NWT may return to civil legislation to take on drug dealers

The Northwest Territories has returned to considering legislation that would allow drug dealers to be more readily pursued through civil courts.

Communities like Hay River are facing an increase in drug-related deaths and crime associated with the drug trade, but authorities say the options they have are limited.

In the legislature on Thursday, Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson said RCMP had faced an “erosion of enforcement tools” and could only do so much to combat drugs in the territory. He instead called on the NWT government to dig up proposed legislation from 2007: Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods, or Scan.


Under Scan legislation, the territorial government would be able to pursue through civil courts the owners or occupants of homes where drugs are believed to be manufactured, used or sold. Courts could then issue orders that have the effect of shutting down drug houses, for example by evicting those responsible.

Civil claims rely on a lower standard of proof than criminal courts, making a successful case more likely, Simpson said. “It shifts the burden of proof,” he told the legislature, “from that of reasonable doubt using criminal law to that based on a balance of probabilities used in civil law.”

In a question-and-answer session, Simpson and his son, justice minister RJ Simpson, essentially agreed entirely on the need for Scan or something similar.

“Right now, we have a limited set of tools in the territory,” RJ Simpson said in response to his father’s questions.

The minister said too little time remained before this fall’s territorial election to draft new Scan legislation and pass it, but he had instructed the justice department to look into how civil courts could be used.


“Times have changed. We’re seeing new drugs. We’re seeing new types of criminals in the territory. We’re seeing a lot of interest from criminal organizations outside of the territory in the Northwest Territories,” RJ Simpson said.

“We have to change as well. So it’s imperative that we look at these pieces of legislation. I think we have a moral obligation to do so, to do what we can to stop these deaths and the devastation that drugs are causing in the community.

“While I can’t commit to the work that would be involved in looking at this piece of legislation and doing all of that work, because it is a significant amount of work, I have spoken with the department, and I’ve let them know that we need to put our minds to this.”

Fear of false accusations

Scan was proposed by the NWT government in 2007 but died at the committee stage. Regular MLAs of the time examining the proposed legislation said they had heard various concerns from residents.


In particular, some people in small communities felt that the civil legislation could be abused to settle scores.

“There is no safeguard in place to protect innocent people from vexatious and frivolous accusations,” Sandy Lee, then the MLA for Range Lake, said in 2007.

“There are many persons in positions of authority and responsibility who need to deliver ‘bad news’ to their fellow community members as a regular part of their work, like housing association members and income support workers.

“Many felt that they could be subject to false accusations from community members. Even if those accusations were eventually shown to be unsubstantiated, often an accusation or even rumours of an accusation alone can do a great deal of harm to one’s reputation and career in a small community.”

More: Read the GNWT’s 2006 discussion paper on Scan

Lee gave the example of a Tuktoyaktuk resident who had told the committee that she was “very worried how she would be able to defend herself, pay for a lawyer and still look after her family, if someone has reported her under Scan, even though she doesn’t drink, do drugs or gamble.”

But in the years since, MLAs have occasionally returned to Scan’s promise of a new way to tackle drug dealers.

In 2010, for example, Yellowknife Centre MLA Robert Hawkins called for a return to Scan, calling it an “empowerment of the community [that] allows steps for our officials to go in and put pressure on those drug dealers to get out of the neighbourhood.”

Hawkins, at the time, pointed to Yukon as a territory where similar legislation was working well. This week, Rocky Simpson said Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan all possess an equivalent.

“With some minor revisions … we could provide enforcement with a tool to help address the manufacture and sale of illicit drugs,” the elder Simpson said.

“It’s clear that we need more tools,” the minister agreed.

“The Scan legislation is one piece. Others could include more communication between RCMP and minister, other types of legislation, more support for municipalities. All of these things are on the table. I’ve asked the department to figure out how we are going to respond.

“We are turning our minds to this. We know we have to do something and we need to take action.”