Nunavut needs stronger liquor laws: RCMP officer

Panel of MLAs reviews Liquor Act to cut down on liquor-related crime, get tough on bootleggers



Nunavut needs stronger legislation to curb liquor-related crimes, the head of Iqaluit’s RCMP detachment told a committee of MLAs reviewing the Nunavut Liquor Act this week.

Of the 2,000 offenders detained each year in the capital, “probably 80 per cent or higher are because of liquor-related issues,” Staff Sgt. Mike Jeffrey told the panel.

“A lot of the break and enters are for people to get things and then sell them. They’re looking for more money to buy alcohol,” he said.

And many of the prisoners at Baffin Correctional Centre can trace their steps back to that first drink. “They wouldn’t have committed the crime most likely if they weren’t under the influence of liquor.”

The standing committee on government operations and services began a week of public hearings on Monday to collect suggestions for reviewing the act. Similar meetings were held earlier this year throughout the territory, though not before a panel of MLAs.

Jeffrey was invited to speak to the panel and describe the effects liquor has on communities.

“I was working on Friday and at midnight I saw two women outside a bar with babies in their amutiit,” he said.

At 3. a.m., he got a call that a five-year-old boy was missing. The boy had been with his mother at the Parish Hall before he disappeared. The mother figured he would make it home. “So she went to the Legion and a neighbour took the boy into her house.” He sees it all the time, Jeffrey told the panel. And it’s time for it to change.

“It breaks my heart to see people who drank so much liquor that they can’t remember what happened,” he said. “Girls who have been sexually assaulted and have had so much to drink they can’t remember what happened. How do we change the laws so they don’t hurt somebody or get hurt by somebody?”

Bootlegging penalties too lenient?

The solution, he said, is not greater access to alcohol. “A person who is drinking and wants more will find someone willing to give it to him.”

Bootlegging is too easy, he said. The government has to make it unprofitable and unwise to sell alcohol illegally. “If you can make $1,000 in a night selling liquor, then the fine shouldn’t be $500,” he said. “The favourite flavour is Russian Prince vodka in the plastic bottle – it doesn’t break in the mail.”

One bottle can sell for $160 in Iqaluit, or more than $300 in smaller communities like Cape Dorset.

He recommended increasing the fine to a minimum of $2,500, and a maximum of $5,000 for a first offence. Jail terms should be imposed for subsequent offences.

“I don’t think we need more legislation, I think we need better legislation,” he said. “I don’t think it’s because of the legislation that people are committing crimes. We want people to be able to drink reasonably, but not to excess.”

Some MLAs chose to seek other outlets for blame. “This was not our culture,” said Amittuq MLA Enoki Irqqituq. “It’s when the white people started coming here that they introduced alcohol.”

Jeffrey agreed. “As long as we know as humans that there is a limit being imposed on us we will want to go further. That is the logic of the human race,” he said.

“I know you don’t see what I see: two brothers fighting and a little eight-year-old boy. One of the brothers hits the boy. It’s liquor that does that.”

Strong liquor committees

One of the main problems police face in stopping bootlegging is a law that isn’t on their side. “The way the laws are made it’s just not enough to know that someone is bootlegging. You have to prove it,” he said. “And they’re sneaky. They find a way to do it without getting caught.”

In addition to stiff fines, Jeffrey said communities need strong liquor committees to watch out for overconsumption – and to make sure it stops. “Right now there are no repercussions. Nothing happens to people who are overserving.”

Currently, liquor monitoring is done from the office of the Liquor Licencing Board in Gjoa Haven. The RCMP sends reports there. But that’s not enough, and one office alone can’t stop alcohol abuse.

In addition, establishing designated outlets in the South where people could buy and import alcohol legally would make it easier to spot the bootleggers.

There is some good news, he added. Since the government reduced import fees in December, about 30 per cent more alcohol has been sold in the territory. “That’s good because now we know it’s coming in legally.”

Iqaluit Mayor John Matthews and members of Iqaluit city council’s Niksik committee also made presentations to the panel about the city’s response to the Nunavut Liquor Commission’s recommendations on changes to the act.

The standing committee will present its suggestions to the legislative assembly in October.

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