03/04/2016 02:32 EST | Updated 03/05/2016 01:59 EST

Paul Okalik, Nunavut MLA, Quits Over Territory's Plans To Open Liquor Store

"I have my limits, and this was one of them."

Government of Nunavut

A veteran politician stood up in Nunavut legislature and announced his resignation from cabinet Thursday in protest over the territory’s plans to open a liquor store.

Paul Okalik opened his remarks with a candid confession: “My name is Paul and I’m an alcoholic.”

“I cannot support an institution of selling beer and wine in my community.”

Okalik, a former premier who recently served as minister of health and justice, said the birth of his children prompted him to stop drinking, saying he took his last sip of alcohol on June 11, 1991. And, as a recovering alcoholic, he said he could not stand by the government decision.

“I cannot continue as a minister under the current circumstances,” Okalik said.

A majority of Iqaluit residents voted in a plebiscite last year to open a beer and wine store. The decision rattled Okalik, who called it short-sighted given that Nunavut has has no treatment facilities to help people struggling with addiction.

“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 in his speech.

In addition to the health and justice files, Okalik also served the territory's consensus government — where politicians are elected as independent candidates — as minister responsible for the human rights tribunal, labour standards board, suicide prevention, and immigration.

Peter Taptuna, the territory’s current premier, accepted Okalik’s resignation and in a statement thanked him for his “dedicated service” to cabinet.

‘I have my limits, and this was one of them’

In an interview with CBC News following news of his resignation, the longtime politician cited his principles as the motivating factor behind his decision to step down from cabinet.

“I’m following the parliamentary convention that we abide by, which is a cabinet system where if a minister cannot live with principles or the decision of cabinet,” the Iqaluit-Sinaa MLA said in an interview.

“And I have my limits, and this was one of them.”

Listen to Okalik’s interview with CBC News here:

He continued: “I have won and lost many battles in cabinet and I have retained my cabinet seats because in the overall picture of things, I felt I could work around those issues. But on this one it was very difficult.”

Iqaluit closed its last liquor store in the 1970s and news of an outlet opening in 2017 has become a divisive topic among politicians and within the communities they serve.

Nunavut Premier Paul Okalik hugs his son Jordan after being sworn-in as a Member of the Legislative Assembly in Iqaluit, Nunavut on April 1, 1999

Tight regulations continue to restrict the sale of alcohol across Nunavut. In some communities, the sale of liquor can be unrestricted and in others it’s prohibited.

Binge-drinking and bootlegging have been commonly linked to the territory’s high rates of crime and domestic violence.

According to Okalik, the government’s priority of opening a liquor store over setting up treatment centres would set Nunavut back and undermine the work he’s done as health minister.

He added that the decision to resign was clear — but not an easy one to make.

“I could not just sit there and accept something like that. I have my limits. And I’m here for my fellow citizens and I feel that we need to represent them, all of them,” he said.

Read Paul Okalik’s full speech below:

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

My name is Paul and I’m an alcoholic. The last drink I had was June 11, 1991. I had to stop because my children were about to be born and supported my own family.

I was blessed with a strong family who supported me in my decision and reaffirmed my decision. 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.

However, I wouldn’t have been able to continue if I didn’t have the support from other groups when I was living down south. It is with their support and various facilities that I was able to continue my sobriety to this day.

On that basis, I have been pushing hard for my department to implement the supports needed for our citizens so that we can support them in their fight against addiction.

Our recent budget reflected the commitment where we are laying the foundation for our citizens to get the support within their communities. However, that is not complete. There is much more work to be done.

This morning, I informed my cabinet colleagues that I cannot continue as a minister under the current circumstances. 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.

Accordingly, I am resigning from my ministry today. I will continue to serve as a Member of this Assembly to serve Nunavut.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

With files from The Canadian Press

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