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When beer and wine almost made it into Ontario corner stores

Premier David Peterson's 1985 campaign included a promise to make beer and wine available in Ontario corner stores. But the opposition parties just couldn't swallow the idea.

Liberal campaign promise got tanked by the Tories in 1986

Alcohol purchase options will extend beyond Brewers Retail and the LCBO under a pledge in the Liberals' 1985 platform. 1:47

In 1985, the Ontario Liberals promised they would make beer and wine available in Ontario corner stores if elected.

"Many owners of small stores say that would create more business," said CBC reporter Susan Ormiston. "And consumers have long argued for it." 

Brewers Retail held a monopoly on beer sales in Ontario, but a Liberal government sought to change that with corner store sales. (NewsHour/CBC Archives)

A man on the street agreed the option was long overdue. 

"In Montreal, where I'm from, everybody goes to their corner store to buy beer, wine," he said. "So why not here?"

The Liberals had proposed the extension of beer and wine to independent small grocery stores in a private member's bill the year before, but it went nowhere when the governing Tories blocked it.

Part of the Liberals' aim was to break up the monopoly that Brewers Retail (now known as the Beer Store) held on beer sales. Getting Canadian wines into more stores was also their goal. 

"Most people feel that the system is too cozy, too tight, does not serve the consumer's interest," said David Peterson, leader of the party. "We don't have to be paternalistic any more."

The better way to buy beer

Brewers Retail tries to head off the competition by suggesting it could open stores within Toronto subway stations. 1:52

The Liberals and NDP formed a coalition in June 1985 with Peterson as premier, and a year later the matter was under discussion.

A Tory task force had already tried to pour the idea down the drain, but Peterson persisted and legislation was pending.

That had Brewers Retail, the privately owned company that had a monopoly on beer sales in the province, worried about the potential for competition.

Welcome to The Beer Store  

According to the Globe and Mail, the company didn't wait for the government to act. In November 1985, it opened six new outlets branded The Beer Store.

By selling beer in subway stations, Brewers Retail felt it would have "adequate control" to prevent abuse. (NewsHour/CBC Archives)

And it wasn't going to stop there.

"The brewers are not about to lose control without a fight," said CBC reporter Steve Paikin in June 1986. "To that end, they've proposed several major changes to the way they sell beer."

In 20 outlets, customers could already build themselves a custom six-pack.

And by autumn, there could be drive-in service in some locations.

But the most controversial change would put beer stores in subway stations alongside chocolate bars, newspapers and lottery tickets.

"So long as we are seen as the responsible retailers of beer, I don't think anyone is going to be too unhappy about that," said a Brewer's Retail spokesman.

But Consumer Minister Monte Kwinter poured water on that idea, saying the government proposal applied to independent corner stores. 

"There will not be any Brewers' Retail outlets in subway stations," he said.

But kids might drink at lunch hour

Critics of the proposal fear teenagers could have easier access to beer if it's more widely available. 2:14

In October 1986, the Liberals' legislation for beer and wine in Ontario corner stores came before the legislature.

But there was something else to think of besides busting up a monopoly: the kids.   

Teens were split on whether it might be easier to buy beer in a corner store. (NewsHour/CBC Archives)

"I would find it very surprising if young people didn't buy it and drink it, presumably at lunch hour," said Ann Vanstone, chair of the Toronto Board of Education.

She was one of the voices opposing the expansion of beer sales to corner stores due to concerns that it would become more accessible to underage buyers.

A corner store owner denied it would be much of a problem.

"The I.D. would be strictly enforced and the kids would learn immediately that there would be no way they would get it out of the store," he told reporter Georgie Binks.

As for kids themselves, some agreed it might be easier to buy beer in a corner store than Brewers Retail. But none seemed especially enthusiastic about the idea.

"I think if you're legal age to drink, then it's just as easy to buy at a liquor store," said a teen outside. "So there's no reason for them to sell it in convenience stores like this."

Too hard to swallow

The Liberals' bill passes first reading but goes no further 1:17

In the end, the other parties just couldn't get behind the idea.

If Premier David Peterson was upset the legislation failed, he didn't show it, said reporter Robert Fisher. (NewsHour/CBC Archives)

The Liberals needed the support of either the NDP or the Tories to pass the bill, and neither was willing to give it.

The bill got an automatic first reading, according to CBC's Queen's Park reporter Robert Fisher.

"Now it's clear, though, the legislation won't go much farther than that," said Fisher.

Both of the other parties were on record as opposing the legislation, but the Progressive Conservatives' consumer critic Bob Runciman had indicated he might allow it to go before a committee for public hearings.

"However, the Tory caucus has overruled Runciman," said Fisher. "It has rejected prolonging what it considers to be the obvious: that beer and win is a dead issue." 

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