Dry or wet? Byzantine liquor laws persist in pockets of rural N.S.
A liquor store is seen in Toronto, on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2005. (The Canadian Press/Aaron Harris)
HALIFAX -- Earlier this week, a plebiscite in a rural corner of Nova Scotia laid bare the province's particularly bizarre relationship with alcohol.
Nova Scotia may have a reputation for rum-running and hard drinking, but its rules around liquor sales reflect an unusually uptight attitude firmly rooted in the Prohibition era.
Residents of two small districts inside the municipality of West Hants voted Tuesday to allow the sale and production of liquor, eliminating the community's dry status -- an unusual ritual that has taken place across the province for many decades.
Of the 297 people who voted in the community northwest of Halifax, 91 per cent said yes to going wet, according to results released Wednesday.
Nova Scotia is the only province that restricts where liquor can be sold or produced through provincial legislation. Other provinces have long relied on municipal zoning or bylaws to impose restrictions.
As a result, Nova Scotia has a haphazard smattering of 105 dry communities, most of them rural and unaware of their status. Many are so small they wouldn't have enough people to support a drinking establishment or liquor store.
John MacDonald, executive director of the alcohol, gaming, fuel and tobacco division of Service Nova Scotia, said the system is confusing and arcane.
"We're different in this area," he said. "A lot of this goes back to Prohibition and what happened after Prohibition ... But as of today, we're the only province that operates in this manner."
Incredibly, the province doesn't have a list of communities that are considered dry. An old map in a government office in Halifax is supposed to show which ones are still locked in Prohibition, but the names are so faded that the document is of little use.
"It's got to be at least 30 or 40 years old," MacDonald said with a chuckle. "You can't see the electoral boundaries on it."
When an application is made for a rural liquor licence, research is often required to determine if the area is still dry because the electoral boundaries have been redrawn many times over the years.
To make matters more confusing, there's a different list of officially dry communities when it comes to the operation of liquor stores, which is overseen by the Nova Scotia Liquor Commission.
However, if a restaurant wants to serve alcohol in a dry area, it can seek approval through a public hearing.
In 2015, the province mused about declaring the entire province a wet zone.
"The system of restricting the permissible locations of licenses and stores in Nova Scotia is outdated and offside with how the issue is handled in other provinces," a government spokeswoman said at the time. "The plebiscite process is costly and time-consuming and an impediment to the growth of business."
But that bid to modernize fizzled.
MacDonald said his government department has other priorities to attend to, noting that applications from dry zones surface only once or twice a year.
Since taverns were first legalized in Nova Scotia in 1948, 280 plebiscites have been held by the province's alcohol and gaming division. Over the past 20 years, every vote has endorsed leaving Prohibition behind.
In West Hants, the plebiscite this week was held because a local resident has plans to establish a winery, where he intends to sell the final product.
"There are parts of West Hants that are still dry, and they're not in alignment with municipal boundaries," said Rhonda Brown, the area's municipal clerk. "They've changed over time ... We're not the only municipality in this situation."