Five years later, liquor act remains ‘outdated,’ ‘confusing,’ and poorly enforced

The Yukon’s Liquor Act is “outdated, hard to understand, and cumbersome …”. Yukoners want “a modern act that brings…

The Yukon’s Liquor Act is “outdated, hard to understand, and cumbersome …”.

Yukoners want “a modern act that brings the territory’s liquor laws ‘into the 21st century,’ and puts Yukon practices in line with other jurisdictions.”

Sound familiar?

Would it surprise you to know that those quotes are lifted from a report drafted five years ago after a series of extensive consultations around the territory about how best to revamp the liquor act?

At that time the government struck a Liquor Act Review Committee to poll the territory.

It came back with 49 recommendations hitting everything from increasing the fines for bootlegging, and providing for more frequent inspections of licenced premises, to rewriting the act in plain, unambiguous language.

That was in 2001.

Since then, the recommendations have not been implemented and people are butting up against the same problems they were five years ago.

“The act is so complicated that even the bureaucrats who administer it don’t understand it,” said Lawrie Crawford, owner of the Bold Rush Power Plant, which had its liquor licence suspended last week although it was not serving alcohol.

“You’ve got a premier here saying, ‘I’m going to get tough on crime and I’m going to get tough on drugs and I’m going to help people deal with their addictions;’ well, it seems to me that the first thing you would look at is the liquor act,” said one source, who approached The News this week troubled by the lack enforcement of liquor laws and how it is affecting his community.

“The fact is that the current government has allowed liquor inspections to languish,” said NDP leader Todd Hardy in a release issued this week.

“That needs to be fixed before we expand the number of drinking places.”

Since The News began its investigation into the Yukon Liquor Act and how it’s being enforced, several sources have come forward with similar concerns and stories. All have asked to remain anonymous, fearing reprisal.

Sources say that liquor inspections for busy licenced events around the territory have not been provided when and where needed.

A single inspector was sent to the Alsek Music Festival, and then only for one of the three festival nights.

And, although two inspectors were sent to police this year’s Dawson City Music Festival, both were told to come back to Whitehorse on Saturday, leaving the event’s two busiest days — Saturday and Sunday — without any enforcement.

Then there was July’s Dustball dance.

Inspectors attended the licenced event, where more than 1,000 people had gathered, once, and that was after “all hell had broken loose,” said sources.

That night, at least three people were violently assaulted; two were arrested and there was petty vandalism in the parking lot — such as defecation on car windshields.

Sources also say that even when infractions have been found, they have gone unreported and unpunished.

Currently public information about infractions and enforcement is hard to obtain.

On September 7, The News first requested documents from the Yukon Liquor Corp. outlining infractions and enforcement in two local bars.

Officials were reluctant to hand out that information, which is considered public information under the liquor act.

An election had been called, said liquor corp. spokesperson Doug Caldwell, suggesting there was a restriction on what information could be released.

No information was provided, so The News made a request under access to information on September 13.

To date, no documents have been provided.

The NDP has also been frustrated by the lack of information coming out of the government.

When the party filed access to information requests on infractions and enforcement, the bill came in at more than $1,300.

That information “should be at the liquor corporation’s fingertips,” according to Hardy.

Another suggestion in the 2001 report says the BARS (Be a Responsible Server) program should be mandatory for the licencee, servers and those staffing off sales.

Currently the program is “encouraged” but not mandatory.

In Whitehorse, the concerns focused on expanding the availability of liquor and licences through operations like beer and wine boutiques and neighbourhood pubs, according to the report.

But people in the communities told a different story; they focused on alcohol abuse and alcohol related deaths, drunk driving and bootlegging.

But overall, Yukoners indicated they want the Yukon Liquor Act rewritten, according to the report.

Yukon Party leader Dennis Fentie pledged to keep the existing liquor act although the party has pledged to “tackle bootlegging.”

“We’re not convinced reviewing the liquor act is necessary,” Fentie told the Yukon Chamber of Commerce on September 28.

“Access to liquor is quite easy; you can get it anywhere in the territory.

“Our focus needs to be dealing with substance abuse.”

The Liberals have committed to moving ahead with recommendations from consultation done five years ago, said party leader Arthur Mitchell.

He said revised legislation was nearly ready to table when the Liberals lost power and the Yukon Party dropped the revision.

“There’s been a number of things that have happened and a number of abuses as well — for example, this breakfast club scenario; people are finding ways to serve liquor in the mornings,” said Mitchell.

The Liberals have also committed to revising the liquor act to nix the clause in the act that says any bar in the territory must have rooms attached to it.

That would allow neighbourhood pubs to open in the territory.

“We’ve all seen it elsewhere, I don’t know why it’s been so discouraged here except that there’s a lobby opposing it,” said Mitchell.