Supreme Court decision means an end to cross-border beer runs: Comeau

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FREDERICTON — A New Brunswick man whose beer run to Quebec in 2012 sparked a constitutional question over cross-border liquor sales says today’s high court decision will mean an end to his beer-buying trips.

Gerard Comeau was reacting to a ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada that affirmed the constitutionality of a New Brunswick law limiting the possession of alcohol not purchased through the province’s liquor stores.

“If it’s against the law, it’s against the law,” Comeau said Thursday.

The 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.

Comeau was fined nearly $300 in 2012 after buying 14 cases of beer and three bottles of alcohol in Quebec.

The Tracadie man said he had a lot of support from people across Canada, but wasn’t surprised by the court’s decision.

“According to the Constitution you’re allowed to go and shop wherever you want in this country, but I guess tax revenues are more important than personal liberties,” he said.

Many of his supporters were quick to comment on social media Thursday.

One Twitter user said “So we will pay trained terrorists to come back and live in Canada, but you can’t drive a case of beer across the country?”

Others said despite the court decision, Canada’s politicians now have a chance to improve trade.

And one said “The government needs to get out of our nation’s refrigerators!”

Comeau said he can go buy any other item he wants, anywhere in Canada, and wants to know why beer is treated differently.

But the decision was welcomed by Roger Melanson, New Brunswick’s minister responsible for trade policy.

“This confirms that the provinces have the right to regulate when it comes to alcoholic beverages. But it also affirms that this is no more a legal issue, it is a trade issue,” he said.

Melanson, who is chairman of the Canadian internal trade committee, says a working group was formed last summer by the provincial trade ministers to look at the flow of alcoholic beverages within Canada and how that could be improved, and a report is expected this July.

He said trade policies in Canada need to evolve.

“How can we embrace the new technologies and the new ways that consumers consume now? People use e-commerce. People shop online. That’s an area that’s being analyzed and looked at. Could we increase the quantities purchased per individual outside a particular province where you reside?” the minister said.

But he stressed that the revenues generated by NB Liquor — about $170 million a year — can’t be overlooked.

“That revenue is redistributed within the province for common good, which includes health care services, education and infrastructure,” he said.

John Nater, Conservative Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Interprovincial Trade, said it is now more important than ever for Prime Minister Trudeau to renegotiate the Canadian Free Trade Agreement.

“Canadians recognize the economic benefits of reducing interprovincial trade barriers. It should not be illegal to work or to transport legal products across provincial lines,” he said.

“It is extremely disappointing that the Trudeau Liberals have failed to take a strong stand against barriers to interprovincial trade in the Comeau Case.”

Corinne Pohlmann, senior vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, expressed disappointment with the ruling.

“It is a missed opportunity to open up trade,” she said in a statement.

“We are concerned that the provinces continue to stand behind an archaic principle that flies in the face of everything their internal trade agreement stands for.”

Speaking immediately before the ruling came down, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said his province would weigh the consequences of the court decision.

But McNeil said in general, he has spoken out about the need for more cross-border trade in the past.

“We need to move towards being a more pro-trade country inside of our country,” McNeil said. “We are negotiating massive trade agreements outside of Canada and I think we need to do more of making sure the flow of goods and services inside Canada can happen.”

Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press