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Nova Scotia convenience-store owners push for liquor sales

Darrell Johnson leaves with a case of Alexander Keith's beer at the Nova Scotia Liquor Commission store on Agricola street in Halifax, NS, November 23, 2010.

Paul Darrow for The Globe and Mail/paul darrow The Globe and Mail

Mike Hammoud owns a convenience store in Dartmouth, and in addition to selling the usual items like pop and chips, he now wants to sell beer and wine.

In fact, as the president of the Atlantic Convenience Stores Association, which has 2,000 members across the four Atlantic provinces and 3,400 stores, Mr. Hammoud wants to see all corner stores selling the alcoholic products.

That change in policy, he notes, would be "huge for us."

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"Our business is fully dependent on foot traffic," he said.

But it's not going to be easy trying to change the status quo, as the provincial government is refusing to budge. Regardless, Mr. Hammoud is pressing – and is hoping to make this an election issue as speculation is rampant the NDP government will drop the writ either this week or next.

This issue isn't specific to Nova Scotia, nor is it new. Last month, Mr. Hammoud's association released a survey showing 68 per cent of New Brunswick adults favoured corner stores selling alcohol. Ontario convenience store owners have been clamouring for years to be allowed to sell beer and wine just like their colleagues in Quebec and Alberta. Ontario came tantalizing close in the 1980s to making the change with a promise from former Liberal premier David Peterson. It never happened, but convenience store owners have continued to push for change.

In June, Mac's Convenience Stores chain in Ontario said 1,600 full-time jobs would be created in its 547 stores if the change in policy was made. A study by the Ontario Convenience Stores Association argued that the government would take in more revenue from this move.

Nova Scotia's 1,135 convenience stores have a champion in Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie, who argues it's time to "bring Nova Scotia into the 21st century and this is one step that does it."

In the spring, he released a discussion paper, asking citizens what they thought about changing the law. Two thirds of the respondents favoured change. Opponents worry that youth access to alcohol will be made easier.

Mr. Baillie believes the change would give consumers more choice, make the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation, which has a monopoly, more efficient and protect jobs in these small businesses. In turn, government would get more money in sales and income taxes and a premium could be put on the wine and beer for the extra convenience.

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"The experience in other provinces and states where they've opened up the sale of beer and wine in our small businesses … has saved jobs that were otherwise at risk, created new jobs and returned more money to the government," he said in an interview Sunday, "and that to me makes sense."

Not to Nova Scotia Finance Minister Maureen MacDonald. Neither she nor her government think this is the way to go – and she's suspicious of Mr. Baillie's motives.

"It's good politics, but not good policy," she told The Globe. "He's not raising this necessarily because this is some big political election issue. He's the leader of the third party who has to get into the news."

Ms. MacDonald said the NSLC earned $1-billion over the past 10 years and that money has been used in other areas, such as health care. "That is not chump change," she said, noting this year they are on target to earn $231-million.

Changing the model, she said, could reduce that by 10 or 15 per cent, which would be a huge hit to the province. The issue has been studied by previous governments, she said, and "they found there was no upside."

But for store owner Mr. Hammoud, whose family has been in the corner store business for more than 40 years, "we need to have customers in the front door and this gives us the ability to have another product that would give us that opportunity."

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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