Skip to main content

Booze is confusing for Canada’s provincial governments. On the one hand, they can’t resist the billions of dollars in revenues guaranteed by their monopolies on the distribution and, in most cases, sale of alcohol.

On the other hand, the provinces don’t want to come off as too enthusiastic in their promotion of a toxic inebriant that causes disease, family breakdown and road fatalities. So they pass inane laws in an effort to appear respectable.

In Ontario, for instance, bars can lower the prices of drinks during slow periods of the day but aren’t allowed to mention the term “Happy Hour” or its dictionary definition, “Cheap Drinks.” Words can kill, apparently.

The provinces, with the notable exceptions of Alberta and Quebec, also tightly limit points of sale, lest consumers find it too convenient to purchase the stuff.

Which leads us to British Columbia, which legalized “Happy Hour,” both the premise and the term, in 2014, and also began the daring experiment of letting grocery stores stock wine on their shelves.

Only there was a catch: The stores could only stock wine made in B.C. The effective ban on foreign bottles angered winemakers in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina and the European Union; their governments have protested more than once.

Last week, the U.S. raised the stakes and asked the World Trade Organization to examine B.C.’s “unfair” regulations.

Along with angering allies, the B.C. wine rule has become an irritant in the ongoing renegotiation of the North American free trade agreement and in the latest softwood lumber dispute between Canada and the U.S.

B.C. Premier John Horgan says he will let Ottawa resolve the wine issue, as WTO complaints involve the federal government. But surely his own government can fix the problem before it goes that far.

Why leave what is so obviously a protectionist policy on the books at a time when the Trudeau government spends every waking hour touting open markets? It seems a tad mischievous of Mr. Horgan to sit on the sidelines on this one.

But that’s Canada, and that’s booze.

Interact with The Globe