Opponents pack beer-wine store meeting in Nunavut’s capital
Residents blame alcohol for crime, high death rates
A Nunavut government proposal to open a beer and wine store in Iqaluit as a pilot project drew a mixed response of fear, suspicion, and frustration from dozens of local residents at a public consultation meeting Oct. 7.
The venue, a partitioned section of a conference room at the Frobisher Inn, was packed for the mid-week meeting.
The Government of Nunavut’s deputy minister of finance, Chris D’Arcy, presented the government’s pilot project proposal to open a beer and wine store in the city, and single-handedly took comments and questions.
Most residents who spoke up to comment on the proposal told stories about the last time over-the-counter alcohol sales occurred, prior to 1975. After that, the storefront was closed.
The community was then called Frobisher Bay, a small town in the Northwest Territories with about a third of Iqaluit’s current population
Speakers described family histories riddled with alcoholism, spousal abuse, violence and death — and pointed to alcohol as a key contributor to their troubled past.
“I’ve buried many people,” said Reverend Mike Gardener, a retired minister who served the community’s Anglican congregation for half a century. “The old graveyard would not even be half-full if there had been no booze.”
About a dozen residents old enough to have raised families in the 1970s remembered the community’s experience the same way.
“This is a very transient community,” said Lew Philip, a lifelong resident and retired RCMP officer, who has worked as a counsellor at the city’s prison. “A lot of us will be buried here,” he added, referring to Inuit residents.
“What I’m trying to tell you in a truthful way is the people who are transient will open this store, and they will not see the result,” he said. “We will be harmed by the people that leave.”
Elders, Inuit women and men, who took the microphone said they saw many family members die in incidents that involved alcohol.
One woman was quick to add that the community faces a list of social issues not necessarily related to alcohol, starting with homelessness.
“I think money could be better spent for other resources the government needs to look at,” she said.
Speaking as a private citizen, Mary Wilman, acting mayor of Iqaluit, agreed.
“We don’t have mental health facilities. We don’t have drug and alcohol facilities, we don’t have the very facilities that are so much needed,” she told D’Arcy. “So I would question our priorities.”
“I would hope that our government would strike a day like this and invite everybody to talk about suicide epidemics, and what we’re doing about it,” Wilman said.
The blurred lines between alcohol consumption and social ills echoed throughout the evening’s comments. Some residents laid full blame for the ills on alcohol, and others described alcoholism and binge-drinking as a more distinct issue.
The territorial government’s proposal to open a single beer and wine store as a pilot project is permitted under Nunavut’s Liquor Act.
“We know that there is a massive amount of alcohol that’s available in Iqaluit and other towns” of Nunavut, D’Arcy told residents at the meeting.
Iqalungmiut must buy alcohol — including spirits as well as beer and wine — by ordering from the Nunavut Liquor Commission’s warehouse in Rankin Inlet and having it delivered by air freight.
Residents of Rankin Inlet, meanwhile, must order from Iqaluit’s warehouse, and residents of non-prohibited communities can order from either supplier.
Nunavummiut wanting to buy liquor from outside the territory need import permits to do so — which are granted by the Department of Finance.
“If people have cash and they cannot, for whatever reason, come to our liquor commission and purchase an import permit, or if they don’t want to wait to purchase their permit,” then the only remaining option, says D’Arcy, is “to buy from a bootlegger.”
The government task force found that many Nunavut residents tend to buy spirits — hard liquor products with the highest alcohol content — from bootleggers. Many residents also tend to binge-drink hard liquor.
The ultimate purpose of the pilot project is to decrease both bootlegging and binge-drinking by offering low-alcohol content drinks such as beer and wine only, through a storefront.
Making beer and wine available for cash is better than “pushing” buyers “to the person selling to people in the street,” D’Arcy said.
Similar purchasing models were successful in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, and Norman Wells in the NWT, as well as in Greenland, he said.
D’Arcy said the government would sell beer and wine out of the storefront in fixed per-day or per-week quantities. The store would record buyers’ identifications every time they make a purchase, to keep track of sales.
The proposal got very little support from those who attended the meeting. Only three out of more than 25 speakers clearly favoured the pilot project.
Resident Robert Steele said the project would put control of alcohol sales in the hands of “trained staff, with laws that rule,” instead of illegal bootleggers.
“Trained staff are going to ask you for ID to prove your age, and make sure you’re sober,” he said. “The bootlegger doesn’t care.”
“Maybe a little more control instead of backing off from what it is, would be better,” Steele said.
Janet Brewster, who also spoke in favour, said the project would empower residents to make their own choices.
“Denying people to make healthy choices doesn’t make sense to me,” she said. “Taking the choice away from people doesn’t solve the issue.”
Brewster pointed to “underlying trauma that people are suffering” as the “real issue.”
Several residents highlighted the lack of drug and alcohol addiction treatment services in the territory.
“I checked the government’s website for services, and there’s nothing there, said Iqaluit-Sinaa MLA Paul Okalik, who spoke as a private resident. “I looked in the phone book too, and I didn’t find a lot.”
“There are a lot of resources lacking in Nunavut right now,” he said. “I think we really need to stop and ask how are we going to help those that really need help.”