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Okanagan distillery bypassed as government spends millions elsewhere on hand sanitizer

A well-used bottle of Okanagan Spirits hand sanitizer.
December 09, 2020 - 12:04 PM

In the early days of the pandemic with supermarket shelves stripped bare of hand sanitizer over a dozen craft distilleries across the province stepped in and switched from making spirits to making sanitizer.

In March, there was a fear in the air as government health officials talked of shortages of personal protective equipment and the prime minister called on Canadian manufacturers to adapt to newly created needs.

Distillers and brewers approached the provincial government and in turn it issued a new policy directive authorizing them to produce alcohol-based hand sanitizer for sale or donation.

Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery owner Tyler Dyck says his family's company didn't deliberate over switching to produce hand sanitizer.

"It was the right thing to do," Dyck said. "We were getting calls from doctors' offices, hospitals, ambulance (crews)... the first two or three months people were in panic mode."

They quickly shifted production to hand sanitizer and started giving it away for free to frontline workers. Others paid $5 a bottle or got it free with a purchase of a bottle of liquor.

To date, Okanagan Spirits has produced 70,000 bottles of hand sanitizer worth about $500,000.

READ MORE: Okanagan Spirits Distillery makes free hand sanitizer for the community

As the president of the Craft Distillers Guild of B.C., Dyck points out his firm wasn't alone and over a dozen B.C. distilleries switched to producing hand sanitizer.

For frontline workers, the product was essential, for consumers faced with empty grocery store shelves, having hand sanitizer went some way to easing the anxiety the early days of the pandemic had brought.

But as Okanagan Spirits and other distilleries across the province and the country sucked up the expense and worked for the greater good, the government was spending millions on hand sanitizer from abroad.

A recent CBC report has revealed that $570 million worth of hand sanitizer came into the country from overseas. And the Canadian government paid for $375-million of that supply.

Rather diplomatically Dyck says he found the news "shocking." He said his father would use much more colourful language.

"I've been in discussion for nine months on behalf of distillers just to cover the base cost of the sanitizer that they donated," Dyck said. "But at the same time, (the government is) buying it from a private company instead of following through on helping local distillers to keep people working."

Dyck said he had no idea about this until the CBC dug up the numbers.

The CBC report says millions of taxpayer dollars were paid out to large Canadian companies to purchase hand sanitizer with almost half of all the products bought coming from overseas.

READ MORE: Okanagan Spirits Distillery overwhelmed by sanitizer demand from essential service workers

Dyck said it was never his company's intention to score a government contract and stresses he and other distilleries did it because they felt they had a duty to use their unique position to help out.

He said he fully understands that the government needed to secure large contracts but said small Canadian distilleries should not have been bypassed in the process, especially when they’d been supplying healthcare institutions for months and the government was well aware of this.

Dyck said he's only asking for a bit of help to cover the base costs.

However, he’s not optimistic the federal government will do anything based on its comment to the CBC.

"We are immensely proud of how Canadian industry has stepped up to the plate," reads the statement from the office of the Minister of Innovation Science and Industry Navdeep Bains.

He is, however, more optimistic the provincial government will do the right thing.

In an email, a spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation told iNFOnews.ca the shortage of personal protective equipment including hand sanitizer was a significant concern last spring.

But the ministry didn’t answer questions on why it hadn’t purchased more hand sanitizer from B.C. companies or whether it planned to compensate them anytime in the future.

“The province purchased liquid hand sanitizer from Parallel 49 Brewing, and then by June, began receiving shipments from the Government of Canada. The priority was to ensure British Columbians had a consistent source of PPE available in significant quantities,” reads the statement.

How long Dyck’s optimism will last remains to be seen.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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