Ex-Nunavut premier resigns over planned beer and wine store in territory

With a candid description of his own drinking past, former premier resigned from territorial cabinet Thursday in protest of a controversial beer and wine store being planned for the territorial capital.

“My name is Paul and I am an alcoholic,” is how Okalik, the MLA for -Sinaa, opened his unscripted speech to the 22-member Nunavut legislature.

Okalik, who served as the territory’s inaugural premier until 2008, had struggled with drinking as a teenager to the point of being expelled from high school. His last drink was in 1991.

In its entire 17-year history, Nunavut has never been home to a liquor store. Alcohol is illegal in seven of the territory’s 25 communities, and elsewhere liquor can be obtained only in licensed restaurants or by special order.

As territorial officials have told the National Post, the goal is not convenience or expediency, but to curb the territory’s problem with the binge-drinking of hard liquor.

Six years ago, a special Nunavut task force recommended encouraging a healthier drinking culture in which “beer, wine and cider be made more accessible.” And in an April plebiscite, 77 per cent of Iqaluit residents voted in favour of opening a beer and wine store.

‘I cannot support an institution of selling beer and wine in my community, while we don’t have the facilities to support those who may not be able to combat their addictions’

Sources told the National Post that Okalik is not opposed to the store in principle, but opposes it being opened while Iqaluit still lacks any alcohol rehabilitation facilities.

“I cannot support an institution of selling beer and wine in my community, while we don’t have the facilities to support those who may not be able to combat their addictions,” he said, as reported by CBC North.

Despite the territory’s well-acknowledged problems with alcohol-fuelled crime, any Nunavummiut seeking alcohol treatment has to be flown to a facility in Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton or elsewhere in the “South.”

On Thursday, Nunavut Premier Peter Taptuna accepted Okalik’s resignation from Vancouver, where he is attending a first ministers’ meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“I want to thank Mr. Okalik for his dedicated service to Cabinet,” he said in a statement.

Okalik, born to a hunter in the Baffin Island community of Pangnirtung, held the title as the first Inuk lawyer in the history of the Northwest Territories. He played a key role in negotiating and implementing the settlement that created Nunavut, and in 1999 became the territory’s first premier.

As a teenager, however, Okalik’s drinking led him to a brush with the law at age 17, after which he considered suicide. Okalik, who sought treatment, said it was following the 1991 birth of his eldest daughter that he “turned the corner.”

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Serving as the territory’s minister of health until his resignation, Okalik has long been vocal in opposing the planned beer and wine store.

“Alcohol is alcohol, people could drink quickly,” he told APTN in 2014.

Although Nunavut’s overall alcohol consumption and rates of heavy drinking are not dramatically out of step with the Canadian

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