Liquor laws long overdue, say critics

Yukon's new liquor laws come into effect April 1. The new Liquor Act and its regulations will, most notably, overturn Yukon's antiquated requirement that a bar be attached to a hotel. This red tape has prevented new bars

Yukon’s new liquor laws come into effect April 1.

The new Liquor Act and its regulations will, most notably, overturn Yukon’s antiquated requirement that a bar be attached to a hotel. This red tape has prevented new bars from opening.

As well, restaurant goers will be able to order a drink without a meal. And those who commit alcohol-related offences will face stiffer fines.

But it’s hard to elicit much more than a grumble from any businessman on the subject.

The territorial government promised to make these changes one year ago. Both existing bar owners and businessmen who plan to enter the market are still sore from missing out on a summer of serving hordes of thirsty tourists.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Chris Schneider, owner of Earle’s.

His restaurant, which opened last spring, includes a lounge. But, because he can’t serve drinks without a meal, he hasn’t been able to run the place as planned.

“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” he said.

Bernie Phillips, owner of the Historical Guest House Bed and Breakfast, had plans to open up a cozy neighbourhood pub on Wood Street one year ago.

He went as far as building a new wheelchair entrance to his building last summer, expecting the new laws would soon come into force.

It didn’t happen.

After missing one summer’s worth of business, he’s now reconsidering his plans.

“I’m not sure if we’re going to go ahead with it,” he said.

He’s also worried whether he’d be eligible to receive a liquor permit. Whitehorse applicants should have $250,000 worth of capital in their business, according to a new guideline.

The log cabin owned by Phillips isn’t worth that much, according to his last property assessment.

Applicants in the rest of the territory are expected to have $100,000 put in their business.

The capital investment guideline is not a firm rule, said Virginia LaBelle, vice-president of the Yukon Liquor Corporation.

It’s just one of several measures the corporation will use to determine if an applicant would be a “reputable owner,” she said.

Such decisions are free of political interference because the liquor corporation is arm’s-length from government, she said.

Phillips isn’t so sure. He sees the capital investment guidelines as “another way to protect the investment of people who have put large amounts of money in their bars.”

Allegations of political patronage have hung over the Yukon Party’s handling of the liquor laws. A couple of its cabinet ministers, past and present, have owned hotels and bars.

One, Peter Jenkins, has since left office. The other, Archie Lang, sold his three hotels in Watson Lake last year.

As well, Craig Tuton, the Yukon Party’s campaign manager, currently owns the Casa Loma Hotel and bar.

Phillips tried phoning Premier Dennis Fentie and Brad Cathers, minister responsible for the liquor corporation.

Neither would talk to him, he said.

“Do I want to deal with these people? It’s left a bad taste in my mouth.”

The capital guidelines were likely added so that the government would have something to show after holding its last round of consultations, said Don Inverarity, the Liberals’ liquor critic.

“It’s just to save face,” he said.

The Liberals introduced new liquor laws in 2001, but they lost power to the Yukon Party before they could pass the legislation.

While the territory prepares to allow booze to flow more freely, the government still isn’t doing enough to mend the damage caused by alcohol abuse, said the NDP’s Steve Cardiff.

Heavy-drinking Yukoners consume more alcohol per capita than Canadians in any other jurisdiction.

The territory collected $9.7 million in alcohol sales revenue in 2008.

That money should be spent on education campaigns and rehabilitation programs aimed at curbing alcoholism, said Cardiff.

“We need to get at the root cause,” he said.

The new laws toughen penalties for liquor-related offences.

Establishments that serve intoxicated customers face fines up to $500, up from $100. Bars that serve minors will face a $200 fine, up from $50.

First-time bootleggers face a maximum penalty of $25,000 or 12 months in prison, up from $1,000 or six months imprisonment.

And police may hold drunks in custody for 24 hours, up from 12 hours.

Contact John Thompson at johnt@yukon-news.com.

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