Bill to remove provincial barriers on wine gaining traction in Parliament

MP Dan Albas's private member's bill receives unanimous approval from Standing Committee on Finance

Employee Luke Whittall pours a sampling of meritage wine at the VQA wine shop at the information centre recently.  A private members bill by local MP Dan Albas to change the current laws regarding wine sales across provincial borders appears on its way to being passed by parliament.

Employee Luke Whittall pours a sampling of meritage wine at the VQA wine shop at the information centre recently. A private members bill by local MP Dan Albas to change the current laws regarding wine sales across provincial borders appears on its way to being passed by parliament.

You can practically hear the smile on Dan Albas’s face in Ottawa as he talks about the progress of Bill C-311, his private member’s bill to modify Canada’s archaic laws on shipping wine across provincial borders.

The bill has just passed through committee, and the rookie MP for Okanagan Coquihalla is eagerly awaiting the next step, when finance committee chair James Rajotte recommends the bill to Parliament.

“We had a really excellent panel for the last two sessions. A couple of people from B.C. were there, like Mark Hicken who owns winelaw.ca, he’s an expert in wine law and constitutional law. Harry McWaters from Summerland was there to give his testimony,” said Albas. “There was a lot of industry support for the bill. Not only do we have an all-party consensus forming, but industry is firmly backing Bill C-311.”

Wednesday, the Standing Committee on Finance voted unanimously to approve the bill and send it back to the House of Commons for third reading, which Albas hopes will take place in about 30 days.

“Bill C-311 and ending wine prohibition in Canada has cleared another parliamentary hurdle and is that much close to ending over 80 years of wine prohibition in Canada,” said Albas, whose bill seeks to change a 1928 law that makes it a crime to ship wine across provincial borders, other than by provincial liquor control boards. The fight to change the prohibition-era policy has gained ground in recent years, especially in B.C. with its rapidly growing wine industry.

“I think the law itself is archaic, I don’t think it should be a criminal offence to carry wine home after you have been on holidays,” said Bob Ferguson, co-owner and wine maker at Kettle Valley Winery, a small family winery that has been operating on the Naramata Bench for 20 years. “We’ve been talking about it for a long time, and it seems to be making some progress as it goes through committee. We are hopeful it is going to proceed.”

Though Bill C-311 is enjoying strong support, it isn’t passing through Parliament without opposition. The reviewing committee also hear from the Canadian Association of Liquor Jurisdictions, who are concerned that removing provincial barriers will hurt their revenues, some of which are used to help fund provincial health care and education.

“It was very clear that this is not something that is supported by liquor control boards, with the exception of B.C.,” said Albas, adding that the bill takes into account provincial jurisdictions. “The bill was written that if any particular province would like to see restrictions as to quantities, they are in their rights to do that. This bill actually clarifies that this is a provincial matter by removing the federal government from the way, and overall, I think that will help the industry.”

Ferguson understands the concerns that have been raised by the liquor boards about the effect on taxation, but doesn’t think it will amount to much lost revenue for the various provinces. The larger wineries, he said, already sell through the liquor boards; the changes would mostly help the smaller wineries, without enough production to take advantage of that system.

“It probably would only amount to a hundred cases a year for us. I don’t know if it would even amount to that. But it would be nice for people who come here, enjoy the Okanagan and enjoy the wines, not to be criminals to take the wine back home with them,” said Ferguson.

Albas takes it a step further, estimating there will actually be an increase in provincial revenues due to both PST and GST, and more economic activity like shipping, marketing and sales.

“It just won’t be collected by the liquor distribution board, and that, of course, creates an issue for them,” said Albas.

Having a private member’s bill receiving such wide support is an accomplishment for the rookie MP and former Penticton city councillor, who was elected to Parliament in 2011. He started working on introducing the bill last July after getting a lot of feedback about the problem during his “summer listening tour.”

“In the Okanagan Valley, we have well over a hundred wineries, the majority of them being small family wineries that may not have the production to sell through the liquor distribution boards. They live on the direct sales through their winery. This would allow that to happen,” said Albas. “We all want to see jobs, we all want to see economic activity. Canadians love their wine, consumers want to see more choice, so this bill is clearly a win-win for everyone.”