A call by chiefs of the Dene Nation to restrict alcohol and cannabis sales in the NWT during the Covid-19 pandemic has elicited a range of responses from community leaders and members.
National Chief Norman Yakeleya on Friday urged that sales be curtailed and that an intergovernmental working group be formed to iron out the details of restrictions and rationing.
He told reporters that action on the issue must be taken immediately because of the devastating effects that the substances are having on small communities.
RELATED REPORTING: Dene Nation asks GNWT to restrict alcohol, cannabis sales at liquor stores
Booze curbs raise tough implications
For Rylund Johnson, MLA for Yellowknife North, the decision on restricting liquor is up to individual communities to make. But he pointed out that the alcohol restriction proposal raises important issues.
“Prohibition is not a position the GNWT should ever take,” he said. “With communities limiting alcohol sales we will see increased bootlegging and strain on our health-care system from withdrawals. I note that bootlegging is only a thing because prohibition makes it so.”
One solution for people who have addictions is to introduce managed alcohol programs where individuals receive free alcohol to “ensure people are not involuntarily detoxing and overwhelming our health-care system,” Johnson said.
The MLA also drew attention to the effects that curtailments could have on local bars and restaurants, already suffering from the pandemic-related economic slump.
“Home delivery of alcohol has been recommended by our liquor board and jurisdictions across Canada are allowing it to provide some hope of scraping by to our restaurants. If I can order delivery food from the Brew Pub, I should be able to add a beer to the delivery. Prohibition is not a solution to helping people in normal times, and it is not a solution to alcoholism during a crisis,” he explained.
City councillor Steve Payne said communities should be given the freedom to make decisions on restrictions for themselves.
“What would work in a small community may not work for a larger community.”
“Restrictions on alcohol and cannabis have deeper implications than we can think of. What about the people who use cannabis for anxiety or CBD oil for pain? What about people struggling with alcoholism? Cold turkey would be hard. It’s a tough call all around,” he said.
Unfair to business
Cutting back on alcohol sales “wouldn’t be fair” for small businesses said Thomas Bentham, marketing manager at the Woodyard Brewhouse and Eatery.
“We’re still operating with a skeleton crew and making sure we can pay most of our employees. We haven’t increased or went out to make increases on our liquor sales. If anything our liquor sales are down by a large amount compared to what they were before. In our case, (restrictions) have already been done.”
The Dene chief’s request reveals the difficult balancing act that stakeholders in the territory are facing, said Renee Comeau, executive director of the NWT Chamber of Commerce.
“We don’t want to downplay the serious addiction issue we have in the NWT. We also have also a lot of responsible business owners as well as customers who purchase these products,” she said.
“We don’t want to see any businesses shut down or see any loss of revenue to the liquor stores, which are privately owned. But some of those recommendations would (also) have negative effects on the hospitality industry that is struggling enough as it is and we don’t want to see any more barriers put in front of them right now.
A range of useful approaches
Yellowknife city councillor Shauna Morgan told NNSL Media that the issue needs to be dealt with carefully and with the input of the appropriate experts.
“The public health strategies need to be informed by Indigenous Elders and knowledge keepers. Dene leaders (have mentioned) a range of different approaches they believe are worthwhile – on-the-land healing programs, mental health hotlines, just telling people to drink or do whatever they want at home but not attend gatherings (i.e. harm reduction). There is no one magic bullet.”
Medical rationale for keeping shops open
The Department of Health and Social Services (HSS) didn’t comment directly on restricting alcohol sales.
However, spokesperson Mike Westwick said there was some medical rationale behind HSS’ decision on March 22 to include liquor stores along with “other essential services” that could remain open while other businesses should be closed to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
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“Many in this territory struggle with alcoholism, alcohol withdrawal is an emergency issue requiring significant resources (and) we don’t want to see those experiencing addiction consuming alcohol not intended to be consumed as beverages,” he said.
“We believe that the public health risk of closing liquor stores outweighs any benefit.”
The GNWT, for its part told NNSL Media that it was considering the Dene Nation’s request to partner on the liquor and cannabis controls.
The Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation (LKDFN) took action against bootlegging in late March when it ordered that suspected alcohol and illegal drug bootleggers and dealers to stop their activities.
Community members refusing to follow the order would have their snow machines confiscated by the LKDFN Covid-19 Response Team, and non-members of LKDFN would be banned from the community.