FLIN FLON — Northern Manitoba is either ahead of the fluoridation curve or it’s falling behind.

A recent referendum in Churchill, in which a majority called for the end of fluoridation, was just the latest chapter in a movement sweeping the North. Since the mid-1990s, Snow Lake, Cranberry Portage and Flin Flon have all ceased fluoridating water.

They joined the North’s largest (and Manitoba’s third-largest) centre, Thompson, which, despite some requests to the contrary, has always offered fluoride-free water.

The only major northern community still fluoridating is The Pas. But that might change. A Facebook page titled Concern of Fluoride in The Pas’ Drinking Water has been set up.

The fluoride dominoes started to fall in 2005, when tiny Snow Lake, of all places, yanked the cavity-fighting compound from its drinking water.

Marc Jackson, publisher of Snow Lake’s lone newspaper, recalls the town chlorination system breaking down, resulting in a boil-water advisory.

“In order to feed chlorine into the system and get levels up to acceptable standards, the fluoride pump was used to feed chlorine,” he says. “From what I recall, it worked well and whether it was a conscious decision or not, when the problem with the chlorine system was repaired, fluoride was not added from that point forward. There had been a bit of concern over the fact that the town was adding fluoride to the drinking water.”

Four years later, on Jan. 1, 2009, Cranberry Portage went fluoride-free. Earlier this year, Cranberry Portage’s decision garnered attention in Calgary. In an editorial, the Calgary Herald’s Naomi Lakritz called on her city to follow the rural town’s lead and expunge inorganic fluoride from the water supply.

Calgary’s civic leaders voted to do just that in February, weeks before Flin Flon city council jumped into the fray. Council first voted not to purchase a fluoride distributor for its new water treatment plant, opening in 2012.

That sparked some controversy and a visit by Manitoba Health officials, who implored council to reconsider. Council was unrepentant and in July voted nearly unanimously to pull fluoride immediately, not next year.

“There’s no other drug in the world that someone can give me without my informed consent,” Bill Hanson, the councillor who led the charge, said at the time. “And I don’t think it’s ethical at all for us to be treating our water system as a way of medicating the people.”

Such statements emboldened the anti-fluoride troops in the next battleground, Churchill. But while the (non-binding) referendum in October saw 58 per cent of voters against fluoridation, fewer than 30 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots.

That sort of mandate may be weak, but Churchill town council must still give serious thought to joining the ranks of other northern communities that have done away with fluoride.

“It is maybe just a few years ago that Churchill’s water was served raw and untreated with no additives,” notes Wally Daudrich, a Churchill businessman and former federal Conservative candidate.

Increasingly, northerners are moving away from the consensus that fluoride is a safe and effective means of combatting tooth decay. Still, Manitoba Health says all but five per cent of Manitobans on the public water supply drink fluoridated water.

It may only be a matter of time before the trend reaches southern Manitoba, particularly Winnipeg, where fluoride has been surprisingly absent amid the coffee shop chatter.

Most oral-health experts continue to support fluoridation, but enough questions have been raised to give the average person pause. And out of the northern debate, one rather puzzling question has repeatedly surfaced: If fluoridation is so good for us, why won’t the provincial government make it a requirement?

As this dispute unfolds from north to south, as it surely will, let’s hope communities emulate Churchill, not Flin Flon, Snow Lake or Cranberry Portage, and put the issue to the people.

“I think our town has taken the right approach by holding a vote,” says Daudrich.

He may be a politician in a divided country, but Daudrich is unlikely to find argument over that line.