Riding along with two Ontario liquor inspectors on a Wednesday afternoon at the beginning of September was not what we wanted.
Xtra originally asked to tag along with Ontario liquor inspectors as they worked Church St bars during Pride. The request was refused. Xtra then asked to follow the inspectors as they worked Church St bars during the Fetish Fair. We’re not inspecting any bars then, said the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO).
What we finally ended up with was an invitation to ride along with AGCO inspectors Jade Leadbetter and Lyn Sandiland as they visited two deserted bars on Queen St E and one bar on Church St they wouldn’t let us name.
The request was sparked by ongoing tensions between the proprietors of Church St gay bars and the AGCO. The bars feel they’re unfairly targeted by the AGCO, especially during Pride. Off the record they express anger and fear. On the record bars won’t even return Xtra’s phone calls when the subject of the AGCO comes up. Yet, during Pride, the popular club Crews/Tango closed its doors, although the manager wouldn’t explain his decision to Xtra.
The AGCO also told Church St bars that any sort of lottery fundraisers — including raffles — for charity were illegal unless the recipient charity had a licence for the event.
Attempts to obtain solid numbers from the AGCO were fruitless. Xtra submitted a request for information on liquor inspections of Church St establishments during the last year. The reply, from AGCO media relations manager Lisa Murray, was that specific numbers could not be provided.
“Cumulatively, there were 43 liquor inspections at these 18 establishments, or an average of 2.4 inspections per establishment per year,” she wrote in an email. “Of these 43 inspections, 13 took place during Pride Week. The AGCO regularly carries out increased inspections at establishments participating in large festivals (others in Toronto include Taste of the Danforth and Toronto International Film Festival).
“Breaking down the 43 inspections by establishment, three establishments were inspected zero times, six establishments were inspected one time, one establishment was inspected two times, three establishments were inspected three times, two establishments were inspected four times, two establishments were inspected five times, one establishment was inspected eight times.”
Murray refused to provide names or reasons for each inspection, saying the AGCO database was not set up to provide that information and that bars have a right to privacy.
A request under the provincial Freedom of Information Act for a complete list of inspections, fines and warnings to a select list of bars was met with a demand for $634.80 just to begin the search.
The result of all these requests was this carefully managed tour on Sep 2.
Both inspectors laugh when they’re told that Xtra’s interest stems from the sense of persecution many Church St bar owners hold — very quietly — against the AGCO.
“Everybody thinks they’re discriminated against,” says Sandiland.
The inspectors go through the routine at the Queen St bars.
“We identify ourselves unless there’s a concern about the patrons,” says Sandiland. “We check to see if the licence is posted properly, that it hasn’t expired, liquor receipts, kitchen, storage area, offices. The only alcohol they can sell is that bought in Ontario, so we check the markings on the bottles.”
The two bars are run down and virtually deserted in the mid-afternoon. One has three patrons, the other none. Leadbetter knows both managers. She checks the licences, makes sure each has a poster warning pregnant women about drinking, checks liquor receipts, makes sure the labels on the draft beer handles match the actual kegs and makes sure the bars have “light meals” available.
The inspectors have also arranged to make a visit outside their assigned areas, to an establishment on Church St due for its two-year inspection.
The two request that the name of the bar be kept anonymous, but it provides an interesting lesson in the sort of seemingly trivial detail the AGCO specializes in.
There are a number of minor infractions: no non-alcoholic beverages listed on the liquor menu, no prices for portions of wine. The liquor licence is obscured behind vodka bottles and only has one page on display. The second page, which has the date of expiry, is not on display.
And although nobody is carrying liquor in the hallways or the washrooms, the owner says he’s going to get a hall and stairway/washroom licence, which will allow patrons to take liquor with them into those areas without the bar being penalized. Otherwise the bar can be penalized for having liquor in unlicensed areas.
Leadbetter notes the infractions on her computer. They don’t march into crowded bars and close them down, she says, they submit a full report to their supervisor who then decides what action to take.
“What we really want is a good relationship between bar owners and us,” says Sandiland.