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New federal regulations aimed at freeing the interprovincial sale of beer are insufficient to grow the industry unless the provinces step up, Atlantic craft brewers say.
Earlier this week, federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic Leblanc announced that, making good on their 2019 budget promise, the government had proposed legislative amendments to remove the only remaining federal barrier to trade in alcohol — the requirement that alcohol moving from one province to another go through a provincial liquor authority.
Once that measure passes, provinces and territories will then need to make their own changes in order for direct-to-consumer shipping to be allowed across Canada.
Each province has its own set of rules that define the amount of alcohol someone can order or physically bring across provincial borders for personal use.
Though some provinces allow some direct sales from breweries, distilleries and wineries, in most provinces the sale of alcohol is almost completely controlled by provincial Crown liquor corporations. There is a currently a patchwork of rules regarding shipping alcohol across provincial lines.
During a Council of the Federation meeting last summer, all provinces agreed to double the amount of alcohol someone can physically bring from one province to another to 18 litres of wine, six litres of spirits and 49.2 litres of beer. Meanwhile, some provinces have already taken steps to further ease restrictions on the flow of booze across provincial borders.
In December 2018, Nova Scotia removed personal exemption limits for alcohol being transported into the province by an individual for personal consumption, and the province confirmed that officials are reviewing the new federal legislation in detail to determine the impact of further reducing trade barriers on alcohol.
A spokesperson for the department of trade said, however, that the province does not anticipate any change in how alcohol is sold in Nova Scotia — it will still be sold through the NSLC in accordance with Nova Scotia’s Liquor Control Act.
In Prince Edward Island, a spokesperson from that province’s liquor commission said an amendment to the Liquor Control Act that would have removed the existing limits on how much liquor a person may bring into P.E.I. was scheduled for the spring session of the provincial legislature, but a provincial election call killed the bill.
Supreme beer battle
Much of the recent attention around interprovincial alcohol sales has been prompted by the case of Gerard Comeau, who was fined at the New Brunswick-Quebec border in 2012 for attempting to bring in more alcohol than the province allowed.
Comeau challenged the fines, and last spring the so-called “free-the-beer” case went before the Supreme Court of Canada, which, much to the chagrin of beer enthusiasts, upheld the rights of provinces to restrict the amount of booze an individual can import.
Sean Dunbar, owner of Fredericton craft beer producer Picaroons Traditional Ales, said although limits exist, there are no real practical restrictions on importing alcohol between provinces.
“I really don’t think anybody’s thinking about it,” he said. “Comeau was a little bit of a freakish situation where that actually happened but most borders don’t have police checking trunks.”
Dunbar said what would really help alcohol producers, especially craft breweries, is easier access to outside markets in retail settings.
“New Brunswick is one of the most open provinces that I've seen, except for probably Alberta,” he said.
Association hoping for increased competition
Kirk Cox, executive director of the Craft Brewers Association of Nova Scotia, said while the regulations limit the ability of breweries to sell their product in other jurisdictions is the main barrier to growth for the industry, this new federal legislation is still a step in the right direction.
“One thing we’re really trying to focus on is craft beer tourism, we’ve been creating Nova Scotia as a craft beer destination because we have 50 breweries scattered throughout the province, so we’re seeing more and more people come to the province and visit breweries,” Cox said, adding that any legislation that reduces limits on how much alcohol someone can bring back to their home province is helpful for sales.
Cox also said as Canada shifts to a more free market for interprovincial alcohol sales, prices could also become more competitive.
“Right now, when the NSLC sets a price for a product, I doubt if they’re really considering New Brunswick or P.E.I. or Newfoundland or other other provincial pricing models. Now, hopefully the pricing will be more transparent and competitive,” he said.
“But at the end of the day, the bigger issue for us is not so much the mobility of alcohol but the barriers that provinces put in place.”