Is Ontario finally ready to be logical about alcohol?

OPINION: Fifty years ago, the province made big moves on alcohol consumption and regulation. It’s well past time that happened again
By Matt Gurney - Published on Jul 30, 2021
In Ontario, restaurants are now permitted to deliver alcohol to customers ordering takeout or delivery meals. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

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Most years, when we aren’t in the middle of a pandemic, the summer is a really slow time in my line of work. Everything throttles back a bit, and columnists have to reach a bit deeper into their notebook. But something usually comes up that inspires you to write, and this week was no different: I had a laugh reading an article on TVO.org by Jamie Bradburn that explores the liberalization of alcohol laws in Ontario 50 years ago. I won’t recap the article at length. Read it for yourself. But in 1971, among a series of other age-of-majority reforms, Ontario lowered the legal drinking age to 18, from 21. Years later, it raised it again, back to 19, where it has remained.

I’m 38, which makes a conveniently round number for the purposes of illustrating my next point: someone born the year I became legally eligible to drink in Ontario is now likely to be legally eligible to drink in Ontario (sorry, latter-half-of-year birthdays). I mention my age here only to make the point that the proper place to put the legal drinking age is, for me, an entirely academic concern. I’m decades beyond it, and my kids are still a decade away, absent some massive downward revision of the age, of course. There are lots of good arguments to be made for easing teenagers into adulthood, including the fact that the science is clear that decision-making is something the brain improves at in your early 20s; the teenage brain does not excel at risk assessment and decision-making, because it’s simply still developing those skills. On that basis, you could argue the age for drinking — or voting or driving or buying a gun or buying fireworks or joining the military — should be higher than it is. 

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The best counter-argument, of course, is lived experience. How many of you reading this actually waited until the legal drinking age (whatever it was when and where you grew up) to have your first drink? I remember my first legal drink in a bar. It was not my first drink at that very same bar. Whatever the optimal age might be in theory, we don’t live in theory. And the legal regime should recognize that and not deny human nature. Personally, though I don’t have strong feelings, I’d probably lower it back to 18, but, hey. Mileage will vary. 

Bradburn’s article is a fun historical read for those who enjoy such things (as I very much do), but it has some relevance to us here in the bizarre year of 2021. As terrible as the pandemic has been, it has brought some good things. In my hometown of Toronto, we have expanded the street space open to patios to recognize the challenges restaurants faced staying solvent without indoor dining. Looking around at where this has been done, it’s just better. It shouldn’t have taken us this long to figure it out, and obviously we can improve on the aesthetics of the temporary road barriers, but the street redesigns and expanded patios instantly improved the city. Ditto the decision, which will apparently be permanent, to allow restaurants to deliver alcohol to customers ordering takeout or delivery meals. These are small things in a big city and province, but they are smart things, easy things, and overdue things. 

One outstanding issue, of course, is drinking in public. Toronto epically beclowned itself earlier this year when an effort by some city councillors to permit modest alcohol consumption in a park failed to get through council. After weeks of warranted mockery, Toronto said that it would essentially turn a blind eye to modest public drinking. It’s still illegal. But the bylaw enforcement officers will, you know, just ... pretend not to notice. 

The funniest part of that sad moment of civic “leadership” was that that actually counted as progress.

I’m a white dude in a wealthy neighbourhood. I have no particular concerns cracking a beer or two at the local park. I’ve done so a few times this summer. The world failed to end. The SWAT team did not descend. When I had to pee, I went home, and I brought my empties with me, like a civilized human. Most of us are civilized humans. Those that behave badly can be addressed through means more targeted and appropriate than a blanket ban that is observed only in the breach. (Ever wonder why so many young people drink out of dark-green plastic ginger-ale bottles in the park, folks? Ever actually take a whiff of what’s in some of those water bottles?)

There’s a story I tell for laughs but that contains a sorry truth about Ontario. In the before times, an American friend was in town for a few weeks for work. I met her at her hotel, and we decided to get a late bite and a drink. She didn’t know the area at all, and I said we’d have to walk a few blocks to get anywhere worth sitting down in. She was fine with that but also said, if I’d prefer, we could just go to that convenience store over there (she pointed a few hundred feet down the road) and then sit down in that park across the road and have a beer and a wine cooler.

And my Ontario brain short-circuited, and I had to figure out how to explain to her that her modest proposal was doubly illegal — the convenience store could sell us cigarettes, fireworks, and hard-core pornography, but not a wine cooler. And we couldn’t legally drink a wine cooler, should one somehow materialize by magic, in that park or any other in this supposedly world-class city.

She was ... surprised.

These problems exist elsewhere; I once sat bewildered through an explanation of Philadelphia’s bizarre liquor laws by a long-suffering bartender just a few blocks from the Liberty Bell (the irony did not go unnoticed). But we can do better here — much better. Fifty years ago, Ontario made some big moves toward a more liberal, logical attitude toward alcohol consumption and regulation. Five decades and one devastating global public-health emergency later, maybe we’re ready for another.

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