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SYLVAIN CHARLEBOIS: Likely little taste for ‘free the beer’ bill

A man places a couple of cases of beer into his trunk after leaving an NSLC outlet in Dartmouth. TIM KROCHAK - The Chronicle Herald - File
A man places a couple of cases of beer into his trunk after leaving an NSLC outlet in Dartmouth. TIM KROCHAK - The Chronicle Herald - File

Interprovincial alcohol distribution in Canada has always been a nightmare. In fact, for our wineries, breweries and spirits makers, selling alcohol to Americans is easier than selling to consumers in other provinces.

Many Canadian alcoholic products that have won prestigious international awards cannot be sold to most Canadians. It is simply ridiculous. But a private member’s bill in Ottawa is offering Canadians a renewed chance to “free the beer.”

Canadians were holding their collective breath with the Gerard Comeau case a few years ago. In 2012, New Brunswick resident Comeau was pulled over and fined $292 for bringing more than the 12-pint limit of beer back from neighbouring Quebec. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2018 that the fine was in fact constitutional, giving provinces reason to protect their markets.

Conservative MP Dan Albas has other plans. In December, he presented and tabled a private member’s bill to amend the Canada Post Act so Canadian-made wine, beer and spirits could be accessible in a direct-to-consumer program, with shipping through Canada Post, between provinces.

Right now, only four provinces allow direct-to-consumer shipping of alcoholic products: Nova Scotia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia. Most provinces, including highly protective Quebec and Ontario, are very much against opening their markets.

The genius of this cannot be underscored enough. If Albas gets his way, the bill will prohibit Canada Post, which is a federal Crown corporation, from refusing direct delivery to consumers of beer, wine or spirits originating in another province. Trade barriers upheld by the Supreme Court between provinces would be secondary.

Provinces would have the right not to adhere to the new regime, though. But if they did, businesses in their own province would not be allowed to sell outside that province either.

Opting out goes both ways. Provinces opting out would obviously need to explain to their constituents why interprovincial restrictions will remain.

Some great wines, beers and spirits are being produced in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward County and Niagara on the Lake in Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec and the Prairies.

Understandably, this bill has received little or no media attention because of the pandemic and our focus on vaccines. But helping struggling businesses is not just about providing financial assistance during COVID-19. It is also about empowering the economy and helping businesses grow.

With online commerce being what it is these days, this represents a great chance for the federal government to let wineries and breweries located in smaller provinces prosper and have access to larger domestic markets.

According to some industry estimates, the global online alcohol market was estimated at $35 billion in 2020. In Canada, about $350 million to $400 million worth of booze was sold online last year, up 75 per cent from 2019.

Simply put, food distribution rules have changed with COVID-19. More than ever, consumers have more choice with online ordering. Supply chains are more open and democratic than ever, which is why this bill is timely and utterly needed.

But that is just a theory. As usual, politics will come in the way. This bill likely will not survive a spring election, or the wrath of larger provinces like Ontario and Quebec. Both the LCBO in Ontario and SAQ in Quebec are influenced by this greater emphasis on getting consumers to buy local foods more often. Hard to argue, but a Canadian product, for many, is indeed local.

If we can “free the beer” this time around, it will be a miracle, but it’s not worth holding your breath again.

Sylvain Charlebois is professor in food distribution and policy, and senior director of the AgriFood Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University.

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