A call for a plebiscite to remove alcohol restrictions in Fort Simpson still awaits territorial action, nine months after a petition was presented to village councillors.
Fort Simpson requires a response from the finance minister, Caroline Wawzonek – whose department controls liquor restrictions in the territory – in order to proceed.
Mayor Sean Whelly said the village is now dealing with confusion around a misinterpretation of a section of the NWT Liquor Act that relates to the appointment of a returning officer to oversee such a plebiscite.
Section 46  of the Act states: “The Minister shall appoint a returning officer for a plebiscite.”
However, a later subsection states: “The returning officer has the powers and may perform the duties of a returning officer appointed under the Local Authorities Elections Act.”
Those two paragraphs appear to have generated confusion about the process by which a returning officer is appointed. The second mentions the Local Authorities Elections Act, but appears only to do so in describing the returning officer’s powers and duties, rather than how the officer is appointed.
“I think it’s just overthinking it,” said Whelly.
In a letter to Suzanne Hanna, manager of liquor enforcement at the Department of Finance, Whelly said the village would be looking to the territorial government for a legal opinion.
“The village believes it has done everything it needs to do to proceed with this plebiscite and believes that the minister should now directly appoint a returning officer to begin the plebiscite process,” the letter states.
Les Wright, who went door-to-door in the community and collected approximately 150 signatures for a petition to trigger a plebiscite, believes the process should have been much faster.
Wright acknowledged the pandemic had slowed proceedings, but said he understood everything had been in place for a plebiscite by June – yet nothing had happened.
“Now, it seems to be at a standstill again,” he said. “The village council is saying [the returning officer] is the government’s responsibility; the government is telling them it’s their responsibility.”
Whelly said the village hadn’t received a response from the department by the end of Friday. The department did not return a request for comment by the time of publication.
Wright believes the community wants to get rid of the current system of rationing. At the moment, Fort Simpson residents have a daily limit of:
- three 375-ml containers of spirits and 12 containers of beer; or
- three 375-ml containers of spirits and two bottles of wine; or
- two bottles of wine (max two litres) and 12 containers of beer; or
- one bottle of wine and 24 containers of beer.