North

N.W.T. government will not close liquor stores, despite pushback from community leaders

Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek is reiterating that the government will not close liquor stores at this point in time, despite calls from community leaders to clamp down.

Closing liquor stores will lead to increased strain on health system, finance minister says

N.W.T. Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek will hold a press conference at 12 p.m. MT Thursday to discuss liquor sales in the territory amid COVID-19. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

The Northwest Territories will not close its liquor stores, despite calls from community leaders across the territory to do so.

N.W.T. Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek discussed the territorial government's approach to liquor sales during the COVID-19 pandemic, during a press conference Thursday. The livestream of the news conference was broadcast here at 12 p.m. MT, and on CBC North's Facebook page.

Throughout the pandemic, health officials in the territory have said closing liquor stores and implementing blanket prohibition would do more harm than good. 

"Closing liquor stores doesn't accomplish that goal of solving social problems," she said. "It could actually make things worse." 

Widespread alcohol prohibition would potentially increase the burden on the territory's health-care system at a time when it's dealing with potential COVID-19 cases, Wawzonek said.

 

This announcement comes a day after, the territory's chief public health officer Dr. Kami Kandola announced the hiring of a new deputy chief public health officer and a task force to enforce public health orders. 

Make restrictions before Easter weekend: Dene chief

Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya introduced a motion last week to the territorial government to restrict the hours of operation of liquor stores and the amount of both alcohol and cannabis sold during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Dene Nation is also asking the territorial government for money to help members that could go through alcohol withdrawal in response to possible restriction measures. 

Bootleggers are in the hay days.- Norman Yakeleya, Dene national chief

In a press conference Wednesday, Yakeleya pressured the territorial government to put the restrictions in place before the April long weekend.

"Bootleggers are in the hay days of buying cases and cases and going into communities," he said. "You know what, and they even deliver it to the people. I mean come on, this is serious stuff."

Yakeleya said they do not know what they will do next if the territorial government does not agree to work with them on their motion. 

Wawzonek said the government carefully considered the Dene Nation's proposal to implement restrictions. She said she is considering whether more restrictions are appropriate, without resorting to an outright ban. 

"Our goal with restrictions would be to restrict bootlegging and abusing alcohol," she said. "It would be targeting people who are taking advantage of people who are addicted to alcohol." 

The government continues to monitor and enforce bootlegging, though Wawzonek did not go into details, saying she didn't want to tip them off.

The government does not wish to restrict lawful alcohol purchases for people drinking for personal use, she said.

Community leaders call for stronger clamp downs

In March, the N.W.T. government announced reduced operating hours for liquor stores across the territory. The N.W.T. Liquor and Cannabis Commission said the changes were to "ensure staff availability throughout the COVID-19 response."

At the time, Sahtu leader Charles McNeely called for stronger restrictions, and even shutdowns of liquor stores, in the region.

Other leaders in small communities have said the territorial government has not been doing enough to make sure people are self-isolating before returning to a small community, and preventing people from partying and holding social gatherings.

In Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., Mayor Erwin Elias has said a number of people are partying outside and not keeping their physical distance.

With files from Anna Desmarais

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