Nunavut on track to open Iqaluit beer and wine store in 2017

After a 'challenging debate' in Nunavut's cabinet, plans to open a beer and wine store in Iqaluit are well underway. It will be the only retail alcohol outlet in a territory where some communities still have outright bans.

Pilot store will likely open before the end of next summer at city's existing liquor warehouse

The Nunavut government hopes to open a beer and wine retail store in Iqaluit next summer, offering low-alcohol drinks at prices low enough to 'distrupt the bootleggers.' (CBC)

After a 'challenging debate' centring on the lack of addictions treatment in Nunavut, Finance Minister Keith Peterson says plans to open a beer and wine store in Iqaluit next year are well underway.

It will be the only retail alcohol outlet in a territory where some communities still have outright bans.

"There were a lot of discussions and debate at the cabinet level," Peterson told CBC News. "A lot of serious thought went into this."

Last year, political debate on the issue reached a fever pitch when former premier Paul Okalik resigned as Justice and Health Minister, saying he "could not just sit there and accept" the pilot project.

Nunavut Finance Minister Keith Peterson says cabinet is supporting the decision Iqaluit residents made last year. (Nunavut Legislative Assembly)

"My name is Paul and I'm an alcoholic," Okalik said in his emotional announcement in March.

"I cannot support an institution of selling beer and wine in my community, while we don't have the facilities to support those who may not be able to combat their addictions."

Peterson says cabinet is supporting the decision Iqaluit residents made last year, when 77 per cent of people voted in favour of opening the store in a plebiscite — and besides, the community is far from dry. 

"In Iqaluit, you have to realize, you have all the outlets that are selling alcohol products. You have the different venues where you can go and have a drink.

"With permits, you can bring in alcohol. With personal exemptions, you can bring in alcohol. There are the bootleggers out there. It's here already."

Disrupting the bootleggers

There's no definitive date when the store in Iqaluit will open, but Peterson suspects it will be sometime next summer. 

The government plans to renovate its existing liquor warehouse to include a storefront.

"Our intention is to help people with affordable beer and low-content alcohol," Peterson said.

By limiting the store to beer and wine, the government hopes to stop people from resorting to the high-proof liquor that's readily available from bootleggers.

"We're trying to target, disrupt the bootleggers business primarily, and the binge drinking. And at the end of it all, people may have more money to spend on other things, like food, clothes for their children and their families." 

The new store will be the first beer and wine store in the capital in 40 years. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Competitive pricing

In an action plan released this week, the government said it's investigating the possibility of "setting prices based on alcohol content."

But Peterson says he expects the store to be "affordable," adding that one measure of success will be how much alcohol is sold. 

"We might be very generous in terms of selling our products at lower prices."

Right now, residents from many Nunavut communities can purchase alcohol to be shipped from warehouses in Iqaluit and Rankin Inlet. The Nunavut Liquor Commission charges a markup of $26.11 for every litre of spirits it sells.

Wine gets a $7.96 markup/litre, coolers $3.27 and beer $2.37.

Alcohol creates a 'web of challenges' in Nunavut

In its plan, the government says issues related to alcohol "create a difficult web of challenges" in Nunavut.

"The harms and risks associated with alcohol are made worse by other difficult social factors, such as crowded houses, low incomes, low education, and intergenerational trauma," it writes. 

And the report says statistics back that up. 

Nunavut's largest prison, the Baffin Correctional Centre, has stated in reports that 95 per cent of inmates identify as having alcohol- and drug-related problems. 

The territory's chief coroner told the government that 23 per cent of all premature deaths between 1999 and 2007 involved "excessive drinking." 

More than a decade ago, Iqaluit had a treatment centre. Peterson said it closed for reasons he "wasn't privy to," as he wasn't involved in territorial politics at the time. 

Improving in-territory treatment

Right now, if a resident of Nunavut needs to go to an addictions treatment centre, there's no choice but to go to a southern facility with no culturally-relevant care. 

But, Peterson says there are still people to whom those struggling with addiction can turn in the territory. That includes social workers, guidance counsellors, nurses and educators.

Through its action plan, the government hopes to better co-ordinate services from frontline workers, who will monitor changes in the total number of "client referrals to mental health and/or addictions services." 

"Instead of departments working in silos, they'll be working together," Peterson said. "There's an internal group of departments who will be overseeing all this and reporting to cabinet on a regular basis."

Peterson says he's also hoping communities will step up with their own solutions, citing a recent meeting with the mayor of Cambridge Bay.

The community has "an exciting new idea," says Peterson, to buy a building on the outskirts of town where locals will provide help to their fellow residents rather than sending them south.

"Quite often I find that people just wait for the government to come up with ideas and solutions, when the solution is already there in their community."