In razor-thin vote, Kugluktuk votes to lift liquor restrictions

The community of Kugluktuk, Nunavut, has voted to lift restrictions for community members looking to purchase alcohol.

On Monday, 61 per cent of the community voted for the current alcohol restrictions to be lifted, just over the 60 per cent threshold needed. 

Voter turnout was 68 per cent, meaning more people in the community voted in the liquor plebiscite than in any other recent election.

Like dozens of other remote communities across the North, Kugluktuk has had heavy restrictions on buying alcohol for years in an effort to curb binge drinking and alcoholism.

For years it's been hard for people. - Gordon Kokak

Hilary Bird/CBC

In the past, people had to apply to a committee made up of elected community members to ask to buy a certain amount of spirits, wine or beer. The committee would then accept or deny that application based on a person's past behaviour or criminal record. If accepted, the person would then put in an order to a liquor store in Yellowknife to have it shipped to the community by plane.

Now, the alcohol committee will be dissolved, and people in Kugluktuk will be free to order as much alcohol as they'd like.

The effectiveness of these liquor restrictions has repeatedly been called into question.

Many in the community say that instead of curbing alcohol consumption, they've driven those desperate for alcohol to make their own "homebrew," a home-made mixture of yeast, molasses and fruit. Depending on the ingredients and how long it's been left to ferment, the brew can have a dangerously high alcohol content.

In March, a man from Fort Resolution was charged after several people fell ill from consuming his homemade alcohol.

"There's a lot of it," community member Gordon Kokak says. "Now you see the older teenagers that get out of school they're experimenting with the homebrew."

He hopes easier access to alcohol will mean fewer people turning to other, more dangerous alternatives.

'For years it's been hard for people'

Kokak says he's also seen many people turn to bootlegging after having their applications denied by the alcohol committee.

In restricted communities across the North, people have gone to great lengths to smuggle in hard alcohol. RCMP say they've had to confiscate everything from shampoo bottles to a prosthetic leg filled with liquor. That bootlegged alcohol often sells for two to three times its normal price.

In northern communities where employment is often scarce, turning to bootleggers to feed an alcohol addiction leaves little leftover for things like diapers and groceries.

Hilary Bird/CBC

"For years it's been hard for people," community member Peter Taktogon said.

]"There's too much control on [alcohol] and everything. People end up bootlegging. That part was not very good for Kugluktuk, especially for young people."

Without access to alcohol, some members of the community say people have turned to more dangerous substances to get drunk or high, like rubbing alcohol or gas sniffing.  

I saw all of these young people going to court from my community.  -Doris Elatiak

But not everyone thinks a community free of alcohol restrictions is a healthier one.

Doris Elatiak is an Inuinnaqtun interpreter for the legal system in Nunavut. She says a decade ago, before alcohol restrictions were put in place, the community of Kugluktuk was in turmoil.

"I saw all of these young people going to court from my community. So many people went to jail and then after it was restricted there was hardly any clients going to jail."

Josie Alluktik agrees.

"There was lots of problems before when it was unrestricted. There was a lot of death, suicides and crime. There was lots of kids going hungry. But I see now that kids are happier and it's safer for them."

When asked what the first few weeks of no alcohol restrictions would look like in Kugluktuk, Gordon Kokak said he thinks the beginning will be a bit chaotic with many in the community making bulk orders and going on drinking benders.

But he believes that in a few weeks, things will calm down, and people will begin to see real changes.