourful and tasty manner. It’s something that really concerns me. People who make alcohol and sell it are making it accepted to our young people. We see an industry that’s growing and creating more profit, but at the other end of the spout that means more problems, more health issues and more family relationship issues.

Alcohol is a big issue for non-aboriginal people as well, especially around young people, in public places in the city. So we really need to have an honest discussion in Australia and I think the time is right.

IPS: Could the progress that has been made by the alcohol restrictions have been achieved in any other way, maybe without a complete ban? JO: This is the way that we have chosen to deal with it, because the situation on the ground needed this level of intervention. The community needed drastic and decisive action. We had to justify and build a case to convince the director general of liquor licensing to impose this decision. I don’t believe we could have achieved the same results in any other way. This is what we have done, and this is what we learned. This is just the beginning.

Because there is much suffering, and much loss and pain in these communities, the inconvenience for someone returning home at the end of the day and not be able to have his alcoholic beverage isn’t that important. In the scheme of things, this is bigger than individuals. This is about a society of people surviving into the future. We are a minority people in our country and we need all of us to go forward.

IPS: Do you think the effects achieved in Fitzroy Crossing will inspire more communities in Australia to impose a drinking ban? JO: I think so, because it is clearly demonstrated to the government that all these public funds are being spend mopping up after just one industry that is creating so many problems in many communities. The situation in Fitzroy Crossing has really shown that both costs and lives can be saved here.

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