Dry Empire: Ontario’s Liquor Control State

Mike Robichaux

My first experience with Ontario’s liquor control board took place minutes after I stepped off a bus from my former home Montreal. I was attending an open house hosted by U of T the following morning, and thought I’d pick up a couple of tall boys to enjoy in my hotel room before bed. After standing in line for fifteen minutes—it was the 8:45pm pre-closing rush— I finally made it to the cashier only to be asked, quite abruptly, if I was drunk.

Ten minutes in Toronto and the government of Ontario was already interrogating me about my drinking habits.

I could almost hear the collective eye roll of the patrons behind me as I set about explaining myself. No ma’am, I haven’t been drinking. Yes ma’am, I realize my eyes are red: I was sleeping on the bus. No mom—I-uh, I mean ma’am, I haven’t been taking any other substances tonight.

I didn’t realize it, (nor, quite possibly, did she) but the cashier and I were acting out an almost century-old vignette dating back to post-prohibition Ontario, when hopeful customers of the newly mandated LCBO were required to undergo an intimidating “evaluation” process before purchasing liquor. Since then, the provincial government has rolled back restrictions on purchasing alcohol incrementally while maintaining its monopoly on the sale of hard liquor, and protecting a privately held monopoly on bulk sales of beer (the Beer Store).

Late last month, the Liberal government announced the most recent adjustment to this distribution model in the form of a novel-length “master framework agreement.”

Essentially, it stipulates that a maximum of 450 Ontario grocery stores will be allowed to sell small amounts of beer in the coming years.

These reforms are the result of a cultural shift away from temperance-era views of alcohol as “social plague,” as well as a process of globalization and market liberalization that, to some extent, is “standardizing” the way liquor is sold throughout the (western) world. Advocates for change, however, are butting up against some deeply entrenched interests who are determined to remind Ontarians why their province’s strict liquor laws exist.

Liquor Board of Ontario the Good: the Changing Face of “Social Responsibility.”

The LCBO wants you to know that it has your best interests at heart.

This was the message that the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU)—of which LCBO employees are members—tried to hammer home with a recent series of radio ads.

“You know how many places there are to get a double-double?” asks an aghast female voice in one of the thirty-second spots, “when the Liberals are through, there’ll be even more places to get a bottle. Don’t you think that might be just a little too convenient?” Following this, the announcer proudly reports that the LCBO refused service to 400,000 people last year (including me, almost). The message was clear: the LCBO is to liquor what the Men in Black are to aliens—your last, best, and only line of defence.

This kind of talk is nothing new. Protecting citizens from themselves, or what the LCBO refers to as its “social responsibility”agenda, has been part of the organization’s mission since its inception in 1927. In the early days this meant policing public morality by, for instance, inspecting hotel beverage rooms to ensure music was not being played and that patrons were seated.

At its worst, the LCBO’s moral authoritarianism was premised on classist or blatantly racist attitudes (the LCBO would not sell alcohol to Aboriginals until the 1960s) and a paternalistic desire to protect the ignorant masses. If you don’t think Ontario’s liquor distribution system still makes assumptions about which types of people need tighter controls, try visiting a Wine Rack immediately after a trip to the Beer Store. The latter is a tightly regulated, vaguely dystopian stockroom, and the former a consumer paradise, with product displays, advertising, FREE SAMPLES!, longer opening hours, and a helpful staff whose job actually seems to be selling the store’s goods (“would you like any cider with that tonight?”). Is this based on tacit expectations about the typical income bracket (upper-middle class) and/or racial composition (white) of the Wine Rack’s customer base? Is the Beer Store implicitly telling its customers that they’re too poor and/or multi-ethnic to be trusted to choose their alcohol from an actual shelf, or to be subjected to actual advertisements, or to be allowed alcohol after 8pm, which, by the way, is when most people actually drink alcohol?

Ask yourself these questions the next time you’re waiting for your beer to roll out on a conveyor belt from behind a reinforced concrete wall.

Whatever the case, the discourse surrounding liquor regulation in the twenty-first century is, by and large, no longer about imposing standards of acceptable drinking behaviour—it’s about promoting public health and safety. Case in point: one of the OPSEU radio spots mentions that in Alberta, where liquor stores are privately operated and—the horror—open until 2am, the chances of being killed in a drinking and driving related accident are six times higher than in Ontario. It’s a scary statistic, maybe scary enough to send reasonable Ontarians running into the arms of their benevolent liquor control agency. That is to say it would be scary if it weren’t a misrepresentation.

While the figure is accurate, the OPSEU fails to point out that in Saskatchewan, a province with a liquor landscape a lot like Ontario’s, your chances of dying in an alcohol related crash are twice as high as in Alberta. This illustrates the kind of questionable claims that have characterized the debate so far. Another example would be the hastily retracted claim by OPSEU president Warren Thomas that making beer available for sale in grocery stores will increase violence towards women. Although, according to an Angus Reid Poll from December, 69 per cent of Ontarians want to see more competitive beer sales, Thomas is convinced that support would melt away once a public consultation process revealed the inherent dangers of liberalizing alcohol sales.

So what are the inherent dangers of liberalizing alcohol sales? While there is research to suggest that higher taxes on booze can help stymie consumption, studies on the effects of privatization and increased competition are contradictory and largely inconclusive. We probably won’t know the full impact of Ontario’s recent reforms for a couple of years, because the number of grocery stores allowed to sell beer is capped at 150 until May 2017, but the OPSEU’s alarmist rhetoric is likely just that: rhetoric. With similar regulations and taxes in place, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why private beer sales in grocery stores would be any less “socially responsible” than private beer sales in a Beer Stores. One can’t help but feel that there’s more to the OPSEU’s fears than a genuine concern for the public’s safety, which, obviously, there is.

Pluralism and Whiskey Shots

While not formally connected with the Beer Store, OPSEU’s interest in the liquor reform debate is quite transparently driven by concerns about a “domino effect” that ends with full privatization of liquor sales in the province, thus putting them—and a lot of other people—out of a job. This is a reasonable enough fear, and OPSEU has made it clear that they’re not going to take these reforms lying down. Brewers Retail (the conglomerate that owns the Beer Store), for their part, launched a PR campaign of their own some months ago, and made a variety of claims about deregulation that some have questioned on factual grounds.

Both OPSEU and Brewer’s Retail have deep pockets and a clear stake in stalling liquor reform. What’s more, the LCBO is a huge moneymaker for the province of Ontario, and Brewers Retail is a powerful lobby group at Queen’s Park. For these reasons, it’s doubtful that the modest tinkering about the edges that these reforms signify will set off an avalanche of change in the coming years. While popular views of alcohol and government’s role in regulating it are changing in Canada and elsewhere, the kind of diffuse, low-level support that the issue inspires may not stand up to the entrenched and concentrated interests of Ontario’s alcohol monopolies any time in the immediate future. For now, head down to your local grocer and pick up a carton of milk and a six-pack (I know, it’s weird even saying it). Ontario may not be Vegas, but hey, at least we can dance in hotel beverage rooms now.

And I’ll drink to that.

*Opens milk*


Mike is a graduate student at the University of Toronto (previously McGill). He grew up on Vancouver Island but now sticks mostly to the ten square blocks surrounding his Toronto apartment. His interests include politics, post-punk, and 80s slasher flicks. He can’t believe he’s thirty.


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