Chris Selley: Quebec union’s mind-boggling use of racism to attack Alberta’s …

The Confédération des syndicats nationaux, the union that represents (among many others) employees at the SAQ — Quebec’s provincially run liquor concern — is busy beating back the threat of more competition in the alcohol market. That threat doesn’t seem to be acute: The provincial federation of chambers of commerce is asking for it; Premier Philippe Couillard hasn’t dismissed the idea out of hand. But unions aren’t known for proportional response. So the CSN Vimeo page now features a 14-minute propaganda infomercial exposing the supposed horrors of private liquor retail in Alberta.

It features all the usual dreary non-arguments: The current system makes lots of money; privatization can result in higher prices; it can result in different prices in different retail environments; and when you walk into Big Hairy Joe’s Booze Barn, you might not find a credentialled sommelier ready to hand with pairing suggestions.

To this, however, the CSN has added a twist — or rather, a French-speaking purported man-on-the-street Albertan has added it. He complains that it’s impossible to get good wine advice because often the only person to ask is “an Indian, a Pakistani, who doesn’t know wine and doesn’t even drink wine.”

It’s one thing if a random wacko is hurling racist invective at a woman on the street, or at a candidate for office. That’s what wackos do. What we have here is a deliberate, calculated, easily avoided failure not to be racist … by a labour union. Someone at an editing desk actually chose to use that footage. The mind boggles.

Admittedly, organized labour in Quebec is a bit of a different animal. The CSN didn’t endorse the Parti Québécois’ ghastly proposed “values charter” during the election campaign, but the Syndicat de la fonction publique et parapublique, which represents 42,000 Quebec civil servants, did. That would be unthinkable outside of Quebec; as would the CSN’s video. What is a union good for if it’s not going to stand up against discrimination?

Political correctness can go too far. It is not even close to too far to expect that in 2014, ostensibly respectable organizations would not release advertisements singling people out by nationality for providing bad service. Quebec: You got work to do.

If there’s a bright side here, it’s to do with a far less important issue. But it’s always good news when the protectors of an untenable status quo jump the shark. During Ontario’s provincial election campaign, earlier this year, The Beer Store — the province’s bizarre foreign-owned quasi-beer monopoly — was widely mocked for an advertisement in which baby-faced youngsters skipped away from a (fictional) convenience store with fatal doses of booze and a jovial “have fun tonight, boys,” from the clerk. Thanks in part to that, allowing competition in the beer market, at least, is now mainstream progressive opinion in Ontario. There’s no hope of it happening in even the medium term, but it’s a start.

Maybe obvious desperation will breed suspicion in Quebec, too. It’s an invitation to the uninterested to examine the situation more closely. It’s true: In Alberta, a given bottle can cost more or less depending on where you are and what kind of store you’re in. But that’s how it works for nearly everything you buy. In Quebec, that’s how it works for beer, which you can buy in supermarkets and convenience stores. Why would we consider price differences normal for beer but unthinkable for vodka?

It’s true: Not every liquor store in Alberta can offer expert wine advice. Even assuming (dubiously) that every SAQ outlet could, why should someone who knows what wine he wants have to pay the built-in cost of expertise? All over the world, supermarkets sell wine for a given price; and expert-run stores charge more because their clients value the help.

And yes, it’s true: Ontario’s and Quebec’s liquor regimes bring in scads of money that citizens wouldn’t want to lose. But Alberta’s privatized retail system is considerably more profitable for the government than either province’s quasi-monopoly — 20% more profitable than Ontario by volume of alcohol sold, 38% more than Quebec. So even the most basic argument for the status quo — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it — doesn’t work.

Keep flailing, liquor protectionists. You’re doing your opponents’ work better than they ever could. Just please: Lay off the racism, OK?

National Post

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