Despite highlighting the importance of consulting Indigenous leaders about drug decriminalization, neither the territorial nor federal governments appear set to do so.
Earlier in March, following two overdose deaths, Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson asked Premier Caroline Cochrane if she plans to “join police chiefs, public health officials, countless politicians, and most recently the Premier of BC, in asking [the federal government] to decriminalize drugs?”
Cochrane deferred the question to justice minister RJ Simpson, who said consultation with Indigenous leaders was needed before the territory could offer a position.
“We need to work with the Indigenous governments in the Northwest Territories because this is not our decision alone,” Simpson said.
Asked by Cabin Radio when that consultation might begin, Simpson said the GNWT would not be initiating those efforts.
“As the responsibility for the decriminalization of drugs lies with the federal government, it will be the responsibility of the federal government to consult with Indigenous governments and organizations, if and when there is a decision made to go down this road,” the minister wrote in an email.
Johnson, reached for comment, said NWT ministers appeared “afraid to do anything.”
“Minister Simpson just doesn’t see any benefit, today, to going out and consulting, so he will never do it,” Johnson said.
“I have no idea of his actual position on decriminalization. I suspect he will never share it, and it certainly isn’t a strong-enough opinion to do any work on the issue, either for or against.
“Even more ridiculous is our premier failed to answer any questions on this and sent them to RJ. It’s just a whole cabinet without any political beliefs. ‘We need to talk more’ is not a political belief.”
Lydia Bardak, a longtime advocate for people in the NWT’s criminal justice system, says the territorial government similarly approached the topic of managed alcohol programs.
Those programs supply doses of alcohol to chronic alcoholics, rather than mandating complete abstinence, and have shown high levels of success. A 2010 study found a Toronto program reduced costs by $3,300 a day per client in areas like healthcare or emergency and police services, and reduced emergency room visits by 93 percent.
Despite the programs’ successful track records, Bardak said the GNWT initially “wouldn’t even say the words, let alone acknowledge a program like that existed, until Covid hit – and that forced their hand.”
The GNWT offered a managed alcohol program to 30 immunocompromised homeless individuals at the pandemic’s onset in April 2020. The 30-day emergency program reportedly resulted in four chronic alcoholics leaving the program sober and 21 reducing their consumption. It received enough support to continue for another 17 months, ending in September 2021.
“When Portugal legalized drugs in 2000, spectators said ‘Oh, it’s gonna go crazy. There’s gonna be drugs everywhere.’ And that’s not been their experience,” said Bardak. “Marijuana was legal in the Netherlands for how long? Years and years. They weren’t having problems.
“It’s really fear-based thinking when you talk to somebody about the possibility of decriminalization and they say it leads to terrible things. According to the evidence before us, that’s not the case.”
Michael McLeod, the NWT’s Liberal MP, said drug addiction, toxic drug supply, and overdose deaths are aspects of a growing and “heartbreaking” problem in the NWT, and something must be done. He believes the federal government is already doing it.
“We’ve seen the government do a number of things to create pathways to move away from the criminal justice system, toward more appropriate health services and social support for those with addictions,” McLeod said.
He points to the 2017 Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act, which prevents people involved in an overdose from being charged with drug possession, and a 2020 policy shift that discourages federal lawyers from prosecuting drug possession.
“We’ve also seen bills put forward like C-216, a private member’s bill by Gord Johns, and Bill C-5, which are both acts to amend the Criminal Code and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act,” McLeod said.
“They’re looking at diverting individuals to addiction programs and giving a warning, or taking no further actions, instead of persecuting individuals for simple drug possession. So I think there are significant policy changes to come.”
Separate bill ‘addresses flexibility’
Asked if there would be a formal consultation about how decriminalization might look in the North, McLeod said Bill C-5 was past that point, though that bill focuses on the repealing of mandatory minimum penalties for some offences and does not deal with any aspect of decriminalization.
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.
Repealing some mandatory minimums, as Bill C-5 seeks to do, widens the range of sentencing options available to judges for more serious drug offences. But simple drug possession does not currently carry a mandatory minimum and is not affected by the bill.
“I think Bill C-5 already addresses looking at flexibility. So, you know, it’s already been covered,” said McLeod. “I am certainly adding my points of view and relaying what I’m hearing, that we need to start doing more for mental health.”
McLeod expects Bill C-5 to pass before June.
Bill C-216 is a private member’s bill introduced by Johns, an NDP MP, that – unlike Bill C-5 – would directly decriminalize possession of small quantities of some illegal substances. Private members’ bills not introduced by the sitting government ordinarily have a smaller chance of becoming law.
In March, Yukon MP Brendan Hanley – formerly that territory’s chief medical officer of health – rose in the House of Commons to support decriminalization and some of the bill’s objectives.
“My territory of the Yukon currently has the highest per-capita mortality rate for toxic drug overdoses among the provinces and territories. I cannot overstate how this has affected every single member of my riding, but we know this is a problem that belongs to all of Canada,” Hanley said.
“It is time that we formally consider decriminalization as a national policy,” he added.
Whether bills C-5 or C-216 have received any input from Indigenous leaders, northern or otherwise, is not clear.
If Bill C-216 is adopted at second reading in Parliament, it would be referred to a committee of MPs that would have the power to initiate such a consultation about its decriminalization measures.
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,” said Chief David Poitras of the Salt River First Nation has said of the discussion about decriminalization.
“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, emphasized the importance of consultation.
“Consultation is a very, very important aspect of having our voices heard, especially for self-governing communities,” he said. At the same time, Andre expressed frustration at the lack of tangible support around substance abuse despite previous discussions.
“We don’t like wasting too much of our time on policies that aren’t going to be fully implemented,” he said.
“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.”