It all began with a New Brunswick retiree, a carload of booze and a $292 fine.
But the spectacle that played out this week in the Supreme Court of Canada in Her Majesty the Queen v. Gerard Comeau makes it clear this case touches on far weightier matters.
It's about the future of e-commerce, how legalized marijuana will be sold, the fate of free trade in the age of Donald Trump, the livelihoods of thousands of farmers, the ability of provinces to regulate virtually anything and the survival of Canada as we know it.
That, at least, is the sweeping and sometimes apocalyptic picture laid out at a Supreme Court hearing by the various parties and intervenors, including most of the provinces, national business organizations and key players in the dairy, liquor and cannabis industries.
Mr. Comeau, a retired steelworker, could not have foreseen all this hoopla in 2012 when he drove his car across the Restigouche River to buy 14 cases of beer and three bottles of hard liquor in Quebec. He was nabbed by the RCMP and fined for violating the New Brunswick Liquor Control Act, which limits how much booze individuals can possess that isn't purchased at a liquor store in the province.
But Mr. Comeau decided to fight, arguing that the fine violated Section 121 of the 1867 Constitution, which guarantees that "All Articles of the Growth, Produce, or Manufacture of any one of the Provinces shall … be admitted free into each of the other Provinces."
A New Brunswick provincial court judge agreed and now the case is in the lap of the Supreme Court, which is expected to take four to six months to reach a judgment.
Clearly, this is not just about liquor laws. Provinces throw up all sorts of barriers to interprovincial trade for a multitude of policy reasons, legitimate and otherwise. And for decades Canadian courts have mostly let them do it, relying on a landmark 1921 Supreme Court ruling that the framers of the Constitution intended to outlaw interprovincial tariffs, not rid the country of murky non-tariff barriers.
Unfortunately, one province's valid regulation is someone else's costly trade barrier. Some truck configurations can only be driven at night in British Columbia and only during the day in Alberta. There are different provincial sizing rules for dairy creamers and milk containers, forcing companies to run separate production lines. The various levels of government similarly can't agree on common grading standards for maple syrup.
This week there was a fresh example of government overreach as Saskatchewan moved to bar contractors with Alberta licence plates on their vehicles from provincial highway projects.
Entire industries have evolved in Canada based on regulations that inhibit the free flow of goods, services and sometimes people across provincial lines. Representatives of the heavily regulated dairy, poultry, turkey and egg industries told the court that upholding Mr. Comeau's lower court ruling "could result in the destruction of supply management." That's because relatively high prices paid to farmers in these sectors hinge on strictly limiting how much they can produce in each province. Dismantling those regulations could create a production free-for-all, send prices lower and trigger a rationalization of processing plants.
It's also about money. Billions of dollars in profits that flow to provincial liquor stores could also be affected. The Liquor Control Board of Ontario, for example, gives the province roughly $2-billion a year, over and above the billions in taxes collected.
And if Mr. Comeau is allowed to buy his beer wherever he wants, restaurants and individuals too could also buy directly from wineries, bypassing provincial liquor boards. And then there is the problem of what to do about marijuana when it's legalized next July. Buying online would allow consumers to get around higher age limits and other provincial restrictions.
At the hearing, several of the justices appeared troubled by the prospect of the courts dictating to governments where to draw the line between the free flow of trade and reasonable regulation in these and other areas.
The court should not be so timid. The Comeau case offers a rare opportunity to force Ottawa and the provinces to do what they have repeatedly failed to do on their own – even as Canada decries rising protectionism in the United States and elsewhere.
Canada faces enormous trade challenges in the world. But too often, we can't get beyond petty fights on the home front.