Give sober review to trade laws

It would take something like beer to upend the Constitutional status quo of this country – if, of course, it ever does.

Consider the strange case of Gerard Comeau who was caught crossing the border from Quebec into New Brunswick with 14 cases of beer and three bottles of liquor in 2012. According to an antiquated Prohibition-era law, that’s a big no-no.

Mr. Comeau is now on trial for violating the New Brunswick Liquor Control Act, which states that individuals are allowed to bring one bottle of wine or liquor or 12 pints of beer into the province at any given time.

According to a CBC analysis of the historical context underlying the case, “The Canadian law regarding the shipping of alcohol was meant to thwart bootleggers, and led to a gradual devolution of federal responsibility to the provinces in matters relating to liquor. Each province established an agency that oversees the distribution, sale and consumption of wine, beer and spirits.”

The CBC piece quoted Mark Hicken, a Vancouver attorney who specializes in interpreting Canada’s quirky interprovincial trade regulations, thusly: “A lawyer down in California once said to me, ‘You can’t understand any North American liquor laws unless you trace them back to Prohibition.’ You look at any regulatory structure in North America and if it was examined in a global perspective, you’d look at it in stunned disbelief, like ‘What is going on here?’ It really does go back to the Prohibition mentality of control.”

Added Mr. Hicken: “The shipping laws were brought in to stop the inter-provincial bootlegging traffic following the repeal of Prohibition at different times and in different provinces. Today, the major reason for the continuation of those laws is money – the liquor boards want to maintain absolute control over all liquor in their jurisdiction so they can levy a liquor board mark-up on it.”

Bingo, and that, sadly, is the lay of the land for so many other brands of goods and services in Canada.

Without commenting on the merits, or demerits, of the specific case against Mr. Comeau, I will say that this nation’s arcane, out-dated and just, plain bizarre interprovincial trade rules are stunning incongruities at a time when federal officials are successfully negotiating, or renegotiating, sweeping commercial agreements with the United States, European Union and the Asia-Pacific. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.

“As we approach the 150th anniversary of Canada’s founding in 2017, we still have some unfinished business to deal with,” University of Prince Edward Island political scientist Peter McKenna has recently written. “It comes in the form of pernicious and persistent internal trade barriers between provinces.

“There is no disputing that the founding partners of Confederation had in mind unfettered trade and commerce between them. In fact, section 121 of the Canadian Constitution states: ‘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.’”

Now, we face the very real prospect of welcoming European cheese into our local marketplace where Canadian-made craft beer and wine from outside our resident province are outlawed.

Does this make any sense to consumers or producers? The answer is as obvious as its corollary: interprovincial trade barriers benefit, most reliably, cash-strapped provincial governments.

But even when they don’t, the sheer inertia of the status quo virtually guarantees that nothing changes, despite the well-meaning noises various premiers make about finally getting things done.

Will the Comeau case make a difference?

I’d cheer that efficacious outcome.

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