By now you have certainly seen Ontario media abuzz with the news that the Ontario government is “updating” our liquor laws and “removing restrictions on Ontarians”. The restrictions that are being considered for elimination – note they have not been removed yet – include dropping the need for beer tents and allowing freer movement with drinks at festivals, extending special event serving hours, allowing all-inclusive Ontario vacation packages.
Keep in mind this is only a “consultation”. This is similar to what happened in 2005, when the Ontario Government commissioned a panel to review the alcohol system. However, after the panel found that consumers would benefit from increased competition in the retail environment, the review findings were quickly dismissed. But, any sign pointing towards positive change is a good thing so we welcome this news from the Government.
Just to reminisce for a moment, this news reminded me of something that happened way back in the 1990s, when the Ontario Government announced, without prior warning, that the drinking hours would be extended from 1 a.m. to 2 a.m. I was in university at the time, and loved the change. So did most. And it’s still with us, and hasn’t made society worse off, as some suspected back then. It was the kind of change that just made sense.
These current proposed changes are also ones, that if implemented, make sense. For anyone who’s been to a concert festival on the Toronto Island, it sucks. The beer tents have massive lines and are always frustrating. All-inclusive vacations and extended wedding drinking hours – sure, sounds good. But these are considerably smaller changes than what was happened in the ’90s, but in this digital era there has been a lot of talk very quickly from praise to pessimism that it is just an election campaign ploy.
But in Ontario we take what can get from the government when it comes to alcohol regulation change. After all, the government has been watching over booze for decades since Prohibition – they still are our exclusive retailer of wine and spirits through the L.C.B.O. and they created a single retail outlet for beer with The Beer Store that is owned by the all foreign-controlled Molson, Labatt and Sleeman. Private companies cannot create their own retail outlets. All alcohol imported into the province goes through the L.C.B.O. and governed their rules. You can’t buy beer at the corner store or grocery stores and you can’t have a picnic at a park with a six-pack of beer. The list goes on.
Hopefully, this latest news should spark something very important if we hope to achieve change in Ontario. And that is that alcohol needs to be a treated as a political issue in the province. It should be thought of in the same vein as the economy, education, health care and others. Only by having alcohol on the table as an issue that needs to be addressed alongside other important ones will we ever hope to fix our system. It is the Government alone who has the power to change Ontario’s liquor laws and allow for private competition in retail.
I’m hopeful that it will stick this time. In 2007 I made a plea to consider beer as a political issue in the election, and it was re-printed in The Toronto Star:
Our beer system is awful, plain and simple. To think that corner stores would only sell macro beers is not giving them enough credit. Open up the system, and see what happens. There’s Future Shop, but there’s also independent specialty computer retailers on College. There’s McDonald’s, but there’s also great restaurants around town. There’s Ikea, but there’s also boutique furniture shops. You get the idea. Specialty can co-exist with big, mass-focused retail. If corner stores were allowed to sell craft beers, I would personally open a Bar Towel convenience store in Toronto and I think I would be pretty successful. I wouldn’t be the only one. The system has to change and I wish this was more of an issue, but it isn’t.”
- Cass Enright, on BarTowel.com, a local website for beer aficionados, responding to PC Leader John Tory musing about allowing specialty beer and wine stores
Unfortunately it was not an issue in the last election, but there’s a lot more talk about it this time around. And now the Government wants to hear from you. As part of the consultation for the proposed rule changes, the Ministry of the Attorney General “wants to hear your suggestions about how liquor laws in Ontario can be modernized.” This is huge. If you feel that our alcohol system can improve in Ontario (and if you’re reading Free Our Beer you probably do), then speak up. Write a letter or e-mail them. These kind of opportunities don’t come around very often. This is your chance to be heard. If you don’t like how the private ordering system works, say so. If you believe The Beer Store under-services craft beer, write it down. If you want to have competition in the marketplace when it comes to alcohol retail, tell them. Demonstrate your belief that Ontario can be a better place with serious change in how alcohol is treated in the province. I certainly will, and I hope you do too.
The Ministry is accepting submissions until March 17, 2011, by email at email@example.com or by mail at: Ontario Consultations, 720 Bay Street, 7th floor, Toronto, ON, M7A 2S9. Don’t let this opportunity pass.