Ottawa (AFP) – Canada’s top court on Thursday upheld restrictions against stocking up on booze in one province to imbibe in another, disappointing business groups hoping for freer trade.
The case — which had implications for the movement of not just alcohol but myriad products from marijuana to milk — involved a retired steel worker who fought a Can$292 (US$232) fine for bringing alcohol from Quebec into his home province in contravention of New Brunswick’s Liquor Control Act.
The measure — similar to those established in other provinces — limits the importation of alcohol for personal use to one bottle of liquor or wine, or 12 pints of beer.
The unanimous 9-0 decision comes as Canada is looking to sign a number of free trade agreements with foreign nations.
Business groups decried the decision, saying this was a “missed opportunity to open up trade.”
But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, on a trip to France and Britain where he heralded the recent Canada-EU free trade pact and opened the door to a post-Brexit accord with Britain, pointed to a deal with the provinces last year that was “a significant step forward towards full free trade within Canada.”
He added that Ottawa would pursue another round of talks with regional governments, aiming to further liberalize trade within Canada.
In 2012, federal police charged Gerard Comeau for transporting 14 cases of beer, two bottles of whisky and a bottle of liqueur to New Brunswick from neighboring Quebec province, where they are cheaper.
A lower court dismissed the charge, ruling that the Fathers of Confederation had envisioned an economic union with unfettered trade between Canada’s regions.
That decision pointed to Section 121 of the Constitution Act, which says all goods from a province are to be admitted free into each of the others.
The win made Comeau the accidental champion of a national “free-the-beer” campaign, for highlighting the hypocrisy of lawmakers.
“While many government leaders extol the benefits of free trade internationally, they regularly condone trade barriers within Canada’s own borders,” he said in his filings to the Supreme Court.
But the Supreme Court disagreed, saying the constitution prohibits trade bans, but allows provinces to pass laws that may “incidentally” limit interprovincial trade.
New Brunswick’s liquor law wasn’t aimed at blocking alcohol imports, it noted, but “to enable public supervision of the production, movement, sale, and use of alcohol within New Brunswick” by the liquor control board.
The justices said the trial judge wrongly relied solely on the expert testimony of a historian’s interpretation of the act and took too narrow a view of constitutional texts.
It also dubbed “ambiguous” the phrase “admitted free.”
The case attracted broad interest and an eclectic group of interveners, including the feds, 10 regional governments, dairy and poultry farmers concerned for their supply-managed industries, wineries and brewers, and even cannabis producers readying for the legalization of recreational pot later this year.