What’s it like to be a non-drinker at a Canadian university?

Alcohol is seen as a big part of student life, but plenty of students choose not to partake
Stacy Lee Kong
St. Francis Xavier student Hillary Downey (middle w/glasses) plays a board game and drinks tea with friends. Clockwise from left: Sarah Johnson, Tyler MacLaughlin, Hillary Downey, Allyson Parker, Ashley Stephen, Joanna Alphonso. (Photograph by Andrew Tolson)

St. Francis Xavier University student Hillary Downey has never had a drink. Not with high school friends, not as a special treat to ring in the new year, not even when she got to university.

“I have never consumed alcohol in my life,” the 23-year-old says. “Partially, that’s because of my religion—I am Christian. There are lots of Christians who do drink, but it is something that I decided wouldn’t be a part of my own practice. [Even if I wasn’t religious,] I probably still wouldn’t drink, though. I don’t like the idea of something dulling my senses to the point where I might not be in control of my decision-making abilities. And I would much rather put the money I might spend on alcohol toward nachos!”

Downey’s not alone. Ask just about any expert, and you’ll be told that today’s youth are drinking less. According to Monitoring the Future, a University of Michigan research project that has conducted annual surveys of 50,000 American students every year since 1975, the number of Grade 12 students who engaged in binge drinking at least once in the previous two weeks “significantly declined” last year to 14 per cent. And the numbers for Grade 12 students who have tried alcohol in the preceding 30 days (30 per cent) and those who have been drunk in the preceding 30 days (18 per cent) are at their lowest levels ever. In 2017, investment banking firm Berenberg surveyed 6,000 16- to 22-year-olds to determine their approach to drinking and found that young people are drinking 20 per cent less per capita than previous generations did. A 2018 World Health Organization report found teen drinking was declining across Europe, too; the United Kingdom saw the sharpest drop. Here in Canada, the number of youth aged 12 to 17 who have consumed alcohol in the previous 12 months is down from 27 per cent in 2015 to 25.6 per cent in 2018, according to Statistics Canada. And the McCreary Centre Society, which surveyed 38,000 British Columbia students in Grades 7 to 12 last year, reports that 61 per cent of teens who drank the Saturday before taking the survey engaged in binge drinking; the figure was 76 per cent in 2013.

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There’s just one thing: it seems no one told Canadian students. There’s still a robust drinking culture on many campuses—last year, St. FX students told Maclean’s they had consumed an average of 8.5 drinks per week, and this year that number is up to 9.9. In fact, all the averages for the top-ranking schools for drinks-per-week are up this year. “It’s rare for me to find someone else who doesn’t drink,” Downey says. “I can really only think of one other student I’ve met at X who doesn’t drink, though I obviously haven’t had this conversation with everyone I’ve come into contact with.”

That’s what Maclean’s heard from other university students who also abstain from alcohol. We interviewed eight Canadian non-drinkers and most said they were the minority among their peers. What’s more, many said it had a negative impact on their social lives.

“I drank in my first year of university and a bit in my second,” says Taylor Nieuwdorp, a 24-year-old in her final semester at the University of Lethbridge. “I did have fun that first year, and I have some great memories with my friends. But I don’t like the feeling of being intoxicated. I get motion sickness from the dizziness, and I end up feeling sad and tired, not to mention the hangover.”

Eventually, Nieuwdorp cut back on those nights out. She’d always disliked the taste of alcohol, and since she was no longer going clubbing, she felt as though she didn’t really have a reason to drink anymore. But while that decision was better for her mental health—and her wallet, for that matter—it wasn’t great for her social life. For a while, she’d hang out with friends before they headed out to a club and she went back home. But since those get-togethers involved pre-drinking and Nieuwdorp wasn’t participating, they weren’t much fun, either. “I think some of my friends at the time thought I had lost interest in hanging out with them, so I stopped being invited,” she says. “My closest friends, who I hung out with outside of those party events, made it through. My best friend loves alcohol and goes out drinking a lot with her other friends, but we make time for each other and have our own activities we like to do that aren’t centred around alcohol.”

