Comment: Can we ‘free the beer,’ online?

Many alcohol products that have won international acclaim, ironically, can't be sold to most Canadians

In Canada, about $350 million to $400 million worth of alcohol was sold online in 2020, up 75 per cent from the previous year.

Interprovincial alcohol distribution in Canada has always been a nightmare.

In fact, for our wineries, breweries, and spirit makers, selling alcohol to Americans is easier than selling to consumers outside their own province.

Many Canadian alcoholic products like wines, beers, and spirits that have won international prestigious awards cannot be sold to most Canadians. It is simply ridiculous. But a private member’s bill in Ottawa is offering Canadians a renewed chance to “free the beer.”

Canadians were holding their collective breath with the Gerard Comeau case a few years ago after he was charged with bringing more than the 12-pint limit back from neighbouring Quebec. The case went to the Supreme Court of Canada which ruled in 2018 that the fine was in fact constitutional, giving provinces reason to protect their markets.

Conservative MP Dan Albas has presented and tabled a private member’s bill to amend the Canada Post Act so Canadian-made wine, beer and spirits could be accessible between provinces in a direct-to-consumer program. Right now, only four provinces allow direct-to-consumer shipping of alcoholic products: Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and British Columbia, and if Albas gets his way, the bill will prohibit Canada Post, which is a federal Crown corporation, from refusing direct delivery to consumers of beer, wine, or spirits originating in another province.

Trade barriers upheld by the Supreme Court between provinces would be secondary. Provinces would have the right not to adhere to the new regime though. But if they do, businesses in their own province will not be allowed to sell outside their province either.

Opting out goes both ways. Provinces opting out would obviously need to explain to their constituents why interprovincial restrictions will remain. Some great wines, beers and spirits are being produced in Quebec, in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward County and Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario, the Prairies, and British Columbia.

Understandably, this bill received little or no media attention because of the pandemic and our focus on vaccines. But helping struggling businesses is not just about providing financial assistance during COVID-19. It is also about empowering the economy and helping businesses grow. With online commerce being what it is these days, this represents a great chance for the federal government to give wineries and brewers located in smaller provinces an opportunity to prosper and have access to larger domestic markets.

According to some industry estimates, the global online alcohol market was estimated at $35 billion in 2020. In Canada, about $350 million to $400 million worth of booze was sold online last year, and up 75 per cent from 2019. Simply put, food distribution rules have changed with COVID-19. More than ever, consumers have more choice with online ordering. Supply chains are more open and democratic than ever, which is why this bill is timely and utterly needed.

But that is just a theory. As usual, politics will come in the way. This bill likely will not survive a spring election, or the wrath of larger provinces like Ontario and Quebec.

Both the LCBO in Ontario and SAQ in Quebec are influenced by this greater emphasis on getting consumers to buy local foods more often. Hard to argue, but a Canadian product, for many, is indeed local.

If we can “free the beer” this time around, it will be a miracle, but it’s not worth holding your breath, again.

About the author

Contributor

Sylvain Charlebois is senior director, Agri-Food Analytics Lab, and professor in food distribution policy, Dalhousie University.

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