Nunavut grapples again with retail alcohol sales, considers loosening rules

Canada’s most restrictive liquor laws may be about to loosen as Nunavut politicians grapple again with the emotional issue of whether to allow the territory’s first retail store for alcohol.

IQALUIT, Nunavut — Canada’s most restrictive liquor laws may be about to loosen as Nunavut politicians grapple again with the emotional issue of whether to allow the territory’s first retail store for alcohol.

“It’s a very sensitive topic and a topic where people have very, very strong beliefs,” said Chris D’Arcy, the territory’s deputy minister of finance.

Last week, Iqaluit residents voted strongly in favour of opening a retail store for beer and wine. More than three-quarters of the voters approved the motion in a plebiscite.

“It’s 2015,” said Joe Ferjus, 61. “We’re a city now, it’s time to live up to it.”

But there remain many who fear greater access to beer and wine would cause further booze-fuelled social problems in a community that already has plenty of them.

Linda Lyta, 16, said she watched a drunken brawl Friday night just outside her apartment door.

“I just don’t think it’s a good idea,” she said. “There’s a lot of people that I know that get really intimidating when they are drunk.”

In a three-hour community meeting held before the plebiscite, D’Arcy said only about three people spoke in favour of opening such a store. Many elders, he said, have bad memories of the community’s last liquor store, closed by government back in the 1970s.

“So much hurt, so much pain,” said D’Arcy. “Many of them are having difficulties coming to grips with it.”

Lawyers and police freely acknowledge that booze and drugs are behind most of Nunavut’s high rates of assault, sex crime and domestic violence.

Access to liquor is tightly controlled.

People can order it shipped to a heavily secured government warehouse in Iqaluit, which takes three or four days and costs about $60 for a case of 24 beer. Or they can apply for a liquor import permit and order it directly, which takes about the same time but costs less.

Some communities have committees that regulate who can buy liquor, how much and how often. Some communities, in theory, are dry.

But bootleggers are “rampant” in Nunavut, said D’Arcy.

“Anbody who wants a 60-ounce of vodka can get it in very short order for $180.”

Allowing convenient retail sales might combat that, he said. It might also change drinking habits.

“There’s two main foci here,” D’Arcy said.

“The first one is to move people from binge drinking 40-per-cent alcohol to 12-per-cent wine. The second one is to cut down on bootlegging.”

It’s an old controversy in Nunavut.

Within two years of the territory’s creation in 1999, a government committee travelled across Nunavut for hearings on the issue. Local plebiscites on alcohol access regularly come up in Nunavut communities.

Two years ago, another alcohol task force visited every community, finding views about evenly split on whether access should be eased.

But restrictions are getting harder and harder, D’Arcy said. Iqaluit’s population has roughly quadrupled since the old liquor store was closed and its airport, which used to see five or six flights a week, now gets that many a day.

A final decision on the Iqaluit store will be up to the territorial cabinet. The stakes are high, admits D’Arcy.

“If it’s successful, we would consider going to other communities,” he said. “It’s a big switch.”

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