Seeking a new co-governance structure for the Northwest Territories, the Dene Nation is alleging that the territorial government acted unilaterally by allowing liquor delivery and takeout.
In an effort to keep restaurants and bars operating and staff employed, the GNWT announced on May 8 that all Class A and Class B licensed establishments can sell beer, wine and spirits for take-out delivery and without the need for an off-premises extension to their licence.
Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya said at a news conference on Thursday that the GNWT has failed to live up to its commitments to co-governance, specifically stating that last fall’s introductory breakfasts with the new cabinet appeared to be “lip service.”
“When we had our first breakfast meeting with the MLAs on Oct. 8, we wanted to work together with the MLAs,” Yakeleya said. “We then had a second breakfast meeting with some of the cabinet ministers and the MLAs and there was still a spark of hope of working together and collaborating on some issues. Slowly, the cabinet decided to do things differently and now our breakfast food has turned cold. ”
He said this was again the message he heard last Friday night when Dene chiefs from across the territory met to discuss territorial alcohol restrictions and the amount of liquor being consumed during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It doesn’t make any sense to the chiefs, where you have delivery now to many, many homes, especially in Yellowknife, and there was no discussions with our chiefs at all,” he said.
Yakeleya said there is still time to address the Dene Nation’s concerns and that the Premier should create a “leaders table” as well as a “senior intergovernmental officials working group,” which would allow the GNWT and the Dene Nation to work collaboratively on issues of common interest.
“The Dene Nation continues to call on the Government of the Northwest Territories to honour their commitments to work with Indigenous leaders on issues of common interest,” Yakeleya sated. “No one government can successfully go it alone in the NWT.”
In a news release issued Wednesday, the Dene Nation stated that it has been calling on the GNWT to further lower restrictions of liquor sales to one 26-oz bottle of spirits per person and one case of beer per day per person. The organization also stated that liquor sales should not be deemed an essential service in a similar fashion to food.
Last month, the Dene Nation offered a message of gratitude to Premier Caroline Cochrane after the territorial government responded to its pleas for alcohol restrictions across the NWT and in their communities. Effective April 16, the GNWT restricted individuals to a daily maximum purchase of $200 of alcohol products per person daily. Customers were also limited to no more than six 375-ml containers of spirits per day.
Those restrictions had followed weeks of appeals by Yakeleya, who stated that excessive alcohol consumption was fueling parties and public gatherings and increasing the risk of the coronavirus in Dene communities.
Post-pandemic economic reset plan
This week’s criticisms of the GNWT follow efforts by the Dene Nation to reset the governing structure of the NWT post-Covid-19. Yakeleya discussed a document that was sent to the GNWT in April called the Dene Nation Post Pandemic Economic Reset Plan.
In the six-page letter, the Dene Nation proposes new ways of tackling governance and economic development in the North. The premise is that the NWT’s existing governance structure is outdated.
“The status quo is no longer good enough. It is time for creativity and innovation as we transition to a better, post-pandemic economy,” the document reads. “No one government can go it alone. It is a time for collaboration, cooperation and co-governance.”
Specifically, the Dene Nation asks for a “Northern leaders table” that would have Indigenous leaders and cabinet ministers making decisions of common interest together. Also proposed is an intergovernmental officials table “to support and carry out the direction from the leaders table” and an intergovernmental memorandum of understanding to formalize the arrangement.
The document also proposes a number of specific policy ideas including energy, land claims, contaminated site remediation, the Mackenzie Valley fibre link, housing, education, tourism and strategies around seeking funding.
Yakeleya said this week that the Dene Nation has yet to receive feedback on these ideas.
A spokesperson from the Department of Finance stated in an email on Thursday afternoon that the GNWT has been working to improve relations with Indigenous leadership across the territory.
“The GNWT is committed to working to improve the government-to-government relationships with Indigenous governments, many of which are members of the Dene Nation,” stated the email to NNSL Media. “Since the beginning of the NWT’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, a great deal of effort has been placed on keeping Indigenous governments and Indigenous organizations informed and engaged.”
The email states that Cochrane and Cabinet have been meeting regularly with Indigenous governments and organizations including the Dene Nation.
“There has been, and will continue to be, outreach to Indigenous governments to try to address the frustrations related to alcohol and efforts to renew and build the special relationship that exists between governments,” states the email.
“Minister (Caroline) Wawzonek has spoken with leaders from Indigenous governments and Indigenous organizations on several occasions on a variety of issues, including amendments to the Liquor Act Regulations.”
Wawzonek held a conference call with representatives from Indigenous governments and organizations on April 27 to discuss amendments to the Liquor Act leading up to changes on May 8.
“On this call, leaders were provided an opportunity to engage with the Minister directly on the proposed regulatory changes and were invited to provide written feedback about the proposed regulations,” states the email to NNSL Media.
“Although this is not an Aboriginal rights-based issue requiring formal Aboriginal consultation, the Minister and the Government of the Northwest Territories remain committed to fully engaging Indigenous governments and Indigenous organizations on this important issue in our communities. Decisions around alcohol are always difficult and there is rarely consensus.”
The spokesperson from the Ministry of Finance said there has been great discussion on this issue and changes were made to reflect the concerns raised. Discussions will continue with Indigenous leaders on such issues, the email states.