Complete: It has taken decades, but Manitoba is slowly crawling toward modern liquor laws. And the province is going to binge on a whole new slew of them, as it prepares to shake up the way booze is regulated.
The Liquor Control Act is on the way out. The impending merger of the Manitoba Liquor Control Commission and the Manitoba Lotteries Corporation, announced as part the 2012 provincial budget, has created a window of opportunity to update the rules that govern booze.
By 2014, the province expects to have a new liquor-and-lotteries act in place that will eliminate some of the complaints about the current set of rules.
Owners of restaurants, clubs and hotels complain of a mess of confusing and contradictory regulations that make it difficult to simultaneously sell alcohol, make money and obey the law. Inspectors are forced to enforce the letter of a Liquor Control Act they privately describe as inflexible and out of step with the times.
And ordinary Manitobans who travel to other North American jurisdictions return home wondering why Manitoba doesn’t have the small clubs that liven up downtowns and pedestrian corridors in similarly sized cities.
"We’re taking an old, anachronistic act from the ’50s and trying to move it into the modern age," said NDP cabinet member Dave Chomiak, the minister charged with administering the gaming act and one of three MLAs overseeing the creation of a new Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries Corporation as well as a separate booze-and-gaming regulatory agency.
The new act is a bit of a Frankenstein monster. While provincial gambling legislation dates back to the 1990s, Manitoba’s liquor legislation has its roots in the 1950s, the last time the province conducted a complete overhaul of alcohol regulation.
At the time, Manitoba was saddled with a set of regulations aimed at confining the consumption of liquor to places few people would actually want to drink. The reforms of the 1950s, which included innovations such as Sunday drinking on golf courses, came out of a review led by John Bracken, a pragmatic populist who spent 21 years as Manitoba’s premier and another four as leader of the federal Progressive Conservative party.
The new review, underway since 2012, should result in a radical streamlining of Manitoba’s liquor-licensing regime, Chomiak promised.
"The licences are going to be simplified. The licences are going to be more flexible and the vast majority of people who are involved in the (hospitality) industry are going to be very pleased," he said.
Right now, licence holders are not overly pleased. There are 12 different liquor-licence categories in the province, each with its own set of rules and annoyances.
For example, hotels may obtain a licence to sell alcohol in a "beverage room," but only if they also have a liquor licence for a "dining room," which must remain open when the beverage room is open. As well, hotels can only obtain a beverage-room licence if liquor authorities grant something called a hotel certificate, an official stamp of approval the Manitoba Hotel Association dislikes because it may apply to businesses that actually function as long-term rental-apartment blocks, as opposed to actual hotels where tourists and business travellers stay for a short period of time.
While many bar owners are ready to raise a glass to celebrate the changes, some in the Brandon area are nervous about how far the government is going to go with these changes.
David Carriere, general manager of the Keystone Motor Inn and member of the Westman Accommodations Group, said a major shakeup to the province’s supposedly antiquated liquor laws isn’t necessary.
"They’re old and antiquated in some way ... but they’ve been edited continually," he said. "So, saying all of the rules are antiquated isn’t really the truth."
The government has remained quiet about how far the changes will go since initial public consultations in September, and Carriere is leery of the government oversimplifying the rules, and wants to see significant input from licence holders before anything is set in stone.
"I’d like to see what they are planning first and then have a chance to review it," he said. "The act is huge, it’s very long, there’s a lot there, and I would hope when they come forward with a draft, that the government would sit down with all the interested parties and speak about the changes before they enact them."
"You’re going to create more problems by making this one show fit all and I’m really nervous about where they think they can go."
Here are a few more regulations for the sale of liquor:
• Restaurants, meanwhile, may also obtain a dining-room licence, but must ensure alcohol sales do not exceed 60 per cent of the gross revenue. Restaurants may also obtain a "cocktail lounge" licence where customers do not have to purchase food, but the combined restaurant-lounge must still maintain the 40-60 food-to-alcohol ratio.
•There’s also a cabaret licence, which does not demand any food sales but does require licence holders to exhibit two hours of live entertainment every day. That entertainment must be visible from every room in the venue and must not involve recorded music.
•As a result of these regulations, hotels that rent out space to pizza parlours in an effort to fulfil the dining-room requirement of their beverage-room licence have been hit with violations when the sole dining-room employee goes out to deliver a pizza.
Heidi Howarth, owner of Trails West Inn and The 40 echoed Carriere’s thoughts, and said although there are one or two nuisances within existing regulation, there isn’t a need for a complete re-build.
She also said she’s had no contact with the government about where these major changes are going to go.
"We don’t know what they’re going to be doing," she said.
The province has also charted new waters with a recent change to include brewpubs, but the inclusion still needs some work, according to Grant Hamilton, one of the main proponents behind bringing a co-operative brewpub to Brandon.
Hamilton said the current law states there must be one name on a liquor licence —which is problematic for a co-op with no shareholder owning more than 10 per cent of the business.
"No one has a controlling interest, so the only option left is to have our brewmaster put on the liquor licence," he said, which is not ideal because it gives too much power to one person, defeating the idea of a co-op.
He would like to have the name of the co-operation — in this case, the Brewtinerie — on the licence, not an individual’s name.
Although co-op brewpubs account for a very small amount of watering holes in the province, Hamilton said "they’re not unheard of," and any changes to the law should reflect the needs of those bars.
The law also makes no mention of "growlers," 1,900-ml resealable jugs which are synonymous with brewpubs, something Hamilton would like to see changed because patrons would expect to see them on the menu.
"I don’t see the difference between taking a bottle of wine home that you bought at a restaurant and taking home a bottle of beer that you bought at a brewpub," he said.
But Chomiak said Manitoba isn’t moving toward a free-for-all.
For example, the new liquor-and-lotteries act will still require restaurants to maintain some form of food-to-alcohol sales ratio.
There’s a social benefit to serving meals with booze, he said. And more politically, the province isn’t prepared to undermine entrepreneurs who have invested heavily in restaurant-lounge concepts such as Earls, Moxies and The Keg, which have proven extremely successful in recent years.
"We’re not going to step all over people who’ve invested in infrastructure," said Chomiak, referring to independently owned restaurants as well as the chains.
Hotel, restaurant and club owners are also united in their desire to see liquor inspectors ease up on the enforcement of minor infractions such as improper paperwork. That sort of cultural change is coming as part of the creation of a new regulatory agency, Chomiak said.
Inspectors will be expected to ease up on red tape but get tougher on venues that serve minors or over serve adults, he said. Ending the "black-letter-law approach" to liquor enforcement will place it line with the current regulation of gaming, he added.
"What we’re asking is how do we enhance consumer choice and options and balance that with a modern risk approach to responsibility?"
Manitobans should find out whether the province is successful at achieving such a balance by this time next year.