B.C.’s prohibition hangover

Rio Theatre’s struggle points out liquor regulations may be out of date.

By Brendan Tyndall

The Rio Theatre may have survived to show films again, but what seems like a victory for the little guy against the province’s heavy-handed control of liquor laws reveals that our government is still woefully behind the times.

In January, after successfully applying for a liquor primary licence, Rio owner and operator Corrine Lea was told by the provincial government that her business must stop showing movies, despite the fact that Lea had no intention on serving alcohol during movies.

A sassy sign shows at the Rio marquee to highlight the confusion surrounding their licensing process. (BrendanTyndall/The Runner)

“We were aware of this law going into the process and we never expected to be able to serve alcohol during movies, but we certainly didn’t think they would ban us from showing movies at all that came as a huge shock,” says Lea.

After a well-publicized battle with the provincial government, the Rio narrowly avoided being shut down after Minister of Energy and Mines Rich Coleman announced on Feb. 9 that the government would make it possible for venues to screen films and pay-per-view events outside the hours outlined by their liquor licence.

The Rio’s victory was bittersweet, however, as the Rio is still not allowed to show movies when their liquor licence is valid, which means movies can only be shown in the day, and only on days when there are no other events scheduled at the multipurpose venue.

The strict control over liquor by the provincial government in B.C. dates back to the 1920s. After a failed attempt at imposing prohibition, the government decided it would be easier to allow the sale of liquor under its own control, a mindset that still resonates in many of the province’s liquor laws.

Today, all matters related to alcohol in B.C. are controlled by two agencies: the Liquor Distribution Branch and the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch.
It is the L.D.B. that is responsible for our province’s notoriously high liquor prices.

The Rio on Broadway Street in Vancouver is now licensed to serve alcohol. (Jeff Groat/The Runner)

The L.D.B. marks up wine 123 per cent, and spirits 170 per cent, which puts B.C.‘s prices to among the highest in the country, let alone North America.

Foreigners are often shocked when they come to Canada and end up paying three to four times more for alcohol than they would in their own country.

While there are private liquor stores in B.C., they are forced to buy their product from the L.D.B., which results in even higher prices than the government stores.
If the higher-than-average pricing of alcohol in B.C. weren’t enough, Canada’s federal liquor laws aren’t friendly either.

For instance, it is illegal to transport liquor between provinces in Canada.

You can legally bring back a small amount of wine, liquor or beer from another country if you have been gone for two days, but forget about bringing back a souvenir from your vacation in the Niagara wine country.

The most perplexing of our laws states that no alcohol is to be sold in grocery stores or corner stores, something that is commonplace across Europe and the United States. As if alcohol were slightly easier for people to access, we would all turn into hopeless alcoholics.

While these laws may seem crazy, for the majority of us they just make it harder and more expensive to buy booze.

For Lea and the Rio, the laws hit closer to home.

“We’re losing about $2,000 a day, the total by the end of this week will be $20,000 the province has cost an independent theatre that’s not having a lot of extra money”, said Lea, while the Rio remained closed awaiting on the provincial government to hear her case.

The Rio’s struggle has revealed that its time for these antiquated laws to be revised. For instance, the idea that liquor licenses are being decided on by the minister of energy and mines.