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The gala drew hundreds on a January evening, but "rowdy" is likely the last word anyone would have used to describe it.

It was, after all, an art exhibition, a private reception where well-dressed professionals sipped wine and soft drinks, nibbled on catered snacks and filled Toronto's SPIN Gallery with happy chatter as they perused works displayed by the Association of African Canadian Artists.

Then the liquor inspectors showed up.

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"So five burly guys come up the steps and they start to question me," said Joan Butterfield, an artist who organized the event, which was already winding down to its 9 p.m. finish. "It looked like we were being invaded by undercover cops or something."

It wasn't long before the inspectors, from the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, rhymed off a list of infractions to a bewildered Ms. Butterfield, who had rented the gallery and obtained a permit to serve alcohol.

She wasn't fined, but her permit was revoked on the spot. Worse, to her mind, was a letter she received from the commission last month. It listed her alleged misdeeds and said her group will be refused any future permits unless they can make their case at a hearing.

It appears that Ms. Butterfield was caught in a site-specific crackdown stemming from earlier violations at the SPIN Gallery, which sits on a recently gentrifying portion of Queen Street West near a scattering of other galleries and the trendy Drake Hotel.

But others say her ordeal fits with a much wider hardening of attitudes at the AGCO, which is spreading apprehension among the city's bar owners, restaurateurs and event hosts.

"There is a fear throughout the industry of the inspection process and the Alcohol and Gaming Commission," said Jerry Levitan, a Toronto lawyer who has handled Liquor Licence Act cases for 23 years. "I've never seen it this bureaucratic, and this oppressive, in terms of the enforcement of liquor licence regulations."

While he acknowledged "there are really good inspectors out there" doing a necessary job in shutting down shady bar owners, Mr. Levitan said "I get so many complaints now from people, with innocuous things."

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He cited a client who owns a small restaurant and used an empty liquor bottle to mix barbecue sauce - forbidden under one of the act's more obscure regulations.

"A liquor inspector walked in on one of his busiest nights, demanded to see books and records and stuff like that, while this guy's cooking in front of patrons," Mr. Levitan said, "and went in the kitchen and saw that he had premixed barbecue sauce [in a liquor bottle] Among other things, he charged him with that."

Others have been charged on the spot, rather than given a chance to correct themselves, for minor issues with how their liquor licences were displayed.

Wayne Parent, owner of Teatro, a small bistro on College Street in Little Italy, said he ran afoul of the AGCO for overcrowding his dining room one night last July, although his entire property, which includes a patio, was within capacity that night. Trouble was, it started raining - at 1:51 a.m., just nine minutes before the cutoff time for serving alcohol - which sent 17 of his patio customers inside to take cover.

"I was charged," said Mr. Parent, who has since hired a doorman for his tiny space to keep his numbers in check. "I'm paying a couple of thousand dollars a month to make less money."

The inspectors were also out in force in Little Italy during soccer's World Cup, in the Corso Italia district along St. Clair Avenue during last summer's Italian fiesta and along Church Street during Gay Pride festivities, "when it would be almost impossible for anybody to control their capacity," said David Winer, another lawyer who handles liquor cases.

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"Certainly, in some cases, it's totally warranted and justified" for liquor inspectors to take a tough approach, Mr. Winer said, but in many others, he has noted "really rigorous enforcement without the application of any discretion.

"The province still seems to have vestiges of a more - I guess you'd call it a puritanical approach to alcohol than other jurisdictions."

Asked by The Globe and Mail to comment on the AGCO's approach to enforcement, Liberal MPP Gerry Phillips, Ontario's Minister of Government Services, issued a statement but would not address allegations of heavy-handed treatment.

"Education and awareness are key components in promoting compliance and the AGCO works proactively with liquor licensees to assist in the development of high marketplace standards and voluntary compliance," Mr. Phillips said in the statement. "The AGCO is an arm's-length agency of the government. As such, they initiate and conduct their own investigations which can be appealed to their board on such matters."

