Alcohol restrictions should be up to communities, Marc Miller, federal minister of Indigenous services, told reporters Friday.
The issue has been a recent source of contention, with the NWT government ruling out territory-wide restrictions despite calls to do so from Indigenous leaders such as Dene National chief Norman Yakeleya and Inuvialuit Regional Corporation chair and executive Duane Smith.
In a media briefing Friday, Miller described dry communities as a “mitigated success” but said it wasn’t his place to tell leaders how to approach the issue.
“I’m in no position to dictate to a community how they should deal with alcohol sales, or addiction in particular,” he said, noting the discussion has extended far outside of NWT.
Miller said he hoped better addiction treatment practices emerged after the crisis, but added residents may find ways around restrictions.
“People have very innovative ways of procuring alcohol. It isn’t limited to liquor stores, so too with drugs,” he said. “Particularly in crisis, I like to take a public health approach to this and try to ensure we’re not judging.”
Dr. Tom Wong, chief medical officer with Indigenous services, said that “no one size fits all” when it comes to alcohol restrictions.
“The community knows the community best, (and) the best way to address this issue,” he said.
“Reduction in the use of alcohol and other dependence on other substances is important. You want yourself to be as healthy as possible. How you want to go about doing it, the solution is in the community.”
As of Friday, the Hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk was enforcing a temporary prohibition on alcohol running from April 10 to April 19. Tsiigetchic was also enforcing a prohibition from April 11 to April 20.
NWT government avoids territory-wide restrictions
The minister’s comments follow a back-and-forth between some Indigenous governments pushing for wider measures, and the NWT government avoiding any territory-wide liquor store closures.
On April 3, Dene national chief Norman Yakelaya made a four point call to restrict alcohol and cannabis during the crisis. Among those proposals was the striking of an intergovernmental working group, support for Dene people headed out on the land, and funds for those managing alcohol withdrawal.
On Thursday, Yellowknives Dene First Nations Chiefs Edward Sangris and Ernest Betsina backed those calls, noting the proximity of Yellowknife liquor stores to their communities.
“That is one of the biggest contributors I think to spreading the Covid-19 and mass gatherings and partying. So we put a motion to the GNWT to at least reduce hours and reduce the amount of alcohol that is taken out of the liquor store,” Sangris told NNSL Media.
On Thursday, NWT finance minister Caroline Wawzonek opted against closing liquor stores, but left the door open for action against bootlegging, along with community-specific measures like temporary prohibitions and striking a working group.
“Closing the liquor stores doesn’t actually accomplish that goal wholesale,” Wawzonek told reporters.
“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.”