Liquor on Board? Canada’s Confusing Patchwork of Rules for Inter-Provincial Liquor Transport

Authors: Grant Stefanson, Anna Solmundson

With summer holidays, lake weekends and long weekend travel around the corner, now is a good time to review the rules on travelling in Canada with sealed alcohol.

Since the end of prohibition, Canada has allowed the provinces to regulate and manage liquor within their own provincial boundaries. This decision has resulted in not only various legal minimum ages for the consumption of alcohol, but confusing rules regarding the movement of liquor across provincial boundaries as well.

In R. v. Comeau, a decision released April 19, 2018, the Supreme Court of Canada reviewed the legalities of New Brunswick’s restriction and reaffirmed the right of provinces to impede the free trade of liquor across provincial lines, provided the impediment to trade is merely incidental to the true purpose of the restriction, and not the actual intent.

Gerard Comeau, who lives in New Brunswick, had travelled to Quebec to purchase beer and liquor. Mr. Comeau did so because alcohol in in Quebec is more affordable than in New Brunswick. Unfortunately for Mr. Comeau, the New Brunswick Liquor Control Act (LCA), s. 134(b) makes it an offence to “have or keep liquor” in an amount that exceeds a prescribed threshold purchased from any Canadian source other than the New Brunswick Liquor Corporation. Mr. Comeau had purchased liquor in an amount exceeding the threshold. The alcohol was confiscated and Mr. Comeau was charged and fined $292.50 for breaching the LCA.

Mr. Comeau challenged the charge on the basis that s. 121 of Canada’s Constitution Act, provides all articles of manufacture from any province shall be “admitted free” into each of the other provinces, rendering s. 134(b) of the LCA unconstitutional, and thus invalid.

At the trial level, Mr. Comeau’s challenge was accepted. The trial judge relied on the evidence of a historical expert produced by Mr. Comeau in determining the intentions behind the creation of s. 121 of the Constitution Act.

The New Brunswick Court of Appeal dismissed the application for leave to appeal. The province of New Brunswick then appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, who determined the trial judge had erred by relying on evidence regarding the historical motivations and intent behind the drafting of s. 121 of the Constitution, and was incorrect in finding the LCA contravened the Constitution.

According to the Supreme Court of Canada, s. 134(b) of the LCA did not violate section 121, since it did not meet a two-step test:

  • The law must have a tariff-like effect on cross-border trade; and
  • Impeding trade must be the law’s primary purpose

The reception of R. v. Comeau has been mixed, with some viewing the decision as upholding an impediment to free trade across provincial lines. Others have praised the decision, noting that if the Supreme Court of Canada had upheld the trial finding, there could have been severe impacts on provinces’ ability to regulate other products within their borders, including, for example, poultry, eggs, dairy, and soon, cannabis.

Does this decision impact my ability to bring alcohol home from other provinces?

Manitoba places no limits on how much alcohol one can import from another province provided the alcohol is (1) not intended for resale or (2) being imported from another individual. This means you can feel free to bring home wines from your BC or Niagara vacation – as long they are purchased from a licensed vendor and you don’t intend to re-sell them.

Make sure any alcohol being transported is done so in accordance with Manitoba law. Alcohol must be in an unopened or sealed can, bottle or container, and stored in the trunk of a car, the box of a truck, behind the last row of seating in a station wagon, van or hatchback-type vehicle, or in another space designed for the carriage of goods or baggage that is not readily available. If in a boat, alcohol must be in an unopened or sealed can, bottle or container and stored in a closed compartment in the boat.

Can I bring alcohol purchased in Manitoba to a neighbouring province?

If you’re heading out for a lake weekend in Ontario, and planning to load up in Manitoba to save yourself additional stops, then make sure the amount of alcohol you’re bringing with you is compliant with Ontario’s liquor import policy. Alcohol for personal consumption can be brought into Ontario from another province. However, Ontario’s LCBO does set limits on how much alcohol can be brought top to three litres of spirits (four 750mL bottles), nine litres of wine (one case); and 24.6 litres of beer (about six cases of 12).

If you’re heading west to Saskatchewan, the following can be brought on your person (not shipped): up to three litres of spirits (four 750mL bottles); up to nine litres of wine (one case); and 24 litres of beer. Saskatchewan only allows direct shipping from British Columbia for BC produced wine and craft spirits.

What happens if I join a wine club from another province?

Many wineries and vintners’ associations in Ontario and British Columbia offer memberships or “wine clubs” where products are sent to members on a regular basis (usually monthly or quarterly) directly from wineries in exchange for a membership fee. Tastings at select venues and other events are often included in the cost of membership. Manitoba places no restrictions on inter-provincial import of alcohol for personal consumption. However, the province exporting the wine may have restrictions on shipments of alcohol out of province, so be sure to confirm the product can be shipped to you before you sign up.

Note: This article is of a general nature only and is not exhaustive of all possible legal rights or remedies. In addition, laws may change over time and should be interpreted only in the context of particular circumstances such that these materials are not intended to be relied upon or taken as legal advice or opinion. Readers should consult a legal professional for specific advice in any particular situation.

This article first appeared in Communication Journal, a publication of Pharmacists Manitoba