Mr. Levitan said he began to notice a shift toward stiffer enforcement after the Ontario Provincial Police were brought in to oversee liquor enforcement for the AGCO starting in March, 2000.

Since then, the OPP has supervised inspections and its officers sometimes accompany liquor inspectors on plainclothes forays into licensed venues.

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In the "old days," the lawyer said, inspectors were more likely to point out minor infractions and give licence holders a chance to fix them before laying a charge. Since the OPP's arrival, "it's become very much a policing-enforcement organization, and I get constant remarks from clients about the aggressiveness and the frequency of attendances," Mr. Levitan said.

Ab Campion, spokesman for the AGCO, described the OPP's impact in more positive terms: "We became more efficient in doing our job."

Mr. Campion said the inspectors' mandate is to enforce the regulations set down in the Liquor Licence Act no matter who the licence holder is. "Why should there be some discretion?" he asked.

But Inspector Fred Bertucca of the OPP, who oversees the work of the province's 45 liquor inspectors, said the suggestion that his team conducts indiscriminate enforcement is "inaccurate."

"Our enforcement inspectors are out enforcing what they should," Insp. Bertucca said, adding that they work to educate licence holders, attend community meetings and meet with local police to head off problems in the making.

"If you are a company or a bar or a restaurant, and you're inspected and you're compliant and there haven't been any public safety issues, then fine," he said. "We visit you, we explain to you what's expected under the regulatory side of things, assist you in becoming compliant and then move from there.

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"So then, if you are a spot where there has been a number of infractions, then we start visiting more often."

SPIN Gallery is one of those spots, Mr. Bertucca said, even though the one-time events held there several times each month are rarely if ever linked to each other, or to the gallery's owner, Stewart Pollock, who simply rents out his airy upstairs space.

The repeat inspections are part of what the AGCO calls a "risk-based" enforcement strategy. Asked what particular risk SPIN Gallery might pose to warrant so many inspections - 17 in the past three years, by Mr. Pollock's count - Mr. Campion said it's simply the risk of further violations.

Mr. Pollock said his troubles began in the fall of 2004 - and haven't stopped since - after a neighbouring store owner used his gallery for a launch party but failed to obtain the proper liquor permit. Mr. Pollock was out during the party, then returned to find an inspector writing tickets.

"She said, 'Seeing as you're here, I'll give you some tickets, too,'" he recalled. "I said, 'I'm impartial to this; I just rented them the place.' She said, 'That doesn't matter.' Now, 16 visits later, I'm sick of it."

For her part, Ms. Butterfield said she quite easily brought her event into compliance once the inspectors pointed out her infractions, of which she was unaware, since she had minimal experience with Ontario laws.

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Ms. Butterfield said the inspectors arrived about 45 minutes before the reception was to end.

One of them slipped inside, through the unlocked street-level door marked "private party, no entrance," then eluded a greeter at the top of the stairs and procured a glass of wine. This, she was told, was evidence that the party was open to the public, in violation of her permit.

Ms. Butterfield's apologies and explanations were not enough to head off last month's letter from the AGCO, which, in addition to discouraging future applications, accused her of not providing food at the event. "They didn't even go around to see that there was a big buffet set up," she said.

Ms. Butterfield was also left with the uneasy suspicion that her reception was targeted "because it was a black event [and]. . . they expected some type of trouble."

Insp. Bertucca conceded that the event - one of about 70,000 for which special occasion permits are issued across Ontario each year - was targeted, but only because of previous problems at SPIN Gallery. "Ms. Butterfield wasn't targeted specifically," he said.

Nonetheless, the experience has left a sour taste with her and the artists' group.

"It's more of an annoyance than anything with us," she said, adding that she'll probably leave the licensing to her caterer at next year's show. "We really felt like we were doing all the right things, and I think they were basically nit-picking."

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