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(John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
(John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

B.C. to imbibe with liquor sales in grocery stores, more freedom for festival goers Add to ...

The British Columbia government is lowering its inhibitions on dozens of antiquated liquor rules and endorsing all 73 recommendations in a report that includes allowing grocery stores to sell alcohol.

After months of announcing and re-announcing some of the proposed changes, the government said on Friday that it fully supports suggestions made by British Columbians during a liquor policy overhaul.

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Justice Minister Suzanne Anton didn’t say when the recommendations would be implemented. But some of the changes, such as doing away with fencing at beer gardens and increasing alcohol variety at sporting events, could be put in place as early as the summer, she added.

“At family-friendly events, like most music festivals, for example, parents should be able to wander the grounds with their kids and watch the band rather than be caged off in the corner just so they can enjoy a pint,” Anton told reporters.

“This not only enhances convenience for families, it also saves money for the non-profit groups that run many of our province’s unique festivals and special events.”

The policy changes would also mean patrons would get to order mixed-spirit drinks such as a rum and coke at music festivals, and at all public areas in arenas or stadiums, rather than just beer, wine or coolers.

Liquor sales in grocery stores – something already done in Quebec, Ontario and Nova Scotia – was the most popular recommendation. Anton said she is considering a “store-within-a-store” model, but specific details still need to be worked out.

Guests at B.C. hotels would be allowed to bring drinks bought at the lobby bar up to their rooms. Previously, only hotel staff were allowed to carry the liquor up. The hours when guests can receive liquor through room service will also be extended.

Happy hour – an event banned for years in the province – and allowing children into pubs were also part of the recommendations.

The application process for special occasion licences will be streamlined so that festival organizers won’t be bogged down with paperwork, the minister said.

Bob D’Eith, executive director of Music BC, toasts the changes, saying that getting rid of beer garden fences and cutting red tape will help festival organizers reduce costs and give people a more enjoyable experience.

“You stick a beer garden in front of the stage, you block the sight lines. You stick it at the back of the stage and nobody can see it.” he said. “There’s a lot of advantages for the public for doing this.”

Anton maintains public safety is still a priority, and festival organizers will, for example, need to demonstrate that they can keep people safe and minors away from liquor before they can get a licence.

B.C. NDP liquor critic Shane Simpson said he agrees with many of the report’s recommendations, including a moratorium on new liquor store licences. But he said that would mean grocery stores wanting to sell booze will have to convince existing liquor stores to move in.

Simpson said he doubts liquor stores will agree to do that.

“If you have a liquor store next door to a Safeway or a Save-on-Foods – a three– or 4,000-square foot liquor store in the same mall – are you going to give that up to put a kiosk that might be 500 square feet inside that food retailer? It doesn’t make any sense,” he said.

Anton said there are details that need to be worked out before all the recommendations can be implemented, and she is aiming to make legislative amendments at “the earliest opportunity.”

“In other words, we’ve made a lot of announcements. They don’t happen overnight, but they will happen in some cases fairly quickly, and in some cases there are more extended policy development which is needed,” she said.

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