Potent homebrew known as super-juice a scourge on dry Manitoba First Nations
St. Theresa Point First Nation is one of many northern communities battling an onslaught of addictions-related issues.
John Jacob Harper’s voice is quiet, almost inaudible, but the emotion in his words carries to the victim’s family and friends seated in the courtroom. They are waiting for justice in a case that has shone a spotlight on the deadly consequences of substance abuse in a northern Manitoba community.
“I didn’t mean to do that… I didn’t know that will happen to him.”
Harper was sentenced earlier this week to five years in prison for drunkenly beating one of his best friends, a 26-year-old man who had been drunkenly attacking his own wife before Harper intervened.
Everyone involved, including a co-accused who is still awaiting trial, had been at a party in St. Theresa Point in April 2016, drinking a dangerous type of homemade alcohol that has long been blamed for spikes in violent crime in remote First Nations communities designated as dry.
Harper’s friend died the next day after being flown 600 kilometres south to Winnipeg for emergency medical treatment that was ultimately unsuccessful. Before he died of a brain injury, likely caused by Harper kicking him in the head as he lay defenceless on the floor, he told Harper he forgave him.
“It’s particularly tragic, and it’s typical. The difference is that someone died. But every court sitting we see a number of court cases very much like this where people are on super-juice and they have violent disputes and things get out of hand,” said Harper’s defence lawyer, Chris Sigurdson, who has been working in northern Manitoba communities for nearly 20 years.
“You’re looking at places that don’t have proper running water, there’s very high unemployment, it’s isolated — all of those factors are going to play into addictions and substance abuse,” he said.
Consumption of the potent homebrew has been particularly damaging in Manitoba’s remote First Nations that have banned the sale of alcohol.
Community leaders and First Nations advocates have been raising the alarm about super-juice since the homemade alcohol started gaining popularity in Manitoba nearly 10 years ago. The majority of RCMP calls in Manitoba’s north arise from alcohol abuse, and police say they’ve seen a rise in violent crime since super-juice came on the scene. Now, as prescription drug abuse becomes more common, the concoction is likely to be mixed with illegally obtained pills — and small, remote northern communities are suffering the consequences.
“I deserved it,” he said.
The homicide is one of a rising number of violent-crime tragedies that has been blamed on the scourge of what is commonly called super-juice.
“I lost my friend,” Harper, 29, tells the judge who is about to send him to prison for manslaughter.
Curtis McDougall, justice director with St. Theresa Point First Nation, said the community of nearly 4,000 on the shore of Island Lake is seeing a spike in crime that can usually be traced back to substance abuse.
“The majority of murders that happen in our community, it’s with super-juice all the time. And that really causes a problem. Sometimes they don’t even know what happened. It’s really potent, that super-juice,” he said. “It’s not a regular alcohol like beer or liquor. It has more potency.”
Super-juice is a fermented mix of water, sugar and “super yeast,” commonly sold in wine making kits. It’s usually mixed in pails, forming a foul-smelling greyish-white liquid that sometimes contains floating pieces of fruit. It only takes a day or so to ferment, making it a quick option for people looking to sell the stuff in two-litre bottles or imbibe in their own homes — although they often do so too early, leading to painful stomach issues and increased intoxication as the yeast continues to ferment from inside.
St. Theresa Point is consulting with Public Safety Canada to develop a safety plan for the community, something McDougall hopes will address gaps in treatment and after-care and lead to better prevention on addictions, in addition to a wide range of issues the community is tackling.
“Instead of waiting, we have to go out there and try to bring it to reality,” he said.
While band councils across Manitoba’s north have tried to ban super yeast in their dry communities, it’s easy to bring in and RCMP can’t seize it because it’s a legal product, said Manitoba RCMP Staff-Sgt. Noel Allard, who oversees the north district which stretches from Grand Rapids to Churchill, with Flin Flon on the east and Shamattawa on the west.
The majority of calls — about 70 per cent — to northern RCMP detachments are alcohol-related, and super-juice is a contributor to that, particularly in the northeast region of the province, he said. People blackout on the quick-fermenting homebrew and often can’t remember what they did, he said.
Many First Nations communities have long battled addictions in the fight to improve their quality of life, and that’s no easy task in a place like St. Theresa Point, where only about 10 per cent of the population has employment.
Winnipeg Free Press