A New Brunswick man’s fight for the right to buy beer wherever he wants is now in the hands of Canada’s top court.
Gerard Comeau drives from Tracadie, NB, across the Quebec border a few times a year to load up on cheaper booze. During a 2012 trip when he was hauling 354 bottles of beer and 3 of liquor, he was nabbed by the RCMP, on the lookout for cross-border beer buyers like him.
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“I’m a Canadian citizen. I got a right to go shop wherever I want in this country,” Comeau said.
Rather than pay his $292.50 fine, Comeau fought it in court – arguing the ticket was unconstitutional.
Section 121 of the Constitution, which was part of the original British North American Act back in 1867, says “All articles of the Growth, Produce or Manufacture of any one of the Provinces shall, from and after the Union, be admitted free into each of the other provinces.”
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In reality, our provincial borders are stacked with trade barriers. In court this week, lawyers for provinces nationwide argued they should stay in place, worried about a loss of revenue and control.
“The decision would significantly undercut provincial and federal powers,” argued Francois Joyal, a lawyer for the Attorney General of Canada.
“I understand the province is going to create revenue,” said Comeau. “They were given the right to do that by the federal government. But they weren’t given the right to take away my right to shop wherever I want, if the price is cheaper.”
“It’s like bank robbers saying, ‘Your Honour, it’s true I robbed the bank but I really needed the money,’” said Brian Lee Crowley, managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. “If the
Constitution says there shall be no barriers, the fact the provinces make money from barriers is no argument at all.”
In court, most of the justices had questions for Comeau’s lawyer. Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin is concerned a decision for free trade means “we will be introducing a certain area of uncertainty; a lot of litigation.”
“Where is the foundation, the justification, for us doing so as a court at a time when government are busy negotiating these matters?” McLachlin asked.
Court heard from two dozen interested parties, everyone from brewers and distillers, a cannabis group and FedEx Canada. Many are watching this case, knowing a decision in favour of Comeau could open up free trade for all kinds of goods across the country.
“We’re not confined anymore in our taste to what the corner store has to offer. All of the fruits of human skill, ingenuity and craftmanship are at our doorstep because they are on our desktop,” argued J. Scott Maidment, a lawyer for the Federal Express Canada Corporation.
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Comeau’s fine didn’t stop him from cross-border beer shopping. He says he continues to make a few trips a year. He even got pulled over again this summer. Comeau tells us police didn’t charge him this time, saying the law isn’t clear.
Hashtags #freethebeer and even #Comeau are making an appearance– but the NB Power retiree Comeau didn’t know that, as he’s “not a computer man.” In small-town Tracadie, Comeau has also become somewhat of a celebrity.
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“People seem to talk to me a little bit more, and they keep telling me, ‘oh you’re gonna win that, it took somebody like you to do that.’ I said I just want to have my right recognized, that’s all I want.”
And he wants his beer back – all 354 cans of it.
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