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No reason Ontario corner stores can't sell beer. They've proven responsibility with tobacco

Opinion: Doug Ford has made right call on independent retailers. It will bring the province's alcohol retail out of Prohibition era

By Dan Kelly

Published in the Financial Post on June 1, 2019.

I remember the first time I stepped into a Beer Store. I had just moved to Ontario from Alberta and we were having friends over for dinner. I’m not a beer drinker myself (in fact, I’ve never had one) but I was looking to be a good host.

Walking through those doors was like stepping back in time, where we had to line up to be served by a single person behind a counter with an inventory list on the wall beside them. You’d tell them what you want and they’d disappear behind a door, returning with your selection some minutes later. My only reference point to this retail model was the stories my friends from Slovakia told me about growing up behind the Iron Curtain.

That’s the way things have worked in Ontario for decades: a corporate oligopoly, owned by three multi-nationals (Molson-Coors Brewing, Labatt-Anheuser-Busch Brewing and Sleeman-Sapporo Breweries) monopolizing the sale of 12- and 24-packs across the province on the paternalistic pretense that only government or large corporations can sell alcohol responsibly.

In fact, in a May 1 open letter, the union representing Beer Store workers warned that expanding beer sales to convenience stores “could impact public safety when some of these stores turn a blind eye to refusing underage or intoxicated customers.”

Public safety is crucial – no question – but implying that only government and big corporations – or only a unionized workforce – can sell alcohol responsibly is not only deeply insulting to independent businesses across Canada, but also one that is proven false daily across the country.

Jurisdictions such as Alberta and Quebec have been selling beer in private outlets for years. In fact, whenever I’m in Quebec City, I make a point of visiting my friend Praful who runs a depanneur – a larger convenience store that has a sophisticated walk-in beer room stocked with craft beers, including single cans, to serve his working class neighbourhood.
So what is it about Ontarians that makes the Beer Store and its union think it would be any different here?

Ontario’s independent retailers have already proven they can handle the sale of restricted products in other markets. Hundreds of convenience stores across Ontario routinely and responsibly sell tobacco products every day and have passed age-check inspections at a 96 per cent clip, according to  the Ontario Convenience Stores Association. And while it’s still in the early stages, private cannabis retail has proven to be a working model, both for consumer choice and for safe, responsible sale.

The fact is that private, independent retailers already sell alcohol and other restricted products responsibly across the country. They have to follow the laws. Trusting retailers to respect age restrictions and penalizing those who don’t works for tobacco products, and it can work for alcohol.

The Ontario government has made the right call to allow independent retailers into the market and bring alcohol retail out of the prohibitionist era – a long-standing CFIB recommendation that has the support of 69 per cent of small business owners in the province.

It’s not the 1920s anymore, as much as some unions may wish it were. The government should be lauded for bringing Ontario beer retail into the 21st century.

June 1, 2019

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