Getting a hangover from inaction on Yellowknife’s drinking problem
“The liquor store, opened in 1939, was perhaps the most lucrative enterprise in the community.”
— A Social Geography of Yellowknife, 1976.
“I was downtown … with street drinkers. We drink wine, Private Stock, and hang around.”
— Peter Tsetta, an unemployed ex-con whose daily routine included commuting from Ndilo to downtown Yellowknife.
“There were a lot of people drinking on the street that day?”
— Crown attorney Annie Piche, in cross examination of Peter Tsetta, on trial recently for two sexual assaults.
“There were a lot of people.”
— Was Tsetta’s reply.
“… no person shall consume liquor in a public place.”
— NWT Liquor Act.
“The bottom line is that someone in this city needs to start enforcing NWT Liquor Act violations. If nobody does, downtown business owners, shoppers, workers and tourists pay the price.
— City Coun. Adrian Bell, 2017.
There is a small, but vibrant community of people in Yellowknife known as “street drinkers.”
These folks are clearly alcoholics, many of them are homeless and basically live out of the Day Shelter/Sobering Centre on 50 Street. They meet each morning near the downtown liquor store, where those with money purchase the favourite drink of the street, Private Stock. It’s a disgusting, but cheap, swill. Thankfully, it comes in a shatter-proof plastic container, as the empties litter parking lots and alleys in the city’s core.
When the street drinkers have some extra cash, they splurge on a mickey of Smirnoff vodka. Being a good capitalistic business, the downtown liquor store — both of the city’s booze retailers are privately operated — keeps both of those products handy under the front cash register for quick sales.
Yellowknife has always been a rough-and-tumble town. It grew as the mines expanded and the men who dug for gold were tough customers. Add to that an Indigenous population saddled with alcohol addiction thanks to the European colonizers, and alcohol has been fuelling life in this city for decades.
However, as the mining industry evolves — it’s still a key factor to the NWT’s existence — a more diversified economy is being sought.
And as the GNWT looks to grow a seriously promising tourism sector — folks from afar who are likely scared of aggressive panhandlers and locals fighting in the streets — Yellowknife needs to adapt. Sure, we are still a blue-collar town, but we also have a large number of white-collar workers, mostly for government. In fact, Yellowknife is a very prosperous place, overall. Apart from the thin slice of abject poverty in the city’s social pie chart.
But more on that later.
It’s time to curb street drinking. Period. No more dancing around the issue. No more free-range open boozing — unless it’s on a licensed sidewalk patio.
To tackle the problem, our elected officials and the various agencies they fund must separate it into two issues:
- Liquor sales and consumption laws.
- Mental health and addictions.
Apart from what some could think, these two issues are not interconnected. It’s old-school thinking to approach alcoholism with prohibition in mind. And our outdated and downright dumb liquor laws are just that: a limp-wristed form of prohibition.
Hands up — who thinks restricting access to alcohol through liquor store hours and hospitality sector regulations are doing anything to help stop alcoholism? If you do, then you also learned nothing from the failure of 1930’s-era prohibition. You also haven’t been exposed to the street culture and have known many alcoholics/drug addicts.
Addiction is a combination of genetic sensitivity and psychological need. Having an addiction is like having an itch that can’t be scratched; your mental torment can only be satiated with your drug of choice.
And you will do whatever needs to be done to make that happen. For some people, addiction will lead to jail or death. For others, recovery can be a real thing.
Those people sitting in Pop-up Park and sipping on cheap booze — what the hell is happening with that pallet-riddled wasteland of a playground this year anyhow? — need a lot of things. What they don’t need is a crackdown on operating hours of liquor stores. Or an impossible to enforce daily purchase quota.
That will lead to burglaries or bootlegging. It could also drive people to drink non-potable liquids. Such as hairspray. Or it could lead to a paint/gasoline huffing problem.
That’s what was happening in Winnipeg couple of decades ago. The ancient liquor laws and prohibition-lite attempts to curb booze abuse by out-of-touch lawmakers saw the city’s tenderloin district turn into a dumping site for empty paint and gasoline containers.
It was frying people’s brains. I went and interviewed some of those folks, many with paint covering their lips and cheeks. It was horrible.
So what did Winnipeg do? It actually got the province to open one of its downtown liquor stores (they are all government run) early in the morning and extend the hours later to let the drunks be drunks.
But I digress. Back to Yellowknife’s street drinkers and the issues in our city.
What those people need, by and large, is a law enforcement crackdown to let them know they can’t flaunt the existing Liquor Act and Criminal Code laws. Those of us who obey our laws, expect them to be enforced for everyone.
