Where were you when you felt pressured to drink? It’s a question that shouldn’t have to be asked, but is one that almost everyone has an answer to, or a cautionary tale to match. In a world where social drinking, weekend hangovers and alcohol memes are the norm, it is a hard reality to face when we realise this is the same world where casual alcoholism and drink driving is an issue seemingly met with denial. Lockdown has revealed patterns of what can be alcohol self-medication, or a social atmosphere where it is hard to say no, even when we may see the harms of alcohol around us.
Prince Albert of Saskatchewan in Canada knows this all too well, with a reputation of alcohol abuse and crime in the Canadian press. While New Zealand seems worlds away, there are painful truths we may consider as an overlap of issues from the trauma of colonisation. Youth involvement in gangs, teen alcohol abuse and domestic violence have all been news staples here. How to tackle these issues has been a source of political sparring, but in Prince Albert, a group of students, backed by their First Nations communities, raise an empowering way to create safe zones in their community.
Sober House Project is a community initiative inspired by the stories of these students along with Harold R. Johnson’s book, ‘Firewater’. Johnson, a Cree criminal justice lawyer, examines alcohol as a tool of colonisation and raises a future where rehabilitation and safe zones from family violence are created out of community led mutual aid, where indigenous people are at the forefront. Sober House Project’s message is for people to raise signs of an eagle symbol outside their home or community centre, meaning that this place is sober and free from alcohol abuse and the potential for violence. They also have online and in-person spaces to support those who are rehabilitating and share events which aim to spread awareness about sobriety.
It is my pleasure to interview Linden Howlett and Camryn Corrigal, founding members of Sober House Project, all the way from Canada. They raise the ultimate question: Can we take on the mission to help create safe spaces against alcohol abuse?
Describe Sober House Project in three words.
Howlett: Inspiring, important, movement.
Corrigal: Exciting, happy, hopeful.
What are the aims of this initiative?
Corrigal: We aim to show people that being sober is normal and you can have fun being sober.
Howlett: The aim is to open people’s eyes about the negative impact of alcohol, to show people that they are numb to the cries for help from the people who matter the most. Our aim is not to vilify those who drink, it’s to empower those who don’t.
What drives you and other community leaders?
Howlett: Our stories and past drive us to change the world, so others won’t have the experiences I did.
Corrigal: Honestly, it’s the things you see happen with alcohol in our communities, like public intoxication and fights. I want to work to drive these issues out of our beautiful cities.
How did you get involved?
Howlett: Tracy and Mrs. L (founding members) are sisters that were reading Firewater. This led to them talking about it and getting passionate, they brought the book to our attention and the passion grew into Sober House from all of us.
Corrigal: I am one of the original Sober House members. We all were sitting at a Students Against Dangerous Driving meeting in school and the idea was brought up and it skyrocketed into what it is now.
What role do you think young people play in being able to raise awareness about alcohol abuse and empowering initiatives like Sober House Project?
Corrigal: People will listen to youth; we notice problems in a certain way. So, when a young person speaks out, it’s special.
Howlett: Youth are the foundation of change. We are walking into the future, meaning, we need the future generations to acknowledge and accept the change we hope to create. If they aren’t willing to change, then neither will the world.
Knowing one’s limits and being sober can be unpopular in youth social culture. Why do you think this is unpopular and how do you think this could change?
Howlett: Youth in Prince Albert for example, are exposed to alcohol earlier and earlier. Five years ago, there were at least activities and recreation that could entertain youth, now most of the entertainment is gone, however there is still multiple liquor stores, that accompanied by the fact that adults and all over media show “having a good time” with liquor, thereby showing youth that they can entertain themselves with alcohol. How to change that? Maybe if we were able to show youth how to be kids and have fun without substances.
Today, there are many memes and causal attitudes about drinking when depressed or stressed. There might also be a sense of carelessness around binge drinking or driving whilst drunk. What do you think encourages these attitudes towards alcohol?
Howlett: People drink to have fun and when you drink a lot of the time, you start to not have fun anymore and you start drinking to forget. People are numb to it now and even find humour in it because of how they relate it to themselves.
Which factors have contributed to the success of Sober House Project?
Howlett: I believe by gaining the voices of the youth, and speaking up, nobody expects youth to take a stand or have opinions.
Corrigal: The documentary was for sure the biggest contribution for us, as it made it easier to show people what we do.
What has been the feedback of your peers or community?
Corrigal: We have had great community feedback seeing signs pop up in windows around town.
Howlett: I had some peers who encouraged and even helped with the movement, and then there were those who viewed me as an outcast, some of whom were supposed to be my friends, but those who don’t support you in something you have passion for are just getting in the way.
New Zealand media has similarly raised issues of alcohol abuse in youth communities, especially in rural areas. Do you think a similar initiative could work in New Zealand?
Howlett: I believe if there are people suffering from alcohol abuse or the impact it has on communities and families, then it will spark a passion and people will fight for what they believe in.
Corrigal: I think similar or even the Sober House Project itself would work in New Zealand if someone were willing to take on the challenge and spread the word…
Do you have any words of solidarity with our student community here in Auckland?
Corrigal: Alcohol isn’t needed for fun.
Howlett: To those who share a vision of a brighter future, I urge you to fight for what you believe in, despite what peers will think, despite what society thinks, we are the generation that will incite change in this world. There is no more sitting around waiting for change, it is time to change it ourselves and for our children and our children’s children.