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As legalization nears, Ontario’s marijuana retailer halts ‘non-critical’ hiring

This Toronto storefront was identified as an Ontario Cannabis Store location back in April, but there's been little progress since then. .
This Toronto storefront was identified as an Ontario Cannabis Store location back in April, but there's been little progress since then. . PATRICK CAIN/GLOBAL NEWS

This afternoon, the federal Liberals announced the date when legal cannabis stores can open across Canada: October 17.

Across the country, this sets the clock ticking as officials figure out how, and where, to sell residents respectable, legal, taxed pot.

However, earlier this week, Ontario premier-elect Doug Ford announced a public-sector hiring freeze, which would continue until a “line by line” audit of the province’s books was complete.

The timing is potentially awkward. Outgoing Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne announced back in the fall of 2017 that pot would be sold through a government monopoly, like the province’s liquor stores.

READ MORE: Ontario premier-designate Doug Ford orders public sector hiring freeze

Does the freeze apply to the Ontario Cannabis Retail Corporation, a marijuana subsidiary of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario? Yes and no, it turns out.

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WATCH: With marijuana legalization right around the corner in New Brunswick, Global’s Todd Veinotte got a sneak peek at the new stores that will sell the drug.
A sneak peek inside stores that will sell pot
A sneak peek inside stores that will sell pot

We asked the LCBO, which referred us to the province’s cabinet office, which did not respond, and to the finance ministry, which referred us back to the LCBO again. On Wednesday, an LCBO spokesperson e-mailed a statement:

“While the directive did not specifically speak to government agencies such as the LCBO, out of respect to all taxpayers, we have frozen discretionary expenditures and non-critical staff hiring while we launch a comprehensive review of all existing expenditures.”

The LCBO did not respond to followup questions about what counts as “non-critical.”

READ MORE: Marijuana to be legal in Canada starting October 17, Trudeau confirms

Global News asked to interview the head of the OCRC’s board, which the LCBO declined.

READ MORE: Ontario to sell marijuana in 150 government-run stores; must be used in ‘private residences’

Everything about the LCBO is big. It’s one of the world’s largest alcohol retailers. It sells over $5 billion worth of beer, wine and spirits every year.

And selling marijuana is the biggest new project in the liquor monopoly’s 90-year history. The province has said it plans to open 40 Ontario Cannabis Store retail locations in 2018, along with online ordering, and eventually expand that to 150. Workers will also be needed for background jobs like quality testing.

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Necessarily, this will involve a lot of hiring. (The OCRC is still accepting job applications.)

“I don’t believe (Ford) has the authority to freeze the LCBO, because it’s a Crown agency with its own separate collective agreement.” said Warren (Smokey) Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union.

The union will represent cannabis store employees when the legal system is set up.

“In our understanding, and our opinion, it would only apply to people whose paychecks come from the province of Ontario payroll system.”

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READ MORE: COMMENTARY: How buying Ontario’s legal pot will be like a blast from the past

Ontario’s cannabis retailer has been quieter than its counterparts in some other provinces – New Brunswick, for example – but Thomas says they’ve been busily preparing for legalization.

“They’ve been working on it diligently. The people assigned to work on it just never went public, because the government told them not to. They have plans to open 40 stores when it’s legal. They’ve commenced hiring, they’ve got managers, a board, everything like that.”

“The holdup isn’t because the government is dragging their feet, it’s because they’re having trouble finding locations.”

Ontario’s new cabinet will be sworn in on June 29. Whoever is named finance minister will be responsible for the cannabis file.

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READ MORE: Pot … or not? Small provinces much more prepared for Day 1 of legalization