LILLEY: It makes sense to allow Ontario alcohol in Ontario convenience stores

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Ford government set to keep its 2018 election promise to help the economy

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Putting beer and wine in Ontario convenience stores was a major populist promise in the 2018 election that is no longer on the agenda during COVID-19.

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Today, a group representing the biggest players in the convenience store industry is hoping an emotional and even nationalist appeal will convince the Ford government to keep its promise.

The Commodity Industry Council of Canada (CICC) is committed to only selling alcoholic products made in Ontario until the end of 2022 if the government grants them permission to transport the products.

“Throughout the pandemic we have been on your side and we are now asking the government to be on our side,” said board chair Anne Kothawala.

CICC’s argument fits well with the Ford government’s efforts to promote Ontario-made products as part of the province’s economic stimulus package. The council promotes Ontario’s 8,500 convenience stores to give consumers access to products created by craft breweries, wineries and cider houses.

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The Convenience Industry Council of Canada (CICC) is committed to only selling alcoholic products made in Ontario until the end of 2022 if the government grants them permission to transport them.
The Convenience Industry Council of Canada (CICC) is committed to only selling alcoholic products made in Ontario until the end of 2022 if the government grants them permission to transport them.

Jes Nettleton, co-founder of Matron Fine Beer in Prince Edward County, said COVID has been tough and presents the economic case to Premier Doug Ford.

“Opening this additional sales channel will help us in our recovery and allow people to more easily access our Ontario-made and sourced beer,” Nettleton said.

Jason Lalonde of Carp’s Ridge Rock Brewing Company said convenience store sales would help the recovery and even help create jobs for his business.

“Our customers are already going to convenience stores, and it would be great if they could buy some of our made in Ontario drinks and save themselves a trip,” said Lalonde.

Will this argument move a file that has been dormant for more than two years?

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The Convenience Industry Council of Canada (CICC) is committed to only selling alcoholic products made in Ontario until the end of 2022 if the government grants them permission to transport them.
The Convenience Industry Council of Canada (CICC) is committed to only selling alcoholic products made in Ontario until the end of 2022 if the government grants them permission to transport them.

At one point, the government was so determined to push this policy forward that in June 2019 it passed a bill allowing the province to break a 10-year contract with the Beer Store without penalty. Despite the passage of the bill, the government never enacted it and continued to have discussions with major brewers about changes in the way alcohol is sold.

The Wynne government signed the Beer Store contract in October 2015 and demanded investments and improvements in the Beer Store locations. The company, majority owned by Labatt, Molson and Sleeman, argued that allowing beer to be sold in convenience stores would violate the deal and require a large payment from the province.

During the pandemic, however, the province allowed bars and restaurants to sell take-out alcohol – which was also a breach of contract, but the Beer Store never acted. The decision not to oppose this move was both a public relations decision and a strategic one.

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Bars and restaurants are the Beer Store’s biggest customers and they needed their customers to survive. It would also have seemed really wrong for this corporate giant to oppose one of the few lifelines offered to small businesses during shutdowns.

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So is there the political will to strike a deal now?

While the Beer Store in general is opposed to the idea, they could agree without a fight if they continued to be the wholesale and distribution partner. While not ideal, it would allow Ontario to move forward and join the rest of the world in modernizing the way alcohol is sold.

Even with the economic arguments of more jobs in convenience stores – operators would need to hire additional staff – or more jobs for craft breweries and wineries, this is still a tough sell. The Ford government is fully and firmly focused on dealing with pandemic issues and everything else is taking a back seat.

Still, it’s an idea the government should consider because although it focuses exclusively on the pandemic, small business owners across the province are looking for ways to recover and this proposal has the potential to help.

It is a solution designed in Ontario.

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