Bill C-311 and wine shipping across Canada: what it does (and doesn’t do)

Yesterday evening, the House of Commons unanimously voted in favor of Bill C-311, a private member’s bill presented to the house by Dan Albas, Member of Parliament for Okanagan-Coquihalla, a riding located at the heart of British Columbia’s wine country. The bill, which seeks to make it legal for individuals to “import” wines from one province into another, was greeted with enthusiasm by people in the Canadian wine industry, from Coast to Coast, and by Canadian wine lovers everywhere.

Very specifically, the bill makes legal:

the importation of wine from a province by an individual, if the individual brings the wine or causes it to be brought into another province, in quantities and as permitted by the laws of the latter province, for his or her personal consumption, and not for resale or other commercial use.

In other words, it corrects a rather absurd situation caused by the post-Prohibition legal framework that surrounds everything regarding the sale of beer, wine and spirits in Canada. Specifically, it was illegal, through the 1928 law that Bill C-311 amends, for anyone to carry a bottle of wine across provincial boundaries. If you’re from Québec and you visit a vineyard in BC or Ontario or Nova Scotia, it is illegal for you to bring a bottle back home. It is also illegal for a winery to send you bottles back to your home in another province. (By the way, that will remain so until the bill goes through the Senate and then receives Royal Assent, something which should not be an issue, but will take a few weeks yet.)

Without any border patrols between provinces, the law was, of course, impossible to enforce, at least for personal purchases brought back by travelers. In that context, when Bill C-311 becomes law, legislation will simply be in line with reality. And for Canadian wineries, this opens up the possibility of developing a pan-Canadian clientele, something very useful in particular for smaller wineries for whom getting wines to other provinces’ monopolies can be quite difficult, because of the time and effort required and the volumes of wine produced, notably.

The focus of the bill is limited, and that was a smart thing within the complicated rules and regulations, both provincial, federal and international that govern the commerce of alcoholic beverages. For instance, by not restricting the possibilities to 100% Canadian wine, it avoids challenges through NAFTA or the World Trade Organization about preferential treatment given to the national industry, which would open a whole different can of worms. People might like wider-reaching measures (beyond just wine, for instance), but for immediate results, this was a good solution.

Also, by limiting its effects to personal consumption, it only moderately affects the control of provincial monopolies like the LCBO or the SAQ on sales of wine and spirits. A restaurant can’t start ordering its wine from out of province, and a BC winery can’t set up shop in Ontario and sell its own wine privately. But if you really loved that pinot gris from the Okanagan that you tasted on your last trip and you want to get a few bottles, you should be able to get them.

Key word here is “should”. The game’s not fully played yet.

As the bill states, individuals will be able to get wine to their home province “in quantities and as permitted by the laws of the latter province”. And that’s where the next step of the battle to “Free My Grapes”, as this crusade has become known, will play out.

Monopolies could restrict the shipping of wine from outside of their province in various ways. They could ask anyone who wants to ship to register with them. They could ask wineries to collect that province’s taxes and markup on the bottles, so that there is no loss of revenue or “unfair” advantage to sellers from outside the province. If they make it complicated and bureaucratic, then Bill C-311 could be a very limited victory for the Canadian wine industry. The story, at this point, is still to be continued.

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