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Boundary war 

In Canada, it’s illegal to carry booze across provincial boundaries. Craig Pinhey says it’s time to enter the modern world.

click to enlarge Things get nasty at the border.
  • Things get nasty at the border.

After years of complaints by educated wine consumers about the illogical illegality of buying booze from out of province, the lobbying efforts of wineries, the media, a nifty website called freemygrapes.ca and several wine-loving Western politicians are starting to be noticed by average Canadians. And this is making some folks at the provincial liquor boards a little nervous.

The problem lies with a piece of particularly outdated and draconian legislation, going all the way back to 1928, called the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act, which makes it illegal to carry any alcoholic beverage across a provincial border, or have it sent by mail or courier. Although this law is not generally enforced (an exception was during the beer strikes when I was a kid), it still causes most Canadian wineries to refuse to sell on the internet and ship orders.

The initial intention of the act was to replace bootlegging, unsafe alcohol and abuse thereof with tightly controlled legal sales via the government. But the current role of the liquor boards has little resemblance to 1928. They now function as marketers and retailers, and have monopolies in most provinces. It is about profit.

Writer Terry David Mulligan got some national media attention recently when he proclaimed he was going to bootleg wine over the border from BC to Alberta, then buy more and bring that back over. There were no cops waiting in either direction. They don't care.

Kelowna MP Ron Cannan promoted a bill to make it legal to buy wine from Canadian wineries anywhere in the country and have it shipped to your home or carry it home yourself. It is a nice gesture, but many sophisticated consumers and restaurateurs want to go much further, allowing them to buy any beverages, wine, beer or spirits, Canadian or otherwise, for personal consumption or resale, from any jurisdiction in Canada. And why not? This is one country. Here's hypocrisy at its most basic level: It is legal to carry booze from outside the country into Canada, but not between provinces.

So why don't they just strike this arguably unconstitutional law down? The barrier is the government-owned liquor monopolies. I'm not sure why they care about the Canadian wine issue, though. Let's be real: An infinitesimal percentage of Canadians will participate in out-of-province wine buying. It is only for collectors and enthusiasts, because shipping costs prevent any big discount on the average bottle of beer, wine or spirits.

The board's real fear is the situation at interprovincial borders, where they will lose revenue because of their own pricing strategy, particularly with beer. Booze is too expensive in Nova Scotia, and the rest of Atlantic Canada, too. If Nova Scotia bordered on Quebec, there would be a large drop in beer sales in Nova Scotia, even without ditching this law. This problem exists now in New Brunswick, and making it legal would be great for consumers, as all boards would have to make severe price adjustments.

There are already Haligonians driving to Quebec just because the beer selection is far superior and that is similar to the "let me buy Canadian wine" movement.

The point the NSLC and other boards don't seem to get about this grassroots lobbying is that it has nothing to do with their big profit generators---mainstream beer and bottom-of-the-barrel wine and spirits---but has everything to do with patriotic people who love quality beverages and want to buy them from all across Canada, even for a premium. It will help our own wineries and breweries, too, as they will sell more across Canada.

No one is looking to truck bathtub gin across our borders. This is about quality, not quantity, and we're more into bottle aging than bootlegging.

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