Liquor retailers in La Ronge, Sask. are fighting back against proposed new liquor sales restrictions being drafted by the town council to address crime and social issues associated with alcohol abuse.
Loss of income, more than 20 layoffs, drunk driving and the potential impact to the economy are some of the retailers' concerns outlined in a document they plan take to a meeting with town council this week.
Earlier this month the town council voted in favour of developing new rules that would limit liquor sales on certain days and cut back on the hours when alcohol can be sold in the northern Saskatchewan town.
The rules were proposed by the Northern Alcohol Strategy committee — a task force created by the province to work on community-based solutions — to reduce what it called "alcohol-fuelled harm and crime" in La Ronge.
The committee said the rules have helped reduce alcohol-related issues in other places, including a town in Australia.
None of the changes will be implemented unless they are approved as bylaws, which the town plans to start working on after the favourable vote.
Retailer not convinced plan will help
Tania Colbert, the general manager of the Northland Motor Hotel offsale and bar, does not think the changes will benefit the community overall.
"It's a big chunk of the days, almost 30 per cent of [days open in the] year would be cut, so all those jobs would be lost so I don't think that's going to be beneficial to the community at all," said Colbert.
"We're going to have a long-term economic impact, higher unemployment rates. People are going to drink regardless. We're going to have bootleggers, we're going to have drunk drivers."
One of the new rules would limit alcohol sales on Sundays, statutory holidays, month-end paydays and Canada Child Benefit payment days. The proposed changes would also force retailers to stop selling or serving liquor after 11 p.m. and add a five per cent sales tax on liquor to raise funds for improving public safety.
Business owners feel attacked
Colbert said the retailers oppose 15 of the 49 rules proposed by the Northern Alcohol Strategy. They feel the plan is "attacking" the business owners.
"Why is it that the bars and the lounges, they're the ones being taxed for the entire town?" said Colbert.
"Why not raise taxes to all the homeowners just a little bit to contribute, or why is it not all the businesses?"
The Northland Motor Hotel bar is currently open until 2 a.m. from Monday to Saturday and until 1 a.m. on Sundays.
'There is a propensity nowadays for a lot of the onus and a lot of the responsibility to shift to employers and business owners.' - Jim Bence, president of the Saskatchewan Hotels and Hospitality Association
Its cold beer and wine store is open from 9:30 a.m. to 3 a.m. from Monday to Saturday and until 1 a.m. on Sundays.
Colbert said liquor sales after 11 p.m. make up 85 per cent of the day's revenue on weekends.
She said the town's proposed changes would force her business to lay off five of its 18 employees.
According to Colbert, the other three retailers also expect job cuts will occur if the changes go ahead.
The retailers say the new rules will cut the number of days they are open by about 125 days per year. The figures take into account all statutory holidays, child tax benefit paydays, Sundays, old-age pension days, welfare payment days and band pay days.
Paired with the five per cent tax, the retailers say the changes will be "devastating" to their businesses.
"I'd like [town council] to realize the impact that it's going to have on all the other business and it's going to have in the future," said Colbert.
"People are going to start going down south [to Prince Albert] and they are not only going to be buying their booze from down south, they're going to start buying their fast food from down south, their groceries, their clothing, their school supplies."
Address trauma first, says retailer
Colbert said restrictions are not the right way to address the community's issues with liquor.
She said the hotel would contribute financially to bringing additional counsellors to the community to address the trauma she said is the root cause of the problem.
Colbert went as far as saying the Sunday closures are a human rights issue because they take away the chance for an individual to have a drink at the bar if they choose.
"How is it fair that someone who has no children can't drink [at an establishment] on a day that child benefit comes out?" she said.
Colbert said she would not breach the rules if they were implemented.
Hospitality Association shares concerns
She and the other concerned retailers have the backing of the Saskatchewan Hotel and Hospitality Association.
President Jim Bence said there should have been more consultation with businesses about the impact on the local economy.
He believes the liquor restrictions could actually worsen the problems they are designed to address.
"Let's say a staff of 25 you have to lay off five, then those people, it really could take them a time to get back into the workforce and then that may contribute even more to the overall problem that's there," said Bence.
He thinks three of the four businesses could close if the new rules are introduced.
Bence believes the La Ronge changes are part of a wider trend across Canada.
"There is a propensity nowadays for a lot of the onus and a lot of the responsibility to shift to employers and business owners," said Bence.
"Where it's how many drinks can somebody reasonably drink, we're responsible for that now and really the consumer really isn't."
Too early to define penalties
Town of La Ronge Coun. Matt Klassen previously told CBC the changes will be worth it if they can save one life.
Before bringing the proposed changes to a vote, the town ran a survey to gauge public views on alcohol abuse in the community.
According to the town, 94.85 per cent of participants said they believe there are problems with alcohol in the community and 64 per cent said incidents of alcohol-related harm were increasing.
A spokesperson for the town said it is too early to say what the penalties will be for business owners who breach any of the proposed new rules.
The spokesperson said in an emailed response to questions that the businesses approached the town for a meeting just as councillors were planning to reach out to the retailers.