N.W.T. community leaders split on wisdom of keeping liquor stores open

The Northwest Territories has decided to leave liquor stores open, amid calls to restrict alcohol sales during the pandemic. Leaders are split on whether that's a good decision.

Shutting down alcohol supply could end parties, but would harm vulnerable people

Joachim Bonnetrouge is concerned ongoing parties will create a risk for COVID-19 in small communities. (Submitted by Joachim Bonnetrouge)

Community leaders in the Northwest Territories are divided over the territory's decision to keep liquor stores open even though drinking parties continue in spite of pleas to stop. 

In recent weeks, there have been increasing calls from local leadership to close the liquor stores, saying alcohol was to blame for late-night parties bringing people together in small apartments and homes, increasing the risk of spreading COVID-19. 

Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya led those calls, asking for liquor restrictions across the territory, shorter opening hours and less liquor and cannabis available for sale. 

Thursday, Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek ended that discussion, saying liquor stores would remain open since the potential harm from cutting off the alcohol supply to people dependent on it outweighs the public health risk to communities from COVID-19. 

"The territorial government seems to be dragging their feet," said Joachim Bonnetrouge, the chief of the Deh Gáh Got'îê  First Nation in Fort Providence, N.W.T.. "We're asking, because of this time, [for] a rationing system. It'd be quite simple to do."

"When there's drinking, there's a lot of socializing, which is very unhealthy for this time," he said. "Let's cut it out [drinking] for the next month, because the next month might be very crucial." 

Bonnetrouge notes that much of the heavy drinking and alcohol dependency in the N.W.T. is caused by trauma. He says on-the-land treatment options are available in small communities to help those who'd be in withdrawal by a liquor ban. 

"Our young people are crying out for help right now, we need to address that sooner than later," Bonnetrouge said. He's asking those people to remember their families who love and care for them and says there's help available. 

Dene National Chief Yakeleya said he was "clearly disappointed" in the premier and cabinet for not taking a harder stance on rationing alcohol sales in the communities. 

"We seem to have our voice fall onto deaf ears," Yakeleya said. 

Yakeleya said he will be convening a meeting with Dene leaders in the upcoming days to discuss next steps. He said there are a few options on the table but would not elaborate until the consultations are completed. 

'Fear' around sudden detox

In Yellowknife, Lydia Bardak often works with people with addictions, many who are originally from small communities. She agrees on-the-land programs are an excellent long-term solution but in the short-term, people dependent on alcohol are afraid to detox on their own. 

"There's a lot of fear around detox and withdrawal," she said. "People are very vulnerable and their health is quite poor during that time." 

There's a lot of fear around detox and withdrawal.- Lydia Bardak

During withdrawal, there are a number of health risks, such as strokes and seizures, and people need to have a doctor nearby to help them through, Bardak said. 

"I know folks who are heavily addicted on the streets. Even when they talk about drying out, they have a great fear of that," Bardak said. 

Apart from the health concerns, there are also the practical concerns with enforcing prohibition, which often fails, Bardak said. In her experience, people who want to drink will find a way to drink — whether that's from the liquor store, homebrew or mouthwash.   

Education over restrictions 

April Martel, the chief of K'atl'odeeche First Nation, sees the same thing. Her community near Hay River, N.W.T., is dry year-round. She says she supports the Dene Nation, but wants to point out further alcohol restrictions will harm Indigenous people who are dependent on alcohol. 

"It will get hard, people will get sick," Martel said. "There are some that rely on alcohol. There's been a lot of trauma."

April Martel, chief of K'atl'odeeche First Nation, stands in front of the checkpoint established outside her community. She's concerned how further alcohol restrictions could harm Indigenous people. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

"They use alcohol to soothe the pain of what happened to them," she said. 

"Our hospitals are all about [COVID-19] right now," she said. "If people get sick from not getting their alcohol how are we going to manage when we need to use the hospital for these other illnesses?"

She hopes the Dene Nation and the territorial government can do more education on drinking, partying and COVID-19, perhaps by bringing health workers into the community. She's already visiting some homes where parties are happening, telling them to stop. 

With files from Loren McGinnis and Anna Desmarais