In the space of one recent week, three young people died tragically in the Northwest Territories through incidents involving vehicles.
An 18-year-old was killed in a car crash in Behchokǫ̀ on May 11, a 19-year-old passed away in a Délı̨nę ATV crash on May 13, and a 31-year-old died after falling from a golf cart in Enterprise on May 15.
While little is known about the circumstances of each death, RCMP issued a statement on May 16 in which police urged “drivers and passengers in motorized vehicles to not be in the vehicle with a drinking driver, to wear their seatbelt (helmets on ATVs and snow machines), and to obey traffic laws.”
For Sharon Allen, the incidents brought back memories of losing her daughter, Keisha, who was killed by an impaired driver in Fort Smith on November 23, 2008.
Allen, a Fort Simpson resident, had just finished washing up after dinner that Sunday night when she heard a knock on the door and received the news from a community member. Her daughter had been in an accident.
“I have to live every birthday, every Christmas, every anniversary of Keisha’s every year, and it doesn’t get easier,” said Allen, who contacted Cabin Radio after the recent tragedies were reported.
“The year her friends graduated, I was torn because I wanted her to have her graduation, her graduation dress,” Allen said.
“Now, her friends have had kids, and you know, I didn’t get to have a wedding for her. She was 16… it’s painful.”
For Allen, that pain motivated her to get involved with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD. In 2017, she was awarded MADD’s volunteer of the year award, as well as another award in recognition of 10 years of service with the organization.
“When I think about MADD, I think of them as my family. They’ve helped me through some really, really hard times. If something like this happens to you, being with people who have been through similar things means so much,” she said.
“You’re able to go through it together instead of feeling like you’re alone.”
Years of advocacy has only reinforced Allen’s sense that the Northwest Territories has a problem with operating motor vehicles while drinking.
“It’s normalized to associate drinking with operating golf carts, ATVs, boats… you know, people boating in the summer after having a few beers on the river or camping, it’s totally normalized,” she said. “I struggle with that, because those decisions can really impact people.”
In a 2020 NWT coroner’s office assessment of the 10 preceding years, alcohol was a factor in the majority of deaths related to car, snowmobile and ATV accidents, which in turn made up the majority of accidental deaths in the territory.
According to Statistics Canada data from 2019, the Northwest Territories had the worst rate of impaired driving in the country at the time.
Assessing the data in a 2021 study, Statistics Canada said the NWT’s impaired driving rate increased by 159 percent between 2015 and 2019. The federal agency said while some of the increase can be attributed to federal legislation introduced in 2018 to combat drunk driving, the spike in NWT impaired driving reports began well before those measures were implemented.
In 2019, a University of Victoria substance use research program using 2017 data said the NWT was only implementing 30 percent of the best practices it could adopt to tackle impaired driving. (The average score for all jurisdictions assessed in the same study was 57.5 percent.)
That report prompted a response from the territorial government, and the Department of Health and Social Services’ alcohol strategy was released earlier this year.
The strategy contemplates addressing impaired driving by using messaging to reduce “the acceptability and the incidence of driving any motorized vehicle while under the influence,” and suggests expanding the availability of interlock programs. Interlock devices fitted to vehicle ignitions ensure the vehicle won’t start if a driver’s blood alcohol concentration is over the pre-set limit, and are growing in popularity worldwide. In 2019, the European Union established rules mandating that by 2022, all new cars had to have the capability for an interlock to be installed.
Allen said she wants the territorial government to spend more of the tax revenue it receives from alcohol on education, awareness and addiction services. But she also wants individuals to understand their power to prevent accidents.
“Many communities in the Northwest Territories don’t have taxis, we don’t have Uber, we don’t have transit,” Allen said.
“So keeping that in mind, parents really need to trust their kids. If my kid calls me from a party, if a family member calls you in the middle of the night, without judgment, we should help them instead of thinking of the inconvenience.
“Offer a place for a friend to sleep overnight instead of getting behind the wheel. Normalize being sober, offer mocktails instead of always providing alcoholic beverages.”
In its recently released alcohol strategy, the NWT government asserted that approaches like increasing the number of sobriety checkpoints and developing harsher punishments haven’t proven any more effective in reducing the number of people found to be driving under the influence.
The strategy stated that participants in leadership engagement sessions – held by the territory while producing the strategy – expressed that “being caught driving under the influence was potentially debilitating for people in their communities who rely on their vehicles for work, and that there was the potential for Indigenous community members to be disproportionately impacted by increased enforcement.”
In small communities, holding one another accountable can be complicated. But Allen believes reporting instances of drunk driving, especially when they involve a repeat offender, is critical.
“I have seen this, where a person has been consuming alcohol in the bar most of the evening, and I don’t know how long they’ve been there, but they get behind the wheel and drive home,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter how much that person has contributed to the community, how much volunteering they’ve done, their stature. If they’re driving impaired, they are threatening the safety of that community.”
Allen wants NWT residents to remember that the decision to drink and drive can have life-altering repercussions.
“It’s a privilege to have a driver’s licence. When you choose to drink and drive, that affects everybody and there are consequences. When you lose that privilege, it’s because of your choices,” she said.
“That choice can follow you. If kids could just think about their parents, their loved ones, and what this would do to them. It stays with you for life.”