Quebec lacking clear legislation around bars only offering overpriced bottled water
As young people living in Montreal—a city known for its rampant nightlife—hitting St-Laurent Blvd., Bishop St., or anywhere along Ste-Catherine St. E for a night on the town has become almost a rite of passage. McKibbin’s Irish Pub, Grumpy’s, Complexe Sky, Club Unity, and SuWu are just a handful of Montreal’s popular nightlife venues. While there are many variables that can ruin a fun night out with friends, being charged astronomical prices for bottled water after being refused tap water may not be the first thing that comes to mind.
In a Facebook post made to a private group on March 10, Montreal resident Julia Ryan recounted her negative experience with multiple bartenders at Club Unity, located at 1171 Ste-Catherine St. E. “One of my friends got a little bit too intoxicated and was dizzy and sitting on the ground,” wrote Ryan in the comments section of her post. “I went to [the] bar on all three floors and asked three different bartenders for water, as she was almost passed out, and they basically said ‘Tough shit, buy a bottle.’”
In an interview with The Concordian, Ryan went into more detail about the four hours she and her friends spent at Club Unity, which totaled around $90, including the $8 cover charge, coat check, multiple drinks, and tip. “We decided on a pitcher of long island iced tea, which was given to us with three straws and no glasses,” said Ryan. About an hour after the first round, they ordered a second pitcher. “It was reasonably busy, but not a crazy night. By around 1:30 [a.m.], we were dying for water.” Ryan explained that a bartender told her there was no water available by the glass, and instead sold her bottled water for $4.50, which she and her friends shared.
Legislation around restaurants and bars offering free, potable tap water can get pretty convoluted. The majority of people hold false assumptions around what laws are in place, on both the provincial and federal levels. In the Reddit subthread r/ontario, an image posted by user fgejoiwnfgewijkobnew shows a sign in an Ontario comedy venue that reads: “Bottled water is the only water available. Period. (And yes, it is legal.).” The subthread post is headlined with the caption: “Isn’t it illegal in Ontario to deny patrons access to free drinking water at a bar? It’s a safety thing right?”
In a thread on Stack Exchange, a Q&A platform for professionals, students and those with relevant knowledge, user CGCampbell summarized the widespread loopholes in legislation around providing free, potable drinking water in restaurants and bars. “Tap water must be provided by restaurants in their bathrooms for the washing of hands, and that said water must be of drinking water quality,” wrote CGCampbell. “But they are not required to offer it in a glass, free of charge.” As the user goes on to point out, there are many laws in Quebec that strictly govern the quality of water, and what is defined as drinking water, in chapter Q-2, r. 40 of the Environment Quality Act. “There are laws in several other Canadian jurisdictions that do require free drinking water on request, but those laws also do not stipulate the glass must be provided for free.”
Some comments on both the Stack Exchange and Reddit threads are quite informative, and the majority of users agree on one thing: whether it’s legal or not, “denying tap water to patrons sounds like a douchey thing to do,” wrote user baween on the Reddit subthread.
Aside from providing paying customers with free tap water arguably being the ethical decision, discouraging people from regularly drinking water in environments where drinking is encouraged poses health concerns. In a CBC article from 2014, Karen McColl, a researcher hired by CBC, went to 25 bars around downtown Halifax and asked for a glass of tap water. While the majority provided her with tap water, a handful of bars—coincidentally venues that also charged up to $10 in cover fees—would only offer bottled water. The article makes no mention of specific legislation around providing free, potable tap water. Instead, it vaguely references addiction counsellors who recommend intermittently drinking one glass of water per one alcoholic beverage.
Ultimately, it seems that the lack of clear provincial and federal legislation around providing free tap water to paying customers results in bartenders at nightclubs such as Unity taking matters into their own hands. “The three bartenders I spoke to were extremely dry and abrasive,” said Ryan. “I’m more of a bar person, [but] I’ve never had an experience like that at any bar or club ever. I had been to Unity once before, three years ago, and it was a pleasant experience with good staff. Completely unlike the last time.”
Feature and in-text graphics by @sundaemorningcoffee