Anyone with cursory experience of Ontario’s alcohol distribution regime doesn’t buy Premier Kathleen Wynne’s health and safety excuses for an instant. As is routinely the case, the protection of unionized jobs at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), as well as the provincial revenue stream, is the priority. But you almost have to admire Wynne’s Concerned Children’s Advertisers-grade insistence that selling beer and wine in corner stores, as proposed by Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford, would be “not safe and . . . not sensible.” Indeed, such an overhaul of Ontario’s alcohol system would put the province on the level of that post-apocalyptic hellscape, Quebec.
But since this is the best Wynne can do, let’s play ball. Six months ago, my husband and I moved to Seattle, where a citizen’s initiative broke the state monopoly on liquor sales in 2011. There are a total of eight stores within a half-mile radius of our house where we can buy beer or wine. Normally we do so as needed, depending on what’s for dinner. On Tuesday, I decided to visit all of these stores to get a few bottles to keep on hand, and to see if I could discover what, precisely, Wynne claims she is so worried about.
9:46 a.m.: Arrived at QFC, our neighbourhood equivalent to Metro. Passed the small hard liquor section on the left side of the store. Bought a bottle of my favourite sauvignon blanc from a wine and beer section that took up nearly the entire back. The self-checkout alerted a staffer to card me before I could leave with it.
10:06 a.m.: Went to 7-Eleven, where wine and beer take up about five fridges. Bought a bottle of pinot grigio. The sales clerk, seeing my Canadian ID, asked me if it was true that wine is twice as expensive in Canada as it is in the U.S.
10:19 a.m.: Went to Walgreens, where wine, beer, and liquor are on offer. Wynne would no doubt be appalled that the wine is right across the aisle from the candy. Bought a bottle of cabernet sauvignon.
10:27 a.m.: Went to the Shell station, which proudly advertises “Liquor & Wine” on its sign. Bought a bottle of gewürztraminer.
10:42 a.m.: Went to a large specialty liquor store that will probably be my go-to whenever I need something quality. In true Manitoba ex-pat fashion, bought a bottle of Crown Royal Northern Harvest rye.
10:53 a.m.: Dropped everything off at home because the grocery trolley I was using to carry everything was getting pretty heavy.
11:10 a.m.: Went to a corner deli where you can buy wine and a sandwich in the same place. Bought a bottle of pinot noir.
4:07 p.m., since it opened later than the others: Went to the beer store/tavern a block away from our house, located next to a doggy daycare and across the street from a school for children with learning disabilities. Bought a brown ale.
4:15 p.m.: Went to a smaller specialty store that features weekly tastings. Bought a bottle of gamay on the recommendation of the very helpful sales clerk.
What I learned from this booze run is that even if you can get wine at a convenience store, you probably shouldn’t if you don’t like plonk. But that’s the shopper’s business. Other than that, I couldn’t tell what Wynne is on about – nor NDP leader Andrea Horwath, who goes one step further by promising to “review” the policy that allows wine and beer to be sold in supermarkets, on the ground that it’s . . . crowding out the cheese. Yes, that’s what she said.
Were the stores I visited made unsafe by stocking alcohol? No more so than any cash-heavy retailer, especially those with cigarettes and prescription medications on the same premises. Did that day’s haul make me or my husband drink more heavily? No, we each had one glass at dinner. Were these retailers slackers about carding? Not nearly as much as the LCBO, where I could generally expect to be asked for my ID one time out of three; Tuesday’s carding rate was about 62.5 percent. All this on a Wednesday morning, in the heart of America’s fastest-growing city, which I mention because rural stores in Ontario stock liquor and snacks together with the greatest of ease.
In short, I saw nothing wrong with the picture Wynne and Horwath are painting. Would either of them care to explain, in detail, what they’re trying to protect Ontarians from?