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Do the NWT’s Indigenous governments support drug decriminalization?


The NWT’s justice minister says drug decriminalization in the NWT depends on Indigenous governments, so we asked those governments where they stand.

Decriminalization usually means ending criminal penalties for the use or possession of drugs to prioritize health and safety over punishment, while continuing to prosecute dealers and trafficking.

In the NWT Legislative Assembly this month, justice minister RJ Simpson said there was “movement” on the topic at the federal level, where responsibility for changing the law lies.

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Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson is again advocating for decriminalization following reports of two recent opioid overdoses in the NWT. It isn’t the first time Johnson has urged the territory to treat drug addiction as a public health issue instead of a matter for criminal courts.

“We are only going to see more deaths in this area unless we take serious action,” he told colleagues on March 10.

“There is no enforcement way out. The Northwest Territories spends more per capita on policing than anywhere else in Canada. We’ve spent millions of dollars on very sophisticated wiretap drug operations, and all that we see is new drug dealers emerge with a more poisoned and toxic drug supply each time.

“It is long overdue that Canada decriminalize drugs.” 

Johnson noted the success of Portugal’s move to decriminalize drug use in 2001. In the years that followed, the country reported a decrease in overdose deaths and drug-related infectious diseases. 

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While BC was the first province to formally petition Ottawa to decriminalize drug use in November 2021, the head of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, Adam Palmer, made headlines with a similar statement in 2020.

In a Global News article, Palmer suggested that the “current enforcement-based approach for possession be replaced with a healthcare approach that diverts people from the criminal justice system.”

Since then, cities like Ottawa, Kingston and Montreal have endorsed decriminalization, as has as the Toronto Board of Health. In December 2021, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told CityNews his government was looking at “where to do that, if to do that, and how to do that in partnership with the provinces.”

In the NWT legislature, Simpson expressed cautious interest.

“There are committees made up of all the provinces, territories, and the federal government, who are looking at this exact thing. They held their first meeting back in August. So there is movement on [decriminalization] recently, and I really look forward to seeing what comes of it,” the minister said.

Pressed by Johnson for a clearer stance on the issue, Simpson continued: “The position is that we need to work with the Indigenous governments in the Northwest Territories, because this is not our decision alone.”

GTC Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik in Inuvik. Meaghan Brackenbury/Cabin Radio

Cabin Radio subsequently asked the NWT’s Indigenous governments for their current stance on decriminalization.

Not all governments responded. Among those who replied, Gwich’in Tribal Council Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik added a crucial caveat: for that approach to work, he said, the NWT needs to offer more supports to users.

“There are two main components of the Portugal drug policy that have proved quite successful in tandem: decriminalization leading to less incarceration for users and fewer social issues, matched with extensive government funding for treatment centres, staffing and programs,” Kyikavichik wrote in an email.

“If both elements are given equal consideration in the NWT, then the model provided by jurisdictions such as Portugal may be worth reviewing as a means to curb the pervasive social threat presented by illegal drugs and opioids.”

Kyikavichik spoke out against those who profit from the sale of illegal drugs and stressed they must continue to be held accountable in the NWT’s criminal justice system, a position shared by leaders from the Northwest Territory Métis Nation (NWTMN) and Salt River First Nation. (Under the Portuguese model, drug dealing and trafficking are still illegal but drug use and possession are not.)

“The NWTMN fully supports anything to try and do something about the heavy drugs being sold in our communities,” said Garry Bailey, the NWT Métis Nation president, via email.

“Something has to be done,” he said, “as our communities are in a crisis.”

But for Bailey, decriminalization is not the answer to his community’s problems.

“Heavy drugs are illegal and [I] do not support letting it slide,” he wrote, suggesting that RCMP instead increase their searches of houses where they suspect deals may be occurring.

“[We need] new policy to give more rights to search,” Bailey said. “Because there are so many rules, the RCMP cannot go in and search. I believe even if they search and don’t come up with anything, it will make the dealers think twice about selling.”

RCMP in protective gear outside a Borden Drive house in December 2016 after the discovery of furanyl fentanyl
RCMP in protective gear outside a Yellowknife house in December 2016 after the discovery of furanyl fentanyl. Photo: RCMP

David Poitras, Chief of Salt River First Nation, echoed that sentiment.

“You can’t use the RCMP,” Poitras said. “Their hands are tied in our community. We can tell them who’s doing the drug dealing [but] they can’t do nothing by themselves. The law protects the crooks.”

Poitras said he would need time to discuss decriminalization with his community and plans to bring it up in a public meeting in May. He said he was wary of his community becoming the testing ground for what he feels could be yet another trendy southern social program.

David Poitras in a 2021 Facebook photo.

“I need to see what [the community] thinks,” he said. “Because if [policy] doesn’t come from the community, then it’s just the few people at the top trying to push something new on us again.

“Personally, I would rather wait until they try this down south and see how it works. If it works, good, and if it doesn’t, then we haven’t lost anything.” 

Leeroy Andre, the Ɂek’wahtı̨dǝ́ of Délı̨nę, said he had received no contact regarding decriminalization from the justice minister or anyone else at the territorial government.

“I read the minister’s statement … and I don’t think anything has come to us yet in regards to consultation,” Andre said.

“Consultation is a very, very important aspect of having our voices heard, especially for self-governing communities. Until the consultation process starts happening, we’re not sure what aspects of the change the government would want to deal with.

“If it’s going to benefit our health system, we might be for it, but until all their intentions are on paper, we can’t really say.”

Andre said social programs that work in Yellowknife or larger communities may not make sense for smaller, more isolated areas.

In Délı̨nę, Andre suggested, the most effective treatment for substance abuse may be something smaller than a federal policy shift. He said many NWT communities still lack basic supports for those struggling with addiction.

“Right now, I think a lot of our smaller communities tend to rely on our culture and our leadership and our Elders [to heal],” he said.

“It’s always the communities doing that who end up being the success stories. We can do all the talking we want in the world about treating drug addictions, treating alcoholism. But until there’s adequate funding to provide things like addictions counsellors, mental health support … it’s just very troubling to be doing all this talking about an issue that the territorial government just keeps circling around.

“Those are issues we really need to resolve — we need to make sure each community has the proper tools to deal with this.” 

For Andre, if the NWT is serious about decriminalization, ministers had better consult with communities and be prepared to act on what they hear.

“Until the government starts a real dialogue,” he said, “we don’t like wasting too much of our time on strategies that are never going to be fully implemented here.” 

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