Alcohol and cannabis are having a devastating impact on small communities in the North and the coronavirus pandemic is making the problem more pressing, says Norman Yakeleya, Dene national chief.
That is why on Friday, chiefs across the North voted unanimously in support of a Dene Nation motion calling upon Premier Caroline Cochrane and the Government of the Northwest Territories to “immediately” take action to create a working group to tackle the issue.
“The issue of alcohol in the North is that we know that there are six liquor stores in the NWT and that some of these liquor stores are regionally centred in the Gwich’in/IRC (Inuvialuit Regional Corporation) area and down to the Mackenzie Valley,” Yakeleya explained. “Liquor stores have been an issue in a lot of the chiefs’ comments today (April 3).”
Yakeleya said the Dene Nation — comprising of 27 chiefs — is united in seeking to partner with the GNWT to tackle four points:
- Implementing restrictions on liquor and cannabis sales in the NWT for the duration of the Covid-19 state of emergency.
- Creating an intergovernmental working group consisting of the GNWT and Indigenous government officials inclusive of all Dene regions. They would be tasked with drafting immediate plans for restricting liquor consumption as well as limited store hours for review and approval by the GNWT and Indigenous government leaders. The working group would collaborate with the chief public health officer and RCMP in development and implementation of the draft plan.
- Working with the chief public health officer and leadership to ensure that as many Dene people as possible are assisted to go back out on the land during the period of Covid-19.
- Finding sufficient funds for Dene people to manage the effects of alcohol withdrawal.
Yakeleya was adamant that the issue needs to be dealt with immediately and that the Dene want to help in the process. He said Cochrane told him that she was reviewing the motion as a priority within cabinet.
“We cannot wait until Sunday, Monday. We’ve got to do it now,” he said. “The motion speaks to Saturday. We have to know that this is how serious it is and that the chiefs have spoken.”
Elders are counsellors
As the GNWT is reviewing the motion, Yakeleya noted that there continue to be successes in dealing with alcohol and cannabis abuse in communities during the pandemic. This includes government supports in getting families and individuals out on the land.
“People right now are successfully going back to the land and it’s working,” he said. “It’s the continuation of having their support to go back to the land and do what needs to get done to live on the land.”
Yakeleya said if the GNWT wants to change social behaviours like public gatherings and parties, there will need to be further examination of how to “create support systems” and programs to support that effort such as mental health assistance or 1-800 numbers as examples.
He said creating help in the communities comes down to empowering Elders to provide teachings and healing to the rest of the community on the land.
“We’re not asking for structured buildings,” he said. “We already have counsellors in the community and they’re called the Elders and they are called the grandmothers and grandfathers. They’re called the medicine people and spiritual people. Those are our Elders and (they possess) knowledge on animals, plants and everything on the land. They’re just waiting for us to ask them for help.”
Some chiefs and community leaders say alcohol and drug abuse are continuing problems in small communities.
The Lutselk K’e Dene First Nation, for example, put strict measures in place in the community, including a warning to bootleggers and drug dealers that they will be served notice to stop their practices. If they don’t comply, they could risk having their snowmobiles confiscated or they could be banned from the community entirely.
At the Jean Marie River First Nation, Chief Stanley Sanguez said alcohol remains a continuing problem and one that chiefs will need to work together on to solve.
“We are not immune to alcohol in our communities and right now, by word of mouth, we are telling people that if you are going to do it, do it at home and don’t go out,” he said. “I don’t care what you guys do but stay inside.”