It’s a brand new year and Ontario’s alcohol legislation is still fucked up. On March 16th 2015, Andre Marin, the Ontario provincial ombudsman at the time, tweeted: “Ontario’s liquor laws [are] the most regressive in the world. Seriously. They date from prohibition era.”
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One might say a lot has changed since then. Not a month later, the provincial government announced some major changes to alcohol legislation, the most publicized of which was that alcohol sales would be permitted in grocery stores. But with licensed grocery stores few and far between and being required to purchase their beer from the LCBO, match their price, and sell in formats no larger than a six-pack, this development has had no tangible effect on my life.
Hidden in that announcement was another detail which was, at the time, barely mentioned: the province would require The Beer Store to appoint a “beer ombudsman”, someone charged with “mediating unresolved operational disputes between the Beer Store and its customers or its listed brewers, and promoting fairness and transparency in the Beer Store’s operations.” Now, over a year and a half later, they’ve made the appointment. The search, lasting 20 long months, has ended on the person of Charles Dougall, announced in December as Ontario’s first beer ombudsman.
The creation of this position has had its share of detractors, including provincial ombudsman at the time Andre Martin who, despite his pro-alcohol reform stance exactly one month earlier, tweeted “A ‘Beer Store Ombudsman’? Seriously?” in response to the announcement, shortly before the end of his term and hopefully the end of the office’s overuse of the word “seriously”.
But most of the response has been positive. The purpose of the appointment is to introduce some oversight into The Beer Store’s monopoly on private beer sales in Ontario and The Beer Store is footing the bill, so I can get behind this one.
Prior to his appointment as Ontario’s first beer ombudsman, Charles Dougall spend 15 years at Scotiabank, the last 9 of them as the bank’s ombudsman, fielding customer complaints that could not be easily resolved. At The Beer Store, Dougall will have his work cut out for him as Ontario’s craft brewers flood his office with complaints about the many blatant and subtle ways The Beer Store skews the playing field in favour of its owner brewers.
This really should have happened a lot sooner, as the only reason we ended up in the mess was because The Beer Store in its original form was a good idea. It started out a century ago as a cooperative, collectively owned by every brewery in Ontario, but there was no system in place to keep it that way. Breweries founded after The Beer Store did not receive an ownership share and when brewers were purchased by competitors outside of Ontario, the ownership shares went with them.
After enough mergers, acquisitions and closures, all those ownership shares have ended up outside of Ontario, in the hands of AB-InBev of Belgium, Molson-Coors of America and Sapporo of Japan. A corporation designed to protect Ontario brewers is now actively in competition with them and, until now, the Ontario government had no problem with that.
The beer ombudsman position is the province’s first tiny acknowledgement in action that this may not be exactly fair. The Beer Store still gets to keep its monopoly on the private third-party sale and distribution of beer in Ontario, but at least now there is someone whose job it is to recognize their anti-competitive business practices and report them to the government. Whether Charles Dougall actually does that job, and whether the government bothers to listen, is yet to be determined.