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Ontario Liquor Laws On Track To Be Relaxed By Summer: Attorney General Chris Bentley

TORONTO (CP) — There's "overwhelming" public support for Ontario to relax its liquor laws — something the provincial government will deliver this summer, said Attorney General Chris Bentley.

Adults will soon have more freedom to wander around at festivals with a drink in hand under new provincial regulations, he said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

No date has yet been set for their release, but the new rules should take effect in time for the summer, Bentley added.

The public's chance to comment on the proposed changes ended May 1. While a few people disagreed with the idea, most supported it, he said.

"The overwhelming majority were for more flexibility," Bentley said.

Bentley floated his proposal to loosen Ontario's liquor laws in February, which could do away with beer tents at festivals and other events.

Festival-goers would still have to consume their drinks within a "defined area," but they'd be able to wander around and do some shopping at retail stalls, Bentley said.

The proposal also includes extending liquor hours for weddings and charity events to 2 a.m. and opening up the province to all-inclusive vacation packages.

Some want the government to go a step further and take a second look at restrictions for boat cruises and patios, he said.

Tour operators are allowed to serve booze about half-an-hour before a boat leaves the pier, but if bad weather delays its departure, all the drinks have to be taken away, he said.

"If the leaving was delayed — let's say by 15 minutes or so — everyone had to take their drinks away, like right on the minute, and then start again when the cruise got underway," Bentley said.

Similar questions were raised about patios that are separated from a licenced establishment by a sidewalk. It's unclear whether servers or customers are allowed to move alcohol from one area to the other under the current rules, he said.

Even if the changes are made, municipalities and police will still have the right to say no, Bentley added. The province also intends to keep enforcing "responsible behaviour."

Police leaders had initially raised concerns about the changes, saying it could encourage underage drinking, create unsafe environments for families and logistical headaches for officers trying to enforce the law.

The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police had "extensive discussions" with the ministry, which made some changes to the initial proposal, said spokesman Joe Couto.

They include requiring organizations to provide more notice about major events and report certain information, such as the number of people attending an event.

One of their biggest concerns was the public perception that people would be able to wander around freely with a drink in hand at festivals and big events, he said.

There's been "a lot of progress," but the association is waiting to see the final rules before it passes judgment.

"I think that they certainly took a step back from their original proposals and really listened to police, because we're the ones that obviously have to deal with the end product, if you know what I mean," Couto said.

"Good laws, modern laws are all fine and good as long as they meet law enforcement needs."

The move to ease liquor laws comes just a few months before the Liberals start revving up their engines for the Oct. 6 election campaign.

It's a surprising policy move for Premier Dalton McGuinty, who has been dubbed Premier Dad for his "Father Knows Best" governing style.

He's even mocked rival Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak for publicly musing about the days when beer could be bought for a dollar in Ontario.

The premier dismissed it as "a bright, shiny object" designed to distract voters from important issues like jobs and the economy.

Seems McGuinty couldn't resist dangling a "bright, shiny object" himself, said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

"It's a way of diverting attention to something other than their massive failure on the jobs file, on the affordability of everyday life, on the fact that folks are still very angry about the harmonized sales tax and the impacts it's having on their pocketbook," she said.

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