Reality Check: Here’s why axing a federal booze law won’t ‘free the beer’ (or wine) just yet
A federal law requiring alcohol going from one province to another to move through a provincial liquor authority will soon be a thing of the past.
But unless the provinces follow suit by amending their own liquor laws, many Canadians will remain unable to do things like place online orders for home delivery from wineries or breweries in other provinces.
Introduction of a measure to remove the last of the federal barriers to interprovincial alcohol sales came earlier this week, just shy of one year after the Supreme Court of Canada refused to “free the beer” following a legal challenge by New Brunswick man Gerard Comeau to provincial limits on the transport of alcohol.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to the changes in question period on Wednesday, shortly after they were tabled earlier in the week as part of a broader package of proposals in the Budget Implementation Act, which will create the legal authorization for the measures contained in Budget 2019.
“We removed the only remaining federal barrier to trade of Canadian wine, beer and spirits within Canada. It’s now up to provinces to change their regulations,” Trudeau said in response to a friendly question from a member of his Liberal caucus about the plan.
“We did what Stephen Harper and the Conservatives couldn’t. We freed the beer.”
However, his claim to have “freed the beer” is not entirely accurate — once passed, the amendment will not make beer (or wine or spirits of any kind) any more accessible for Canadians to order or transport over provincial lines than they are right now.
That’s because changing the rules federally is only one part of a much bigger challenge.
Here’s what you need to know.
What does this change mean for me?
To be frank, the response to this question will depend almost entirely on which province or territory you live in.
Right now, the regulation of alcohol is a joint responsibility between the federal and provincial governments.
While the federal government is amending its law requiring out-of-province alcohol to be sold through whichever liquor authority is licensed in a particular province, the provinces each also have their own sets of rules and regulations governing the sale of booze.
In Alberta, for example, alcohol can be sold in private stores while in most of the rest of the country, provincial liquor control boards and sometimes licensed wine or beer stores that buy their products through the liquor control board, are authorized to sell alcohol.
Amending the federal law requiring that to be the case puts the ball in the court of the provinces.
But for there to be any change on the ground for consumers, it will be up to the provinces to amend their own rules.
WATCH BELOW: Free the Beer decision at Supreme Court of Canada
Broadly speaking, those provincial rules restrict Canadians from ordering and transporting alcohol across provincial borders, unless the amount falls within strict definitions of quantities allowed for personal use which are set by each of the provinces.
Those limits are what got Comeau into trouble in 2012, and launched his legal bid to have the limits on free trade ruled unconstitutional.
His bid failed when the Supreme Court ruled the provinces can set limits on matters related to public health and that restrictions on free trade is an allowable consequence of that — but the swell of public support for a reckoning over what many argue are outdated and restrictive rules caught the provinces off guard.
Why are the rules so complicated?
Let’s set the clocks back to 1928.
That was when the federal Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act was created following the repeal of liquor prohibition laws.
That act by the federal government restricted the movement of alcohol between provinces and allowed the provinces to set up their own liquor control boards to govern the importation and sale of alcohol in their jurisdictions.
Because of that act, provinces were able to choose whether to allow models like private sales, implemented in Alberta, or to set up bodies like the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) or the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ).
In 2012, the former Conservative government tried to loosen up the rules by amending the federal law to lifting the prohibition that kept Canadians from moving wine across provincial borders for personal use (while also giving provinces the power to set their own limits on the quantity allowed for personal use).
It was later extended to include sales of beer and spirits.
However, provinces needed to amend their own rules in order to let their residents do so, as well as to let them place orders online or via phone.
Only three provinces — British Columbia, Manitoba and Nova Scotia — actually amended their laws to let residents place orders for home delivery from wineries outside the province (as long as the amount falls within set limits for personal use).
Others have changed their rules in other ways: as another example, Ontario last year amended the rules to allow the sale of beer and wine in grocery stores but has not, despite vows to open up the market by the current government, legalized the import of alcohol from other provinces for personal use by residents.
Quebec does allow its residents to bring back a set limit of wine from other provinces but does not allow it to be shipped to them.
In Alberta, there is no limit on what can be brought back for personal use “as long as the liquor accompanies the individual.”
In effect, the patchwork of amendments means Canadians’ access depends significantly on where they live and not, as Trudeau asserted, that the federal government has actually “freed the beer.”
Beer (and wine, and spirits) remain restricted by provincial regulations determining how they can be sold within their jurisdictions.
And that will remain the case with the latest federal amendment, which leaves the course of action — if any at all — up to provincial governments.
The ball, as they say, is now in their courts.
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