Alcohol for sale

Supreme Court of Canada hearing arguments in cross-border beer case

Five years after a New Brunswick man fought for the right to buy cheaper beer in Quebec and bring it back across the border, his case will be argued Wednesday before the country’s highest court with potentially far-reaching implications for interprovincial trade, the economy and consumer choice.

The Supreme Court of Canada will hear from New Brunswick prosecutors, who are appealing Gerard Comeau’s acquittal on exceeding the province’s personal importation limits for alcohol, as well as his lawyers and lawyers representing the federal government, eight provinces and two territories during the two-day hearing in Ottawa.

‘If the court rules in favour of the free, unrestricted movement of goods … many other trade barriers could also disappear.’– Michel Kelly-Gagnon, Montreal Economic Institute

A dozen other interveners, ranging from small wineries and beer giants, to a marijuana advocacy group, and consumer organization, will also make submissions in the “historic” case that centres around the interpretation of a section of the Constitution Act of 1867.

The court’s decision could “radically reform the Canadian economy,” according to Michel Kelly-Gagnon, president and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute (MEI), an independent, non-profit research and educational organization, which is also an intervener.

“If the court rules in favour of the free, unrestricted movement of goods between the provinces, this will not only call into question the provincial alcohol monopolies, but many other trade barriers could also disappear,” Kelly-Gagnon said in a statement​.

Comeau, a retired NB Power linesman from Tracadie, was stopped at the New Brunswick-Quebec border by the RCMP in 2012 and fined $292.50 for violating the New Brunswick Liquor Control Act.

He had 14 cases of beer, two bottles of whisky and a bottle of liqueur he had purchased in Pointe-a-la-Croix, Que., in his trunk. The maximum amount of alcohol an individual can bring into the province is 12 pints of beer (about 18 cans or bottles), or one bottle of wine or spirits.

Comeau contested the charge and Campbellton provincial court Judge Ronald LeBlanc ruled in April 2016 that the liquor restriction was unconstitutional because Section 121 of the Constitution Act states products from any province “shall … be admitted free into each of the other provinces.”

Alcohol for sale

New Brunswick allows individuals to bring only 12 pints of beer or one bottle of wine or liquor into the province from another province. (Hilary Bird/CBC)

LeBlanc noted in his ruling that his interpretation of the section as permitting the free movement of goods among the provinces without barriers would “have a resounding impact.”

New Brunswick prosecutors are now appealing LeBlanc’s decision to the Supreme Court of Canada after the province’s highest court refused to review the matter.

The prosecutors argue upholding Comeau’s acquittal would “propose an end to Canadian federalism as it was originally conceived, has politically evolved and is judicially confirmed” by the Supreme Court itself, which has previously held Section 121 prohibits only “customs duties,” or interprovincial tariffs.

No tariffs or non-tariffs

Comeau’s lawyers assert the Fathers of Confederation intended to allow the free movement of items between provinces, unrestrained by any barriers, whether they be tariffs or non-tariff restrictions that make importing and exporting products difficult or costly.

The majority of the interveners side with Comeau, seeking fewer barriers, saying it would be better for them, consumers or the country as a whole, with the potential to add an estimated $50 billion to $130 billion to the GDP.

The Dairy Farmers of Canada, Egg Farmers of Canada, Chicken Farmers of Canada, Turkey Farmers of Canada, and the Canadian Hatching Egg Producers acting jointly, however, say Comeau’s position “could result in the destruction of supply management — a regulatory system in place for generations, on which the livelihood of thousands of farmers across the country depends.”

Each of the interveners will have a maximum of five minutes to present their arguments to the nine-justice panel.

The Supreme Court hasn’t had a two-day hearing for nearly three years, according to a court official. That case involved a terror suspect.

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