OTTAWA — Canada drew global attention last year — and plenty of weed-seeking tourists — when it became the world’s first advanced economy to legalize cannabis, an election promise by the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Since then, marijuana shops have been popping up across the country, and buying pot will soon be as easy as ordering coffee at Tim Hortons.
But it wasn’t cannabis that was the big theme of the new budget introduced by Ontario Premier Doug Ford. It was beer — cheap, easily available beer.
Ford, a 54-year-year-old businessman from Toronto, is the anti-Trudeau. A right-wing populist with a brash and combative style that has earned him comparisons to Donald Trump, he relishes promoting the little guy and attacking elites. At the moment, for example, he’s waging a war against Trudeau’s federal levy on carbon and its impact on gas prices. The measure is aimed at fighting climate change; Ford calls it “the worst tax ever, bar none.”
The Ontario budget, the first since Ford’s Progressive Conservative Party gained power last June, includes cuts to legal aid, teachers, libraries and tree-planting as part of an effort to reduce the province’s $8.7 billion annual deficit.
But what has captured much of the attention here is its emphasis on improving access to beer and wine.
Ford uses the spending plan to propose a range of alcohol-related reforms: allowing bars to serve alcohol starting at 9 a.m., permitting tailgating at sporting events, and broadening sales of beer and wine to more supermarkets and convenience stores.
Journalists have noted that the words “alcohol” or “beer” appear 46 times in the budget. Teachers rated just 25 mentions.
“You aren’t a baby and the government shouldn’t treat you like one,” the Progressive Conservatives said in a fundraising pitch after the budget was introduced. “Buck-a-beer” was a major theme of Ford’s election campaign last year (reducing the price of beer has since met major resistance from brewers).
While Ford himself is a teetotaler, his family has a more troubled history with alcohol. His late brother Rob, the onetime mayor of Toronto, became notorious for his heavy drinking. When Rob was caught on video smoking crack cocaine in 2013, he eventually explained it was “probably in one of my drunken stupors.”
Beer is a $6.8 billion industry in Canada, the land of Molson and Labatt, and Ontario is its center, with more than 200 breweries. But the province is still living with a long history of strict, religiously inspired alcohol regulation. Retail sales of spirits and most wine remain the purview of a provincially owned monopoly known as the Liquor Control Board. Until the 1970s, consumers walked up to a counter and order their preferred tipple from a list of invisible products, which would then be delivered from storage by the store clerk in a paper bag.
Serving rules were similarly draconian. If you wanted to change tables at a licensed establishment, you couldn’t bring along your beer or wine — the server had to do it for you.
Rules have been liberalized considerably in recent decades, but some anomalies remain. The Beer Store, the unimaginatively named, slightly Stalinist monopoly purveyor of beer in the province, has long operated from locations with all the charm of a cold-storage warehouse.
Doug Ford is anxious to break the back of the beer monopoly by expanding sales in supermarkets and convenience stores, as is the way in neighboring Quebec — but there’s a problem. The Beer Store is owned by three big breweries, who have a contract that guarantees their market until 2025. If the contract is broken, they’ll probably be asking for hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation.
Pollster Nik Nanos says a Ford voter is more likely to be a beer drinker than a consumer of cannabis or wine. Ford isn’t running directly against Trudeau, but Nanos says his populist pitch should make the Liberals worry.
“Ford sees voters as customers and consumers,” Nanos says. “Justin Trudeau sees them as citizens with aspirations” — a much harder sell.
As for promoting cheap and convenient beer, it’s a symbolic issue on which it’s easy to show progress.
“It’s simple, it’s repeatable and it’s achievable compared to complex issues,” Nanos said. “It’s tick-the-box democracy.”