Free Trade in Canadian Beer (and More?)

Last year, I mentioned a Canadian court case that could help promote free trade within Canada. Well, a lower court has now ruled for free trade, finding that the Canadian constitution does, in fact, guarantee free trade among the provinces. Here are the basic facts, from the Toronto Globe and Mail:

In 2013, Gérard Comeau was caught in what is likely the lamest sting operation in Canadian police history. Mr. Comeau drove into Quebec, bought 14 cases of beer and three bottles of liquor, and headed home. The Mounties were waiting in ambush. They pulled him over, along with 17 other drivers, and fined him $292.50 under a clause in the New Brunswick Liquor Control Act that obliges New Brunswick residents to buy all their booze, with minor exceptions set out in regulations, from the provincial Liquor Corporation.

And here’s how the court ruled:

Mr. Comeau went to court and challenged the law on the basis of Section 121 of the Constitution: “All articles of the growth, produce or manufacture of any of the provinces shall, from and after the Union, be admitted free into each of the other provinces.”

The judge said Friday that the wording of Section 121 is clear, and that the provincial law violates its intention. The Fathers of Confederation wanted Canada to be one economic union, a mari usque ad mare. That’s why they wrote the clause.

If you are into these sort of things, I highly recommend reading the judge’s decision, which looks deeply into the historical background of the Canadian constitutional provision at issue.

This is all very good for beer lovers, but also has much broader implications for internal Canadian trade in general. This is from an op-ed by Marni Soupcoff of the Canadian Constitution Foundation, which assisted with the case: 

But most Canadians aren’t interested in precisely how many more six packs will now be flowing through New Brunswick’s borders. They want to know what the Comeau decision means for them. They want to know whether there will be a lasting and far-reaching impact from one brave Maritimer’s constitutional challenge. And so, as the executive director of the Canadian Constitution Foundation (CCF), the organization that supported Comeau’s case, I’d like to answer that.

Canada is rife with protectionist laws and regulations that prevent the free flow of goods from one province to another. These laws affect Canadians’ ability to buy and sell milk, chickens, eggs, cheese and many other things, including some that neither you nor I have ever even thought about. And that is the beauty of this decision. It will open up a national market in everything. Yes, the CCF, Comeau and Comeau’s pro bono defence lawyers Mikael Bernard, Arnold Schwisberg and Ian Blue can all be proud that we have “freed the beer.” But we’ve done more than that — we’ve revived the idea that Canada should have free trade within its borders, which is what the framers of our Constitution intended. That means that the Supreme Court will likely have to revisit the constitutionality of this country’s marketing boards and other internal trade restrictions. In other words, this is a big deal.

As always with lower court decisions, there is the possibility of appeal. I haven’t heard anything definitive yet as to whether that will happen here. But whatever happens down the road, this lower court decision is something to be celebrated.

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