Booze battle brewing on Quebec-New Brunswick border gets crowdfunding

First hearing in the court case over cross-border alcohol shopping begins Aug. 24

A man whose drive from New Brunswick to Quebec to buy cheaper beer ended in arrest said Thursday he’s looking forward to airing his constitutional challenge in court next month as a defence crowdfunding campaign gets underway.

In an interview from Tracadie, N.B., Gerard Comeau said he just wants to know whether he has the right to buy his beer in Quebec.

“The Canadian Constitution says you’ve got the right to go buy any Canadian merchandise in any province and bring it from one province to the next,” Comeau said.

“So is it against the law? That’s what we’re trying to find out.”

As part of a sting operation, RCMP arrested Comeau, now 62, in October 2012 when he returned with 12 cases of beer and three bottles of liquor which he bought legally in Pointe-a-la-Croix, Que., just across the river from Campbellton. Police seized the booze and charged him with illegally importing alcohol into his home province.

Cross-border alcohol shopping is a regular thing in the area and the retired power lineman had been making the run two or three times a year into Quebec to score beer — which costs about half the New Brunswick price — and lottery tickets.

However, provincial law in New Brunswick — related to federal anti-smuggling efforts implemented at the height of Prohibition — forbids importing more than one bottle of wine or 12 pints of beer — about 19 regular bottles — from any other province. The restrictions, stiffer than importing alcohol from the U.S., carry a $292.50 fine for violators.

Comeau’s case has drawn support from the Canadian Constitution Foundation, which this week launched a crowdfunding drive in an effort to raise $20,000 for a fight that seems destined to be decided by the Supreme Court of Canada.

“A lot of people don’t even know that provision is in the law,” Karen Selick, the foundation’s litigation director, said from Ottawa.

Constitutional experts will testify at the week-long hearing in Campbellton slated to start Aug. 24.

Besides offering an entertaining history lesson, the foundation said it wants Canadians to help back Comeau in a case it says is crucial to interprovincial trade.

Section 121 of the Constitution is supposed to allow for the free flow of goods across provincial borders but, Selick said, a Supreme Court decision dating to 1921 that narrowly interpreted the section is at the heart of the dispute.

“We think that case was wrongly decided and that enough time has gone by that the Supreme Court should look at it again,” Selick said.

The foundation, a registered charity that bills itself as an independent, non-partisan organization that aims to defend Canadian constitutional freedoms, said the trade barriers benefit government monopoly sales agencies while constraining private business and citizens.

As a result, billions of dollars in provincial revenues are at stake and could affect industries as diverse as eggs, poultry and dairy products.

Comeau said he doesn’t know what became of the alcohol police seized. But win or lose, he’s not keen to get it back.

“It can’t be too good any more,” he said.

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