Alcoholism in plain sight

Drinking culture continues to dominate Queen’s social sphere at the expense of personal health and the Kingston community

According to a Maclean’s survery, Queen’s students party an average of 4.94 hours in a week.

“It really became a game of ‘let’s do [it] one more time, and if I can not get blackout, then I’m good.’ It was just like Russian roulette.”

When John* began to worry that he had a drinking problem, he tried alternative solutions before quitting altogether. He tried to limit himself, stick to certain types of alcohol, and swear off others, but nothing worked.

A current Queen’s student, John was familiar with dealing with the repercussions of getting blackout drunk. On multiple occasions he’d woken up in hospitals or in drunk tanks, unsure of how he got there — but it wasn’t until his drinking started to damage his reputation that he decided to make a change.

“I don’t think I wanted to admit it coming to an end because it was such a staple of university,” John told The Journal.

While John believed that drinking helped him make friends in university, he also admitted drinking took a toll on his relationships.

“I was either too drunk, or I was an asshole. I would go to a club with one girl and start making out with someone else. Not cool. No wonder I got dumped.”

Though John’s behaviour was becoming concerning to some of his friends, he wasn’t the only student in his social circle that exhibited risky drinking habits, nor was he the worst in the bunch.

“I always had friends who drank more than I did, so I genuinely thought, ‘I’m good.’ Right? I mean, here I am taking care of people.”

“I remember one time [my friend and I] were joking about the idea of being alcoholics, and he was like, ‘Do you think you’ll ever do anything about it?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, do you?’ and he was like, ‘Probably not.’”

When John made the decision to quit drinking, he started seeking out resources on campus. He met with a counsellor at LaSalle and another provided through his faculty, and was eventually directed to a longer-term resource in Kingston.

“There are better opportunities here [for addiction] than I realized, but they are hard to find,” John said.

John took a semester off school and sought out a private facility in Toronto that provided him with a counsellor and connected him with other young people struggling with addiction. He’s now sober and attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with the individuals he met in his youth group.

“It can be really hard to come to terms with never drinking or being an alcoholic because both of those ideas suck. [But] the minute I started allowing myself to be really honest and vulnerable, I saw a lot of my friends do it. A lot of them began to come to me about their problems,” John said.

John remains grateful for his choice to give up alcohol, but admits that had he not harmed other students with his actions while drunk, he easily could’ve continued.

“I totally thought I was the only person at Queen’s who was really having drinking problems,” John said.

Drinking commands a lot of the social culture at Queen’s, and at many other Canadian universities. John certainly isn’t the only student who has crossed the line from “work hard, play hard” into alcoholism.

In the Student Health Survey conducted by Queen’s in 2013, 57 per cent of respondents who drink had reported binge drinking in the two weeks before completing the survey, which was 21 per cent above the national average.

In 2017, Maclean’s ranked Queen’s among the top three party schools in Canada, noting that Queen’s students party for 4.94 hours on average per week. These numbers reflect an increase from last year’s rankings, when Queen’s was listed seventh, with students partying an average of 4.807 hours per week.

Based on these numbers, it’s no surprise that Queen’s has continually run into problems concerning student drinking culture, especially in recent years.

On Homecoming in 2005, street party-goers rolled over a car and set it on fire. At Homecoming in 2008, police issued 140 arrests and 619 tickets throughout the weekend, after which the University decided to cancel Homecoming for the next few years.

The event wasn’t restored until 2013, when it was spread out over two weekends in an attempt to curb the density of intoxicated students partying on the streets.

However, the drinking culture still had consequences during the ban.

In 2010, two first-year Queen’s students died due to alcohol-related events. Cameron Bruce died in September after falling out of a residence window, while Habib Khan died that December after falling through a library skylight.

The University was left reeling by these losses, and the resulting coroner’s report by Chief Coroner Roger Skinner recommended in 2011 that Queen’s review its campus alcohol policies to address a “culture of drinking” on campus.

Alcohol has since been banned from residence buildings during Orientation Week.

While these incidents demonstrate the negative effect alcohol can have on a student’s life, the question remains, at what point does binge-drinking become alcoholism and where do we draw the line? Some students, like John, begin drinking most heavily in university. For others, drinking is already a problem, and university simply gives them the push they need to spiral out of control.

Geoffrey Smith, who taught physical education, health education, and history at Queen’s from 1969 until 2006, spearheaded an initiative this November called Kingston Against Drunken Students (KADS) to combat the prevalent drinking culture at Queen’s.

“I think one of the major problems is that the idea of alcoholism hasn’t really been identified with the student population. The alcoholic is somebody who’s older, somebody who’s really hit the skids,” Smith told The Journal.

Smith has lived in his home at William and Barrie St. for the past 25 years with his wife Roberta, also a retired Queen’s professor.

As students increasingly dominate the University District, Smith has had intoxicated students vomit in his composter, and has even caught some having sex in his backyard.

While Smith insists he doesn’t have a problem with drinking per se, he says he is concerned with the people who drink “two, three times a week and they’re drinking maybe four, five, six drinks at a sitting.”

“When ping pong tables come out at eight o’clock in the morning, right here and four of them around the corner, and [students are] drinking by nine — I think that’s a problem.”

Smith’s motivation to start KADS was not only based on his experience living in the University District and teaching at Queen’s, but also by his own drinking experience in university.

“I drank a lot as a freshman at Berkeley, I was expected to do so in a fraternity,” Smith said.

“I stayed in bed for 10 weeks... I didn’t go to class, I was depressed. I was able to free myself, transfer to Santa Barbara, and quit drinking. I’d love to have some nights back, I’d love to have some weeks back, and I’d love to have some months back.”

Smith’s wife Roberta recalls teaching a small history seminar in 1985, when one student didn’t show up until mid-October because he had been in the hospital for alcohol poisoning.

‘I live in a house full of engineers, and I tried to drink the way they do,’ the student told her.

 “It’s a complicated problem. It’s been around forever,” Smith said about student drinking culture.

“It’s so woven into the tapestry at Queen’s that it’s taken for granted — and I’m questioning that. Everybody looks at me and says, ‘Good luck with that, Geoff.’”


*As per the source’s request for anonymity, their name has been changed throughout this story. John is a pseudonym. 

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