New Brunswick judge throws out cross-border booze limits

A New Brunswick judge has ruled the province's restrictions on bringing alcohol into the province for personal use violate the Constitution's free-trade provisions.

Provincial court Judge Ronald LeBlanc ruled Friday in the case of a retired steelworker who was charged under the New Brunswick Liquor Control Act for bringing 14 cases of beer and three bottles of liquor into New Brunswick.

In a decision that took 160 minutes to read, LeBlanc dismissed the charge against Gerard Comeau of Tracadie N.B., in a case that was being watched closely as a constitutional challenge that could impact provincial liquor laws across Canada.

The Canadian Constitution Foundation had previously said it expects the case to end up before the Supreme Court of Canada, regardless of how LeBlanc ruled on Friday.


A retired steelworker's constitutional challenge to New Brunswick's laws restricting the movement of alcohol into the province from other provinces will get an initial answer on Friday.

Provincial court Judge Ronald LeBlanc is scheduled to deliver his ruling at 9:30 a.m. AT  in the trial of Gerard Comeau of Tracadie, N.B., which some believe will result in appeals all the way to the Supreme Court, regardless of how LeBlanc rules.

Comeau was charged in 2012 for bringing 14 cases of beer and three bottles of liquor into New Brunswick from Quebec and stands to be fined $292.50. Under Section 134 of the New Brunswick Liquor Control Act, the amount of alcohol a person can bring into the province for personal use is limited to one bottle of wine or liquor, or 12 pints of beer.

Comeau pleaded not guilty to the charge and his legal team is arguing the law used to charge him is unconstitutional because it contravenes Section 121 of the Constitution Act of 1867.


Gerard Comeau was in Campbellton Friday to hear the ruling on the charge he violated the N.B. Liquor Control Act by bringing too much alochol into New Brunswick from Quebec. (Michele Brideau/Radio-Canada)

That section reads: "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 Fathers of Confederation would have been aghast at the protectionist liquor policy, a British constitutional historian testified during Comeau's trial in August 2015.

'They would have said this is completely against why we created Confederation in the first place.' - Andrew Smith, British constitutional historian

"They would have said this is completely against why we created Confederation in the first place," testified Andrew Smith of the University of Liverpool.

St. Thomas University political scientist Tom Bateman testified in Comeau's trial that Section 121 of the Constitution is dormant because provinces couldn't conceivably put customs posts in place at their borders.

New Brunswick's law — like those in other provinces — gets its power from a 1928 federal statute called the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act, which mandates alcohol can only move into or out of a province with the permission of its liquor control board.

During Comeau's trial in Campbellton, N.B., NB Liquor vice-president and chief financial officer Richard Smith testified that the removal of provincial barriers to liquor transportation across borders would be devastating to the Crown corporation responsible for New Brunswick liquor sales.

A Toronto lawyer who has written extensively about interprovincial alcohol trade said at the time of Comeau's trial that the case could upend Canada's current laws governing movement of alcohol across the country.

'It could have enormous implications for Canadians.' - Ian Blue, Toronto lawyer

"It could have enormous implications for Canadians," said Ian Blue of the Toronto firm Gardiner Roberts.

The Calgary-based Canadian Constitution Foundation provided a lawyer for Comeau's legal team. Executive director Marni Soupcoff expects the case to eventually end up before the Supreme Court.

"As a country, we've moved forward in so many other ways, but we are stuck on this issue," Soupcoff stated at the time of the trial. "And I think there are a lot of vested interests that do well with the status quo in place.

"The status quo provides a lot of money for provincial governments, so I don't think there's been a lot of incentive to change.… But that could change if the Constitution protects free trade between provinces."

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