Where a 24-can pack of beer like Budweiser or Coors used to cost $43, it’s now only $36. That’s because, last spring, a New Brunswick court struck down a law prohibiting anyone from possessing more than just a few cans of beer purchased outside the province.
Late in 2012, Gerard Comeau, a New Brunswick resident, crossed a bridge to buy beer in Quebec. Like many other New Brunswickers, Comeau did this to take advantage of Quebec’s lower prices. After purchasing 14 cases, Comeau made his way home and was caught in a police sting.
The RCMP, it turns out, were hunting for cross-border beer shoppers. They apprehended Comeau, confiscated his beer and issued him a $292.50 fine for exceeding the province’s personal exemption import limit of 12 pints.
Comeau thought this was outrageous and decided to fight the fine in court. Fortunately for him, Section 121 of Constitution Act provided a defence because it guarantees free trade between the provinces. Section 121 is clear: “all articles of the growth, produce, and manufacture of any one of the Provinces shall … be admitted free into each of the other Provinces.” But it has been largely ignored by provincial governments.
Had Comeau purchased 14 computers, the police would have done nothing – not even caring if the devices were for personal or commercial use, or even for resale. But beer is different because the New Brunswick government has a monopoly over the sale of liquor in the province, and it didn’t want to have to sell its beer at a price that was competitive with those offered in neighbouring Quebec. After all, if New Brunswickers were permitted to shop for better prices outside of the province, it would cut into the province’s revenues.
With help from the Canadian Constitution Foundation and lawyers Mikael Bernard, Ian Blue and Arnold Schwisberg, Comeau challenged the constitutionality of New Brunswick’s restrictions. At the trial, provincial court Judge Ronald LeBlanc heard from an expert witness that no less than the likes of Sir John A. Macdonald and George Brown intended Section 121 to “throw down the barriers of trade” and create a unified market in Canada. The court agreed and struck down New Brunswick’s law.
Comeau’s victory presented the New Brunswick government with no choice. With the law struck down, New Brunswickers were allowed to shop for the lowest liquor prices anywhere in Canada. They could no longer be forced to tolerate the inflated prices in the government’s liquor stores. The only response left to the government was to significantly lower the price it charges for beer and compete with Quebec.
But the New Brunswick government hasn’t given up – it still wants to thwart the intent of the Constitution and keep New Brunswickers from shopping outside of its liquor monopoly. An appeal of Comeau’s case will be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada on Dec. 7.
Until then, New Brunswickers can raise a glass to Gerard Comeau, his lawyers, and the Canadian Constitution Foundation as they enjoy their beers this summer!
Derek James From is a staff lawyer at the Canadian Constitution Foundation, which is supporting Gerard Comeau.
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