New Brunswick

Supreme Court agrees to hear appeal of cross-border booze case

The Supreme Court of Canada has agreed to hear an appeal of a New Brunswick court ruling that declared it unconstitutional to limit the amount of alcohol someone can bring into the province.

Limiting movement of products between provinces violates Constitution, N.B court has ruled

New Brunswick law allows only 12 pints of beer or one bottle of wine or liquor to be brought into the province from another province. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

The Supreme Court of Canada has agreed to hear an appeal of a New Brunswick court ruling that declared it unconstitutional to limit the amount of alcohol someone can bring into the province.

At the centre of the case is Gerard Comeau of Tracadie, N.B. He was acquitted by a provincial court judge of exceeding provincial importation limits on beer and liquor that can be brought into New Brunswick.

Comeau was charged in 2012. RCMP had stopped him after he entered New Brunswick from Quebec with 14 cases of beer and three bottles of liquor. New Brunswick's Liquor Control Act sets a personal importation limit of 12 pints of beer or one bottle of alcohol or wine.

Gerard Comeau was all smiles after a judge acquitted him on a charge of bringing too much alcohol into New Brunswick from Quebec because it violated free trade provisions in the Constitution. (Bridget Yard/CBC)
Provincial court Judge Ronald LeBlanc ruled the liquor restriction was unconstitutional because Sec. 121 of the 1867 Constitution states products from any province "shall … be admitted free into each of the other provinces."

Lawyer Ian Blue, who acted as part of Comeau's defence team on behalf of the Canadian Constitution Foundation, says the case stands to have major implications.

Blue said the federal and provincial governments are currently discussing trade matters pertaining to NAFTA, milk marketing boards, softwood lumber tariffs, but "they're not looking at this Comeau case."

"This Comeau case, with the Supreme Court decision, could have more profound effects on interprovincial trade barriers than President Trump could," said Blue. "That's how important this case is."

Provincial governments have justified the limits on the interprovincial movement of liquor and other products based on a 1920 Supreme Court decision in Gold Seal Ltd. v Dominion Express Co. that ruled Section 121 of the Constitution meant only that province's couldn't impose customs barriers at their border. LeBlanc's ruling in R. v Comeau held that the 1920 case was wrongly decided by the Supreme Court and took a broader interpretation of the trade clause in the Constitution.

"The question before the Supreme Court of Canada is, is the broad interpretation of Section 121 correct?" said Blue. 

Ian Blue of the Canadian Constitution Foundation is one of Gerard Comeau's lawyers. (Julianne Hazlewood/CBC)
"I think that the Supreme Court of Canada will not be able to uphold the old 1920 Supreme Court decision," said Blue. "It is so wrong that the Supreme Court of Canada could not do that without losing a lot of credibility and political capital."

In agreeing to hear the appeal by New Brunswick, the Supreme Court directed that Comeau's costs to fight the case in the country's highest court be covered by the provincial government.

Supreme Court of Canada is hearing a case about bringing beer across the Quebec-New Brunswick border

6 years ago
Duration 6:38
Howard Anglin, Executive Director of the Canadian Constitution Foundation, says this minor case could have resounding effects across the entire economy

Following the initial decision, the provincial prosecution service sought leave to appeal LeBlanc's ruling directly to the New Brunswick Court of Appeal, but the province's highest court declined to hear the case. As is customary, the Appeal Court did not give a reason for declining to hear the case.

The prosecution service then decided to ask Canada's top court to hear the case. 

In a statement Thursday, the public prosecution service said it will now begin work on its submission to the Supreme Court about Article 121 and "its impact on provincial authority to regulate alcoholic beverages within New Brunswick's borders."

The prosecution service described itself as independent from government and said it "does not act on direction from government in the discharge of its duties." The statement also said there would be no other comments until after the issue was settled.

The Gallant government declined to comment on Thursday's decision because the case is before the courts.

With files from Rachel Cave


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