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Consult NTI on marijuana, senator says

Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson is pressuring the federal government to consult with Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. before legalizing marijuana nationwide on July 1.

Dennis Patterson: 'I think there's a lot of big questions that still need to be answered.'
NNSL file photo

On Nov. 23, Patterson insisted to fellow Sen. Peter Harder, government representative in the Senate, that Ottawa must enter a dialogue with NTI over concerns raised in a resolution passed at the land claim organization's annual general meeting in late October. The resolution calls upon the federal government to postpone the legalization of marijuana in Nunavut until Inuit decide whether they will support the legislation and until the government makes a commitment to establish addictions treatment centres in the territory.

"I thought that was a very strongly-expressed concern," Patterson said of the resolution. "It's very significant because of the Crown's obligation under the Nunavut land claim to consult with Inuit and give them an opportunity to participate in the development of social and cultural policy."

Nunavut MP Hunter Tootoo said he supports NTI's demand for an addiction treatment centre.

"I've been pushing for years for a treatment centre in Nunavut. If you look all across the country, there's not one treatment centre that's funded by Ottawa north of 60. I think it's long overdue that we had one," he said.

Patterson said the Senate possesses the tools to force a delay in marijuana legalization and he would be prepared to use those tools, if necessary.

"If we are indeed hearing from municipalities (and) the Inuit land claims organizations are saying there isn't enough time – it's too rushed – I would certainly be advocating for delay," he said, adding that consultation with NTI is "absolutely critical."

Harder told Patterson that he would inquire as to Ottawa's plans to consult NTI directly and also assured that "the government will accept all of its obligations, as it should, with respect to the land claims agreements."

Patterson, who said he is pleased with Harder's response, also noted that there are concerns about marijuana legislation at the community level. Those issues are set to be addressed at an upcoming Nunavut Association of Municipalities meeting in Iqaluit. Half a day is devoted to cannabis-related topics, such as regulating sales within the community, how to deal with employees who use marijuana, safety in the workplace, the training of bylaw officers to enforce community marijuana bylaws, and the costs associated with that training.

The Government of Nunavut circulated a survey earlier this year to collect public input on marijuana. The 5th legislative assembly, elected on Oct. 30, only has two sessions scheduled prior to cannabis legalization: the winter sitting from March 6 to 20, and the spring sitting from May 24 to June 14.

Other concerns related to marijuana include the impact on youth in a territory that already has a serious school attendance problem and how to deal with impaired driving as a result of smoking marijuana, Patterson added.

Nunavut's political leaders would also have to decide how marijuana is distributed in the territory and the legal age of use. Most provinces have adopted 18 or 19 as the minimum age.

"I think there's a lot of big questions that still need to be answered," Patterson said.

Tootoo referred to marijuana legalization as a "divisive" issue, saying he has heard from many people strongly in favour and strongly opposed to it during his travels across the territory.

Asked what NTI's role would be in establishing the ground rules for marijuana in Nunavut, Tootoo replied, "Those (GN) meetings are open to the public. Anyone can go and make their comments heard. I would think that not only the Government of Nunavut but also the federal government would ensure it wants to live up to all their obligations under the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement."

NTI did not respond to requests for comment, nor did the Department of Justice.