The New Brunswick Liquor Corp. could go out of business if a New Brunswick man successfully argues that he has a constitutional right to buy beer in Quebec for his personal use, says a senior official with the province's liquor corporation.
Richard Smith, senior vice-president with the NB Liquor Corp., testified Tuesday at a court hearing where Gerard Comeau of Tracadie is mounting a constitutional challenge after he was charged with illegally importing alcohol into New Brunswick from neighbouring Quebec.
The New Brunswick Liquor Control Act limits anyone in the province from having more than 12 pints of beer that weren't sold by a provincially-licensed liquor outlet.
Without that legislation to prevent the direct sale of alcohol to consumers by producers, Smith said "it would risk putting us out of business."
"If the province doesn't have the authority it does today to retail product, I don't think it would take long for producers to set up their own retail network," he said.
Smith said NB Liquor has annual profits of about $165 million.
Comeau launched his constitutional challenge over the right to buy cheaper beer in Quebec and bring it over the provincial border after he was arrested during an RCMP sting operation in October 2012.
He was caught with 12 cases of a dozen bottles of beer and three bottles of liquor that he had bought in nearby Pointe-a-la-Croix, Que.
"I'm a Canadian citizen, I should be able to buy my merchandise where ever I like," he said outside the court.
Constitutional lawyer Arnold Schwisberg is arguing that Section 134 of the New Brunswick Liquor Control Act is unconstitutional.
That section says you can't purchase or have liquor not purchased from NB Liquor, while Section 43 provides an exception for up to 12 pints of beer.
However Schwisberg says Section 121 of the Constitution Act allows for the free entry of goods, produce and manufacture between provinces.
"Canada is supposed to have internal free trade and that's what our Fathers of Confederation envisioned and somewhere along the way we got lost," Schwisberg said outside the court. "We argue that this case is the harbinger of internal free trade in Canada."
He said while each province sets limits on how much alcohol individuals are permitted to import, only New Brunswick has a provincial statute making it unlawful for someone to have liquor not purchased in New Brunswick.
Smith said the board of directors for NB Liquor approved a new policy in 2011 that would have raised the amount of liquor that an individual could bring into the province to three litres of spirits, nine litres of wine or 24 litres of beer.
However, the bill was not approved by the provincial government and died on the order paper.
Nationally, the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act prevents anyone from taking liquor from one province to another. Amendments approved in 2012 and 2014 allow individuals to take beer, wine, and spirits between provinces, but it's up to each province to set the limits.
Smith said beer is cheaper in Quebec because producers deal directly with retail outlets such as grocery stores and the government doesn't add a mark-up like NB Liquor does in New Brunswick. He said there was also once a price war between the breweries in Quebec and the prices remained low - nearly half the price of that in New Brunswick.
Karen Selick of the Canadian Constitution Foundation says regardless of how the New Brunswick court rules, there will likely be an appeal that could end up before the Supreme Court of Canada.