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Still, she continues to feel excluded from the overall social scene at her school. “It is happening around me as I try to finish my degree,” she says. “But I don’t think that’s where I belong anyway. I am very happy with my friends. I have selected [them] as individuals rather than . . . a social circle.”

Zeahaa Rehman, a 21-year-old University of Toronto Mississauga student who is a non-drinker—for her, it’s because of religion—says she also feels excluded. “You just sort of felt like an outsider looking in. I couldn’t share the same kind of jokes. You know, people would start talking about the craziest thing they’d done when they were drunk, or what their worst hangover was, and I was just kind of silent.”

These students’ peers are not ostracizing them for not drinking. Nieuwdorp’s peers are surprised but mostly understanding—“aside from the odd stranger [who assumes] that I don’t drink because I’m a recovering alcoholic and has a hard time believing I would give up alcohol for any other reason,” she says. And Rehman’s friends are generally unfazed, although she says when she goes to parties or social events where people are drinking, she rarely finds any alternatives to alcohol on offer. “Most of the time I’ll just be having water,” she says.

But that’s not always the case. Jessie Borsellino, a 24-year-old recent Ryerson grad, remembers being pressured to drink more than once.

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Borsellino’s grandfather passed away from complications that stemmed from his addiction to alcohol just before she was born, so growing up she was surrounded by conversations about addiction and alcoholism. So “alcohol consumption to me seems very serious and painful and not really something to do for fun at a party or with my friends,” she says. “I never really minded when other people wanted to drink, but I was never interested in the same way.”

She didn’t want to dig into painful family history any time someone offered her a beer, though. In her first year, she decided to give the stereotypical university social life a try. She went to a few parties, but when she was inevitably offered a drink and said no, her peers didn’t take her seriously. She remembers one party in particular where the host—a fellow student—insisted that she drink.

“I didn’t want to get into it, so I just said, ‘I don’t really drink.’ The problem with that excuse, I guess, was he didn’t really take that seriously and started convincing me to drink. He became really pushy, trying everything to get me to drink. I was so uncomfortable and got quiet, hoping he’d back off,” she says.

At first, it seemed he would, but when he went upstairs to get everyone else’s drinks, he came back with one for Borsellino, too. “He set it down in front of me and said something along the lines of, ‘I took the time to make this for you, so you have to drink it.’” Though she felt guilty for not drinking, she says, “I stuck to it. I was like, you know what, that’s on him. But I left the party early. As someone who’s already pretty introverted and shy, it really made me stop going to these social events altogether—the anxiety around somebody not accepting my answer.”

Large street parties and public drinking are still popular in Kingston’s University District (Photography By Jalani Morgan)

Of course, not only other students draw attention to non-drinkers’ difference. Schools themselves can, however inadvertently, emphasize it. School-sanctioned orientation events are usually dry, but frosh week, the party-centred introduction to university that is usually hosted by student unions, is not. Sometimes students who don’t drink feel as though it’s not for them.

“I chose to not attend frosh week partially because it was so centred around ‘getting wasted to have a good time,’ ” says Brianna Lalonde, a 20-year-old University of Lethbridge student. Nieuwdorp, who also attends U of L, agrees. “There was a lot of alcohol during frosh week. My introduction to university was a lot of clubbing and a lot of partying and pre-drinking in the student housing common area, which was essentially a room built for drinking games. There was also a university-sponsored dance called a cabaret, which focused on alcohol, and there were other alcohol-focused activities that first week.”

Rehman also skipped her frosh week, although orientation events helped her learn about the school and its services. “I’m not a big crowd person, so I just chose not to attend frosh,” she says. “[Most of the comments I heard] afterwards were that people got a lot of new numbers they never called, so I didn’t feel like I was missing out.”

