Canada's 'free the beer' case loses in Supreme Court

image copyrightRadio Canada Acadie/Serge Bouchard
image captionGerard Comeau buying beer in Quebec after his 2016 court win

A Canadian man who took his fight for cheaper beer all the way the Supreme Court has lost the battle.

Canada's top court upheld a New Brunswick liquor law limiting the amount of alcohol that can be carried across its provincial border.

In 2012, Gerald Comeau was stopped and fined for bringing more than the 12-pint limit of beer back from neighbouring Quebec.

He took the matter to court in a case quickly dubbed "free the beer".

Mr Comeau's legal battle was watched closely by industries across the country because any change in interprovincial trade restrictions could have had ramifications nationwide.

The New Brunswick retiree liked to drive to pick up beer in the province of Quebec, where he could get a bargain on a few cases.

Returning from one trip in October 2012, he had his liquor purchases seized from his car boot, and was fined C$292 ($230; £170).

His lawyers argued the country's internal trade barriers infringed on Mr Comeau's constitutional rights by conflicting with a section of the constitution that states that Canadian goods shall "be admitted free into each of the other provinces".

Most provinces set limits on the amount of alcohol a person can bring back from another province for personal consumption, and joined the province of New Brunswick in the litigation as interveners.

image copyrightReuters

On Thursday in a unanimous decision, the top court said free trade across Canada was not an absolute.

It emphasised the powers of the provinces to make laws within their own jurisdictions, even if - as in the case of New Brunswick's liquor restrictions - coincidental limits were placed on free trade.

Interpreting the constitution to "require full economic integration would significantly undermine the shape of Canadian federalism, which is built upon regional diversity within a single nation", the decision states.

The court found a broad interpretation of the constitution would have had serious implications on numerous other provincial regulations, including environmental controls.

Litigator Andrew Bernstein said while the ruling upholds the status quo, "it's a very important decision when you look at the way the court is going to look at federalism".

He noted the issue of provincial jurisdiction and federal government powers has cropped up in a number of recent hot-button issues in Canada, from cannabis to carbon taxes and pipelines.

Wineries and liquor producers across Canada had also been hopeful the court case would open the door to allowing them to sell and ship more of their product to clients nationwide.

Mr Bernstein said the ruling does not preclude that from ever happening, just that provinces will need to co-operate "if we want to allow Canadian businesses to expand their markets to other provinces".

"This is going to have to be negotiated by the provinces rather than decreed by the Supreme Court," he said.

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