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Sanikiluaq voters face alcohol prohibition plebiscite

A petition out of Sanikiluaq has led to a plebiscite scheduled for Feb. 4 on whether or not to change the community's liquor status from prohibited to a restricted quantity system.

The petitioner, who requested their name be withheld, says the prohibition of alcohol in the community is just not working.  

photo courtesy Arctic Eider Society
The community of Sanikiluaq, population 882 in 2016, will vote Feb. 4 on whether or not to make the change from a prohibited alcohol system to a restricted system.

"It hasn't been working for the longest time.  I'm glad something is being done about it. There's always alcohol bootlegged into town, and sold for $120 for a mickey (375 ml) bottle. It would make more sense to have a limited restriction system in place, to minimize bootlegging, criminal activity, as well as poverty. Some people spend their only money for that mickey bottle," they said.

Only 20 signatures were required for a valid petition to be sent to cabinet to authorize a plebiscite. The Sanikiluaq petition had 44, according to director of the Nunavut Liquor and Cannabis Commission Dan Young.

Young explained that if Sanikiluaq votes yes, residents of the community will be able to import alcohol using a restricted system allowed for by the legislation, but which no other community currently uses.

Rather than use an Alcohol Education Committee to approve orders, Sanikiluaq would use a restricted quantity system.

"What a restricted quantity system would be is there is a maximum amount they are allowed to bring in," said Young.

The limits and number of days – one litre of spirits, four litres of wine and 18 litres of beer in a 14-day period – were set as part of the petition by the petitioner's choice, with wording help from the commission to meet legislative standards.

Sixty per cent of the community must vote yes for the alcohol system to change from prohibited to restricted.

"You've probably heard that the last two that we hosted were razor-thin passing, but there's already a 10 per cent buffer built in above the majority. So they are not as close as they sound," said Young.

The last two, which took place in 2018, are Baker Lake and Kugluktuk. Those communities both saw the yes vote win with 60.1 and 60.8 per cent respectively to make the change from restricted to unrestricted.

Young says there isn't a higher than average number of plebiscites than the commission would normally see since the Iqaluit beer and wine store opened in September 2017.

"In the last 12 years, we've had 26 plebiscites (including the upcoming Sanikiluaq plebiscite) – an average of just over two a year. This will be the third in 12 months. However, the last two have passed and the seven prior did not pass. It might appear there's a trend, but we don't have enough to go on to say if it's really anything new," he said.

"In the last 12 years, of the 25 we've already had, 80 per cent of them resulted in no change. So although there's a lot (of plebiscites), there hasn't been a tonne of changes."

If the community does vote for change, based on the Kugluktuk process, it could take about a month-and-a-half to draft new regulations for the Liquor Act and pass them through cabinet.

A public meeting in the community is also planned for Jan. 22.

"Every time we hold a plebiscite, we like to send our employees from the liquor enforcement section of the commission to the community to explain what their options are in the plebiscite and what the impacts of voting yes or no would be so everybody understands what they're voting for," said Young.

Two employees will lead the public meeting, along with Elections Nunavut staff.

"The cost (of plebiscites) varies significantly based on the community we are hosting in, but the last one was approximately $20K. This doesn’t include staff time, or administrative costs in the office, such as passing documents through cabinet," said Young.

Young says there are typically passionate people on both sides of the issue at public meetings. The Sanikiluaq petitioner says there are mixed emotions in his community.

"Any alcohol-related incidents, I've had some start pointing fingers at me, calling me names for initiating a plebiscite. But what they don’t know is that cocaine has been behind these incidents that have occurred, and they blame alcohol for it," said the petitioner.

"I know it'll be very difficult in the beginning, because it's something new for the community and they don't take new changes too well. I know there’s some mixed emotions about it, but I know it'll be good for the community in the long run."

The commission is also taking the opportunity to bring their Let's Be Aware campaign to Sanikiluaq.

"While they're in town, and we actually also have a contractor with them, they're visiting schools, visiting front-line employees, setting up booths at the grocery stores and any other public places they can get into to distribute information about responsible drinking, " said Young.

The responsible drinking campaign seeks to explain what amount of alcohol constitutes one drink and how many drinks are considered to be safe.

"They do a full-on blitz and talk to as many people as possible when they're in the communities," said Young, adding the Let's Be Aware campaign is delivered to as many communities as the department is able to.