Dan Albas is fed up with provincial liquor laws that prevent many Canadians from buying wine, beer and spirits directly from beverage producers located in other parts of the country.
That’s why the Conservative MP, who represents the riding of Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola in British Columbia, introduced a private member’s bill to amend the Canada Post Corporation Act to allow direct-to-consumer sales of out-of-province beer, wine and distilled spirits.
It’s an ingenious idea that circumvents odious interprovincial trade barriers that prevent the free flow of alcohol within Canada. Giving our struggling vintners, craft brewers and distillers direct access to consumers through Canada Post should be a no-brainer for all parliamentarians.
In fact, Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should adopt Mr. Albas’s idea and include it in the coming federal budget. After all, Mr. Trudeau told his cabinet just this month that allowing “full, free internal trade” was pivotal to Canada’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mr. Albas’s proposal is an elegant fix to a thorny issue that has dogged the industry for years. If passed, the proposed legislation would make it illegal for federally regulated Canada Post to refuse direct-to-consumer delivery of beer, wine or spirits originating in another province.
Although individual provinces, which control alcohol sales in their respective jurisdictions, would be given the choice to opt out, doing so would not be without consequence.
Provinces that seek exemptions to prohibit their citizens from receiving mail-delivered imports of alcohol from another province would also be blocked from exporting their own products to other jurisdictions via Canada Post.
Moreover, the premiers of those holdout provinces would also face the awkward task of explaining to their own residents why they are standing in the way of progress, including improved consumer choice.
“If we’re serious about the [economic] recovery from COVID-19, and we’re serious about keeping as many of these businesses open, then this is a way to do it,” Mr. Albas said, adding he’s expecting pushback from provincial liquor boards. “They have to get with the times. We’re in the 21st century.”
His idea is being applauded by industry players who are equally frustrated with the lack of progress on dismantling interprovincial trade barriers. The 2017 Canadian Free Trade Agreement, for instance, excluded the alcohol industry, and a subsequent working group has failed to achieve a breakthrough.
“It is shocking how little progress has been made,” said Jan Westcott, president and chief executive of Spirits Canada, an industry group. “If the Canada Post can be trusted to deliver cannabis across Canada, why not alcohol?”
It’s clear that Ottawa needs to give our premiers a swift kick in the pants. Currently, only four provinces – British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Nova Scotia – allow for some form of direct-to-consumer shipments for their residents, but there are restrictions.
What’s more, the lack of reciprocity among provinces has proved to be a sore spot during the pandemic. This past September, the SAQ, Quebec’s liquor authority, sent a strongly worded letter to Canadian producers threatening them with legal action if they sell products directly to Quebeckers.
“Under Quebec law, sales transactions between a supplier or producer of beverage alcohol products based in another Canadian province and a resident of Quebec are illegal,” reads the SAQ’s communiqué.
“That the sale was concluded online does not exempt the transaction from Quebec law. Consequently, the parties to the transaction expose themselves to penalties of a criminal nature, including fines.”
The incident has left a bad taste in the mouths of domestic producers who are relying on online sales to keep their businesses afloat.
“It’s illegal for me to sell wine to people in Montreal, and I just think that’s pathetic given the circumstances that we’re in,” said Allan Schmidt, president of Vineland Estates Winery in Ontario.
“If you live in the United States, you have better access to our wine than if you live in Canada – yet we’re a Canadian company.”
How does that make sense?
As Nicolas Krantz, president and CEO of Corby Spirit and Wine Ltd., rightly points out, online sales will force the industry to innovate and further improve consumer choice.
“The pandemic has shown that consumers really have a big appetite for e-commerce,” he said.
Although online alcohol sales are relatively new in Canada, e-commerce is already big business in other parts of the world, including the U.S., Britain and European Union countries.
The global e-commerce market for alcohol was estimated to be worth up to US$28-billion in 2020, a year when online sales surged because of pandemic restrictions.
The Canadian market, meanwhile, was worth $350-million to $400-million last year, an increase of 70 per cent to 75 per cent compared with 2019, according to an industry estimate.
Given the potential for further growth, the Trudeau government should take action on Mr. Albas’s idea. And while they’re at it, legislators should also instruct Canada Post to give our domestic producers a healthy discount on their shipping costs.
It’s an embarrassment that Canadians have such difficulty purchasing products made in their own country, especially in the digital age.
The pandemic is accelerating Canada’s transition to e-commerce. We already buy almost everything else online. There’s no reason why the alcohol industry should be left behind.
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