The NWT government has ruled out closing liquor stores during the coronavirus pandemic, bucking calls from Indigenous leaders for territory-wide restrictions.
The move aims to avoid overloading the health system and emergency services with those struggling with addiction, Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek told reporters Thursday.
Closing stores wouldn’t necessarily end the gatherings and social harms springing from alcohol use, she said.
“Closing the liquor stores doesn’t actually accomplish that goal wholesale,” Wawzonek said.
“What (restrictions) can do is in fact make addictions situations worse. For people who are particularly addicted, it could turn to more dangerous, more problematic substances, even more unhealthy behaviours.”
She said municipal and Indigenous governments may enforce temporary restrictions or temporary prohibitions on the community level, but didn’t rule out possible territorial action against bootlegging. There are 15 NWT communities with prohibition or alcohol restrictions in place before the pandemic.
Last Friday, Dene national chief Norman Yakeleya called for the territorial government to immediately strike a working group to tackle the issue and impose territory-wide restrictions.
He said action had to be taken at once.
“We cannot wait until Sunday, Monday. We’ve got to do it now,” he said. “The motion speaks to Saturday. We have to know that this is how serious it is and that the chiefs have spoken.”
Inuvialuit Regional Corporation chair and chief executive Duane Smith joined that call for restrictions in a news release on Monday, calling it a vital safety measure.
Asked about the urgency expressed by the Dene Nation, Wawzonek said the issue would require a longer term response.
“Longer term solutions won’t happen in a day or a week,” she said, acknowledging alcohol as a long standing issue in the NWT. “The longer term solutions are going to take more than that.”
She added communities could adapt local police priorities to their specific concerns as needed.
Ten communities don’t have RCMP officers, however. In response, Wawzonek said those without detachments can still discuss and change matters with police.
More restrictions may come, minister says
Wawzonek left the door open for the creation of the working group requested by the Dene Nation, and an “amount of restrictions,” particularly to tackle bootlegging. That said, she wanted to avoid restrictions on purchasing that would simply lead to consumers to making more visits to the liquor store.
“It would be to target those abusing alcohol or taking advantage of people who are addicted to alcohol,” she said, adding she didn’t want to signal to those individuals what those restrictions would be right now.
“We can’t stop all bootlegging,” she said, adding legal, responsible consumption wasn’t a target. Suspicious purchases were more a concern, she said, but stopped short of specific measures.
“If I come out and say, we’re going to restrict A, B, and C. … Then the very thing (bootleggers) are going to do is turn around purchase A, B, and C,” she said.