Our economic recovery is going to require attention and investments to specific business sectors.
We have been advocating for years for changes to taxation and regulation for our local breweries, distilleries, and wineries. Now is the time for the Government of Ontario to take a new look at these local businesses and their connections to local retail and food service businesses.
We have several resolutions on the books, including one with the Ontario Chamber of Commerce titled “Changes to Alcohol Retail in Ontario Need to Support Local Industry and Jobs in the Wine and Grape Sector.”
Recently, Jeff Leal penned a guest column for iPolitics highlighting some of the current issues facing with wine and grape industry. We’re going to let Jeff explain it here as a guest columnist.
Excerpts from “Canada’s award-winning grape and wine industry is at risk” — Aug. 9, 2021
Jeff Leal is a former City of Peterborough councillor (1985 – 2003), Member of Provincial Parliament (2003 – 2018), and Ontario Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (2013 – 2018)
After many months of patience and caution, it seems Ontario is slowly emerging from the pandemic — and its businesses are trying to seize opportunities to make up for lost time, as the federal relief programs that buoyed them begin receding.
But as a former provincial cabinet minister, I have a few words of advice for leaders in Ottawa at this critical juncture: While urgent triaging and government relief have been essential for the last 18 months, complex sectors will require a closer look, and precise help to ensure their contributions to our economy remain secure for the future.
In fact, one sector has been on my mind on the most: grape and wine producers, and the small and medium businesses whose purely Canadian wine the sector depends on for its continued growth in Canada. Allow me to explain.
One of the things that struck me during my time as Ontario’s minister of agriculture is how much agriculture contributes to the provincial economy, not to mention the country.
In 2014, its contribution to the GDP was roughly $37 billion, and more than 800,000 people were employed in what is a very dynamic and innovative sector in Ontario.
A fraction of the population is feeding the vast majority of the province, yet the importance of the agricultural sector is often overlooked.
Ontario has one of the most diverse agricultural sectors in the country today, including the dynamic segment that is Ontario’s grape and wine industry.
Over the last 40 years, VQA 100 per cent Ontario grape-based wine has cemented my home province’s international reputation for growing unique grapes and producing award-winning wines that the best experts in the world recognize for their importance and quality.
It’s a very competitive industry, and the margins are challenging. On the shelves here at home, Ontario’s best bottles are competing against products from jurisdictions with established and excellent industries in their own right: the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe (with a slightly accelerated influx, thanks to the Canada-European trade deal). Furthermore, they’re competing against behemoth companies that import juice to blend with a low ratio of Canadian grapes, which is often confused as local product.
The agreement at the World Trade Organization last summer to end Canada’s excise-tax exemption on 100 per cent Canadian-grown wine came when the focus was on the pandemic and keeping everyone afloat. But the reality of Ontario’s wine sector is that the legacy of past trade agreements means smaller businesses enjoy fewer advantages on their own home turf. A replacement program is critical, but it needs to be rooted in equity, not equality.
Canadian leaders have an obligation to support, in a very direct way, our smaller producers — to make sure they continue to thrive and are completing the research and development that’s so important for the future of the many businesses that make up our sector. The wine segment of Ontario’s agricultural economy is constantly evolving, and it’s incumbent on governments to do their part to ensure that locally grown wines continue to enjoy the sterling reputations they have around the world.
There’s been a legacy of investment in land and vineyards, both by Ontario growers ($684 million), and by the federal ($17.3 million) and provincial ($18 million) governments. Without forward-looking, long-lasting, planned investments, the next generation won’t have a domestic grape and wine industry to work in.
So, while we slowly shift back to normal, let’s not forget the details. The federal government needs to continue supporting the smaller players in the industry — the ones with the smallest margins, who contribute enormously to their local economies, and whose futures are critical to the sector as a whole.
My parting advice: Take the time to get it right. Ontario farm families who produce 100 per cent local grapes and wine, and their communities, are counting on it. In the meantime, we can vote with our dollars and look for the VQA label when grabbing that bottle to enjoy this summer.