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Canada 'My name is Paul and I’m an alcoholic.' Nunavut minister quits over liquor store plan

Paul Okalik said he will continue to serve as a member of the legislature.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Nunavut's Minister of Health and Justice has quit cabinet over the territory's contentious plan to open a liquor store in Iqaluit, saying he can't accept it as a recovering alcoholic.

Paul Okalik, who is also a former premier, told the legislature he cannot support opening a liquor store without first having services to treat addictions in place.

"My name is Paul and I'm an alcoholic," Okalik told the assembly this week, noting he had his last drink in 1991 and has been sober ever since thanks to the support of his family.

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"I recall my late grandmother telling me: 'If only your mom was here to see it.' It came too late, but it gave me the strength."

Okalik said he had been pushing for supports for people fighting addiction and, in the last budget, the foundation was laid to get addiction treatment in communities. But that work won't be done before the liquor store is opened next year.

"I cannot continue as a minister under the current circumstances," Okalik told the assembly. "I cannot support an institution of selling beer and wine in my community where we don't have the facilities to support those who may not be able to combat their addictions."

Okalik was the first premier of Nunavut. He served in that office from 1999 to 2008. Many offices in Iqaluit were closed Friday due to a snowstorm and he did not return calls from The Canadian Press seeking further comment.

Premier Peter Taptuna accepted Okalik's resignation and said the portfolios will be reassigned next week.

"I want to thank Mr. Okalik for his dedicated service to cabinet on behalf of Nunavummiut and as a member of the executive council," Taptuna said in a statement.

Iqaluit's last liquor store closed in the 1970s and opening a new one has been an emotional issue. Some argue Iqaluit is growing and deserves the convenience of a liquor store. But others fears greater access to booze will cause further social problems in a community that already has plenty of them.

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Last year, Iqaluit residents voted strongly in favour of opening a retail store for beer and wine. More than three-quarters of the voters approved the motion in a plebiscite.

Access to liquor is tightly controlled in the territory.

People can have alcohol shipped to a heavily secured government warehouse in Iqaluit, which takes three or four days and costs about $60 for a case of 24 beer. Or they can apply for a liquor import permit and order it directly, which takes about the same time but costs less.

Some communities have committees that regulate who can buy liquor, how much and how often. Some communities, in theory, are dry, but bootlegging is a problem.

Nunavut has a consensus government. There are no political parties. The premier and cabinet are picked from the elected members of the legislature and the rest of the members serve as opposition.

Okalik said he will continue to serve as a member of the legislature.

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