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Free trade between provinces doesn't exits

When did beer become so important? Provincial governments fight over how much beer and other alcohol to allow across their borders. They also all want their own craft brewing industries. In one way that's rather funny.

When did beer become so important? Provincial governments fight over how much beer and other alcohol to allow across their borders. They also all want their own craft brewing industries.

In one way that's rather funny. Home brewing is the ultimate craft brewing. And making beer is really no more difficult than baking bread. The only catch is that you also have to clean and sterilize 60 bottles for each standard batch.

In another way it's not funny at all. The sale of alcoholic drinks is a symbol of how the provinces try to maintain advantages over one another — often to the cost of their own residents as well as other Canadians.

Alberta is not immune. The province has a strong case that its beer market has been more open than markets in other provinces. Now it's retaliating with a grant for small Alberta brewers. Why the beer industry needs to be singled out is a bit of a mystery. But it is.

Officially, the provinces are seeking ways to improve the trade of alcoholic drinks. A working group on the issue was formed when the premiers reached a “Canadian free trade agreement” at their meeting in Whitehorse in July.

Technical issues remain to be worked out before anyone knows what the “free trade agreement” will cover.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark said at the start of the premiers' meeting: ”It makes no sense that you can get B.C. wine more easily in China than you can in Ontario.”

That's true, but it's a small part of a much bigger and strange picture.

It makes no sense that all sorts of things are frustrated by provincial jealousies over turf and revenue. The barriers sometimes have dubious legal foundations, too.

The push toward freer trade in alcohol took on new urgency in April when a New Brunswick man won a case involving his attempt to transport 14 cases of beer and three bottles of liquor into his province from Quebec.

Provincial court Judge Ronald LeBlanc ruled that New Brunswick's restriction on interprovincial imports (similar to restrictions in other provinces) was unconstitutional. The New Brunswick government has appealed but a number of legal scholars expect the ruling to stand up.

Section 121 of the Constitution Act says: “All articles of the growth, produce or manufacture of any of the provinces shall, from and after the Union, be admitted free into each of the other provinces.”

That wording comes in a part on revenues and taxation. One would hope it means free movement as well as movement free of special taxes, but New Brunswick disagrees.

The premiers proudly claimed in July that free trade will be greatly enhanced once their agreement takes effect. Many economists and other commentators welcomed the prospect of economic stimulus resulting from freer trade and more open contracting.

Everyone seems to have left out broader considerations. Provincial insistence on protecting every millimetre of jurisdiction often interferes with the lives of ordinary Canadians.

Medicare coverage differs somewhat from one province to another.

You can drive a 14-year-old beater in Alberta. But if you try to bring a year-old Lexus from any province other than B.C. or Saskatchewan into Alberta and get it licensed you will have to pay for an out-of-province inspection — and even cars from the two favoured provinces escape inspection only if they are less than four years old.

Wills and associated documents are particularly tricky. If you move between provinces you may or may not need to write a new will, but you'll have to consult a lawyer to find out. Powers of attorney almost certainly have to be written anew in your new province. When naming an executor for your will it's much simpler to name someone in your own province. Leaving an inheritance to relatives from other provinces can tie them up in probate.

This may all have made some sense in the 19th century. Now it's a bothersome consequence of the provinces' jealous control of their constitutional jurisdiction over property and civil rights. If they want to keep the jurisdiction, they could at least arrange things so that provincial borders are transparent for all such matters.

Alberta bears as much responsibility for this state of affairs as other provinces.

The fallout encompasses not only unnecessary complications in people's lives, but attitudes toward other matters such as pipelines. The same Christy Clark who wants wine to travel freely across provincial borders thinks provinces can and should interfere with movement of oil. All these issues are related.

Mark Lisac

About the Author: Mark Lisac

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