The federal budget bill can't actually 'free the beer'

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this year's budget bill does what the Harper government could never do over ten years in office — it "frees the beer."

There's just one problem with that claim: only the provinces can free the beer (or wine, or spirits). And most of them haven't — including Premier Doug Ford's Ontario, despite his government's first budget being otherwise loaded with booze liberalization measures.

For the federal Liberals, lifting the remaining federal restrictions on the interprovincial liquor trade is "low-hanging fruit," said Dan Paszkowski, CEO of the Canadian Vintners Association (CVA).

"Unfortunately, in the parliamentary system that we have ... we still have to struggle province by province."

The CVA cites polls that suggest up to 90 per cent of Canadians want to see interprovincial trade in alcohol freed up. The federal law that restricts cross-border alcohol trade dates back to 1928.

The move "allows Canada to enter into the 21st century," Paszkowski said. "We're the only wine-producing region in the world that isn't allowed to move wine or travel with wine across state or provincial borders."

The CVA says it's "thrilled" the changes are likely to pass quickly as part of this spring's budget bill — but don't place an order with your favourite out-of-province winery just yet.

"These changes that the government is making are wholly symbolic," British Columbia Conservative MP Dan Albas told reporters after C-97, the implementation bill for the 2019 federal budget, was introduced. "They will not allow for a consumer in Ontario to be able to order direct from British Columbia or Nova Scotia."

Albas, who represents a riding in B.C.'s wine country, championed a private member's bill to "free the grapes" in 2012. But its passage into law, and its eventual extension to cover beer and spirits, didn't convince every province to co-operate.

In fact, new barriers emerged in response.

"The federal government, I think, is just trying to pay lip service to the idea of a more united economy," Albas said.

Maybe so. But with the feds out of the way, the politicians that freedom-loving drinkers still need to convince are all provincial.

Direct shipments illegal

Alcohol has been part of interprovincial trade negotiations for years, with few results.

The last time Canada's first ministers met, in December, their final communiqué pledged to "consult industry and consumers to develop ways to facilitate the sale of alcoholic beverages, taking into consideration social responsibility obligations."

Fears about social responsibility stood in the way of an attempted deal last July that would have allowed provinces and territories to act in unison and raise the personal exemption for alcohol purchased in one province and transported across a provincial border to another.

Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press

Some provinces followed through and raised their personal exemption limits. But not all of them did.

And lifting restrictions on personal transport across provincial borders doesn't allow Albas's hypothetical wine lover in Ontario to order a case directly from an Okanagan vineyard.

Raising the personal exemption may be "of some value" to people who live near borders, Paszkowski said. "But if you live in Kitchener (Ont.) how often do you get to a winery in the Okanagan? And are you really going to drive 500 km to Quebec, or 1,000 km to Manitoba, to buy a wine that's not available in the LCBO?"

A 2016 deal between Ontario, B.C. and Quebec created an online portal for cross-border purchases, but provincial liquor monopolies still mediate these sales.

Feds tipped their hand

Only three provinces — British Columbia, Manitoba and Nova Scotia — responded to Albas's law by amending provincial regulations to allow direct-to-consumer sales.

Manitoba will allow any wine shipment, while the other two provinces will allow direct delivery of a completely Canadian vintage from a licensed winery.

More than 80 per cent of Canadians live in provinces where restrictions remain.

"I've kind of given up on the thought of all provinces acting at the same time," Paszkowski said. "I think one-by-one is the best approach, but if we get two of the big ones, like Ontario and Alberta, I think the others will come on relatively quickly."

Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

The provinces and territories have a working group on alcohol that's set to meet in Nova Scotia next month.

Federal officials previewed this part of the budget for the working group back in January. So provinces knew this change was coming.

Your move, premiers

The office of the incoming chair of the Council of the Federation, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, told CBC News that the outgoing chair, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs, would be the appropriate contact to field questions.

Higgs confirmed an interview on this topic with CBC News, then cancelled. Several days later, Robert Duguay, a provincial government spokesperson, said New Brunswick would "take the necessary time to review this new federal bill and its implications for the province.

"The legislation has not been passed yet, and we need to examine it in further detail," he said.

So what about those relatively new, freedom-minded governments in Alberta and Ontario?

Jason Kenney's recently-announced principal secretary, Howard Anglin, championed lifting interprovincial trade restrictions when he helmed the Canadian Constitution Foundation.

The incoming premier himself has said it's unreasonable that he can't ship a case of beer from Saskatchewan to Alberta, or vice-versa.

Premier Ford's first Ontario budget promised to "treat adults like adults," and made it easier to drink in several ways.

But it still didn't let those adults order their own wine without the LCBO playing middleman.

Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press

"Premier Ford remains committed to working with his provincial counterparts to remove barriers to trade in alcohol across Canada," said his spokesperson, Simon Jefferies.

Ontario is promising to work with Quebec on "reciprocal" measures.

"The Ontario Government continues to look for ways to increase consumer choice, and is currently undergoing a complete overhaul of the province's outdated alcohol distribution system. We'll have more to say about this moving forward."