Alberta Premier Rachel Notley threw down the gauntlet on Tuesday when she said Alberta would no longer import B.C. wine as long as that province’s government maintains it will ban increased bitumen shipments to the West Coast.
It’s the latest warning shot in what some believe could spiral into a trade war over B.C.’s resistance to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, which would increase the amount of bitumen travelling from Alberta’s oilsands to tidewater.
While Notley said the move is intended to pressure B.C. and to stand up for Alberta oil workers, some in the province’s food and beverage industry fear the boycott may have unintended consequences.
WATCH: Alberta Premier Rachel Notley speaks about the decision to ban the importing of B.C. wine into her province.
“I think this is more symbolic than anything else,” said Gurvinder Bhatia, a wine columnist and wine buyer for UnWined in Edmonton.
“Without passing any judgment on the need the Alberta government has to retaliate, I think the important thing is that the Alberta government has been out of the decisions in terms of what is imported in this province for wine, probably since privatization. And so essentially the Alberta government is now interfering with private business.”
Bhatia said that while Alberta protects “big oil,” they could at the same time be hurting small business owners, including Albertans.
“There’s a lot of Alberta-owned companies that import B.C. wines, they potentially will be hurt,” he said. “And the majority of wineries in British Columbia are small, family-owned businesses.”
WATCH: Ivonne Martinez from Alberta Liquor Store Association joined Global News Morning Edmonton to talk about the big impact the move will have on retailers.
Paul Shufelt is one of those small business owners Bhatia referred to. He owns Workshop Eatery and he said he believes the boycott will hurt his business.
“You know 25 per cent of our wine list is from B.C.,” he said after hearing of the boycott. “We love supporting our neighbours to the west, we love their products. Why am I now going to have to tell my guests, ‘Sorry, I cannot provide you 25 per cent of my wine list.’ And I’m going to scramble to find alternatives to fill those gaps.”
Shufelt said sourcing new wines and changing menus costs money. He believes this is just the latest NDP policy that’s negatively affecting small businesses in Alberta.
“I realize this isn’t a direct attack on restaurants but their choice has inadvertently impacted us again,” he said.
“By no means do I want to negatively impact oil workers, I want to see them get the pipeline through as well. It’s not the case that I’m anti-pipeline or anti-oil, I want to see our province thrive and do well as well, but I need to be a part of that and at this point, what’s the point of growing, what’s the point of expanding my business… if I can’t pay the bills on one restaurant.”
Shufelt said the boycott comes as he is struggling to cope with minimum wage increases, Alberta’s carbon tax and other policies that affect liquor prices.
“It’s yet another one of the straws on the pile that seem to want to break the small business owner’s back in Alberta right now, particularly the restauranteur. And I don’t know which straw is going to be the one to finally do it.”
A Calgary wine shop owner spoke to Global News about the boycott and said he doesn’t believe the Alberta government thought the decision through.
“I just worry wine was an easy grab,” Vine Arts co-owner Jesse Willis said. “And that they didn’t think of the repercussions to small businesses in B.C. and businesses here in Alberta as well.”
Willis echoed Bhatia’s sentiments about many B.C. wineries being family-owned business that could be hurt.
“I was kind of hurt for them, concerned for them and a lot of them rely on Alberta for them for their business,” Willis said. “I think when people want to support local in the wine world in Alberta, you almost always go to B.C. wine.”
Less than a week ago, the Notley government also announced it was suspending talks to potentially buy significant amounts of electricity from B.C. because of that province’s position on bitumen. It is not clear how long those talks will be halted or how long the wine boycott will remain in effect, and as a result, how much of an impact the moves will have.
“In the short term, there is an amount of product already in the province,” Bhatia said.
“I’m a little bit perplexed at this point,” Shufelt said. “I’d like to do a little more homework before I get completely upset but to me, it feels like someone throwing a temper tantrum, saying, ‘Well, if I can’t play with your toys, then you can’t play with my toys.’ And this is not the way that a government should behave.
Shufelt added that he and some of his employees had planned a trip to B.C.’s Okanagan region in the spring in order to try to find new wines to sell at his restaurant. He said he hasn’t yet decided whether to cancel the trip.
-With files from Lauren Pullen, Global News