Minister orders review of N.W.T. liquor rules in response to business complaints

Robert C. McLeod says the review will look at instructions the minister can give the board, as well as the Liquor Act and regulations.

Robert C. McLeod: There have been 'concerns about some of the decision-making'

(David Thurton/CBC)

A quiet review of the N.W.T. Liquor Licensing Board is underway, but that may not go far enough for some.

The minister responsible for the board says he ordered the review last month, after receiving complaints from businesses that sell alcohol.

"We've asked for it because the guidelines and regulatory framework they operate under haven't been looked at for a while," said Robert C. McLeod, the territory's minister of Finance, the department the board operates under.

"So I think it's incumbent on us to take a look at it because we are getting some concerns about some of the decision-making."

Anti-alcohol accusations

Those concerns include accusations from some businesses that the board is on a mission to curb the sale of alcohol in the territory.

"The N.W.T. liquor board is not looking to support, help, move businesses forward," said Kathy McBryan, who runs a tourism business and campground as well as other businesses in Hay River.

"They're looking to prevent liquor sales in the Northwest Territories as much as possible."

Minister Robert C. McLeod says he ordered the review because liquor rules haven't been revamped since 2008: 'We are getting some concerns about some of the decision-making.' (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

McBryan, like several businesspeople CBC spoke to in Yellowknife, say the board gives little or no explanation for its decisions, many of which seem arbitrary.

Businesspeople also say it refuses to work with them to try to find solutions.

For example, McBryan says she asked for a permit to sell liquor at a special event held on the Hay River beach this summer.

The board insisted there be a fence between the drinking area and the water, presumably to prevent any intoxicated people from drowning. That's despite the fact that the Liquor Act allows for the sale of liquor on commercial ships.

Similarly, when a Yellowknife fitness business applied to renew its licence after expanding its deck area with a hot tub — which has been licensed for decades without incident — the board decided it is now dangerous to have the hot tub in the licensed area.

A fence also had to be built to prevent people on the deck from passing alcohol to those scrambling up the steep rocks on the other side.

Businesses say they find such decisions baffling because they are not based on anything specific in the law or regulations.

Liquor sales in the N.W.T. are a $50 million industry. (CBC)

$50M industry

The board, which is appointed by the minister, regulates liquor sales in the N.W.T., a $50 million industry.

The last time the main set of rules it operates under were revamped was in 2008.

McLeod says the review will examine guidelines, or instructions, the minister can give the board, as well as the Liquor Act and regulations. A cabinet official said it's expected to be complete by the end of the fiscal year, March 31.

But McLeod says any solutions found before then will be implemented.

"We had some concerns on the beer distribution from a local supplier, so we're looking at different options to see if we can have something in place by the end of the month," he said.

The only micro-brewery in the territory, The NWT Brewing Company, is one of the businesses that has publicly criticized the board.

It wants to sell its beer to local bars but says under the rules the board has dictated, it must sell the beer for more than the price it charges individual customers.

Outdated legislation?

McBryan says things would improve if liquor licensing in the N.W.T. worked the way it does in just about any other jurisdiction.

"When you look at Yukon and you look at Alberta and you look at everyone else that does tourism right… their liquor acts make ours look juvenile and outdated and obsolete," said McBryan.

McBryan says the board is unnecessary and that liquor licensing could be run by part of the government bureaucracy.

But McLeod says eliminating the board is not one of the options being considered in the review.

"They do serve a purpose. We need to just make sure we give them the proper tools and guidelines to work under."