Federal government backs move to liberalize flow of alcohol between provinces

The federal government has reacted to a landmark court case in New Brunswick on inter-provincial trade barriers by backing the spirit of the decision and committing to a "comprehensive renewal" of the agreement that governs trade across provincial borders.

'This decision has the potential to affect the very commercial fabric of our country,' lawyer says

The federal government says it is committed to a "comprehensive renewal" of the Agreement on Internal Trade that would create a more open market in Canada for all goods and services, including the interprovincial trade in alcohol. (CBC)

The federal government has reacted to a landmark court case in New Brunswick on inter-provincial trade barriers by backing the spirit of the decision and committing to a "comprehensive renewal" of the agreement that governs trade across provincial borders. 

"The federal government remains committed to working with provinces and territories to strengthen Canada's internal market, including through a comprehensive renewal of Canada's Agreement on Internal Trade," Stéfanie Power,  a spokesperson for Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada said in an email. 

Yesterday provincial court Judge Ronald LeBlanc ruled that the restrictions on bringing alcohol into New Brunswick from other provinces for personal use violates the Canadian Constitution's free-trade provisions. 

Gerard Comeau of Tracadie, N.B., had been charged with unlawfully bringing in 14 cases of beer and three bottles of liquor from Quebec, where he could buy them at a lower price than in his home province — New Brunswick law limits the amount people can bring in to one bottle of liquor or wine, or 12 pints of beer.

When Comeau was charged with breaking that law, the Canadian Constitution Foundation threw its weight behind the case, providing Comeau with the legal expertise needed to mount a successful defence. 

'Groundbreaking decision'

Arnold Schwisberg, a Toronto lawyer with an expertise in fighting trade barriers between the provinces, joined the legal team. He described yesterday's ruling as a "bold decision" that takes the law "in a new direction."

"Judge LeBlanc's decision is groundbreaking," he said.  "No judge has ever ruled before that section 121 (of the Canadian Constitution) does in fact exist for the purpose of creating a free trade zone in Canada."

Schwisberg says that he expects the case to be appealed to a higher court and predicts it will someday end up being heard in the Supreme Court of Canada. 

"In our case the ramifications of this decision aren't limited to simply the cross-border movement of liquor," he said. "This decision arguably affects how we deal with eggs and dairy products, wheat products in Canada."

"This decision has the potential to affect the very commercial fabric of our country," he added.

Modifying internal trade agreement

Conservative MP Dan Albas, critic for Interprovincial Trade and Labour Mobility, said that because trade between the provinces is protected by the constitution, the federal government should refer the case to the High Court now to ensure the issue is settled properly. 

"I hope this case puts heat on the federal, provincial and territorial governments to come to a consensus and see a new agreement on internal trade," said the MP for Central Okanagan—Similkameen—Nicola. "I also hope that provinces back away from spending lots of money to protect their provincial monopolies."

Albas's private member's Bill C-311, which became law in June 2012, made it legal for people to bring wine across provincial borders subject to import regulations in the destination province. 

He says it is time for all parties in the House of Commons to get together and modify the Agreement on Internal Trade, signed in 1994, to finally end trade barriers within Canada.

The federal government's reaction to yesterday's ruling seems to suggest that the Liberals are keen to bring Canada's laws up to date. 

"The Government of Canada is supportive of more open domestic markets that promote competitiveness and growth of Canadian businesses, including the interprovincial trade of alcohol," said Power,  a spokesperson for Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada in a statement.


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