No easy answers for Nunavut on alcohol


Say what you like about Finance Minister Keith Peterson and his cabinet colleagues: it took real courage for them to order a sweeping review of the law that covers what may be Nunavut’s most emotional issue: liquor.

A 10-member task force started work on this review last week. We don’t know what they will recommend to the Government of Nunavut a year or so from now.

But one outcome is certain. The task force will find no consensus among the people of Nunavut on matters related to alcohol sales and consumption.

The people of the territory are divided between those who wish to reduce alcohol consumption through tighter restrictions and those who favour more liberalized access. People on each side of this debate can support their positions with reasonable arguments. What’s more, people on each side of this debate are motivated by the kinds of deep emotions that can create big trouble for politicians.

Take, for example, the suggestion that the GN allow walk-in retail liquor sales. Those who ask for this say that easier access to legally available retail liquor would reduce or even eliminate bootlegging and the criminality that goes along with it.

This argument makes a lot of sense. The much-reviled “bootlegger,” after all, is just a businessman, albeit a businessman without an office or membership in a chamber of commerce. Like other business people, bootleggers sell a commodity for which there is great demand, at prices that reflect their cost of doing business.

In the bootlegger’s case, this cost includes the enormous risk of getting caught by the police. And since there is no insurance policy to protect the bootlegger against this, he sets his prices high. So from the bootlegger’s point of view, it makes good business sense to charge $300 to $600 for a bottle that may cost as little as $50 or $60 at a retail store.

At any rate, it’s reasonable to assume that if the GN were to start selling retail liquor at cheaper prices than a bootlegger could ever hope to match, bootlegging would likely dry up.

But liberalized retail sales might also produce an unwanted consequence: increased consumption. When a thing costs less and is easier to get, it’s reasonable to expect that people will consume more of it. In the case of alcohol, liberalized access could mean more of the workplace absenteeism that Nunavut is famous for, more family violence and more ruined lives.

It’s worth recalling how Nunavut’s awkward system of personal liquor orders came into existence.

Until 1975, residents of Iqaluit, then called Frobisher Bay, enjoyed access to a retail liquor store. But that year a child died in a motor vehicle accident caused by an intoxicated person. An outraged group of residents circulated a petition that called for a local plebiscite on closing the liquor store, which they presented to Stuart Hodgson, then the commissioner of the Northwest Territories.

To press their case, they told stories of violence, family breakdown and people walking around intoxicated at all hours. Hodgson, who held all the executive powers now held by territorial premiers and cabinet ministers, did not order a plebiscite. He just closed the liquor store.

Since then, few local politicians have dared propose that the Iqaluit liquor store be re-opened for retail sales. It’s still a radioactive issue, capable of incinerating all who go near it.

This is because many Iqaluit residents still believe that easier access to alcohol will lead to more consumption, and in their minds, more blood, violence and death. So do residents of many other communities, and the RCMP. This why we say Peterson showed real courage when he declared that “everything is on the table.”

After 1999, the GN, after giving up on a dubious scheme to locate a second liquor warehouse in the dry community of Gjoa Haven, created a Kivalliq version of the Iqaluit liquor store in Rankin Inlet.

Like the Iqaluit facility, the Rankin centre sells only to local licenced restaurants, clubs and bars, but not to walk-in retail customers. Rankin residents must order liquor by air from Iqaluit and Iqaluit residents must do the same in reverse. People living in any other Nunavut community where liquor is legal may order from the warehouse of their choice, and, of course from outside the territory with an import permit.

For those who want it, legal liquor is not that hard to get in Nunavut. And yet bootlegging still flourishes, in wet and dry communities alike. The Iqaluit RCMP alleged recently that one ring in Iqaluit invested nearly $250,000 in an illegal sales inventory that was acquired legally by way of import permits.

It doesn’t make sense that people who can afford to spend between $300 and $600 on a 60-ounce bottle of vodka can’t find ways of making legal orders through the Nunavut liquor system. The only explanation is that these are people who don’t have credit cards and who are intimidated by the need to fill out simple order forms.

This makes it an issue of class and culture. It reveals that bootlegging is more than just the exploitation of alcoholics. It reveals also that it’s the exploitation of those who are poor, illiterate and backward.

In any event, it’s unlikely that any reform of Nunavut Liquor Act, no matter how useful, can slake the thirst of those who want immediate on-demand access to alcohol, no matter the cost.

The liquor law is not a social tool. For the most part, it’s a piece of financial legislation, aimed at ensuring the government, and only the government, may collect taxes and duties from the sale of liquor. Bootlegging, essentially, is a form of tax evasion. That’s why it’s punishable, mostly, by fines and not jail terms.

The GN has the power to make it easier for people to buy liquor. They have the power to reduce bootlegging. But would easier access reduce the destructive madness of binge drinking?

The GN does not have the power to reduce consumption. That, surely, will require cultural changes that are beyond the power of the government to produce on its own. JB

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