The University of Saskatchewan’s main campus is situated on Treaty 6 Territory and the Homeland of the Métis.

Updated: USSU backs Sask. Party initiative to bump legal drinking age to 18

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The students’ union wants the province to rethink the legal drinking age. Critics say 19 is young enough. But we all know most kids start drinking in high school. So does it matter?

The University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union believes it’s time to lower the legal drinking age in the province to 18 years old.

The USSU released a joint statement with the University of Regina Students’ Union Nov. 7. Both organizations say they support ratcheting down the legal age to buy, carry and drink alcohol to 18 — the age you’re legally considered an adult in Canada.

The move comes just days after USSU Vice-President of Operations and Finance Steven Heidel attended the Saskatchewan Party’s annual convention where party delegates passed a motion in favour of allowing 18-year-olds to legally throw back an alcoholic beverage. Premier Brad Wall said after his keynote speech that the motion must go through a consultation process before the party considers moving forward.

The students’ unions are calling on the provincial government to honour the resolution made at the convention and introduce the initiative to the legislature for a vote.

Together the unions represent over 30,000 undergraduates across the province, many of whom are 18 and already getting drunk on most weekends.

Dropping the legal age limit would let 18-year-old first-year students go out for a night of drinking in a controlled and licensed venue, rather than a vacant parking lot, their dorm room or the backseat of a vehicle.

“It’s something the USSU as an institution has always supported. We feel it makes it more inclusive for all of our first-year students,” Heidel said.

“We wanted to make sure people were talking about this and people realized all the different layers of the onion that this argument has.”

The legal drinking age in Manitoba, Quebec and Alberta is 18. The legal age for the rest of the country is 19.

A student-led project at the U of S called “What’s Your Cap?” takes a look at some of the reasons college students go out drinking and warns against the potential risks associated with overconsumption and blacking out.

“We’re not anti-alcohol at all. We’re trying to promote a culture of moderation and low-risk drinking,” project coordinator Justine Shenher said.

Last year, the group polled 889 students at random and conducted an assessment of the role alcohol plays on campus. Among other things, the group found students begin drinking well before they turn 19.

Shenher feels lowering the legal age won’t change much.

She said the culture of drinking and partying on campus is the real problem.

Alcohol is a social staple at almost all college events and fundraisers — dollar beers, LB5Q, the welcome week tent, beer nights, pub crawls. The list goes on. Shenher would like to see more mainstream campus events for students that do not revolve around excessive drinking.

Last year the federal government released a set of low-risk alcohol drinking guidelines as part of the country’s national alcohol strategy.

The document, which Shenher says students should pay close attention to, provides a handful of keys to drinking in moderation and knowing your limit.

The suggestions include, for example, no more than 10 drinks per week for women and 15 per week for men, no more than two drinks in three hours and one non-alcoholic drink for every drink of alcohol.

“There is an issue at our campus right now,” Shenher said, “but if we address it soon, we won’t end up like Queen’s or Acadia.”

In 2010, two Queen’s University students died in separate but alarmingly similar incidents just months apart from each other. Both students — one aged 18 and the other 19 — were drinking heavily and plunged several stories to their death from campus buildings.

More recently, in September of last year, a 19-year-old Acadia University student originally from Calgary died after reportedly drinking about 40 ounces of alcohol and passing out in a dorm room.

Both instances have forced administrators at the universities to look to curb the drinking culture on campus through stiffer policies, including the banning of alcohol in dorms during welcome week and banning collections of empty liquor bottles in dormroom windows.

At the U of S, alcohol is permitted in most dorms for students 19 or older.

Brent Penner, director of Campus Safety, says officers commonly deal with incidents involving underage drinking. In most cases, officers doll out a fine of $360 for anyone underage caught drunk or in possession of alcohol.

A handful of incidents in just the past few months have resulted in students being charged and detained for being overly drunk and causing disturbances on campus.

Penner could not say exactly how lowering the legal drinking age would affect alcohol use at the university, but pointed to campuses in the U.S., where the legal age is 21 and drinking is still rampant among college students.

The move to lower the age to 18 in Saskatchewan has already drawn the ire of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

“I would hope that the Sask. Party or any government body would not lower the liquor age,” Diane Fontaine from MADD Saskatoon told the Star Phoenix. “I would hope that they raise it.”

Sask. Party MLA Donna Harpauer, the minister in charge of Saskatchewan liquor and gaming, says changing the legal limit could potentially be a step backwards for the province.

“There are 18-year-olds in our [high school] system, in grade 12, and this brings alcohol into the schools a little more easily,” Harpauer told the CBC.

Saskatchewan ranks as one of the worst provinces in the country for drinking and driving and young adults are the worst offenders, according to Statistics Canada.

In 2011, the number of impaired driving cases increased by 9 per cent in Saskatchewan — the second highest jump in the country next to only Ontario.

The legal age to drink in the province was 21 until 1969 when it was dropped to 18. Only a few years later it was raised to 19.

Heidel argues the legal drinking age has “little-to-no effect on the drunk driving rate.”

“People get in drunk driving accidents whether they were drinking legally or illegally,” he said.

“We’re all trying to achieve the same ends, which is lowering the binge drinking rates, drinking and driving rates and making our campus more inclusive. But raising the legal drinking age is not the way to do that.”

Photo: Raisa Pezderic/The Sheaf

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