Dene chiefs debate fate of liquor stores during pandemic

Amid fears bootleggers could introduce Covid-19 into NWT communities, the Dene Nation is examining how the territory might handle liquor and addictions.

Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya said with a second case of Covid-19 now confirmed in the NWT, efforts must be redoubled to ensure people follow physical distancing and isolation guidelines.

If those efforts fail, he said, there will be strain on communities that have limited nursing staff or no RCMP presence.


“We’ve got to take actions into our own hands and let people know to stay home. And if you’re coming into the community from Alberta or a mining company, self-isolate,” he added. (At the moment, the NWT’s order on travel restrictions doesn’t require mine workers to self-isolate.)

Yakeleya said the NWT’s grand chiefs want to look more closely at liquor store closures, a subject that could be controversial for both larger centres and smaller communities. The NWT has said the stores should stay open, while concerns have been expressed about bootleggers inadvertently bringing Covid-19 into communities. 

Enough is enough! You’re putting our lives in jeopardy.NORMAN YAKELEYA TO YOUTH HOLDING PARTIES

“Those are the types of actions we as leaders have to make,” said Yakeleya. “They are not always popular or sided with our people, but we’ve got to rise above it.

“We know this is a golden opportunity for the bootleggers. They are raising their prices, they know there’s a demand and they will supply that demand. The Al Capone days are back.”


Yakeleya said it’s not certain yet what the Dene Nation will do should access to alcohol be interrupted or shut down for an extended period.

“It’s a very serious concern that was discussed with the grand chiefs yesterday and it’s a complicated one,” he said on Wednesday.

“We will come out with a formal response as we continue dealing with a number of issues around addictions and alcohol.”

Addictions help

Yakeleya said whatever happens, people with addictions cannot be left “in a mess” if access to liquor is disrupted.


“We know that addiction centres are closed down south. We know, following our Elders’ advice, that we can have on-the-land treatment programs,” he said.

“We are looking at different models from across Canada. We are looking at a treatment model in our communities. We are looking at a number of options and know that’s a significant issue for medical teams.”

The Dene Nation wants to explore initiatives involving traditional Dene medicine in an effort to assist the healthcare system. How that will look is not yet clear.

“We have to look to our traditional knowledge keepers who know about these medicines,” Yakeleya said.

Youth told ‘enough is enough’

More than anything, though, he stressed the need to follow the chief public health officer’s guidance.

“Please listen to the recommendations and abide by them,” said Yakeleya. “We count on our youth because you are our future. Stay home, help [your] parents and grandparents.”

Also on Wednesday, the chief public health officer – Dr Kami Kandola – had expressed concern at reports from RCMP of youth holding house parties in various communities.

Yakeleya urged anyone involved to stop and think about their families and community.

“They have to really think about what’s happening in the Northwest Territories, because a lot of people in the territory are abiding by the recommendations,” he said.

“Enough is enough! You’re putting our lives in jeopardy.”

In response to that issue, he said, the Dene Nation is looking at creating a youth council to bring the 27 communities’ youth “to the table.”

But, he cautioned, there needs to be open communication with young people about why it’s important to stay home and not be out at large gatherings, partying. 

“We need to inspire them,” said Yakeleya. “We need to inspire them to be better than who they are.”