Break the law this autumn; Buy wine from another province

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald, Vancouver Province and Victoria Times, October 2014

If you live in British Columbia, Manitoba or Nova Scotia, raise a toast to the enlightened politicians who rule over you. In those provinces, consumers face no legal or regulatory barriers to mutually consenting commerce with wineries elsewhere in Canada. Their consumers can buy wine from anywhere in the country, either in-person or online. It is a guaranteed federal right but one which many provinces resist.

Some background here is helpful. In Canada, reforming regulations and laws that harm consumer choice is a Sisyphean task. But the effort was helped two years back by Dan Albas, a federal MP from Penticton, deep in the heart of B.C. wine country.

Albas, introduced Bill C-311 in 2012 (since passed by Parliament) that amended a 1928 federal law prohibited transporting “intoxicating liquors” across provincial borders. That law, the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act, sprang from post-Prohibition era requests from provincial governments that feared booze and wanted more control over alcohol sales. That meant wine could not be transported across provincial borders by consumers; technically, those consumers broke the law.

The Albas amendment changed that for wine. And earlier this year, the federal government further amended the 1928 law to include beer and spirits to the list of items now allowed across provincial borders. The only caveat is that wine, beer and spirits must be intended for personal and not commercial use.

Thus, the federal government has corrected a Prohibition-era policy. But most provinces, with the exception of B.C., Manitoba and Nova Scotia, still attempt via law and regulation to control the flow of alcoholic beverages after they leave the vineyard, brewery and distillery.

For example, in Ontario, no law or regulation prevents consumers from importing wine from another province. But as Vancouver lawyer Mark Hicken has noted at Winelaw, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) has a “policy statement” that forbids Ontarians from importing wine except where personally carried. Hicken doubts the policy, lacking legal force, would stand up in court.

In Quebec, consumers can bring back nine litres of wine from some other province, but cannot have wine shipped to them.

Alberta was already wide-open after the Albas bill passed in 2012. Albertans could transport wine across a provincial boundary or have it shipped. Then, in a fit of political protectionism, the province pared back its regulatory allowance. By policy decree, Albertans are allowed to import as much as they want for personal use “as long as the liquor accompanies the individual.”

Newfoundland and Labrador has the most protectionist policy and enforces it. The province allows residents of the Rock to carry in just 1.14 litres—less than two bottles. Newfoundlanders who dare import wine from another province may be subject to a sting operation. FedEx, for example, recently suspended all its inter-provincial wine shipments after it was charged for transporting B.C. wine into Newfoundland and Labrador.

Given federal changes in 2012 and 2014, no federal law or regulation prevents Canadians from “importing” wine (beer or spirits) from another province for personal use. Insofar as some provincial governments attempt to block the free flow of goods between provinces, they act contrary to the practice and spirit of free trade. That’s troubling in a country created in part to encourage wide-open commerce across provincial boundaries.

Canadians have always been “allowed” to grow, sell, buy and transport grapes, barley, and hops—some of the ingredients used in the creation of wine, whisky and beer—right across Canada. So it was odd that consumers were forbidden from shipping the end product if manufactured in another province.

The federal government, at least, has corrected its 1920s-era prohibition for consumers who want to transport or ship beer, wine and spirits. But for the full effect of that change, Canadians must apparently wait for most provinces to embrace the examples set by Nova Scotia, Manitoba and B.C.

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