Fort Simpson needs more resources to handle lifting of alcohol restrictions, say community leaders

Leaders in Fort Simpson say more resources are needed to help with the root causes of alcohol consumption on the eve of the lifting of restrictions of alcohol sales in the community.

Leaders looking to establish a warming centre to ‘help mitigate any potential bad effects’

Community leaders in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., say they need more resources to help 'mitigate any potential bad effects' from increased consumption in light of the coming lifting of restrictions on alcohol sales. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Restrictions on the amount of liquor residents of Fort Simpson, N.W.T., can buy in a day will be lifted in the coming weeks, but the Liidlii Kue First Nation (LKFN) is concerned the community lacks the resources to meaningfully address a potential surge in alcohol consumption. 

Many communities in the Northwest Territories impose controls on the amount of alcohol that can be purchased in a day, or in some cases an outright ban on the sale of alcohol. Fort Simpson is a "restricted" community, meaning only a limited amount of alcohol can be sold to a person on any given day.

In a plebiscite held last Thursday, residents of the village voted overwhelmingly in favour of removing those restrictions.

The change is welcomed by some, who say the ration system benefited bootleggers and did not solve substance use issues in the community, but the Liidlii Kue First Nation is concerned about the harm that could follow the lifting of the restrictions. 

Kele Antoine, LKFN's sub-chief, said while they weren't necessarily against the plebiscite, they wanted to have a bigger conversation about how to manage existing issues related to trauma, mental health and addictions in the community. 

"It's one big cycle ... and without the proper resources … how do we attempt to solve these issues?" asked Antoine. 

He said there needs to be a comprehensive addiction treatment centre in the Northwest Territories, "one that's developed in the North, by people that are from here … ideally taking place on the land."

Currently residents of the N.W.T. travel to southern addiction treatment centres for help.

There won't be limits on the amount of alcohol allowed to be sold in Fort Simpson liquor stores anymore after residents voted to lift restrictions decades-old restrictions. (Sylvia Pascua Matte)

Bootlegging rampant issue in Fort Simpson

The mayor of Fort Simpson, Sean Whelly, said it's hard to predict how the transition away from rationing liquor will affect the community. 

He said the community needs more resources to address the root problems which cause issues with consumption. 

Whelly said you can't solve substance abuse through rationing. 

"It might dampen the problem, but it doesn't go away."

That's part of the reason why Owen Rowe, co-owner of Rowe's Construction, was for the plebiscite. 

He said liquor rationing in Fort Simpson has led to rampant bootlegging in the community, which puts community members at a greater risk of harm. 

Liquor stores are controlled and employees can refuse service, but bootleggers "don't care" whether someone is already intoxicated, he said. 

"How is that helping people who are unable to manage their consumption?" he asked.

He said the community needs more mental health services and support systems, but that's been true since he moved to Fort Simpson in 1988. 

Warming centre on the horizon?

The village of Fort Simpson, along with the Liidlii Kue First Nation, are looking at options to help "mitigate any potential bad effects" from increased consumption, Whelly said. 

He said a steering committee in Fort Simpson has been looking at establishing a warming centre in the community.

Fort Simpson Mayor Sean Whelly said it's hard to predict how the transition away from rationing liquor will affect the village. He said the community needs more resources to address the root problems which cause issues with consumption. (Submitted by Sean Whelly)

It would help provide temporary shelter for several people in the community who are housing insecure. 

Whelly said people may find themselves in a more stressed situation because of the pandemic. 

Couch surfing, a source of shelter for some, may be less accessible as people are being asked to limit their social circles. 

Whelly said the steering committee has already identified two "promising" locations for the warming centre — the former Unity building and a vacant federal house — but members of the committee are unsure whether they will have the funding and personnel to run it.

The better location of the two, Whelly said, would be the former Unity building. Muaz Hassan, the owner of Unity, opened a new location last week, and the previous one is being used for storage. 

Hassan said he knows what it means to be in a state of emergency. He sees an opportunity to support the community and provide some basic necessities.

Hassan said he knows people are suffering, especially as the weather gets colder.

"At the end of the day, it's a matter of helping people."