Ex Nihilo Vineyard in Lake Country, one of the Okanagan wineries caught in the middle of a trade dispute between B.C. and Alberta. - Image: Ex Nihilo

Lake Country Winery: ‘We are being used as pawns’

The owner of Ex Nihilo Vineyards came from Alberta and sees both sides of the issue

Lake Country winery owner Jeff Harder knows a lot about Alberta. For one, it’s where he grew up and where many friends and family remain.

And for another Albertans have made a large part of the clientele for Ex Nihilo Vineyards, a winery that produced its first Lake Country vintage in 2006 and opened as a winery in 2010.

So he feels both sides in the trade battle that has erupted between B.C. and Alberta and has pulled Okanagan wine businesses into the trenches.

“Right now we are going through a lot of turmoil with this whole thing,” said Harder, who moved to Lake Country in 1988. “Sadly we are being used as pawns in this trade dispute. I look at this like we are Canada and one thing Canadians do better than anyone in the world is unite. Let’s figure it out. I understand both sides. We have people’s jobs that are affected on both sides.”

Related: Wine war puts Okanagan vintners in tough position

At Ex Nihilo, Harder says about 30 per cent of his business goes to Alberta. It’s a figure wineries are using since Alberta Premier Rachel Notley made the move to ban Okanagan wines.

In addition to financial ties, there are strong cultural bonds with residents often living in B.C. and working in Alberta. A large portion of the Okanagan’s real estate market is tied to individuals who do just that.

That inter-connectedness between Alberta and the Okanagan, as well as a little political opportunism is what likely put the wine industry in Notley’s crosshairs, says a UBC Okanagan assistant professor of economics.

“On the coast (of B.C.) they’re sipping wine and not worrying about their jobs,” said Ross Hickey, from UBC Okanagan.

And that’s why Notley is eyeing up the Okanagan and its exports, he said. There’s not much she can do to influence change in B.C.’s political hubs right now, but the Kelowna West riding is up for grabs Feb. 14—the same day the wine ban goes into effect—and the disruption she’s causing may be directly related to that.

“Notley knows that Horgan and Green leader Andrew Weaver need to win support and seats if they want stable governance,” he said. “They can’t rely on coastal voters for all of that and she’s targeting pain where the B.C. government wants stability. This is a great time for Notley to do this.”

Hickey said he doesn’t see it going much further, however. It’s “foolish and illegal” by his estimates. Alberta could face $5 million in fines for violating the New West Partnership Trade Agreement, and there are more agreements being stepped on, said Hickey.

“With the Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement, the provinces agreed there shouldn’t be trade barriers of goods and services between Alberta and B.C.,” said Hickey. “The exceptions to that rule occur in the case of environmental protections. What the B.C. government is doing isn’t prohibiting trade and flow of trade…they want to review environmental policy that would apply to the bitumen products that Alberta exports.”

Hickey said that the question at play is simply if bitumen were to spill from a future pipeline, who is on the hook to clean it up.

“Our province has to be responsible and do its due diligence,” he said, adding if Alberta were to approach B.C. hat in hand and offer to foot the bill, the review process would go away.

“The trade and labour agreement we signed with Alberta allows us to do that to protect our environment. What it doesn’t allow us to do is ban Alberta beef because we’re mad.”

Similarly, he said, it doesn’t allow the Alberta government to say “we’re unhappy so we aren’t playing by the rules.”

“It’s foolish and childish,” said Hickey. “This is just a show. There is so much surplus being generated by the trade flow, that in the long term we will see the return of happy trade.

For Jeff Harder at Lake Country’s Ex Nihilo, he is hoping cooler heads prevail. He says ultimately the trade war won’t impact wine business as they can pick up the phone and extend sales to other Canadian provinces such as Ontario and Quebec, or to the far east. But he hopes business can get back to normal between the neighbour provinces.

“We love our Albertan customers,” he said. “We built our business on people. We’ve buit a lot of great relationships with Albertans because they come back and they support us. We can muscle into other provinces but we are more in favour of getting this behind us and looking after our friends and family in Alberta. They are our neighbours and we need them. We look at this as very important and sadly it’s these politicians that make it a lose lose.”

—With files from Kathy Michaels

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