Constitutional challenge set for New Brunswick court in cross-border beer battle

A New Brunswick man is preparing to launch a constitutional challenge over the right to buy his beer in Quebec, a case the defence says could have wider implications for interprovincial trade.

CAMPBELLTON, N.B. — A New Brunswick man is preparing to launch a constitutional challenge over the right to buy his beer in Quebec, a case the defence says could have wider implications for interprovincial trade.

Gerard Comeau, 62, will appear in court Tuesday for the start of a four-day hearing in Cambellton, N.B., after being charged with illegally importing alcohol into his home province.

The Tracadie resident was charged following an RCMP sting operation in October 2012.

Comeau was stopped by police with 12 cases of beer and three bottles of liquor, which he bought in Point-a-la-Croix, Que., across the river from Campbellton.

Comeau said he’s confident he has a strong case heading into court.

“I think so,” he said in a telephone interview. “According to the Canadian Constitution you can go do your shopping anywhere you want in the country.”

Constitutional lawyer Arnold Schwisberg will be part of a team arguing against Section 134 of the New Brunswick Liquor Control Act, which limits individuals to 12 bottles of beer purchased outside the province.

Schwisberg contends the provincial law is unconstitutional.

“Section 121 of our Constitution Act … specifies goods, produce and manufacture should be admitted free into all the other provinces,” said Schwisberg.

He said in Comeau’s case the liquor wasn’t admitted to the province, nor was it admitted free because it was confiscated by police and his client was fined.

“That’s what makes this particular case such a cause celebre and such a wonderful test case for the purposes of making this (constitutional) argument.”

Comeau is also supported by the Canadian Constitution Foundation, which believes the case will eventually result in a challenge before the Supreme Court of Canada.

Karen Selick, the foundation’s litigation director who will be in Campbellton as an observer, said a favourable ruling in Comeau’s case would have implications beyond the trade of alcohol.

“There are lots of other ways the provinces have over the years set up trade barriers that prevent goods from flowing from one province to another and we’d like to see those fall as well.”

Selick said regardless of how the New Brunswick court rules, there will likely be an appeal process launched that could end up before the nation’s highest court.

“I can’t imagine any kind of compromise decision that would satisfy both parties,” she said.

Should the case make it to Canada’s top court, Selick said it would have to deal with a 1921 decision that essentially upholds laws such as the one in New Brunswick.

Comeau said his two-hour trip to buy Quebec beer was no different from than those trips made daily by people who live just across the border. He went two or three times a year to buy alcohol that is up to 50 per cent cheaper than in New Brunswick.

“I don’t see any reason for buying surtax beer here just to give the government revenue,” said Comeau. “If the province wants people to buy beer here then they can put the price down.”

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