NB retiree’s border beer battle could change Confederation

By Kevin Bissett   

Industry Food & Beverage Government Manufacturing alcohol beer beverage Comeau food manufacturing New Brunswick Supreme Court

Watch for a Supreme Court of Canada's key ruling on buying booze and interprovincial trade.

The Supreme Court of Canada will make a key ruling on interprovincial trade and the right to beer in any province.
Photo: Fotolia

FREDERICTON — A New Brunswick retiree who just wanted to buy cheaper suds is about to find out if his 2012 beer run to Quebec will change the nature of Confederation.

The Supreme Court of Canada is to make a key ruling April 19 on interprovincial trade, in a case that began when Gerard Comeau was stopped by police with 14 cases of beer and three bottles of liquor in his trunk.

“I’m a Canadian citizen. I can go and shop wherever I want. You can buy clothes, shoes, jewellery, everything and bring it over. How come beer is limited?” Comeau said from his home in Tracadie, a small community in the northeast of the province.

The low-key, 64-year-old retired NB Power linesman was fined nearly $300.


But a New Brunswick trial judge ruled that the charge violated constitutional law, overturning a ban on bringing alcohol across provincial boundaries.

It quickly became a test case with wide implications.

Comeau’s lawyer has said the ruling could have the power to shift a host of laws across the country governing everything from selling chickens to how engineers and other professionals work across provincial lines. Some trade experts have said a Comeau victory could trigger lawsuits across the country seeking to dismantle similar government-run corporations for cannabis.

Many provinces have intervened in the case against Comeau, while a team of lawyers with an interest in the constitutional issues offered to represent him for free, and the Canadian Constitution Foundation volunteered its assistance.

He said he never would have been able to afford the legal fight without the help.

“Any of these big cases they’ll drag it and drag it until you’re out of money and have to give up,” he said.

At issue is a section of the New Brunswick Liquor Control Act prohibiting anyone in the province from having more than 12 pints of beer not purchased through a liquor store in the province.

The trial judge said the law is at odds with Section 121 of the Constitution Act, which reads “All articles of the growth, produce, or manufacture of any one of the provinces shall, from and after the union, be admitted free into each of the other provinces.”

Judge Ronald LeBlanc said the original framers of the Constitution never intended that laws should blatantly block the free flow of goods within their new country.

During that trial, a senior vice-president of the New Brunswick Liquor Corp., said Quebec prices are cheaper because the producers deal directly with the retailers and the government doesn’t add a mark-up.

He said in New Brunswick, where the sale of liquor must be through NB Liquor outlets, the corporation adds a mark-up of as much as 89.8%.

The New Brunswick government has argued that the case threatens to end Canadian federalism as it was originally conceived. But Comeau said his interest is more personal.

“I want to know about me as an individual. Can I go and buy whatever I want, wherever I want and take it home? It’s a simple question. That’s what I want to know,” he said.

Comeau said he continues to buy cheaper beer in Quebec – as recently as last weekend.

“It doesn’t change my life much. I’m still Gerard Comeau,” he said laughing.

Comeau is also hoping to finally be reimbursed for the trunkload of alcohol that was seized more than five years ago.


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