Despite the intensity of frosh week and many first-year students’ over-the-top enthusiasm for partying, many students told Maclean’s that drinking became less of a priority for their peers later in their university careers. But the schools themselves continued to perpetuate drinking culture through another, perhaps unexpected, venue.

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“Even more than feeling excluded from [parties and clubbing], I felt really out of place at networking events,” Borsellino says. “I [was in] in a program that provided a lot of networking opportunities. I felt it was important to go to them, but the student groups that were organizing them would push heavily for having alcohol or free drink tickets or a paid bar—whatever they could get, pretty much.”

Borsellino acknowledges that no one was forcing her to drink. But everyone noticed when she didn’t, so she didn’t exactly feel at ease. “I started worrying that I may not be seen as professional or as a real adult or something like that,” she says. “That isn’t necessarily rational, but when everybody else is drinking and they’re like, ‘Why aren’t you drinking?’ I was just worried that I would seem like a kid.”

Elham Numan has noticed the same thing. She’s 25 and going into her last year at University of Toronto Mississauga. While she noticed less pressure to drink the longer she was in school, she has also noticed that something has shifted now that she’s so close to graduating. “I think it’s starting to affect [me] the same way it did when I first started university. When I go to events that relate to working, I feel the same sort of apprehensiveness. It doesn’t make it uncomfortable, but it’s sort of a hassle to use the same tactics I had to use when I started university: familiarizing myself with who else is going and what I should expect, or making sure to have an easy exit.”

But not all non-drinkers have seen a negative impact on their social lives. Downey, the St. Francis Xavier student who’s never tried alcohol, is completing a two-year bachelor of education program and says her time at St. FX has been quite different from her undergrad experience at Mount Allison University. “I have a lot more friends at X than I did at MtA, which invites more opportunities for attending events where drinking will occur,” she says. “I also have more free time on my hands to attend these functions than I did during my undergrad. But despite the availability of alcohol, I have never felt pressured to participate, nor have I felt that my experience has been lessened because I was sober. I love that I can go out with my friends and enjoy their company without feeling pressured, and I love that they love having me there even though I don’t drink. Not drinking hasn’t impacted my life in the slightest.”

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Inam Teja, a recent Western University grad, says his post-secondary experience was the same. “I felt like I had a very robust social life, regardless of the fact that I didn’t drink. I still went to plenty of parties. I’m okay being around drunk people as a non-drinker—that doesn’t bother me. I found that it wasn’t a problem for me to decline a drink when it was offered or make a joke about it, and [if] someone pushed me, I said it was mental health-related and it was fine.”

Teja, who joined a fraternity during his first year at Western, admits he was a bit nervous about starting school as a non-drinker, especially when he considered the university’s reputation as a party school. But that didn’t last long. “I’m a pretty confident and outgoing person, and I figured there’s like 30,000 students there. Chances are I’m going to find a few I get along with.”

A few people did question his decision not to drink. Although some students struggle with that peer pressure, Teja laughed it off—or called them out. “People would occasionally push back against [me for not drinking], and I usually just poked fun at them. I’d be like, ‘Oh really? You’re trying to pressure me to drink. What are you?’ I would sort of turn it around on them,” he says. “I didn’t really have any trouble navigating those social situations.”

Among the students Maclean’s talked to, those who feel their social lives are unaffected by their non-drinking status are more the exception than the rule. But this might be shifting. “Compared to stories I’ve heard from older people and my knowledge of my parents’ university experience, I would say [that] not drinking is much more common now and that the majority of people are super cool about it,” says University of Lethbridge student Lalonde.

And perhaps that’s because they’re replacing it with something else. “I have noticed a lot of people … favour marijuana to alcohol, especially now that it is legalized,” Nieuwdorp says. “It is more common to not drink but smoke weed than it is to just not drink.”

This article appears in print in the 2020 University Rankings issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “What do you mean you’re not drinking?” Order a copy of the issue here or subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.