Yellowknife’s political leaders fiercely debated the idea of changing access to alcohol as a means of dealing with the city’s social problems – one councillor calling a suggestion by the mayor “asinine.”
Mayor Rebecca Alty, citing University of Victoria research, raised the prospect of limited liquor store hours or reducing the amount of alcohol any one person can purchase per day.
Pointing to Fort Simpson’s liquor regulations as an example, Alty queried whether public drunkenness in Yellowknife could be curbed by changing liquor store hours – presently 11am till 10pm – to, for example, 3pm till 10pm.
Quoting from the University of Victoria’s institute for substance use research, Alty said the NWT had “the lowest score when it came to implementing best practices” – saying some of those best practices relate to pricing and taxation, and physical availability of alcohol.
“If we were to open from 1pm, or even 3pm, to 10pm,” said Alty, referring to the city’s liquor stores, “would we have [a] reduction in harm related to alcohol?
“Based on this international research, it’s something the NWT and particularly Yellowknife should consider.”
It became rapidly apparent that Alty was in a minority.
“I don’t agree with any of the comments that [the mayor] made,” Councillor Niels Konge – ordinarily a supporter of Alty – responded.
“I find it interesting that the ‘gold standard’ for this is, basically, reduction. We’ve been there, we’ve done that, it doesn’t work.
“I’m of quite an opposite mindset. I lived in Europe for eight years and you could absolutely go to the grocery store at 8am and buy beer. It was cheaper to buy beer than it was to buy Coca-Cola.”
Konge, entirely contradicting Alty, said the ideal would be a 24-hour liquor store, though he doubted anyone could be persuaded to operate one.
“The liquor store [presently] opens up at 11am,” he said. “Two hours after that, you have several people in the downtown who are highly intoxicated. If we wanted to reduce that heavy intoxication at a certain time of day, we would open the liquor store for 24 hours a day.
“The people who have addiction issues would be able to go and get it whenever. Having access to alcohol open up will reduce some of the issues we are having in the downtown.
“Some people will still be heavily intoxicated, but you are going to have less of them at the same time.”
Konge said if a 24-hour store won’t happen, stores could instead open on Sundays to reduce bootlegging.
“At Shoppers Drug Mart, Sundays are the days when they have the most shoplifting of products that have alcohol in them,” he said.
“I’d rather have people drinking bottled alcohol than hairspray or whatever other products out there are being used.”
Councillors Robin Williams and Steve Payne concurred, Payne saying: “I’m not sure if any of this would solve any of the problems that we have. Right behind the counter, you have cases and cases of mickeys. Getting rid of the mickeys up here would go a much longer way than restricting the hours.”
Payne continued: “What’s the next thing we’re going to restrict? McDonald’s, because it makes people overweight and unhealthy?
“This is about free choice. I think this is absolutely asinine, for a capital city to be even thinking about stuff like this.”
‘Liquor isn’t the issue’
Councillor Stacie Smith said alcohol itself was not the problem Yellowknife faces.
“If you have a set limit, you have people that want it more. I think restricting is just ridiculous. Twenty-four hours, I think, would be ideal,” she said, supporting Konge, “but I think we are looking at this in the wrong way.
“Liquor isn’t the issue: mental health is the issue, addictions is the issue.
“We need to go a step above and actually deal with the social issue of rehabilitation, assistance for these individuals suffering from these addictions.”
Alty acknowledged that treatment for addictions was important, saying she had hoped to explore all forms of “policy lever” her municipal government can use to limit alcohol’s negative impacts.
Councillor Julian Morse, “tentatively supportive” of examining liquor regulations in the manner raised by Alty, felt many people would find reduced liquor store hours inconvenient.
Morse suggested the city might have beer and wine stores, complementing liquor stores, as a means of allowing restrictions without limiting access to some forms of alcohol.
“I see a lot of people raising this as an inconvenience issue,” he said.
“When we’re talking about the most pervasive problems relating to alcohol, these are pretty severe addictions issues.
“If people are feeding a serious addiction issue, there are not a lot of constraints you can put in place that are going to stop them from finding the substance somehow.”
Williams said city councillors should leave the business of alcohol regulation to the territorial government and focus their efforts on other things.
“It’s a good opportunity for the GNWT to be leaders … and us to put our attention toward economic development and making this a good place for Yellowknifers to call home,” he said.
No action will be taken as a result of Monday’s discussion.