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Manitoba town’s first liquor store brews discontent in Mennonite country

Clerks at the new Liquor Mart in Winkler, Man., prepare the store on Nov. 26, 2013, the day before the grand opening.

JOHN WOODS/The Globe and Mail

A battle over the bottle is breaking out in a Canadian city that has never had a liquor store.

In Winkler, Man., a largely Mennonite city of 11,000 at the heart of a deeply religious region, a 6,000-square-foot retailer of spirits – the very first in the community's more than a century of existence – is opening Wednesday.

The development has deeply affected the close-knit town as it attempts to balance the effects of rapid growth – it had a population increase of 17.2 per cent between 2006 and 2011 – with its more conservative, religious roots. A quiet war is now being fought in its churches, its streets and its weekly newspaper.

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"Gone are the days when our town fathers and other leaders opposed the presence of liquor stores and the availability of this liquid poison. … Indeed the days that follow will be sad days for our community," Harv Klassen wrote in a Winkler Times letter to the editor. "May God help us."

The store is the result of the city's emergence as an economic hub, coupled with enough interest from residents that Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries decided it now makes good business sense.

Winkler, which makes everything from mobile homes to farm equipment – at the heart of a region boasting wheat, corn and canola – has been on a steady, near recession-proof trajectory since its incorporation in 1906. But it picked up the pace in the late nineties, when Manitoba became one of the first provinces to aggressively take advantage of a Canadian program aimed at attracting immigrants to areas other than Toronto and Vancouver. Many newcomers chose Winkler, an hour's drive southwest of Winnipeg, drawn by its rich business climate and small-town feel.

"As Winkler grew, slowly but surely it also progressed," said Andrea Kowal, spokesperson for the provincial liquor agency. "Its attitude towards alcohol is now fairly open."

Nearby Steinbach finally allowed a liquor store to open in 2008, and only in 2011 did the town vote in favour of cocktail lounges and private clubs. While Winkler residents approved lounges and clubs in 2003, they still had to drive the 10 kilometres to nearby Morden to find a full-service liquor store.

"It's a growing and vibrant community, and we have received numerous requests for a liquor store from residents over the years," Ms. Kowal said. "All other communities its size in Manitoba have liquor stores."

Amid this boom, though, there persists a values-driven attitude towards growth. Winkler Mayor Martin Harder is keenly aware of how well his city is doing, but, for him and many others in the community, not just any new business is welcome.

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"We don't throw caution to the wind, and we continue to seek investors who have a family, community attitude and work ethic," Mr. Harder said.

The residents of Winkler are largely Mennonite, and the more than 2,000 immigrants it has attracted in the last decade are predominantly conservative Christians from Germany. In some ways, the town is becoming more religious as it grapples with the changes brought about by growth: among them, a more lax attitude among youth toward social drinking.

Andy Wiebe, owner of a local café, is among those in favour of the new store. "We're not just a small town anymore," Mr. Wiebe said. "We're starting to get our feet wet with what it means to be a city. It's great."

But the change is far from welcome to everybody – a fact that has not gone unnoticed by its mayor.

"I don't need a liquor store for myself," Mr. Harder said. "However, that is not to say that many of our Mennonites don't already frequent the stores in Roland, Plum Coulee and Morden. And any community that is stagnant dies."

The province of Manitoba liberalized liquor laws after the First World War, lifting prohibition and allowing Winkler's Stanley Hotel to serve alcohol. This solitary licence, the only one the town had for decades, was granted after a referendum that, according to Winkler historian Hans Werner, was won by voter apathy and poor turnout. Many opposed it, but did not show up at the polls.

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Many referendums to give more establishments licences to serve were held from the 1950s on. Finally, in 1991, the community approved the sale of booze in dining rooms; in 2003, the city voted in favour of clubs and lounges.

"Social drinking [in towns such as Winkler] has become much more common," said Mr. Werner, author of Living Between Worlds: A History of Winkler. "[But] the town still has that isolated sense about it."

Even with booze by the bottle as well as on tap, Winkler isn't about to abandon its religious base or the need to balance its founding principles with its future.

"I have always said that Winkler is a faith-based community," Mr. Harder said, "and I make no apologies for that."

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