Fort Simpson liquor store. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio.
The NWT’s liquor laws appear set to be loosened, a move that recognizes frustration with an existing arcane system while attempting to tackle issues like bootlegging.
How liquor is governed in the territory has long been a source of complaint. In 2019, the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce said the rules “create unnecessary burdens and restrict revenue-generating opportunities.”
Beyond commercial impediments, communities have expressed concern that bootlegging – the illegal sale of alcohol, particularly in areas where liquor is banned – needs to be “closed down.”
This week, the NWT government revealed the results of a two-year study: 66 recommendations related to the territory’s liquor legislation.
Many of the recommendations would create a looser, more flexible system.
For example, one recommendation states that public safety should be treated as “the primary, but not only” objective of the legislation, an admission that “in the past, liquor legislation neither articulated nor implied support for secondary objectives.”
What are those secondary objectives? The new GNWT report gives examples like supporting tourism and economic growth, saying those can “work together” with public safety.
One recommended change, allowing liquor stores to open on Sundays or holidays, would immediately introduce more flexibility.
The report also suggests creating a specific licence for liquor delivery, allowing any business – from bars to delivery firms – to become licensed to deliver alcohol to people at their homes. (A version of this was introduced during the pandemic and remains in effect, but currently only the restaurant selling the alcohol can do the delivering.)
Non-profits and event organizers may also be enthused by the prospect of receiving a liquor licence for an entire venue, not just a makeshift “beer garden” within it. One recommendation states: “Events with a whole-site authority would not have beverage gardens. Instead, attendees over the age of 19 would be allowed to consume liquor they purchase from the permit-holder throughout the enclosed site. This approach provides safer conditions for more paced and responsible consumption.”
Board’s role should change
A number of recommendations seek to streamline processes for the people and businesses who need licences.
With that in mind, a major shift outlined in the report would transform the territory’s liquor licensing board into an appeals board.
At the moment, the NWT Liquor Licensing Board issues all liquor licences and permits, then holds hearings if anyone is alleged to have violated licensing laws. Appeals of board decisions involve going to court.
“In many Canadian jurisdictions, licensing and the issuance of penalties are bureaucratic functions,” this week’s report states. “There is rarely a need for an arm’s-length tribunal for these matters. Instead, administrative tribunals are often used for appeals. The NWT Liquor Licensing Board should therefore become an appeals board and be renamed accordingly.”
Another suggested change would make it easier for new owners to take over a business and continue serving or selling liquor, and allow for people to “bundle” applications if they are trying to acquire more than one type of licence at a time.
A new form of licence recommended in the report would allow for “brew-your-own” establishments, not currently permitted in the NWT, where customers come to brew and bottle their own liquor using equipment on the premises.
But some recommendations would also seek to introduce new requirements for businesses.
For example, federal liquor advertising rules could be extended to cover social media in the NWT – not presently the case – and minimum prices per drink could be created, with an associated ban on any advertising that “encourages consumption based on price.”
Certain forms of training could also become mandatory for servers.
Easier access to tackle bootlegging
Sections of the report propose changes that could be significant for smaller NWT communities.
For example, a range of communities relied on temporary prohibition orders during the pandemic. These orders ban the consumption or sale of liquor in and around a community. While they only last for 10 days at a time, communities can renew them and create what amounts to an indefinite liquor ban. Temporary prohibitions are also sometimes used when communities host major events and are worried about an influx of alcohol.
This week’s report recommends extending the maximum duration of a temporary prohibition order from 10 days to 30, but then barring communities from renewing them back-to-back, arguing that communities in need of longer-term prohibition can hold a plebiscite to put stricter, permanent rules in place.
The report argues one problem that allows bootleggers to flourish in the NWT is a lack of access to legal alcohol.
“Increasing access to liquor – sold from an authorized seller – can help to curb bootlegging, unless the community has specifically restricted or prohibited liquor,” the report states.
“This means designated retail outlets and licensed premises should not be required to close on Sundays or holidays. It also means creating a policy to assist any community that wishes to have some type of retail outlet to work toward this objective. These recommendations are based on the premise that safe access to legal liquor reduces illicit sales.”
The report says current penalties for convicted bootleggers should remain the same, but the ability of law enforcement to carry out searches should be strengthened.
Law ‘rarely the place for support’
A separate report examining liquor pricing in the NWT is forthcoming. On Thursday, health minister Julie Green said her department continued to work on an alcohol strategy in conjunction with Indigenous governments and organizations.
“There are no recommendations in this report about how to reduce problematic substance use, addiction, or other harmful behaviours,” the report itself acknowledged, stating: “The purpose of liquor legislation is to create safe access to liquor for moderate consumption. When people have a complex relationship with liquor and consumption moves beyond moderate to problematic, the law is rarely the place for people to find help and support.”
The report was compiled based on an internal GNWT review, a comparison with how things are done elsewhere, an examination of the latest research, and an online survey augmented by virtual meetings with groups of residents.
The recommendations will form the basis of a more detailed proposal to update the NWT’s liquor laws, which may end up being considered by the next territorial government if it does not reach the Legislative Assembly before fall 2023’s election.