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Warning: This story contains distressing details of self-harm

Patrick Brazeau, a non-affiliated senator, is candid about his struggle with alcohol; it informs his reasons for now wanting to be involved in its regulation.

He tells a story of smudging on the bank of the St. Lawrence River in Montreal on March 27, 2020. It was in the early days of pandemic, marked by isolation, distance and fears of the unknown, and Brazeau had helped organize an international Indigenous day of smudging. During his smudge, Brazeau prayed to his late mother, who passed away in 2004 of colon cancer, for help to quit drinking.

“I had come to a point where I was tired, just tired,” he said. During his prayer, he asked: “‘Please give me a sign, any sign, mainly in my prayer, any sign, like a rainbow, like just anything.”

The next day, Brazeau had a few drinks. The day after that, he smudged again and didn't reach for the bottle; the day after that, the same thing. Since that day, Brazeau has replaced his daily drinks with daily prayers.

Sen. Patrick Brazeau is determined to make a difference in people's lives concerning alcohol abuse and suicide prevention, particularly for First Nations communities. Photo by Spencer Colby / Canada's National Observer

“Now that I look at it, why I think I did get my sign, I just didn’t see it, (is) because my sign happened two days after,” Brazeau said, the sentence catching halfway in his throat.

In his role in the Senate, Brazeau is drawing from his own experiences with alcohol to push for warning labels on alcoholic beverages as part of Bill S-254, An Act to amend the Food and Drugs Act. His next step is to get the bill into committee so experts can testify, then it will head to the House for debate.

Bill S-254 would mandate warning labels on alcoholic beverages that point to the increased cancer risk correlated with alcohol consumption. The idea is not new: warning labels are mandated on both tobacco and cannabis products in Canada.

After opening up about his struggles with alcohol abuse, Sen. Patrick Brazeau is campaigning for warning labels on alcohol products. He's in it for the long game, he says, willing to continue the fight for decades. #cdnpoli

The bill comes on the heels of a Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction report that stated no amount of alcohol is good for you and that only two drinks per week is low risk. Anything beyond that increases one’s risk for cancer, heart disease and other mental and social harms.

Opponents to warning labels have argued they are unproductive and downplay the potential benefits of alcohol, such as social connection.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has said warning labels may improve knowledge, raise awareness and prompt discussion of the harmful health consequences of alcohol, and that “no negative effects have been demonstrated,” citing labels in both France and the United States in a 2017 report.

That was born out by a pilot program for alcohol warning labels in Yukon, said Brazeau, which saw a seven per cent reduction in consumption, he said. The study also found consumers increased their knowledge of the risks of alcohol consumption, according to reporting by CBC. The program was soon pulled after lobbying from the alcohol industry.

Alcohol was classified as a carcinogen in 1988 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a subsidiary of the WHO. It’s something Brazeau learned about on his journey to recovery, adding he has joined the 25 per cent of Canadians who are aware of the risks of alcohol, Brazeau said.

It’s personal for Brazeau. He was suspended from the Senate from 2013 to 2016 while facing sexual assault and drug charges, as well as a Senate scandal. He was acquitted in the sexual assault case and pleaded guilty to simple assault and cocaine possession, according to reporting by CBC. He was also absolved of the fraud charges in the Senate scandal. His life was a mess.

In 2016, in a despairing moment, Brazeau attempted suicide. After he woke up from a medically induced coma, he immediately wanted to change his life for the better. But change didn’t come easily.

Sen. Patrick Brazeau is hoping to get his Bill S-254 into committee so experts like doctors can testify on its efficacy. Photo by Spencer Colby / Canada's National Observer

Brazeau continued to abuse alcohol “to try and bury the hurt and bury the pain and bury the shame” of a dark period in his life. Whether it was playing golf, attending a hockey game or returning home from work, Brazeau was always scheming for his next drink.

Nonetheless, he began the next chapter of his work, pushing for a suicide prevention study in 2019.

“I was basically digging myself even deeper, but I couldn't see it and I couldn't feel it because I was just so focused on my hurt and pain, and whether I was victimizing myself or not is irrelevant but I thought the world was coming down,” he said.

Now sober, Brazeau says his head is clearer, the excess weight is gone and he’s ready to play the long game. It took a quarter of a century to mandate labels on tobacco products, about the same amount of time Brazeau has left in the Senate, he explained.

As for his home community, Kitigan Zibi Anishnabeg, Brazeau says they know what he went through, particularly the political and partisan aspects of it. But he doesn’t go back often, moving away as part of his healing, to change friends, lifestyle and his scenery, Brazeau explained.

“I think I'd say that most are ready to give me a second chance. But that's not something that I focus on or think about,” he said.

“It's a work in progress, I take it day by day, and it's not always easy every day… but I just feel the need to do this.”

His work in the Senate now is focused on mitigating alcohol abuse and preventing suicide, with a report on the latter due in the spring.

“This is my way of trying to give back in terms of what I know and my experiences and my expertise in this, to send a message out,” he said.

Brazeau speaks specifically to First Nations communities ravaged by residential schools, colonial violence and the lack of services and resources to cope with trauma.

“People are hurting, there are no proper services to turn to (for) help, so they turn to these things.”

If you are struggling with your mental health or know someone who is, there is help. Resources are available online at crisisservicescanada.ca, or you can connect to the national suicide prevention helpline at 1-833-456-4566 or the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868. First Nations people, Métis and Inuit can also reach out to Hope for Wellness at 1-855-242-3310 or the Kamatsiaqtut Help Line at 1-800-265-3333.

Matteo Cimellaro / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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First of all, kudos to Senator Brazeau for his personal, and political struggles with this issue. Warning labels are very long over-due--my only concern with some previous attempts is that they were primarily directed at women. The language was very woman-blaming. And many many women over-consume in the early stages of pregnancy, not KNOWING that they're pregnant. Those things, among others, need to be taken into account.

And I was aware of the Yukon attempt--I was NOT aware that it was halted due to interference from the alcohol lobby. Quelle surprise la eh....

Thank you Sen. Brazeau, for sharing your story and working on this.
I would like to see labels with all ingredients on alcoholic products. All food items need to have it but for some reason, you cannot find the sugar level of alcoholic beverages, only the alcohol level.
I believe that education goes further than scare tactics. Rather than warning labels, information on what alcohol does to your health, (not just physical, but social, and financial), would be preferable.
Then again, with alcohol causing so many problems, anything helps. So thank you again.

Dear Sen. Patrick Brazeau - thank you for continuing to fight for a better world. The news reports these days are so full of abuses. We, particularly the settlers have so much to learn about how to build a brighter future. Let's take care of one another.