Liquor Act: 85. (1) Except as provided by this Act and the regulations, no person shall consume liquor in a public place.
I note in its latest report to city council, the local RCMP detachment stated it did 56 patrols of the downtown area. “A total of 76 bottles of liquor were seized and destroyed,” stated the report. “Fifty-four patrols were dedicated in the Sobering Centre/Day Shelter immediate surroundings.”
However, just take a drive through that area on any given evening — especially now that the long summer days are here — and you will see street drinkers flaunting the liquor laws. I did just that last Saturday night. I took the photo at the top of the article just as I pulled up to the Reddi Mart.
And a Municipal Enforcement Division (MED) patrol drove right past.
In 2013, then city councillors Linda Bussey and Rebecca Alty — the latter now being our mayor — wrote letters in support of MLA Darryl Dolyny’s motion to strengthen the ability of municipal enforcement officers to enforce liquor infractions.
“Enforcement is one component of addressing our alcohol related issues, it is definitely a tool that can help municipal and territorial governments to work together to enforce NWT liquor laws,” they wrote.
Coun. Niels Konge also wrote in support of that 2013 motion:
“I am in full support of Mr. Dolyny’s motion to pass amendments to the Liquor Act or other legislation, as required, to provide municipal enforcement officers with the authority to enforce liquor Infractions. It is a well know fact that In Yellowknife there are Issues on the street level with public drinking, drunkenness and other liquor related activities that are not acceptable to society In general, and currently bylaw officers do not have the ability to enforce any liquor infractions. Passing these recommended amendments will add another tool In the tool box that If the city of Yellowknlfe so choses to use it can.”
What ever happened to that push? Apparently nothing.
In 2017, then city councillor Adrian Bell called on MED “to begin reporting to council on the number of referrals they make to the RCMP per month for criminal activity and violations of the NWT Liquor Act that they observe during the course of their work.”
Bell was concerned — and rightly so — over the policy that only has MED officers able to call RCMP over issues such as open liquor in the streets. And the RCMP had indicated it will not respond to those simple crimes.
“The bottom line,” stated Bell, “is that someone in this city needs to start enforcing NWT Liquor Act violations. If nobody does, downtown business owners, shoppers, workers and tourists pay the price.”
Another idea brought up by former councillor Bell during his failed campaign for mayor in 2018 was to set up a downtown ambassador program.
Bell explained: “These are people in friendly looking uniforms who “provide a variety of public safety, hospitality and goodwill services … unarmed and non-confrontational … and providing outreach services to both the homeless and business communities.”
I’ve seen these types of programs work in other communities. Years ago, I spent a day on patrol with the Downtown Watch in Winnipeg — Downtown Winnipeg BIZ was a client of my photo studio at the time — and saw the great work this type of outreach and info worker can do. In Winnipeg, the city’s business community funded the patrol. In Yellowknife, it would be up to council to source funding in any way it would deem appropriate — perhaps with some support from the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, as it’s members would benefit greatly.
Why can’t our elected leaders actually get something accomplished on this file? Does the current air of being overly politically correct pollute some thinking?
For city council to emphasize such fanciful programs such as wayfinder signage over cleaning up the streets is farcical.
Enforcing existing legislation will make difference. I suspect it will wake a few street drinkers up. They might even reach out for help.
Others might need to be gently nudged into treatment by the legal system, once they amass a few tickets for illegal possession of liquor in a public place and public intoxication. Recovery, whether through a 12-step program such as Alcoholics Anonymous or one that incorporates Indigenous spiritual methods, does work. Not for everyone, but for many.
Others will need to be diverted into supported housing (the Arnica Inn conversion is on point).
Then, there needs to be transitional education and work programs. Where the concept of earning a wage to support a clean and sober lifestyle can be realized. One of the best tonics for desperation and substance abuse is hope.
I will not use this space again to lambaste the GNWT for refusing to set up a residential treatment centre in this city. An election is coming. Hopefully it will be an issue.
I have also previously blogged on the problems with the combined Day Shelter/Sobering Centre model. Again, I hope this comes up during the election.
But I digress.
So now that we’ve made progress on the addictions/mental health side of the booze puzzle, it’s time to modernize the Liquor Act.
This will bring unparalleled opportunities for the hospitality and tourism sectors, while also making life here just a lot more fun.
It will not make for more street drinkers.
It will make this place more vibrant. It will open opportunities for bars, pubs, lounges, restaurants. It will provide more employment opportunities.
This point was hammered home by many city councillors during a recent meeting of the Governance and Priorities Committee.
The issue was brought to the fore by Mayor Rebecca Alty. However, she was serving up the idea of restricting liquor store hours and daily sales allotments per person.
