Alcohol and Substance Abuse in Rural Canada

We continue our series, “Struggles in Small Town Canada,” highlighting problems faced in rural North America. Makenzie McNeill discusses the topic of alcohol and substance abuse in rural Canada.

A Common Struggle

Humans have struggled against addiction to alcohol, drugs, or any other substance history. It still continues to affect millions around the world. Canada is no exception.

“I have been burdened by how many youth that we know from our community have gotten caught up in alcohol and partying. It has been hard over the years to see people I knew as teens and now to see in their mid-20s, how their lives are being destroyed by alcohol and the things that go along with the party lifestyle.”

-Village Missionary

Focusing on Rural Canada

And if we zoom a little closer on rural Canada, small towns fare no better.

Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction:

  • Canadians living in rural areas were more likely to report heavy drinking (22.4%) compared to those living in urban areas (18.4%).”

Canadian Institute for Health Information:

  • “Opioid poisoning hospitalization rates in smaller communities were more than double (2.5X) those in Canada’s largest cities in 2017.”

Institute for Mental Health Policy Research:

  • “Students in…rural areas…were significantly more likely than students who attended urban/suburban schools to: drink alcohol, binge drink, get drunk, and smoke tobacco cigarettes.”

As one Village Missionary put it:

“I have been burdened by how many youth that we know from our community have gotten caught up in alcohol and partying. It has been hard over the years to see people I knew as teens and now to see in their mid-20s how their lives are being destroyed by alcohol and the things that go along with the party lifestyle.”

-Village Missionary

Reasons for Alcohol and Substance Abuse in Rural Canada

A report by released by the United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime cited socioeconomic factors, long travel distances, and geographical isolation as several reasons that contribute to rural addiction.

So, let’s take a brief look at each.


The U.N. report specifies that some of the socioeconomic factors include: “low income, unemployment, higher prevalence of manual labor occupations that increase risk of injury…, and lack of health services.”

For the sake of conciseness, I want to focus on the last two reasons as examples: risky jobs and lack of health services.

High-Risk Jobs

According to a list from, the top five most dangerous jobs in Canada, most of which are exclusive to rural areas, are:

  1. Fishing & Trapping
  2. Mining, Quarrying and Oil Wells
  3. Logging & Forestry
  4. Construction
  5. Transportation & Storage

In an article released by the American Addiction Centers, alcohol and substance abuse in rural Canada is higher in occupations like these because “many blue-collar jobs are physically demanding and involve intense manual labor that can lead to work-related injuries. Consequently, blue-collar workers may turn to drugs and alcohol for coping with stress and pain.”

Article Resource: “For Canada’s working men, an opioid crisis and blue-collar code of silence are a deadly mixture” – The Globe & Mail

Lack of Health Services

If you live in a rural community and struggle with addiction, the chances of you having the necessary resources to treat your condition may be few and far between.

“Many see small communities as the ideal place to live, and certainly that is true for many people. But there are also a lot of people struggling with issues that have no idea where to go for help, and even if help is available, won’t access it for fear that everyone else in town will find out.”
– Village Missionary

Rural communities have lower availability of substance use disorder services…compared to their urban counterparts,” the Journal of Alcoholism and Drug Dependence states.

Article Resource: Drug abuse in rural communities: ‘It’s everywhere’” –CBC News

Long Travel Distances

I actually addressed this obstacle in my last blog about health & healthcare in rural Canada. When treatment options, no matter your health condition, are not available near you, your next option is to travel to the nearest accessible care.

However, depending on your location and condition, the journey could be quite far, especially if you need specialized care like treatment for addiction.

The University of Northern British Columbia tells us that “it’s not uncommon for persons requiring specialized health services or diagnostic testing to travel 200 kilometres or more to the nearest hospital.”

“Detox’s and mental health supports are all at least 1/2 hour drive or an hour drive away and always full or overbooked.”
– Village Missionary 

Geographic Isolation

But what if help cannot wait? What if immediate medical attention is required? Another angle to consider is how geography plays a big role in emergency medical services and the police response to overdose cases or illicit drug activities.

An article released by Maclean’s states that “Canada’s growing opioid crisis is hitting rural regions hard – harder, arguably, than cities with emergency services and health care supports for the addicted.”

Additionally, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police also share this concern, saying that “the unique populations and expansive geographies [of rural areas]…make it difficult for RCMP offices to respond to calls, based on the sheer distance they have to travel.”

Video Resource: RCMP Remote PolicingCourage in Red

Video Resource: 300 additional RCMP officers will battle rural crimeEdmonton Journal


“People who want to be left alone to drink or do drugs or whatever they want to do often move to places where there are not a lot of people and where the police do not patrol very often. When the closest police station is a half hour drive away, it is a perfect spot to be left alone.”
– Village Missionary

Consequences of Addiction

Addiction not only can permanently jeopardize one’s physical, mental, and emotional health. However, it also can reap other devastating consequences – fractured relationships, broken homes, unemployment, and hopelessness, among many others.

Here are a couple of tragic stories from Village Missionaries who have personally seen how alcohol and substance abuse in rural Canada has affected their communities.

“One of the men who lives in town is permanently disabled from a car accident from driving drunk many years ago. One of the heavy drinkers who had quit – or almost quit – drinking last summer due to severe liver problems died, likely as a result of years of heavy alcohol abuse.”

“Some years ago our neighbor across the street, who has since left town, was a well-known drug dealer. For years, a woman who lived down the street was also a dealer and user, and suffered violent outbursts of rage and delusion from her addictions. The town has also had a violent stabbing that was drug related, as well as some break-ins and thefts for drug money. A First Nations teenage girl died of an overdose of alcohol, and the Reserve suffers greatly from alcohol and drug abuse. Those are just a few examples of the grief that substance abuse and addictions cause in our small town.”

How Village Missionaries Help

Our missionaries and their congregations cannot magically heal someone of their addiction. And sadly, there are times when their offer of support is rejected, or there just are not enough resources to help everyone.

But whenever they see an open door to help someone suffering from addiction, Village Missionaries have done so. They and their church families can offer counseling or drives to the doctor, compassion, and accountability.

Most importantly, they can point people who feel unloved and hopeless to the perfect love and true hope of Christ. The rural church can truly be a lifeline for folks struggling with addiction who feel alone, isolated, ashamed, despairing, and have no one else to turn to.

As a former heroin addict writes in an article for The Gospel Coalition: The local church has been with me every step of the way, providing a steady flow of doctrine to help me learn about God, support when I’ve wanted to give up, and a community of believers who’ve helped me fight temptation and held me accountable. I would not be where I am today without the local church.”

Jesus says in Mark 2:17 that “those who are well have no need for a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Let us remember that we are all sick and need a Physician, the One who can cleanse us from the sin that entangles all of our hearts and souls.

May many folks who struggle with addiction in rural Canada encounter the love of Christ through the ministries of Village Missionaries and their churches.

“Helping folks with addictions takes a lot of time, patience, and love – and can be a long-term process. We learn to rejoice in the little steps towards progress. Jesus is their only hope.”
– Terry & Jane Baskin / Grindrod, BC



The Gospel Coalition has written many helpful articles on how the church can love and serve those who struggle with addiction (alcohol, drugs, pornography, eating disorders, etc.). You can access their resources here:

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