OTTAWA — The Supreme Court of Canada is going to consider the case of Gerard Comeau, a man who was charged for buying beer in Quebec and taking it home to New Brunswick.
The case could have wide-ranging implications for cross-border trade within Canada, potentially tearing down the imaginary walls between each province.
Comeau was charged in 2012 with importing 14 cases of beer and three bottles of liquor, which were cheaper to purchase in Quebec than in New Brunswick.
Josh McJannett, co-owner of Ottawa’s Dominion City Brewing Company, said he’s pleased the court is going to hear the case because it could mean a bigger market for his product.
“We feel it keenly because we’re right next to the border with Quebec. There’s outstanding beer that’s brewed across the river and obviously we feel there’s a lot of demand for what we do here on the Quebec side as well,” he said.
McJannett said other larger Ottawa breweries have ended up selling in the U.S. “before they can sell a few kilometres down the highway in the province next door.” Selling in another province, he said, usually involves several months of negotiations with the other province’s liquor agency, plus navigating restrictions about what format in which they can sell the beer.
“They’re basically rules that are designed to prevent it from happening with any regularity,” he said.
Howard Anglin, executive director of the Canadian Constitution Foundation, called the decision to hear the case “hugely positive.” The CCF supported Comeau in his court battle.
“It would be a great 150th birthday present for Canada if [the court] could restore the original founding vision of free trade,” Anglin said in an interview with CTVNews.ca.
The Supreme Court limited the original guarantee of free interprovincial trade, Anglin said, in a 1921 decision that let the provinces bring in laws and regulations that effectively keep out each other’s goods and services.
If the court sides with Comeau and doesn’t limit its ruling to alcohol, it could have massive implications for trade within Canada. Even if the decision ends up being limited to alcohol sales, however, “that would basically shake the foundations of all other provincial trade restrictions and monopolies,” Anglin said.
“It’s an historic opportunity, I think, for the Supreme Court to correct its mistake from almost 100 years ago,” he said, calling it a once in a century case.
Interprovincial alcohol limits vary by province, with many rules not clearly laid out.
Last summer, British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec agreed to lower some barriers to their residents purchasing wine.
Last month, federal Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains and his provincial counterparts unveiled a new Canada Free Trade Agreement that’s expected to add billions of dollars to the economy. But the agreement left out alcohol, leaving it to a working group expected to report by July 1, 2018.
In 2012, Parliament passed a bill by Conservative MP Dan Albas to make it easier to buy wine across the country. Albas, who represents an Okanagan riding in British Columbia, successfully removed federal limits, but many provincial limits remain.
The New Brunswick Crown called the original decision one “of polarizing national interest,” in its appeal to the court.
“The judgment of the provincial court … posits a tug-of-war between section 121 and the foundational principles of the Canadian federation. At the same time it creates uncertainty across provincial boundaries,” it said.
“Section 121 is not an absolute free trade provision and it does not subordinate sections 91 and 92 constitutional trade and regulatory powers. Such an interpretation serves to dismantle many of the federal and provincial trade arrangements and regulatory agreements under which Canada has operated for the past century.”
Albas called the move to hear the case “a wonderful decision.” But he said the question is how the federal government will respond.
“Will it argue for a more open economy, a more liberalized economy, or will it take the side of liquor provincial monopolies and try to keep Canada’s interprovincial barriers up?” Albas said in an interview with CTVNews.ca.
Economist Trevor Tombe estimates the cost to the Canadian economy of internal trade barriers at between $60 to $130 billion a year, which he and colleague Lukas Albrecht say shrinks the economy by three to seven per cent.