Deh Cho MLA blasts finance minister over pandemic liquor sales

‘I believe there's an element missing from this process,’ says Ronald Bonnetrouge. ‘It's consulting with regular MLAs.’ 

Ronald Bonnetrouge said the patience of regular MLAs was running out

In a member's statement, Deh Cho MLA Ronald Bonnetrouge said cash benefits flowing as a result of the pandemic have contributed to the problem with alcohol in his constituency. (CBC)

Ronald Bonnetrouge says MLAs have been patient so far with the territorial government's response to COVID-19. 

But in the legislature Thursday, that patience seemed to run out. 

Bonnetrouge, the MLA for Deh Cho, took aim at Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek over liquor regulations. On April 16, the government announced liquor purchases would be restricted to $200. Some First Nations leaders, including the Dene Nation, have sought stronger measures. 

In a member's statement, Bonnetrouge said cash benefits flowing as a result of the pandemic have contributed to the problem with alcohol in his constituency. He said leaders there requested a temporary prohibition order, only to be told that couldn't happen without a plebiscite taking place.

"And all that during the time of a pandemic," he said. 

In questioning the minister, Bonnetrouge said private establishments in Fort Providence, N.W.T., had been willing to limit sales to address the situation. He wanted to know why the government couldn't consider taking similar emergency steps. 

I'm not going to make everybody happy.- Caroline Wawzonek, N.W.T. Finance minister

Wawzonek explained that the pandemic did not give her the authority to overwrite the Liquor Act. 

"I believe there's an element missing from this process," Bonnetrouge said. "It's consulting with regular MLAs." 

"There's many heads on this side that would have ideas having to deal with this pandemic. And we've got a vast range of experience on this side that could offer suggestions to make it happen."

Striking a balance

Wawzonek took issue with that statement, citing many instances of engagement on the issue, including weekly phone calls with Indigenous leaders. 

"We certainly did have some correspondence on this particular issue," she said, "some people seeking complete prohibition, others saying please don't do that."

Wawzonek said the resulting restrictions were meant to strike a balance between stopping bootleggers from buying large amounts of liquor for resale in small communities, while making sure people had enough access to liquor that they didn't resort to other sources. 

Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn also wanted to see less access to alcohol. His questions prompted a long list of dates on which phone calls were made or letters were sent to various Indigenous leaders.

"There's not a simple solution to this," Wawzonek said. "I'm not going to make everybody happy."

Wawzonek also said the Liquor Act and regulations aren't going to address the more fundamental issue of alcohol abuse in the territory.

"It's a crisis and it needs to be addressed."