The Dene Nation on Friday sent a motion to Premier Caroline Cochrane and cabinet requesting the restriction of liquor and cannabis sales during the coronavirus pandemic.
Dene communities across the North have raised alcohol, and bootlegging, as sources of significant concern as the pandemic continues. The NWT government has so far said it intends to keep liquor stores open.
Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya said he is seeking to restrict sales while also finding funds to help people manage alcohol withdrawal. “We are looking at unique programs … treatment programs on the land,” said Yakeleya.
“It’s new, it’s unprecedented. We are not asking for structured buildings, we have our counsellors already in the community. They are the Elders, grandmothers and grandfathers, and medicine people, spiritual people. We have them waiting to ask for help.”
Yakeleya said Cochrane had confirmed the Dene Nation’s concerns will be examined as a top priority.
“We have heard from the premier that she is going to take this motion,” he said. “We had a really challenging time with this motion because we had 27 individual chiefs all having a different perspective on this issue. They all have their spirits no different than mine.
“We cannot wait until Sunday or Monday, we have to do it now. We’ve got to know that this is how serious it is and that the chiefs … the voice of the Dene have spoken.”
Earlier on Friday, Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn made a similar appeal.
Saying residents were still “not getting the message” about Covid-19, Norn said in a video posted to Facebook: “I am going to be lobbying very hard to see that there are liquor restrictions.”
NWT suggests case-by-case approach
The NWT government has kept open its six liquor stores throughout the pandemic to date, with reduced hours and enhanced physical distancing measures.
The territory’s top medical officials say the dangers created by closing the stores – for example, the effect on people who are alcohol-dependent – are worse than the risks posed by leaving the stores open.
Caroline Wawzonek, as finance minister, holds ultimate authority over the NWT Liquor and Cannabis Commission. The commission oversees the sale and distribution of alcohol in the territory.
Speaking to Cabin Radio on Friday evening, Wawzonek said she had only just received a copy of the Dene Nation’s motion.
The minister said there could be no “one size fits all” solution for the territory.
“I think there are ways individual communities can have restrictions put in place. Every individual liquor store can have different restrictions in place, it doesn’t have to be a territory-wide solution,” Wawzonek said.
“That is where I think I’m going to have to go with this, because there’s such a concern within the health profession, within the health bodies, that we not risk taxing them if people wind up in a detox situation.”
‘Big conversation’ about bootlegging
As of Friday, Wawzonek said RCMP had reported no significant change in bootlegging activity across the NWT.
Communities and governments have raised concerns about the possibility that bootleggers may inadvertently bring Covid-19 into communities.
“I think the fact that this is such a big conversation that’s being had across the territory, that’s really going to help,” said Wawzonek.
“One of the challenges with bootlegging is making sure you know who the bootleggers are, contacting the RCMP to report it, and being consistent in that.
“Hopefully this is a conversation that isn’t just going to stop with Covid-19.”
The Dene Nation’s motion includes several other requests related to alcohol and cannabis.
Other items on the organization’s list include the immediate creation of an intergovernmental working group between the Dene Nation and NWT government; work on planning for the introduction of restrictions alongside the chief public health officer and RCMP; and creation of a support system to get more people onto the land.