Liquor Law Reform in Canada

In the 1920s, as Prohibition in Canada was on the retreat, the federal government and each of the provincial governments were in agreement that liquor sales and consumption needed to be tightly controlled. To facilitate this agenda each province created a liquor control board that monopolized the wholesale purchasing, pricing, and retailing of alcoholic beverages under a heavily regulated regime.

Though much has changed in the 90-odd years since Prohibition ended in most provinces (with the exception of Prince Edward Island which waited until 1948 to repeal its Prohibition laws) the fundamental principle that it is government’s role to control how and where Canadians purchase alcohol – and at what price, remains largely intact. Alberta, which privatized its liquor distribution system in 1993, remains the notable outlier in the Canadian regulatory landscape.

The arguments for and against the deregulation of liquor licensing regimes across the provinces are varied and complex. From time-to-time significant liquor law reforms are considered in all Canadian provinces. Different governments have responded to public demand for deregulation in a variety of ways. Ralph Klein’s conservative Alberta government privatized liquor retailing in Alberta without any serious legislative debate or discussion. More recently Saskatchewan’s premier Brad Wall campaigned on a promise to implement an expanded private retailing system that would open new stores and privatize existing locations. Ontario and British Columbia have taken a different approach altogether preferring incremental changes driven by the reports of government commissions.

Regardless of which approach provincial governments embrace, at each juncture along the road towards reform they are faced with controversial and competing policy concerns:

  • Can socially responsible retailing be balanced with consumer access and convenience?
  • How can the government keep liquor prices competitive without forgoing needed tax revenue?
  • Should government support the “craft” beer and “local” wine and spirits movement through preferential treatment of those products?
  • How far can laws and policies be relaxed before communities and minors get exposed to the harmful effects of alcohol?

Casual observers of the liquor industry, particularly in British Columbia, are often quick to point to Alberta as a shining example of the benefits of privatizing the retailing, warehousing and distribution of alcohol. At first blush it’s tempting to accept that government’s exit from the control of liquor sales and distribution will necessarily reduce the cost of beverage alcohol, and improve the consumer experience. This has not been Alberta’s experience; liquor prices increased in Alberta after privatization for most products, and prices continue to remain higher than in many publicly operated retailing environments.

Do these concepts interest you?

On November 3-4, 2016 in Halifax, the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University and Food Lawyers of Canada are bringing together government officials, academics, lawyers and manufacturers to explore the law’s changing role in regulating food and beverage alcohol. I will be presenting on the history of liquor law and regulation in Canada, and discussing a question important to readers of Alcohol & Advocacy: can meaningful liquor law reform happen in British Columbia through ongoing consultation? Or are legal challenges like those before the courts in Toronto Distillery Co. v. The Liquor Control Board of Ontario and R. v. Comeau necessary to force the regulator’s hand?

Tickets are still available.

*Alcohol & Advocacy publishes articles for information purposes only. They are not a substitute for legal advice, and persons requiring such advice should consult legal counsel.

Dan Coles
Retired bartender. Young lawyer. From the East, living in the West. Interested in British Columbia's producers and purveyors of wine, beer and spirits.