When Olu Ifede started working in a Cardston pharmacy six years ago, he never thought he’d see alcohol served in the southern Alberta town.
“There’s a lot of strict laws down here,” he said. “So I really didn’t see this coming.”
After more than a century as one of the last dry towns in Alberta, Cardston’s 3,500 or so residents no longer have to leave to buy an alcoholic beverage.
On Tuesday, Cardston town council voted 5-2 in favour of allowing sit-down restaurants and recreational facilities like the local golf course to apply for liquor licenses.
A non-binding plebiscite in May set the stage for Tuesday’s decision. When asked if they would allow limited liquor sales in the town, the yes vote won in a narrow 494 – 431 victory.
Ifede says it’s a welcome change.
“Everyone should have the leverage to take whatever they want,” he said. “Some people want to have [a] few drinks there and there.”
But not everyone is on board with the decision.
Latter-day Saints Church influences liquor laws
Cardston’s relationship with alcohol is tied to its long history with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The town is 235 kilometres south of Calgary and 25 kilometres north of the U.S.-Canada border.
It was settled by members of the LDS Church, also known as Mormons, who came up from Utah in the late 1800s.
It’s the home of the first LDS temple ever built in Canada and according to the 2021 census, nearly 62 per cent of its population is Mormon.
In LDS faith, members are forbidden from drinking alcohol. The town kept prohibition long after the rest of the province ended it in 1923.
People have been able to drink alcohol in town, they just couldn’t buy it.
The new bylaw allows for Class A and B licenses for food-first restaurants and large recreational facilities like the local golf course.
There are no off-site sales allowed — no bars or liquor stores and no buying to drink elsewhere, or delivery.
Still, some like Bob Taylor worry it’s the beginning of a slippery slope. For him, opposing the bylaw is a matter of principle.
“I just don’t like it,” he said.
“People can do what they want but I’m LDS and I just don’t.”
Business case for booze
For business owners like Tanner Leavitt, serving alcohol is a matter of survival.
“We get by by the skin of our teeth, so again, extra revenue in any source would be highly 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 a half hour drive from Waterton Lakes National Park and sees its fair share of tourists passing through.
“They do ask where they can get a drink and often I think they are disappointed or go elsewhere,” said Leavitt.
Other local businesses have been strong supporters of the change for the same reason.
At a public hearing before the town council’s vote on Tuesday, representatives from the Chamber of Commerce and the Lee Creek Valley Golf club spoke in favour of the bylaw change.
While only a handful meet the criteria to apply for a liquor license, a representative of the Chamber of Commerce said it 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 find out they can’t buy alcohol in town.
Long way to go before cracking a cold one
It will be a while before wine glasses clink at a Cardston restaurant.
The bylaw change means businesses can apply for a liquor license. But, they still have to get up to snuff with Alberta Gaming Liquor and Cannabis regulations.
Inspections must be done, floor plans submitted and staffing sorted.
“We’ve got a little ways to go before we can apply for a license to sell,” said Leavitt.
Cardston is listed as a municipality without licensed premises, meaning liquor has never been sold there. This means AGLC will send the first application to town council for approval.
Given Tuesday’s decision, all signs point to approval. When that happens, the agency no longer has to seek council approval. It can grant licenses as long as the applicants meet the requirements.
Some residents concerned
Until then, Cardston is still one of the last dry towns in Alberta, but not for much longer it appears.
“I think it’s a big difference, honestly,” said Ridge Ingram, who was raised in the town.
Ingram thinks there could be more tourists and more traffic coming through. He’s also concerned about what alcohol being served means for safety on the roads.
“It’s mostly just a free roam town and it’s just safer if there’s not alcohol in it because then you can worry less,” said Ingram.
At the public hearing residents opposed to the bylaw voiced similar concerns about safety and cautioned about the health and moral ills associated with drinking.
For others, however, serving alcohol means losing what made Cardston, Cardston.