Canada has waited long enough for domestic free trade

In collaboration with Howard Anglin and Marco Navarro-Génie*

Five years ago, when Gerard Comeau contested a $300 fine for transporting liquor across provincial borders, he had no idea that he was planting the seeds of a legal battle that could end up radically reforming trade within Canada.

The retired power worker had been stopped by police for bringing to New Brunswick 14 cases of beer and three bottles of spirits that he had purchased in Quebec. When he was fined for violating an old provincial law, he fought back, winning his case before the Provincial Court.

After a fruitless attempt to have the case heard by the New Brunswick Court of Appeal, the provincial government turned to the Supreme Court of Canada, which will hear the case in less than two weeks. The top court will have to decide whether Canadians have the right to transport legally purchased goods, including alcohol, from one province to another.

Canadians’ opinions are clear on this point: They believe that they should already have this right. A poll conducted by Ipsos on behalf of the Montreal Economic Institute (MEI) shows that an overwhelming number of Canadians (89 per cent) think they should be allowed to bring any legally purchased product from one province to another.

When asked the same question about alcohol, a very large majority (78 per cent) are of the opinion that they should be allowed to bring any amount of beer or wine from one province into another. Only 8 per cent of Canadians disagree. The end of Prohibition began almost a century ago. Why should Prohibition-era laws still restrict our freedom?

About 84 per cent of Canadians also think they should be allowed to order wine directly from a winery in another province. And only 14 per cent of Canadians believe that provinces with alcohol-sale monopolies should be allowed to protect them by fining citizens who buy wine or beer from other provinces, as happened to Mr. Comeau.

Canada is perceived around the world as a champion of free trade, thanks to its strong defence of NAFTA, its recent conclusion of a free-trade agreement with the European Union and its efforts to expand free trade in Asia. Strangely, this recognition of the advantages of trade are not reflected inside Canada’s own borders, where many obstacles to free trade persist, despite strong evidence Canadians oppose them.

Even when the justifications that provinces offer for these restrictions are put to Canadians, they don’t buy them. According to the Ipsos poll, very few Canadians think that provincial governments should be allowed to impose restrictions against goods from other provinces to protect their own industries (16 per cent) or to collect more revenue (12 per cent).

Clearly, Canadians understand the advantages of free trade and want to enjoy those benefits within their own country.

The federal and provincial governments’ reactions to the Comeau case, which are to defend these unpopular restrictions, are backward-looking. They continue to miss the opportunity to reaffirm, loud and clear, one of the central ideas behind the Canadian federation: the creation of a true common market. Instead, they have chosen to appear before the Supreme Court against Mr. Comeau in order to preserve a status quo that costs Canadians tens of billions of dollars each year.

That is why the Canadian Constitution Foundation (CCF) became involved in Mr. Comeau’s defence in the first place and why the MEI will be standing alongside Mr. Comeau as an intervenor before the Supreme Court. And it is why these organizations – the CCF, the MEI and the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies – will continue to promote the benefits of free trade within Canada, regardless of the outcome of the court case.

That said, we hope that the Court will see the wisdom of the trial judge’s decision, which struck down this obsolete and unconstitutional law and upheld the original vision of Confederation as one country with a single economic market. This would not just be good news for Mr. Comeau. It would be an extraordinary boost to the economy of the provinces – and it would be a wonderful gift for Canadians on the occasion of the country’s 150th birthday.

Michel Kelly-Gagnon is president and CEO at Montreal Economic Institute, Howard Anglin is executive director of the Canadian Constitution Foundation, and Marco Navarro-Génie is president and CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. The views reflected in this op-ed are their own.

Read more articles on the themes of "Liberalization of Markets" and "Regulations."

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