‘Free the beer’ knocked down by top court: What it means for Canada
Provinces have the constitutional right to restrict the amount of alcohol Canadians buy and transport across provincial boundaries, according to Thursday’s Supreme Court of Canada (SCOC) decision.
And depending on who you talk to, this decision is either a loss for Canadian consumers or a win for public health.
WATCH: New Brunswick retiree Gerard Comeau says he doesn’t regret taking his case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. Morganne Campbell reports.
The ruling stemmed from a case in 2012 when Gerard Comeau, a retired New Brunswick man, wanted to buy cheaper beer in Quebec and bring it back home.
He was stopped by RCMP at the New Brunswick-Quebec border and was fined $292.50 for having 14 cases of beer and three bottles of liquor in his trunk. His booze was also confiscated.
The charge? A section of the New Brunswick Liquor Control Act prohibits residents from having more than 12 pints of beer not purchased through a liquor store in the province.
WATCH: ‘Free the beer’ case heads to Supreme Court
Comeau believed this was unconstitutional and took the case to court, saying it was his right as a Canadian citizen to go shop wherever he wants within the country.
Although a New Brunswick judge sided with him and threw out the charges in 2016, the SCOC did not.
What does the ruling mean for the rest of Canada?
The SCOC’S unanimous decision effectively preserves the current trade regime, in which provinces have the power to enact laws that restrict commerce if there is another overriding purpose — in this case, the desire to control the supply of alcohol within New Brunswick.
Rob Cunningham, a lawyer for the Canadian Cancer Society, said the judgment “confirms” existing law. But he said he does not believe it will have an impact on other inter-provincial disputes, such as the Kinder Morgan pipeline case because there is existing jurisprudence that pipelines that are interprovincial and are a federal responsibility.
WATCH: Decision on inter-provincial beer sales prevents ‘race to the bottom’
Arnold Schwisberg, a constitutional lawyer who helped represent Comeau, said this ruling could set a precedent for other cases that try to challenge interprovincial trade.
“The decision will have a very chilling effect on lawsuits aiming to challenge interprovincial border laws,” he said. “Some see it [the decision] as a way to shut down other lawsuits of this nature.”
Those applauding the ruling
During the court case, provincial lawyers were against changing the trade rules because it would “redesign Canadian federalism.” The argument was that provinces should be able to regulate and tax harmful products, like cigarettes and alcohol.
“The decision would significantly undercut provincial and federal powers,” Francois Joyal, the lawyer for the attorney general of Canada said during the high court hearing.
The Canadian Cancer Society also applauded the federal court’s decision.
WATCH: Allowing cross-border beer sales would have opened ‘floodgates’ to transports, lawyer says
“Had this judgment gone the other way, it would have opened the floodgates to widespread interprovincial smuggling of cigarettes, alcohol and cannabis. So from a public health point of view, this judgment is very positive,” Cunningham said.
Although the case only involved 14 cases of beer, he warned that it could have been “15 truckloads tomorrow” or “1,500 the month after.”
“It is very important that provinces have the ability to have appropriate prices and taxes for products like tobacco and alcohol. This decreases consumption and has a public health benefit,” he said.
Those against the ruling
Officials representing wineries in Canada said they are “extremely” disappointed in the ruling.
Dan Paszkowski, president of the Canadian Vintners Association, said the trade law stops the interprovincial transport of alcohol and prevents Canadians from accessing premium wines.
“We have been working hard to open up interprovincial trade for a winery to sell to a consumer in another province,” he said. “We are the only wine-producing country in the world that does not allow this benefit to their producers.”
WATCH: Canadian wine producers respond to SCOC decision on alcohol transport.
Miles Prodan, the president and chief executive officer with the British Columbia Wine Institute, said he was optimistic the high court would clear the way for B.C. wineries to begin shipping their products directly to consumers in other provinces.
Now, Prodan says the institute will focus on continuing its talks with federal and provincial governments in an effort to develop free trade across Canada.
WATCH: Vintners say rules on alcohol transport keeping Canadians from accessing ‘fantastic’ wines
“We tried to move Canada forward into a new age and adopt a new position … on allowing Canadians to take goods freely across Canada,” Schwisberg, who represented Comeau on the case, said.
“This is not a great day for Canadian consumers,” he said. “This isn’t about health and safety, it’s about revenue. If it is a real health and safety concern then why are you allowed [to transport] any liquor at all?”
— With files from the Canadian Press
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