DIEPPE, N.B. — Canada's internal-trade ministers say they are making progress on reducing barriers for interprovincial alcohol sales, even before the country's highest court takes up the issue.
The Supreme Court of Canada will next month hear a case on cross-border liquor sales, but Ontario's Brad Duguid says he prefers public policy be settled through what's best for the public.
"My hope would be that our public policy will be gauged by the public interest rather than a court case necessarily, but we'll have to see what emerges from that," Duguid, Ontario's minister of Economic Development and Growth, said Friday after the ministers met in Dieppe, N.B.
The top court is hearing the case of Gerard Comeau, who was arrested in Tracadie, N.B., after returning from Quebec with more alcohol than is allowed under New Brunswick law.
Comeau successfully contested the 2012 ticket, arguing the 1867 Constitution Act mandates that all Canadian goods be admitted freely across the country. His lawyers argued the Fathers of Confederation wanted a single market for all products made in Canada.
Roger Melanson, New Brunswick's Treasury Board president and chairman of the federal/provincial Committee on Internal Trade, said he can't comment on the Comeau case while it's before the courts, but a working group set up by the committee is making progress.
"We're going full speed ahead with our working group from a trade perspective, trying to identify where we can have an easier flow of goods in terms of alcoholic beverages," he said.
Melanson said the Supreme Court decision will likely have an impact, but because no one knows when that decision will be released, it's important the working group forges ahead now.
He said the group is looking at a variety of issues ranging from limits imposed by individual provinces, to distribution systems that could be restricting markets for craft brewers.
If the justices rule in favour of Comeau's fight against provincial liquor monopolies, some trade experts have said the decision could trigger lawsuits across the country seeking to dismantle similar government-run corporations for cannabis.
Provinces are currently developing rules and regulations for the sale of recreational cannabis, which the federal government has said will become legal by July 2018.
The ministers said they had some discussion about cannabis and provincial boundaries on Friday, but need to see the full federal legislation before some decisions can be made.
Duguid said it's important to make the right decisions from the start.
"A lot of our discussions have been on the alcohol file, which has been a file that has bedevilled governments for generations. We have an opportunity here to ensure we don't make the same mistakes that our forefathers may have made on the alcohol file," he said.
Other issues discussed by the ministers include online sales and improving regulatory measures. It was their first meeting since the new Canadian Free Trade Agreement came into effect in July.
The ministers said they also discussed high food prices in northern Canada and other remote locations.
"As Canadians we want to make sure that wherever you live that you can have access to not only high quality food but certainly affordable food," Melanson said.
Duguid said it's also an issue in Ontario's north.
"Northern Ontario in the far north has similar food challenges where it's cheaper to buy a bottle of Coke and a bag of potato chips than a fresh, healthy meal. Hence you end up with fairly high diabetes rates and other health issues in some of those areas," he said.
The free trade agreement offers some protections for supply management, but the ministers say the challenges faced by northern communities need to be taken into account.
A working group will report in the spring on ways those prices could be lowered to improve access to healthy food choices.