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Colby Cosh: Alberta's government quietly demolishes a last rampart of prohibition

Cannabis may have been legalized across Canada in 2018, but it took until 2020 for the last vestige of statutory liquor prohibition to be eliminated in Alberta. In 1924 the province voted, as others did at around the same time, to abolish wartime prohibition. But in a small pocket in the south of the province, a region pioneered by Mormons and still numerically dominated by them, the government undertook not to issue permanent liquor licences. It wrote this exemption explicitly into the province’s Liquor Act ( under the heading “Miscellaneous” ), keeping the ban down through the years as other hyperconservative booze regulations gradually vanished from the rest of the Alberta landscape.

There are other officially dry municipalities left in Canada, but most are Aboriginal. Alberta’s dry area encompassed the “Mormon towns” of Magrath, Raymond and Cardston, Canada’s Latter-Day Saint capital. LDS exceptionalism remains strong in that part of the world, and as recently as 2014, Cardston held a non-binding plebiscite to see if the townsfolk wished to legalize alcohol sales. The vote ran 1,089 to 247 in favour of keeping the dry status quo.

Last month, amid a batch of new legislation, Alberta’s Conservative government passed its modernizing Bill 2, which updates the province’s liquor law. The most attention-getting parts of the bill gave broader latitude to liquor consumption in parks (sorry, Ontario) and explicitly legalized the inclusion of liquor in raffle prizes, which had been a grey area in the law.

The various towns seem to have been taken slightly by surprise

Bill 2, however, also strikes out the uncategorical abolition of liquor licences in the Cardston-Raymond zone. The various towns there, which seem to have been taken slightly by surprise , are studying their options. Under the old law, Alberta’s liquor board was not allowed to even accept an application for a licence in a municipality where none had existed before. A village or town outside the “Prohibition area” could only lose its virginity, so to speak, after organizing a formal plebiscite. The new law streamlines things by simply allowing local councils to make their own decisions and to advise the provincial board directly, without the necessity of a vote.

Bill 2 must be about the least controversial thing the UCP government has done this session. All of the principles of the bill were endorsed by the NDP opposition in committee debate, and New Democrat MLAs told dreamy anecdotes about living in enlightened places like Montreal and Germany. No doubt the town councils in Alberta’s Mormon block will hold the line on booze and keep it out of their communities as best they can, but after a century it is no longer excluded by a statute that would have to be rewritten in Edmonton. It’s strictly up to them now.

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