Column: From the Hill -- the wine case at the Supreme Court of Canada
One of the many happy tasks of a Member of Parliament is meeting up with constituents when they visit Ottawa. Last Thursday I had the pleasure of inviting representatives of the Okanagan wine industry to lunch. They and their legal team had just had a memorable morning intervening in an important Supreme Court action, known as the Comeau case.
Gerard Comeau was charged in 2012 with bringing 14 cases of beer into New Brunswick from Quebec. He argued successfully in a New Brunswick court that the law limiting him to crossing the border with only 12 pints of beer was unconstitutional—the 1867 British North America Act that founded Canada states that products “shall be admitted free into each of the other provinces.”
Despite this direction from our founders, Canadian provinces have developed a myriad of interprovincial trade barriers over the last 150 years. Many of these barriers are apparent to business owners—differing corporate registration, food inspection, trucking rules, training for trades, and occupational health and safety rules, for instance—but the one the public notices most often is the barrier to carrying alcohol across borders.
This is a real problem to Okanagan wineries, many of which have long lists of loyal customers from other provinces, especially Alberta. These customers buy wine and carry it back home. Some sign up for wine club memberships, one of the main benefits being several shipments of wine to your doorstep each year. Technically, that’s illegal between most provinces.
There was a federal barrier to shipments of wine, but fortunately that was cleared away by a private members bill from MP Dan Albas in 2012. However, most provinces (BC, Manitoba and Nova Scotia are the only exceptions) have their own barriers in place to protect their monopolies on liquor distribution.
Earlier this year, the federal and provincial governments finalized an interprovincial free agreement, but unfortunately there were no changes to liquor trade in the document.
So that brings us back to the Comeau case. When the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal from the New Brunswick government, the BC wine industry decided to apply for intervenor status in the name of five local wineries. We won’t know the result of their efforts until the spring, but it is clear that many politicians, bureaucrats, and wine and beer lovers across the country will be waiting with interest. I tried myself to get into the gallery of the Supreme Court on Thursday morning to watch the proceedings, but found the gallery filled to overflowing—such was the intense interest in the case.
There are other purely federal issues around liquor sales in Canada, for instance the desire of craft distilleries for a cut in the excise tax they have to pay, similar to the discounts enjoyed by small wineries and craft breweries. I spoke in favour of a private members bill that proposed such a measure, but the Liberals voted down the bill last year.
After all this talk of alcohol, please be careful this holiday season and don’t drink and drive. If you’re in the Kootenays and would like to meet me at a festive open house I’m holding with MLA Katrine Conroy, please drop by the Castlegar community complex on Monday, December 18th from 2 pm to 6 pm. I wish you all a merry Christmas and a very happy and healthy New Year!