APTN National News
Iqaluit residents discussed opening a beer and wine store for three and a half hours Tuesday night and could have continued three and a half more.
The sentiment expressed at the public meeting overwhelmingly opposed alcohol sales of any kind.
Iqaluit city council voted in August to recommend that the territorial government begin a consultation process with city residents about opening a beer and wine store as a pilot project.
The proposed outlet would be the first of its kind for Nunavut.
Residents now order from southern outlets, through paid permits. An alternative is a complicated process through the government of Nunavut, where residents of Baffin Island must order from Rankin Inlet, and vice versa.
The most used alternative is bootlegging.
“We know that there is a massive amount of alcohol available in Iqaluit and other towns,” said Chris D’Arcy, deputy minister of finance and the host for the evening.
D’Arcy explained how his department hopes availability of beer and wine can help reduce the harm caused by hard liquor and promised that any pilot store would be on a short leash, “if we find out this isn’t working, we’ll just turn it off.”
Former premier , current justice minister and Iqaluit-Sinna MLA Paul Okalik doesn’t buy the argument that beer and wine would mitigate harm.
“Alcohol is alcohol, people could drink quickly,” said Okalik, Nunavut’s longest serving premier pointing out the lack of a treatment facility in Iqaluit. “‘We need to recognize there’s a lack of resources in Nunavut right now.”
The theme of a missing treatment centre was common throughout the meeting. Iqaluit Coun. Joanasie Akumalik was one of many speakers who cited his own struggle with alcohol as an example.
“I am living proof that a treatment centre works for some people,” said Akumalik.
Akumalik was critical of the territorial government.
He started his remarks by promising to speak in English instead of Inuktitut, “so that the government officials can understand.”
He said alcohol is the major reason “for a backlog in foster parents” and said the government needs to “put a proper policy and funding on social issues.”
At Nunavut public meetings, elders are heard from often and at length. Tuesday night was no exception.
Widely respected elder Alicee Joamie received a round of applause for criticizing the lack of consultation with elders, saying, “why didn’t the elders have a meeting prior to this?”
Uniformly opposed to a pilot store opening, much of the night was dedicated to elders reminding residents what Iqaluit – then Frobisher Bay – was like when a liquor store was open in the 1970s.
Rev. Mike Gartner is not an Inuit elder, but he is considered an Iqaluit elder by many.
Fluent in Inuktitut, a resident of the eastern Arctic for more than 50 years, and an Order of Canada recipient, Gardener remembers the 1970’s liquor store.
“The old graveyard wouldn’t be a quarter full, if it wasn’t for liquor” said Gardener, in a theme that was echoed throughout the night.
The liquor store was closed in 1975, after public outcry over a young boy who was killed by a drunk snowmobiler. Elders described having to poke through snowbanks to find frozen bodies and children being left vulnerable to sexual abuse.
One of the children who survived that sexual abuse was one of only three people who spoke in favour of a beer and wine store.
Janet Brewster didn’t plan on attending the public meeting, but decided to attend after social media accounts showed the vast majority of people speaking against the meeting.
“I survived the 1970’s. Alcohol didn’t abuse me, people did,” said Brewster.
Brewster wants a chance to show how responsible drinking can be passed on to children, breaking Nunavut’s generational cycle of abuse.
“I teach my kids responsible drinking habits by drinking responsibly. In every community, there should be access. Taking the choice away doesn’t solve the issue, it is just denying people the opportunity to make healthy choices,” she said.
The territorial government’s finance department now has to report back to the cabinet on the result of their fact finding.
Tuesday’s meeting was a part of a process that included written submissions and a widely circulated survey.
The earliest the pilot store could open would be late 2015.