The NWT’s finance minister says new territory-wide liquor restrictions aimed at reducing bootlegging are not a perfect solution but designed to send a message.
On Thursday, Minister Caroline Wawzonek announced a new daily spending cap of $200 for customers at the territory’s liquor stores and a daily limit of six mickeys (375-ml bottles of spirits) per customer.
Fort Simpson’s liquor store is not affected as it already had similar restrictions in place.
Speaking to Cabin Radio’s Covid Corner that evening, Wawzonek said the rules are intended to target just five percent of purchases at NWT liquor stores – meaning, she argued, the vast majority of customers won’t be affected.
Wawzonek said her government wanted to strike a balance between allowing people to continue responsible alcohol consumption while reducing bootlegging and ensuring compliance with public health orders.
“It’s not going to be a perfect solution, but it’s a solution that we came up with quickly. It’s a solution that we came up with to try to be responsive to the concerns that have been raised,” she said.
Wawzonek acknowledged that people could flout the restrictions in Yellowknife, where there are two liquor stores, and buy double the daily limit of alcohol.
“If people want to be savvy enough they can certainly find a way to work around the intent and the spirit of this,” she said.
“I’m not going to be able to stop bootlegging across the Northwest Territories. I’m not going to be able to stop irresponsible consumption of alcohol across the Northwest Territories.
“What I can do is try to do something that targets a certain demographic while not impacting all of the law-abiding, responsible consumption that goes on.”
To Wawzonek, the government is now providing more certainty. She believes the new restrictions could encourage more people to report breaches of liquor regulations.
“This is also a pretty strong statement to communities and to hamlets and to people that, you know what, this is the stance we’re taking,” she said.
Liquor Act ‘is archaic’
Several community leaders had called for territory-wide restrictions on alcohol, including Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn, the Dene Nation and the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation. They cited concerns with bootlegging and partying in communities as potential risk factors for the community transmission of Covid-19.
Wawzonek said there are other ways communities can address these concerns, including discussing policing priorities with the RCMP. Communities without a liquor store can also request temporary prohibition orders.
Four communities made such requests last week and Wawzonek said while the government usually requests 15 days’ notice, those orders were turned around in half that time.
“I think individual communities have a real voice here and have a real strength, and this is an opportunity for them to really find that strength, to find that voice,” she said.
Beyond the pandemic, concerns have been raised that the territory’s Liquor Act, which came into force in October 2008, is outdated.
“One of the things that has been highlighted, for me anyway, [is] that the Liquor Act needs to be looked at right away. It is archaic, it is old, and not very responsive to the needs of all the residents,” Sandy Kalgutkar, deputy minister of finance, told MLAs during a technical briefing on Wednesday.
Wawzonek said that’s something she’s willing to consider and she has had an intensive dialogue with community leaders about alcohol consumption and purchasing.
As a result of the pandemic, she said, there has been more engagement with the government and they’re hearing from people in new ways.
“If we can use what we’re getting – some of the feedback we’re getting now – and use that as a driver, I think that would be a tremendous opportunity,” she said.
Ollie Williams contributed reporting.