A New Brunswick man whose so-called “free the beer” case is now in the hands of the country’s highest court says he isn’t sure what to expect.
“It might go either way,” says Gerard Comeau, 64, of Tracadie, a small community some 160 kilometres north of Moncton.
But after five years of fighting for the right to buy cheap beer in neighbouring Quebec, he says he’s anxious for a ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada.
“I just want to know — what is the law, what am I entitled to?”
Comeau, a retired NB Power linesman, was stopped at the New Brunswick-Quebec border by RCMP in 2012 and fined $292.50 for having 14 cases of beer, two bottles of whisky and one bottle of liqueur in his vehicle.
The New Brunswick Liquor Control Act sets a personal importation limit of 12 pints of beer (about 18 cans or bottles), or one bottle of wine or spirits.
Comeau says he routinely bought alcohol in Quebec where it’s cheaper.
He still does — at least two or three times a year.
He has friends in Campbellton, so if he’s going to visit them, he just drives across the J.C. Van Horne Bridge to the border town of Pointe-à-la-Croix, Que.
“I’m not going to make a special trip just to go there to pick up a couple of cases of beer,” he says, noting it’s a four-hour return drive from his home.
But he likes a bargain, he says, and when he makes the trip, a friend or one of his 10 siblings sometimes asks him to pick up a case for them too.
Comeau doesn’t see anything wrong with that.
“You’re a Canadian citizen and the Constitution gives you the right to go buy your merchandise wherever you like in the country and take it home,” he says.
Didn’t watch hearing
He fought the charge and Provincial Court Judge Ronald Leblanc acquitted him in April 2016. LeBlanc ruled the liquor restriction was unconstitutional because Section 121 of the Constitution Act states products from any province “shall … be admitted free into each of the other provinces.”
New Brunswick’s attorney general is now asking the top court to overrule that decision, arguing it would “redesign Canadian federalism” as we know it.
During a two-day hearing earlier this week, Crown prosecutor Bill Richards also told the court the province needs the net $167 million annual revenue from its liquor monopoly to help pay for its constitutional obligations, such schools, hospitals, policing and highways.
Comeau’s lawyer Ian Blue argued any barriers to interprovincial trade — whether they’re tariffs or non-tariff restrictions that make importing and exporting products difficult or costly — should have to demonstrate they serve a “higher purpose,” are non-protectionist and minimally intrusive.
The court also heard arguments from the federal government, seven other provinces and two territories, as well as a dozen interveners ranging from small wineries and beer giants, to a marijuana advocacy group and a consumer organization.
Comeau didn’t attend the hearing in Ottawa or even watch the livestream of the proceedings online.
“I’m an old man with no computer,” he says.
But he’s hopeful “all this talk of free trade” might help his case. “[Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau wants it with China, he wants it with Europe, he wants it with the U.S. and Mexico and different countries.
“So if you’re going to have free trade global, you better start by having it in your own country.”
A recent poll by Ipsos suggests the majority of Canadians agree with Comeau.
It found 89 per cent of respondents think they should be allowed to bring any legally purchased product from one province to another, while 78 per cent said they think they should be able to bring any amount of beer or wine they buy in one province into another.
A total of 1,103 people were interviewed for the poll. It was commissioned by the Montreal Economic Institute, one of the interveners in the case, the Canadian Constitution Foundation, which is backing Comeau’s legal fight, and the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. The results are accurate to within plus or minus 3.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
‘I don’t have to buy an overpriced product to pay for the province’s debt.’
— Gerard Comeau
Comeau says he’s “got nothing against” the provinces having limits on what businesses can import.
“But that doesn’t give them the right to take away my right [as an individual] to go shop somewhere else that’s cheaper. That’s the way I look at it,” he says.
“I don’t have to buy an overpriced product to pay for the province’s debt.
“Whether it be beer or anything else, there’s always a point where people just decide, ‘No I’m not going to buy that anymore, the price is too high. I’m going to buy it somewhere where it’s cheaper.'”
His pluck has earned him celebrity status.
“People keep recognizing me and they keep telling me that I’m doing the right thing, that somebody should have done something about that before and it’s about time it’s settled,” he says.
Hashtags like #Comeau and #FreeTheBeer have also popped up on social media.
Comeau admits he’s enjoying the attention “a little bit.”
“I’m not really worked up over that all that much,” he says. “I’m just a low-key kind of guy.”