Liquor prohibition doesn’t work and addicts must want help to become sober.
Those are two conclusions that Iqaluit Mayor and former Nunavut Liquor Commission employee Kenny Bell says he has reached over the years.
Bell supported the opening of the Iqaluit Beer and Wine Store in 2017. It has been a major factor in Government of Nunavut (GN) alcohol sales rising by 175 per cent over the past few years, but it has also led to a decrease in the importation and consumption of hard alcohol, according to Bell and Finance Minister George Hickes.
Although the majority of people are responsible drinkers, Bell acknowledges that problems with drunken behaviour remain among a small but disruptive fraction of the population.
He estimates there are about 200 repeat offenders in the capital city of close to 8,000 residents, and some of those agitators land in Iqaluit from other communities where they’re not wanted, he adds.
Despite that challenge, work continues on other fronts. The Nunavut Association of Municipalities, of which Bell is the president, called on the GN earlier this year to limit alcohol importation into communities to hinder bootleggers.
“You could still go in and buy 1,000 bottles if you want to,” Bell says incredulously of the government’s existing ordering system in communities that have no restrictions. “In a place where you are limiting the amount of beer and wine (like Iqaluit), you should factually be limiting the amount of hard liquor anybody can have.”
The Department of Finance – parent to the Nunavut Liquor and Cannabis Commission – says it remains up to communities to decide on alcohol limitations, but indicated that a review of the Nunavut Liquor Act could take related measures into consideration.
In a June news release, the territorial government announced that the Iqaluit Beer and Wine Store would move from pilot project to a permanent service. A GN survey showed that 75 per cent of respondents supported keeping the store open; 37 per cent of people reported binge drinking less often since the location opened while 15 per cent indicated that they binge drink more often; there’s been a reported 67 per cent reduction in people purchasing alcohol from bootleggers; and 80 per cent of respondents spend the same amount or money or less on alcohol compared to before the store’s existence.
The government has plans to construct beer and wine stores in Rankin Inlet and Cambridge Bay, where 2017 plebiscites revealed strong approval among residents who voted.
Social responsibility campaign
The Nunavut Liquor and Cannabis Commission transfers its profits to the GN’s general revenues fund. The government distributes that money to various departments but it also sets aside 18 per cent for campaigns to promote the responsible use of alcohol and cannabis. Bell was a strong advocate of this initiative, as well.
He said 18 per cent of profits is far more than any other Canadian jurisdiction invests in social responsibility campaigns. In Nunavut, that includes lessons for students in grades 6 and up, including poster and video contests.
“Specifically because that’s the biggest group that you can help change,” Bell says of influencing and educating young minds about the effects of alcohol and consequences of over-consumption. “We won’t know for a couple of years if that really worked… over the years I think we’ll see a difference.
“Of course the problems are here. We see it everyday. All of our communities are really small. That being said, I think they’re on the right track.”
In terms of providing help for those with addictions, Bell says the GN doesn’t highlight existing treatment options enough. He said he knows people who have sought help and they were sent out of territory for counselling.
“The Government of Nunavut does have (addictions) programs, it’s just they’re overwhelmed (with other issues), of course, just like everything, and they don’t promote them as good as they could,” he says. “Now, the problem with that is there’s no after-care… if you have a problem, coming back here is hard.”
Bell welcomes a treatment centre that expected to open in Iqaluit in approximately five years – a partnership among the federal government, the GN and Nunavut Tunngavik – but he says that service should have been established 20 years ago.
Even when that facility is up and running, it remains essential for individuals to be truly ready to commit to reforming their lives, he insists.
“You have to want to change,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, we need a treatment centre, absolutely, but I think a lot of people are going to be shocked that a treatment centre isn’t going to change everything that they think it’s going to change.”
He pointed to overarching problems such as poverty and serious challenges with health services and education that fuel alcoholism.
“We’re lacking in almost every service known to man,” he says. “The government is trying… but it’s expensive. Twenty-five communities cost a lot of money. Balancing that with all the other work you have to do is a real hard job.
“Over time it’s going to change, but it’s not going to change overnight.”
GN liquor sales 2019-20
-Total sales revenue: $15.5 million
-GN profit: $3.1 million
-Iqaluit store’s share of sales: 72 per cent ($11 million)
-Litres of beer and wine sold through the Iqaluit store: 1.2 million
-Beer accounts for 67 per cent of sales territory-wide, wine stood at 19 per cent, spirits (higher percentage of alcohol content) came in at 10 per cent while cider and coolers were at four per cent
-Nunavut Liquor and Cannabis Commission’s spending on social responsibility campaigns, relative to profit: 18 per cent
Source: NULC 2019-20 annual report