When Olu Ifede started working at a Cardston pharmacy six years ago, he never thought he’d see alcohol served in this southern Alberta city.
“There are a lot of strict laws here,” he said. “So I didn’t really see it coming.”
After more than a century as one of Alberta’s last dry towns, Cardston’s approximately 3,500 residents no longer have to go out to buy an alcoholic beverage.
On Tuesday, Cardston City Council voted 5-2 to allow restaurants and recreational facilities like the local golf course to apply for liquor licenses.
TO non-binding plebiscite in May set the stage for Tuesday’s decision. When asked if they would allow limited liquor sales in the city, the yes vote won a narrow 494 to 431 victory.
Ifede says it’s a welcome change.
“Everyone should have the ability to take what they want,” he said. “Some people want to have [a] a few drinks here and there.”
But not everyone agrees with the decision.
Church of Latter-day Saints influences liquor laws
Cardston’s relationship with alcohol is tied to his long history with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The city is 235 kilometers south of Calgary and 25 kilometers north of the United States-Canada border.
It was settled by members of the LDS Church, also known as Mormons, who arrived from Utah in the late 19th century.
It is home to the first LDS temple ever built in Canada and, according to the 2021 census, nearly 62 percent of its population is Mormon.
In the LDS faith, members are prohibited from drinking alcohol. The city maintained prohibition long after the rest of the province ended it in 1923.
People could drink alcohol in the city, but they couldn’t buy it.
The new statute allows Class A and B licenses for food-first restaurants and large recreational facilities like the local golf course.
No off-site sales: No bars or liquor stores, no shopping to drink elsewhere, no home delivery.
Still, some like Bob Taylor fear it’s the start of a slippery slope. For him, opposing the statute is a matter of principle.
“I just don’t like it,” he said.
“People can do whatever they want, but I’m LDS and I just don’t do it.”
Business cases for alcohol
For business owners like Tanner Leavitt, serving alcohol is a matter of survival.
“We’re getting by by the skin of our teeth, so again, additional income from any source would be very beneficial,” he said.
Leavitt owns Guero Taco, a Mexican restaurant on Cardston’s historic Main Street. He says not being able to serve alcohol means he loses potential customers.
The town is half an hour’s drive from Waterton Lakes National Park and receives its fair share of passing tourists.
“They ask where they can get a drink and often I think they’re disappointed or they go somewhere else,” Leavitt said.
Other local businesses have strongly supported the change for the same reason.
At a public hearing before the city council vote Tuesday, representatives from the Chamber of Commerce and the Lee Creek Valley Golf Club spoke in favor of the charter change.
While only a few meet the criteria to apply for a liquor license, a Chamber of Commerce representative said this has a knock-on effect on other businesses.
The Cardston Inn, for example, loses potential guests to nearby Lethbridge and Pincher Creek, Alta., when people discover they can’t buy alcohol in town.
A long way to go before you drink a cold one
It will be a while before wine glasses are clinking in a Cardston restaurant.
The statute change means businesses can apply for a liquor license. But they still have to catch up with Alberta’s cannabis and gaming liquor regulations.
Inspections must be performed, floor plans submitted, and personnel classified.
“We have a little ways to go before we can apply for a license to sell,” Leavitt said.
Cardston is listed as a non-licenced borough, meaning liquor has never been sold there. This means that AGLC will send the first application to the city council for approval.
Given Tuesday’s decision, all signs point to its approval. When that happens, the agency no longer has to seek board approval. It can grant licenses as long as applicants meet the requirements.
Some residents concerned
Until then, Cardston remains one of Alberta’s last dry towns, but it won’t seem that way for long.
“Honestly, I think it’s a big difference,” said Ridge Ingram, who grew up in the city.
Ingram believes there could be more tourists and more traffic. He also worries about what alcohol service means for highway safety.
“It’s mostly a free city and it’s safer if there’s no alcohol because then you can worry less,” Ingram said.
At the public hearing, residents opposed to the bylaw expressed similar concerns about safety and warned of the moral and health ills associated with alcohol consumption.
For others, however, serving alcohol means losing what made Cardston, Cardston.