Her Worship cited a University of Victoria study, that showed the NWT has the second highest rate of alcohol consumption per capita in Canada. It also gave the NWT a failing ‘F’ grade on what I can only determine is some form of Victorian-era inspired algorithm.
I note, one of the study’s “expert reviewers” is Dr. Robyn Burton of King’s College London, who in 2018 co-authored a paper entitled, “No level of alcohol consumption improves health.”
Now I don’t fault Mayor Alty for bringing the U of V study to council for discussion. That’s exactly what a good political leader should be doing. We want new ideas to be brought forward. Even if the outcome isn’t what might be expected.
I was siting in the public gallery at that committee meeting last week. And I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised to see our council in action.
Allow me to boil things down in a few quotes from some councillors:
Mayor Alty: “Various research has shown that restricting alcohol sales hours of sale for two or more hours could effectively decrease alcohol related crimes.
“That would be my recommendation, that council work with the GNWT to implement best practices regarding he physical availability of alcohol, or consider a reduction in the hours of operation. And relating to pricing and taxation (increases), there is something probably there too.”
Coun. Konge: “I’d like to thank Mayor Alty for bringing this forward, however I disagree with every comment she has made. I lived in Europe for eight years. You can go to the grocery store at 8 o’clock in the morning and buy beer. There is a totally different culture around alcohol.
“I actually think having access to alcohol opened up and more available will reduce some of the issues that we are having in the downtown. The same people will be heavily intoxicated, but they won’t be doing it all al the same time (after the liquor store opens each day).
“Let’s open (the liquor store) up on Sundays. It’s going to reduce the bootlegging. “I would like to ask the (GNWT) minister of finance to extend hours of operation, open up on Sundays and have beer and wine stores (separately established).”
Coun. Julian Morse: “When we are talking about the most pervasive problems related to alcohol, these are pretty severe addictions issues. If people are feeding a serious addiction, there aren’t a lot of constraints you can put in place to stop them.”
Coun. Robin Williams: “Deregulation will certainly help. If entrepreneurial spirit was allowed to grow, we could have some higher-end liquor stores, we could have some boutique places. To take some of that negative stigma off of it. To market it as the product it is … a recreational product.”
Coun. Stacie Smith: “Twenty-four hours (liquor sales) I think would be ideal, you have less want for an item if it’s something you can get all the time. We’re looking at this in the wrong way — liquor isn’t the issue, mental health is the issue. Addiction is the issue.”
Coun. Steve Payne: “We are nothing like anywhere else in Canada … the government has put such strong restrictions on (alcohol), but people still drink. I think we need to loosen the controls and restrictions. (In my business, Ragged Ass Barbers in YK Centre), I would love to serve somebody a beer. I’m sure James O’Connor over there would love to have a beer while getting a haircut in the barber shop. Or someone going into a spa and having a glass of wine. (Government) is always standing in the way of business.
Yes, I did get a shout out. Yes, I get my haircuts in his very hip business. Yes, I would enjoy sipping on a lager while having a trim.
As for the discussion at the committee of council? I really hope it ends up in new public policy. Alty said it will be up to councillors to bring forward recommendations for further discussion.
Blah, blah, blah folks — Like, c’mon, get something done!
Some could suggest opening up the liquor laws would encourage more drunk driving. While I am extremely aware of the issues of drinking and driving — and I volunteer with the new Yellowknife MADD chapter — if people have the idea that breaking the law to drink and drive if OK, they will do it whenever they want. It is up to education campaigns such as MADD combined with enforcement from police to deter such criminal activity.
I note the NWT is one of only two Canadian jurisdictions that requires mandatory warning labels on all alcohol containers sold in retail stores. There is a push to augment those labels even further with the addition of images of some sort.
So it’s not as if people shouldn’t be aware of the dangers of booze.
However, the positive aspects of opening up liquor store sales times and easing restrictions on bars, lounges, brew pubs and breweries — and the associated tax revenue from that activity — can outweigh the negatives.
If we are to truly become a tourist mecca, people on vacation want to have fun. They want to visit a place that is set up for hospitality. We also need to deal with the addictions issue in a forthright, respectful and effective manner.
Right now, we are not doing any of that very well. And everyone in the city is suffering as a result, in one way or another.
UPDATE: I asked Mayor Alty about the move years ago to strengthen the ability of municipal enforcement officers to enforce liquor infractions.
Here’s her response: “We’ve had discussions with Justice on the possibility and what the risks would be, but no changes or real movement – both sides have had other priorities come up that has taken staff resources so this has been put on the back burner.”