By Taylor MacPherson
The Saskatchewan Government’s plan to privatize liquor sales in the province is drawing criticism from small communities.
On May 24, the Saskatchewan Party kept a campaign promise by introducing Bill 1, legislation intended to remove the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority (SLGA) from the constraints of the Crown Corporations Public Ownership Amendment Act. This would allow for the sale of 40 government-owned liquor stores, and the creation of 12 new private stores.
Thirty-six of the 40 SLGA stores slated for sale are in rural communities, including Maple Creek, Gull Lake, Leader, and Shaunavon.
“This will give Saskatchewan consumers more choice, more convenience, and more competitive pricing,” said Crown Investments Cooperation Minister Don McMorris in a statement on May 24.
Some Saskatchewan residents are not so sure.
“The move will put about 150 people out of work, throw away millions in public revenue, and leave rural people paying more for their liquor,” reads a flier distributed by the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees Union (SGEU).
On May 25, SGEU hosted a come-and-go event at the Royal Canadian Legion in Maple Creek intended to warn the public about the negative impacts of privatization.
The event was hosted by Tina Vuckovic and Bob Stadnichuk, coordinators of SGEU’s “Keep Liquor Public” campaign. In attendance were local business owners, SLGA employees, Councilor Michelle McKenzie, and members of the public.
“At some point,” said Vuckovic, “the province has to say ‘enough is enough’ and start pushing back.”
Under section 8.3(D) of the Saskatchewan Municipalities Act, any municipality may pass a bylaw “to prohibit a business or class of business from operating” or to “limit the number of businesses in a particular class of business that may operate.”
Vuckovic and Stadnichuk are travelling to as many small towns in the province as possible in order to generate grassroots opposition for Bill 1 through the Municipalities Act. They are hoping that if small communities prohibit the opening of private liquor stores, the government will be forced to hold a referrendum vote.
According to Vuckovic, Town Councils in Battleford and Gravelbourg will soon hear proposals by residents hoping to pass the bylaw.
“Personally, I’d like to see the liquor store stay,” Maple Creek Mayor Barry Rudd told the News-Times. “It does make sense to leave the [SLGA] outlet open, because we’re not going to have the choices otherwise.”
“We’re definitely not going to prohibit anyone from operating a business,” Rudd said, but added that careful consideration was needed because the privatization of Maple Creek’s SLGA store could give residents “one more reason to go across the Alberta border to buy.”
Ralph Saemann, owner of local bar and restaurant The Rockin’ Horse, was in attendance at the meeting.
“This is going to affect me personally,” said Saemann, who expects Maple Creek liquor prices to rise dramatically under privatization. “When our [SLGA] store closes, our community is screwed.”
SLGA stores in rural communities are able to take advantage of a large distribution network to keep prices low. Under privatization, Stadnichuk pointed out, distribution costs could drive up prices.
“Compare a litre of milk here to a litre in Regina,” he said. “You know you’re paying more here.”
Vuckovic noted that even if privatization creates more jobs, workers will earn significantly less. SLGA customer service representatives earn between $19.04 and $23.84 per hour, while private stores would be under no obligation to pay above minimum wage.
“It’s no secret, this government is not labour friendly,” Vuckovic said. “They’ve always had a vendetta against unions.”
“I think it’s a good direction to take,” Cypress Hills MLA Doug Steele told the News-Times. “They’re not just going to throw the liquor stores into the wind. They’re doing a good business plan.”
Steele noted his office had not received any letters from constituents opposing the move to privatization, but had met with entrepreneurs wishing to acquire liquor vendor licenses.
When asked whether the government might reconsider their position due to resistance from municipalities, Steele replied, “I doubt it,” but added that the government was still working out the details, and that citizens “can feel comfortable that it’s not something that’s going to happen without a lot of thought behind it.”
According to a fact sheet published by the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission, there are currently 2,066 liquor retailers in the province, compared to just 803 before the province became the first to privatize liquor sales in 1993. In addition, government revenue from liquor sales has risen dramatically, and more products are available for purchase.
Not all of the effects have been positive, however. Edmonton saw alcohol-related charges increase by 164 per cent between 1993 and 1999, while drug-related charges increased by just seven per cent over the same period.
“It doesn’t matter if you belong to a union or not,” said Stadnichuk. “Crown Corporations built this province.
Even if municipalities choose to pass bylaws prohibiting private liquor stores, the province might still move ahead with privatization, according to Stadnichuk.
“We’re not sure how it will play out,” he said. “If we can save one [SLGA] store, we’ve succeeded.”