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B.C. liquor policies crush Belfry Theatre fundraiser

Ivan Habel, general manager of the Belfry Theatre, stands with a collection of rare wine, including a 1973 Château Mouton Rothschild. The wine was meant to be auctioned off as part of Crush, an annual fundraiser in its third year. Instead, the province denied a licence for the event, claiming the sale of privately donated wine for charity has always been illegal. - Daniel Palmer/news staff
Ivan Habel, general manager of the Belfry Theatre, stands with a collection of rare wine, including a 1973 Château Mouton Rothschild. The wine was meant to be auctioned off as part of Crush, an annual fundraiser in its third year. Instead, the province denied a licence for the event, claiming the sale of privately donated wine for charity has always been illegal.
— image credit: Daniel Palmer/news staff

Revised provincial liquor policies have forced the Belfry Theatre to cancel its annual wine auction, a move that could have devastating consequences for other charities in B.C.

For the past two years, Belfry organizers have successfully applied for a special occasion licence to put on Crush, a wine auction that was expected to raise $20,000 this year for the theatre company, which is a registered charity.

Bottles of rare and hard-to-find wine are donated from private collections for the event, said general manager Ivan Habel, adding the Belfry openly solicits for wine donations on its website.

But on Oct. 19, the Belfry received a letter from the liquor control and licensing branch (LCLB) stating current regulations prohibit the auctioning of wine unless it is directly purchased through a B.C. liquor store or donated by a liquor manufacturer.

"The province says they didn't know that's what we were doing," Habel said. "And it doesn't matter that we've done it in the past or that literally hundreds of other charities do similar kinds of things. It's against the regulations, period."

Mark Hicken, a lawyer who specializes in B.C. wine law, said the LCLB updated its special occasion licence manual in June to bring charities into line with other licence holders, thus making charity wine auctions illegal.

"There's a difference between policy and law. A policy manual is just their interpretation of what they think the law says," Hicken said.

"I don't agree with, first, the interpretation of the law, and second, from a policy perspective, it doesn't make any sense to me at all," he said, adding there are hundreds of schools, hospitals, theatres and arts organizations across the province who rely on fundraising wine auctions.

By cutting off that revenue stream, charities will end up relying more heavily on provincial funding to make up the financial losses, Hicken said. "I'm a bit perplexed by it all," he said.

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Energy and Mines, the agency responsible for liquor distribution, said the restrictions help "ensure product authenticity and quality and that the appropriate taxes have been paid," but denied any policy changes have taken place beyond standard "housekeeping."

"This law has been in place for many years," said the spokesperson, who asked not to be named. "Changing this rule may require a change in legislation and we’ve asked legal counsel to investigate options."

NDP culture and arts critic Spencer Chandra Herbert said the impact on charities and arts groups like the Belfry will be "massive."

"The Liberals have been saying, 'Arts groups have to do better raising money themselves,'" Chandra Herbert said. "Well, here's an example where they do that very successfully and the government's taking that away from them."

The Big Sisters of the Lower Mainland pulled in $80,000 this year through its annual Grape Juice Wine Auction, said executive director Justine Greene.

"This is one way we've been able to initiate our own element of fundraising, and then it gets clawed back even further," she said of the possibility of canceling the event.

"It's a lot of revenue at stake, I can't even stomach the concept of (losing) it."

The Belfry's manager plans to lobby the provincial government to make an exception for charities and allow wine auctions to continue.

Habel has spoken with local MLAs and hopes to secure a meeting with ministers Rich Coleman and Bill Bennett in the coming weeks.

If no solution can be found, Habel said the Belfry will be forced to cope by doing what so many other non-profit groups and charities have done in recent years: "Nickel and dime the expenses away."

dpalmer@vicnews.com

 

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