Wooing by brewing: How booze influences politics in Canada

From pop culture to patios to controversial provincial policies, alcohol is brewed into Canada's identity — but what influence has it had on politics?

Debates over beer and spirits have been harnessed by politicians since before Confederation

The politics of alcohol can be traced back through Canada's history, even to before Confederation. (Submitted by Troy Burtch)

From pop culture to patios to controversial government policies, alcohol — beer, especially — is a big part of Canada's identity. But what sort of influence does it have on our politics?

Ontario's experiment with controlling beer prices may be raising eyebrows across the country right now, but alcoholic beverages have always played an outsized role in Canadian public life.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford's buck-a-beer push — to lower the minimum price of a bottle or can of beer to $1 from $1.25 by Labour Day weekend — is just the sort of populist measure many expected from the province's newly-elected Progressive Conservative government. Ford's government is offering incentives — such as prime shelf space at LCBO outlets and free advertising — to brewing companies that manage to reach that target.

Not everyone is raising a glass to the idea. Several brewing companies across the province have expressed their dismay, saying there's no way to produce a quality product for only a dollar.

The Dominion City Brewing Company in Ottawa is accepting Premier Doug Ford's buck-a-beer challenge, but not in the way he's expecting. 0:54

The buck-a-beer policy only applies to products with less than 5.6 per cent alcohol content and participation is not mandatory.

Ontario previously had a minimum price of one dollar for beer, but the Liberal government of the day quietly hiked the minimum price in 2008, citing its "social responsibility" mandate.

Beer is the alcoholic beverage of choice in Canada; Canadians consume more of it than wine and spirits combined.

Canada's largest province isn't the only one with a history of bickering over booze.

Sour grapes

In the midst of her province's dispute with British Columbia over the fate of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in February, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley imposed a provincial boycott on imports of B.C. wine.

The move was meant to put pressure on B.C. Premier John Horgan to abandon his government's opposition to the pipeline expansion project.

"The wine industry is very important to B.C.," Notley said at the time. "Not nearly as important as the energy industry is to Alberta and Canada, but important nonetheless."

​In 2017, Alberta imported about ​17.2 million bottles of wine from B.C., Notley said. That amounted to about $70 million in revenue for B.C. wineries. About 95 per cent of Canadian wine sold in Alberta liquor stores is from B.C.

While Notley curtailed the flow of B.C. wine in order to gain short-term leverage in a political dispute, other barriers restricting the movement of alcohol across provincial borders have been in place for much longer.

'Free the beer'

The "free the beer" case began in 2012, when Gerard Comeau, a retired New Brunswick man, was stopped by RCMP at the New Brunswick-Quebec border and fined $292.50 for having 14 cases of beer and three bottles of liquor in his trunk — a violation of the New Brunswick Liquor Control Act. (His booze was also confiscated.)

He took his case to court. In April of this year, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously that provinces and territories have the constitutional right to restrict the flow of goods across their borders, so long as the primary goal of the restriction is not to impede trade.

Canada's premiers have agreed to relax laws that restricted the amount of liquor people could bring across provincial borders. 3:42

Then, in July, the country's premiers struck a deal to boost the amount of liquor individuals can bring across a provincial boundary for personal use. Currently, only two provinces — Alberta and Manitoba — have no such limits whatsoever.

Three jurisdictions — New Brunswick, the Northwest Territories and Newfoundland and Labrador — have limits making it illegal to cross a provincial boundary with anything but small amounts of liquor.

Alcohol and elections

Booze has a long history of use in Canada as a political tool.

Back in the 1850s, John Carling and his brother took over the family brewery in London, Ont. Fearing a temperance movement would cripple his business, Carling decided to run for public office.

"On election day, he rolls out the liquid assets and puts a barrel of beer right beside the polling station," said Matthew Bellamy, a history professor at Carleton University. Carling subsequently won a seat in the pre-Confederation Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada.

But not all attempts to sway voters with booze went down smoothly. At the tail end of Prohibition and at the height of the Great Depression, Ontario Premier George Henry ran on a policy that would allow people to drink full-strength beer. Henry lost, but the man who beat him — Mitchell Hepburn — snagged the idea and implemented it.

Bellamy said that while politicians like Henry, Carling and Hepburn have tried to exploit the political power of alcohol, it has never really caught on as an electoral tactic here.

"Politicians didn't want to be associated with beer that much," Bellamy said. "The liquor question has divided us for most of our history."

From pop culture to patios to controversial government policies, alcohol - beer, especially - is a big part of Canada's identity. But what sort of influence does it have on our politics? 11:16

With files from The Canadian Press

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