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Albertans are entitled to beer without borders

By | Calgary herald on Nov 03 2015

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“Some animals are more equal than others,” said one of the pigs in Orwell’s cautionary tale Animal Farm. In that story, once the animals wrested control of the farm from the humans, the pigs in charge were soon drunk on power and became even more oppressive than previous management. The horrible irony was that the pigs profited from their favoured positions while the other animals were made worse off than ever.

This same narrative seems to be playing out in Alberta’s brewing industry. On October 29, the Calgary Herald reported that big changes are coming that will affect craft brewing in the province. Brewers from Alberta, Saskatchewan, and BC will receive favoured treatment since beer originating from outside of these provinces will be taxed 20 to 30 per cent more than that originating from within.

This is against the interests of Alberta’s businesses and consumers. Businesses providing craft beers from elsewhere will have to pass on their increased costs to customers in the form of higher prices. This could dry up the market for these products entirely. And consumers faced with higher prices will eventually also notice a reduced selection as this new tax scheme incentivizes drinking cheaper local suds. Good riddance to this aspect of the Alberta advantage.

Let’s make this concrete. If you have a craving for Unibroue’s “La Fin du Monde” from Quebec, you’ll have to pay more. What about Beaus’ “Gilgamesh Old Ale” from Ontario? Suddenly, it’s more expensive. And it’s the same for a Mill Street “Vanilla Porter.” The list could go on and on. Alberta’s businesses want to sell you the beer you want, but are you willing to pay 20 to 30 per cent more for your favourite brew when you could settle for local? Effectively, Alberta’s government is telling you “don’t drink the beer you like, drink this instead.”

It’s paternalistic and against the interests of everyday Albertans, so we need to ask ourselves who it is that stands to benefit from this protectionist tax. It’s not the rest of us animals, of course because we’ll pay—literally. It’s the pigs.

Recently, Paige MacPherson from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation broke the story in the Calgary Herald that a cabal of Alberta’s craft brewers have been pushing Alberta’s provincial government for years to increase the taxes on their competitors. This cabal includes Alley Kat, Drummond, and Wild Rose breweries, to name a few. To its credit, the PC government did not cave in to the brewers’ requests. Perhaps the PCs knew something that Edmonton’s current regime doesn’t?

The Constitution Act, 1867 prohibits our governments from inhibiting free trade between provinces. And none other than the likes of Sir John A. MacDonald and George Brown expected confederation to “throw down the barriers of trade” and create a unified market in Canada. To accomplish this economic union, section 121 of our constitution stipulates that products such as beer from “any one of the Provinces shall, from and after the Union, be admitted free into each of the other Provinces.”

The issue of inter-provincial free trade is near and dear to my heart. The organization that I work for took the New Brunswick government to court in the summer of 2015 to defend Gerard Comeau against that province’s unconstitutional beer laws. Like many New Brunswickers, Gerard routinely crossed into Quebec to take advantage of Quebec’s lower liquor prices. One day in 2013, after making his purchases, Gerard made his way home. But unbeknownst to him, he was caught up in a police sting. The RCMP apprehended Gerard, confiscated his beer, and issued him a fine for $292.50 because he had exceeded New Brunswick’s so-called “personal exemption” import limit of 12 pints.

This New Brunswick law is an affront to our constitution and the aspirations of the fathers of confederation because it functions as a barrier to free trade between provinces. And so does Alberta’s new protectionist tax scheme.

So not only is Alberta acting contrary to the interests of consumers, it may be erecting an unconstitutional barrier to free trade because within Canada our constitution entitles us to enjoy beer without borders.

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