Ontario's prohibition hangover

Anachronistic alcohol management stings year-round.

(This column originally appeared in the Toronto Sun)

By: Candice Malcolm

Many celebrated St. Patrick’s Day earlier this week with a pint of beer at their favourite local Irish Pub.

St. Patrick’s day used to be about celebrating the patron saint of Ireland who brought Christianity to the pagan Irish during the fifth century. But today, the holiday is characterized by swarms of rowdy crowds, people wearing “Kiss Me I’m Irish” t-shirts and other green swag, and the drinking of dyed-green beer.

It’s a bit of a silly manifestation, but the celebration of all things Irish (or perceived to be Irish) is a lot of fun, so it’s easy to overlook the crass behaviour and overpriced trinkets.

Besides, the markup on green knickknacks at the dollar store is nothing compared to the biggest scam of all: the way our government forces us to buy beer in this province.

When you buy beer the odds are you get it from the Beer Store, if not a bar or restaurant that shops through the Beer Store distribution. The Beer Store controls more than 80% of the market in Ontario and has a monopoly on the sales of 12 and 24 packs.

Most Ontarians have no idea that the Beer Store is privately owned.

After all, it feels state-owned. Most stores have not been renovated in decades and they often smell like a frat house basement, thanks to all the empty bottles being returned to the same storefront.

The truth is, the Beer Store is anything but government-owned. In fact, it’s owned by a cartel of foreign corporations.

The Brewer’s Retails, known commercially as the Beer Store, still operates under its original mandate from 1927. A lot has changed over the past 88 years, most notably; its shareholders are no longer headquartered in Canada let alone Ontario.

Molson merged with Coors and is now based in Colorado. Labatt was bought out by Anheuser Busch and is now based in Belgium. And Sleeman’s was bought by Japan-based Sapporo.

There you have it. Our Ontario Beer Store is owned by multinational corporations based abroad; the parent companies – worth hundreds of billions – do not pay corporate taxes in Ontario.

Thankfully, Premier Kathleen Wynne is finally coming around to just how ridiculous this system is. Government leaks suggest 300 licenses will be sold to allow the sale of beer and wine from independent retailers.

The idea of alcohol sales in grocery stores seems like a revelation. But don’t pop out the Champaign corks just yet. Knowing this government, we can be sure of two things.

First, they’re not going to fix the entire system. Beer in Ontario will still be more expensive than neighbouring Quebec or New York State and the system will still be plagued with idiotic and counter-intuitive rules.

Second, the bottom line is that this government is desperate for more cash. These licenses will only go to the highest bidder, meaning the new sales opportunities will be limited to big stores with deep pockets. In other words, Premier Wynne is going to expand the cartel, not eliminate it.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a cure for the patronizing alcohol distribution scheme in Ontario. It’s just the hair of the dog.

A St. Patrick’s Day hangover comes but once a year. But the sting of alcohol management in Ontario, well, that lasts all year.