With the closure of the Yellowknife liquor warehouse came an increase in prices for bars, restaurants and ultimately, consumers.

But like Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart said in a recent interview, “No one is going to go out to a bar or a restaurant and pay $15 for a pint of beer. That’s a toxic pricing condition for the hospitality business.”

Closing down the warehouse side of business was a good start for the Department of Finance.

But there is more work to be done. The NWT Liquor and Cannabis Commission (NTLCC), liquor licensing board and liquor enforcement division are a fossilized, stone age remnant of the “devil” alcohol days of prohibition in the 1920s are all in dire need of an update into the 21st century.

The NWT Liquor Licensing Board and NTLCC have never been free to carry on business as if it were a private, profit-maximizing commercial enterprise free of government influence. Rather, the government exercises considerable control over both the commission and the licensing board – both of which fall under the regime of the Department of Finance– and requires it to exercise its powers and to carry on business in a way that implements government polices within the parameters set out by the NWT Liquor Act and related legislation.

This is great if checking off boxes was its only consideration, but it shouldn’t be. The North is a tough place to do business and the liquor commission only makes it harder.

With vacant storefronts littering downtown and any number of pubs and restaurants opening and closing every year, the GNWT should at least consider the commission’s impact on the bar and restaurant industry.

One has only to remember back two short years ago when the NWT Brewing Company was being forced to sell its locally-made beers to the commission before it could be sold to local businesses, effectively raising the cost of its beer to well over that of major beer producers down south, such as Molson and Labatt’s, to see how out of touch the commission is.

Surely the liquor commission is aware of contradictions in the booze industry: that if restaurants, bars and clubs cannot buy product at wholesale, but must pay the new distributor – the city’s two liquor stores – its full retail price, then they must squeeze their own margins as much as they can manage when reselling to their clientele? No “discount program” is going to offset the costs to bars, restaurants or to consumers for the cost that was already egregiously out of proportion in the territory.

To top it off, yet another review will be done on current pricing. The interests of “stakeholders” are hardly a mystery. It’s not like retail and hospitality sectors are going to say they don’t want a reduction in beer, wine and hard liquor prices.

As for enforcement, the Department of Finance maintains a $12-million revolving fund as directed under the NWT Liquor Act. That fund paid out more than $460,000 toward liquor enforcement, including salaries, wages and employee benefits in 2018. With a measly 15 compliance hearings between 2011 and 2018, it really would pay to ask, why the GNWT still maintains these archaic entities?

With such a small number of cases, it would make more sense to put enforcement of the Liquor Act in the hands of police and the courts.

The territorial government has made a great first step toward change with the closure of its Yellowknife warehouse.

But it’s time for a full review of not only the Liquor Act, but the commission and liquor licensing board as well.

 

An earlier version of this editorial stated the NWT Liquor Licensing Board and NTLCC fell under the Department of Justice; the liquor licensing board and liquor commission are administered under the Department of Finance.

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