The Saskatchewan government is shaking up liquor sales by selling 40 of its 75 liquor stores to make them private outlets, but the reaction is mixed.
Don McMorris, minister for the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority, says it's time to modernize how booze is sold.
"There's been 70 years of regulation protectionism built up in this system — and we don't get rid of it all — but we take a very large step, first step, maybe last step, I don't know, into the future," McMorris said Wednesday.
"So we take a step kind of tearing a lot of that back and by doing that, I think we give citizens of the province more choice, more convenience and more competitive pricing."
The province is also to add 12 new private liquor stores in various communities.
The changes mean all stores will be able to operate between 8 a.m. and 3 a.m., can sell any type of chilled product and will pay a uniform wholesale price. The rules are currently different for government-owned liquor stores, franchises in rural communities, outlets known as off-sales that have the ability to stay open late and four private stores that recently opened in Regina and Saskatoon.
A request for proposals will be made to select new operators, but government liquor store employees will get preferential consideration if they want to buy an outlet.
The overhaul comes after a consultation the government launched last November. McMorris said people spoke up.
"People expected change. People want change, but did they want to go extreme? And that was clear. Certainly some did and some (wanted) status quo."
It will be up to retailers to set the price for alcohol, but McMorris said he believes 99 per cent of liquor will be sold at about the same price.
The minister also said the province should still collect the same amount of revenue, because all retailers will have to buy alcohol through the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority.
The union representing workers was skeptical.
The Saskatchewan Government and General Employees' Union suggested the plan will drain millions in revenue from public coffers and pointed out that the 40 stores being sold earned profits of $32.6 million last year.
"To be perfectly honest, I think I'm still in shock," said union spokeswoman Donna Christianson.
"I saw maybe some coming, but not to this magnitude. This is over half of our government liquor stores. These stores contribute revenue back into the province. It's concerning to me."
The union is open to changes such as longer hours, Christianson said, but it wanted them within the current model. She said the union was never approached.
"You want to put a kiosk in the grocery store and sell a few bottles of wine? Absolutely put our people in there," said Christianson.
"There has been nothing stopping him. The union has not stood in the way for any of that, any of the changes that he and the government of the day are talking about, but we've never been given the opportunity."
Restaurants had also wanted the ability to buy booze at wholesale prices through the liquor authority, but that isn't happening.
However, Dwayne Marling, a spokesman for the group Restaurants Canada, said the changes will give restaurants more options for buying liquor.
"Under the current system, my members cannot buy from the private stores with their greater selection, like the public can. Under this new system, they'll be able to purchase from anybody that is retailing liquor, and they can negotiate a price with them so they can get a better price when they buy by volume," he said.
"It's clear that this is the most significant change in retailing of liquor in this province since Prohibition, and that's a big improvement for everybody, including our members because they now have that greater access to selection and to competitive pricing."
The changes aren't to be implemented until after the provincial election in April 2016.