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

Last Updated Apr 19, 2018 at 4:20 pm EDT

FREDERICTON – A New Brunswick man whose beer run to Quebec in 2012 sparked a constitutional battle over cross-border liquor sales says the Supreme Court of Canada has put an end to his beer-buying trips.

Gerard Comeau was reacting Thursday to the court’s decision to affirm the constitutionality of a New Brunswick law that limits 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 in an interview.

The unanimous decision effectively preserves the current trade regime, in which provinces have the power to restrict commerce if there is another overriding purpose. In this case, it’s the province’s the desire to control the supply of alcohol.

Comeau, who lives in Tracadie, N.B., was fined nearly $300 in 2012 after he bought 14 cases of beer and three bottles of alcohol in Quebec, then tried to bring it all home.

He said he received a great deal of support from people across Canada. However, he said he 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 change the laws and improve trade.

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

However, 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, chairman of the Canadian internal trade committee, said a working group was formed last summer to look at the flow of alcoholic beverages within Canada to determine how it could be improved. 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? … 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 the common good, which includes health-care services, education and infrastructure,” he said.

Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst for the Canadian Cancer Society, welcomed the ruling, saying it will help provinces adopt better health, safety and environmental standards.

“It is very important that provinces have the ability to have appropriate prices and taxes for products like tobacco and alcohol,” he said. “This decreases consumption, especially among youth, and has a public health benefit.”

John Nater, Conservative critic for interprovincial trade, said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must change Canada’s trade rules.

“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, said the ruling represented a missed opportunity.

“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,” she said in a statement.

Dan Albas, a Conservative MP from British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, introduced federal legislation in 2012 to allow interprovincial trade of wine for personal use.

“Unfortunately, it’s not the great leap forward I had hoped for,” Albas said in an interview, adding that the decision amounts to a loss for the public and wineries in general.

As an example, he said Nova Scotia’s small, but growing wine industry could be hurt by the ruling.

“Small wineries often rely on even smaller marketers; wine labels and website developers and couriers,” Albas said. “There are so many aspects to the wine industry that generates other industries.”