Decision reserved in Constitutional challenge of cross-border beer rules

Lawyers for a New Brunswick man fighting a fine for buying cheap booze and bringing it into the province reiterated their position that the provincial laws are unconstitutional as they presented closing arguments Friday.

CAMPBELLTON, N.B. — Lawyers for a New Brunswick man fighting a fine for buying cheap booze and bringing it into the province reiterated their position that the provincial laws are unconstitutional as they presented closing arguments Friday.

The judge has reserved decision until the end of April 2016 in a case that could have implications on cross-border trade right across Canada.

“I think it’s going to affect free trade with regards to alcohol and it could be a benchmark for the other provinces as well. It’s going to affect Canadians from coast to coast,” defence attorney Mikael Bernard said outside provincial court in Campbellton, N.B.

Gerard Comeau is charged with illegally importing 14 cases of beer and three bottles of liquor from a Quebec border town in October 2012.

The 62-year-old retired steelworker was one of 17 people stopped during a two-day police sting operation. His liquor was seized and he was given a fine of $292.50.

Section 134 of the New Brunswick Liquor Control Act prohibits anyone in the province from having more than 12 pints of beer that wasn’t purchased through an NB Liquor outlet.

Comeau’s defence lawyers argue that’s unconstitutional because Section 121 of the Constitution Act says anything produced in one province shall be admitted free into each of the other provinces.

In his closing arguments, defence lawyer Arnold Schwisberg said evidence presented during the four-day hearing showed the Fathers of Confederation wanted an unfettered economic union in Canada and Section 121’s wording of “admitted free” must be interpreted broadly rather than confined to such things as duties and tariffs.

Crown Prosecutors Bill Richards and Kathryn Gregory declined comment outside court, but during closing statements Richards said Section 134 of the Liquor Control Act is being scapegoated.

He said the issue is section 121 of the Constitution and whether its intention applies today in a country that has developed significantly since 1867.

Comeau said he’s glad his case has finally been presented and says most of the people he’s spoken to believe the courts will rule in favour of removing restrictions on where they buy their beer.

“They should be able to go and shop wherever they are. They live in Canada and Canada is a free country,” he said.

The final witness on Friday was the chief financial officer for New Brunswick based Moosehead Breweries.

Patrick Oland said he has no problem with New Brunswickers going to Quebec to buy lower priced beer for their personal use, but worries that removing current import restrictions could result in bootleggers bringing truckloads of beer into New Brunswick for illegal distribution.

Oland was called by the Crown to explain the patchwork of different tariffs and regulations in place across the country, which he said are usually designed to favour local producers.

Although the tariffs limit profits, Oland worries what would happen if they were struck down.

“Any changes to the regulatory regime nationally have to be well thought out to ensure there’s a level playing field and we get a fair situation,” he said.

In Quebec, local brewers sell directly to convenience stores without a government mark-up.

Earlier this week, Richard Smith, senior vice-president of the New Brunswick Liquor Corp., 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 per cent to the price it pays the breweries.

Smith said the Crown corporation makes about $165 million in profits each year for the provincial government.

As a result, the price of beer in Quebec is roughly half the retail price charged in New Brunswick.

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