Conservatives say ‘Free the beer’ but not the milk

The federal party’s interprovincial trade critic urges a ‘nuanced approach’ as the Supreme Court hears a key case on economic barriers within Canada

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(Photo illustration by Stephen Gregory)
(Photo illustration by Stephen Gregory)

The Supreme Court of Canada is hearing the case of Gerard Comeau, the man from Tracadie, N.B. who was charged after he drove back from Quebec into New Brunswick with his car trunk filled mostly with beer. Comeau beat the charges in a lower court. Provincial trade restrictions—and not just for booze—are at stake as the Supreme Court considers the province’s appeal of that decision. 

Ontario MP John Nater, the Conservative critic for interprovincial trade, put out a statement touting the case as an opportunity for the top court to “restore the original intent of Section 121 of the Constitution,” which 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.” Court rulings stretching back to the 1920s, however, have given provincial governments plenty of leeway to restrict imports from other provinces. 

With Comeau’s case drawing lots of attention, the Conservative party has even set up a “Free the Beer” website. But when Nater spoke with Maclean’s about the case, he quickly put to rest any notion that, beyond alcohol, his party actually favours wide-open free trade inside Canada.  

Q: Is it your position that Section 121 should basically apply across the board and there should be free trade in everything between provinces?

A: I think it has to be a bit of a nuanced approach to Section 121. I think the challenge is that over the years it has been interpreted so narrowly that it basically has no meaning in effect at this point. I think we have a chance to start broadening that definition, perhaps slightly to begin with, but perhaps more significantly down the road.

Q: So, are you hoping that if the Supreme Court rules the way you’d like, the implications will go well beyond liquor, beer and wine?

A: I think initially it will only apply to basically beer and liquor. But I think it will open up the conversation for a variety of things, including transport regulations and professional accreditation trade between provinces.

Q: You’ve said that you thought the Canadian Free Trade Agreement, finalized last spring by the Liberal government and the provinces, was a disappointment. What would you like to see covered under the deal that’s carved out now?

A: Right now there are about 150 pages of exceptions to the trade agreement itself. That’s a significant bulk of the issues that have been punted down the road to working groups. We’re not aware of where those working groups are at or where they’re going.

Q: One of the big sticking points historically has been supply-managed farm products. Do you think there will ever be a chance to end provincial barriers to trade in supply-managed products?

A: No, I don’t think so. A bit of background: My riding has the most dairy farmers of any riding in the country.

Q: Really? What’s your riding? I’ve forgotten.

A: It’s Perth-Wellington. We have more dairy farmers than anywhere else, and I think we’re No. 1 for chicken and No. 3 or 4 for eggs. Certainly, [groups representing] the five supply-managed commodities are interveners at the Supreme Court. They’re concerned about where their industry would go. The argument there is that the marketing boards are enabled by federal legislation, so they wouldn’t be caught up in provincial trade barriers, because it is a federal enabling statute.

READ: It’s time for Conservatives to ditch dairy cow Marxism

Q: Let’s say I’d like to be able to buy craft-brewed beer from Manitoba in Ottawa, but my neighbour would like to be able to get cheaper milk for her kids from any province. Isn’t her reason for wanting interprovincial trade barriers eliminated more important than mine?

A: Well, I think we have to look at the more general impacts within supply-managed industries. It has been very structured to ensure a fair price for farmers. We have to be careful when we’re dealing with supply management and with the industry that we don’t start tinkering with it in a way that we move from dealing with it in a controlled way to dealing with it where we’ll have more direct subsidies, such as happens in the other non-supply managed commodities.

Q: So, your position is, free trade across provincial lines in beer, but not free trade across provincial lines in milk?

A: I think when it comes to marketing boards and supply management, it’s important we don’t go down a route that’s to the detriment of farmers.

Q: Could I ask about something else? Often when I’ve spoken in the past to Conservative MPs about court cases, they haven’t much liked the idea of judges imposing solutions to policy problems. The idea is we elect governments for that. Isn’t this a case where you actually hope the court changes the way elected federal and provincial politicians have, for better or worse, acted for many decades?

A: I think the preferred solution would be through governments, through negotiations, through a federal-provincial framework. And that’s what it would have definitely have been the hope with the Canadian Free Trade Agreement. But it hasn’t gone that direction. This isn’t government leading this specific court case; it’s an individual, Mr. Comeau from New Brunswick. It’s really a private citizen who’s really stepping up and sees an injustice.

Q: But you are suggesting the appointed judges should decide, in this case, how the economic union should work?

A: The lower court very much looked at the original intent that the Fathers of Confederation saw in Section 121.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)

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