La Ronge votes in favour of liquor restrictions councillor says could save lives, but opposition remains

The Town of La Ronge has voted to support cutting back liquor sales on certain days as part of a wider strategy to reduce alcohol-related harm, but there is continuing opposition from some councillors and business owners.

Some business owners, councillors opposed to changes to when liquor can be sold, municipal sales tax

Changes to the way liquor is allowed to be sold are coming to La Ronge, Sask., after the town voted in favour of a new alcohol strategy which will include restrictions. (marathonmouth)

The Town of La Ronge has voted in favour of a new liquor strategy that will include sales restrictions, but there is continuing opposition from some councillors and business owners.

Councillors voted five to two last Wednesday in favour of new rules that would limit liquor sales on certain days and cut back on the hours when alcohol can be sold in the northern Saskatchewan town.

The rules were proposed by the Northern Alcohol Strategy committee —  a committee created by the province to work on community-based solutions — to reduce what it called "alcohol-fuelled harm and crime" in La Ronge.

"There are going to be residents that oppose certain aspects of the plan. However I think that we can all agree that if implementation of any of these options can even save one life, it is most definitely worth it," said town Coun. Matt Klassen.

"If any of these options implemented can save one individual from suicide, the whole plan is worth it."

Although a previous version of the strategy said liquor sales would be prohibited on certain days, the approved strategy states that it should be "limited." 

One of the new rules would limit alcohol sales on Sundays, statutory holidays, month-end paydays and Canada Child Benefit payment days.

Councillors also passed a motion putting a five per cent sales tax on liquor, with plans to use those funds to improve public safety.

The changes, some of which stirred controversy when they were first tabled last July, will not be implemented until they have been drafted and passed as bylaws.

Survey suggests community support

Klassen believes all of the measures will be beneficial because, he said, they are backed by evidence.

He said the town would soon start drafting bylaw changes in consultation with the leaders of the neighbouring communities of Air Ronge and Lac La Ronge Indian Band.

"If any of these options implemented can save one individual from suicide, the whole plan is worth it,' says La Ronge Coun. Matt Klassen. (Town of La Ronge)

Klassen was the town council's representative on the committee for the regional Community Alcohol Management Plan, which also included representatives from the education, social services and justice ministries.

The committee created the plan in an attempt to reduce health problems, hospitalizations, violence, crime and youth truancy in the community. 

Last week's vote on the new strategy and tax change follows a community survey run by the La Ronge and District Chamber of Commerce.

According to the motion, 94.85 per cent of participants said they believe there are problems with alcohol in the community and 64 per cent said incidents of alcohol-related harm were increasing.

Just less than 77 per cent of respondents said they supported changes to policies and laws related to alcohol.

Klassen said he had received mostly positive feedback but some opposition, primarily from the business community, to the new strategy.  

Some council members opposed

Jordan McPhail was one of two town council members who voted against the changes, along with Mayor Ron Woytowich.

Although McPhail said he supports most of the measures included in the strategy, he thinks cutting back liquor sales on certain days will lead to an increase in bootlegging if the restrictions fall on consecutive days.

"I do work in a lot of the northern communities where I do see a lot of bootlegging. Once again, that is mainly due to a total prohibition," he said.

"That's where my concern would lie, is the idea that if [the stores are] closed for multiple days or a couple of days in a row then there might be an increase in bootlegging."

The plan approved by town council includes some options to block bootlegging, including a free permit system for purchasing large amounts of alcohol, and hopes that the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority will establish a database to track sales to individuals in La Ronge. 

But McPhail thinks the changes could also make Highway 2 to Prince Albert more dangerous by increasing highway traffic from people travelling to buy liquor. He worries the changes could also hurt tourism.

He wants to see the measures outlined in the strategy considered individually, which Klassen said was part of the plan.

Klassen added the town and the committee would continue to monitor the new rules after they are implemented and consider changes if they are required.

Drinking culture must change: doctor

La Ronge-based public health physician James Irvine was also part of the committee that developed the strategy.

He said changes to public policy are just one aspect of addressing alcohol-related problems in the community.

Irvine said he thinks there is agreement within the community that something must be done to address the issue but more discussion will be needed to agree on the specifics.

He personally feels that changing attitudes toward drinking would go a long way to reducing alcohol-related harm.

"Changing the concept that over-indulgence of alcohol is normal," is key, said Irvine.

"As [Saskatchewan author] Harold Johnson often describes … we need to change the story," Irvine said.

"Alcohol is not needed to have a good time. We don't need alcohol in all our social circumstances and all of our recreational activities. We need to be providing choice, we need to provide alternatives."

He said some efforts have already been made to increase the number of alcohol-free social events.