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Editorial: Premiers ignore opportunity to improve outdated liquor laws

Canada’s premiers say their new Canada Free Trade Agreement is “groundbreaking” and supports a “broader economic vision for Canada.”

A senior official with New Brunswick's liquor corporation is defending a law that limits anyone in the province from having more than 12 pints of beer that weren't sold by a provincially licensed liquor outlet.

This exuberant praise may be a little premature.

During their annual Council of the Federation meetings last week in Whitehorse, the 13 premiers reached an agreement in principle on the new agreement, known as CFTA. It replaces the former Agreement on Internal Trade and is better, the premiers argue, because it will be based on a “negative list” approach. This means all government measures will be covered unless specifically excluded, while the former agreement only covered specific sectors of the economy.

Sounds good so far, but not so fast. There are few details about exactly what will change with this new deal, especially when it comes to alcohol. The premiers sidestepped that political hot potato by saying they were striking a “a working group on alcoholic beverages, which will explore opportunities to improve trade in beer, wine and spirits across Canada.”

Provincial liquor monopolies have long been cash cows for provincial coffers, leading to Prohibition-era laws that restrict the movement of alcohol across the country. These laws are protectionist, they are bad for consumers and, frankly, they violate the Constitution.

In the recent New Brunswick court case that saw Gerard Comeau charged for bringing too much alcohol into the province from Quebec, provincial court Judge Ronald LeBlanc dismissed the charges, citing Section 121 of the Constitution Act, which states, “All articles of the growth, produce or manufacture of any of the provinces shall, and from and after the Union, be admitted free into each of the other provinces.”

New Brunswick is appealing that decision, and is now hiding behind this legal proceeding as a way to avoid talking about lifting alcohol barriers.

That is a shame.

This court decision and the current positive spirit of co-operation among the premiers could have been the long-awaited turning point for alcohol sales in the country. The CFTA could have been heralded in with the definitive promise of an easier flow of beer, wine and spirits across Canada, opening local producers to new markets and eliminating protectionist trade barriers.

It could also have led to discussions about regionalizing liquor commissions. Doing so would eliminate duplication of services, save hundreds of millions in overhead and do away with political patronage appointments that have long plagued provincial liquor commissions.    

Instead, the premiers punted the issue down the line. It was a missed opportunity. Let’s hope their working group will recognize that Canadians are tired of antiquated liquor laws.

Because, as B.C. Premier Christie Clarke remarked, “It makes no sense that you can get B.C. wine more easily in China than you can in Ontario.”

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