It was a stellar moment, an unprecedented example of interprovincial co-operation between law enforcement agencies. It was a sting operation involving undercover, plainclothes RCMP officers on one side of the J.C. Van Horne Bridge and Campbellton, N.B.'s finest on the other side. Split-second timing was vital to its success, as was maintaining an invisible presence, reconnaissance of the highest calibre and the painstakingly choreographed pas de deux of officers speaking each of Canada's official languages, joined in their quest for justice notwithstanding the Restigouche River standing between them.
Unknowingly and unwittingly, Gérard Comeau, a resident of Tracadie, N.B., stepped into the web spun by and conceived by the crackerjack joint operation task force of the two law enforcement agencies. In a brazen act of criminality, Messr. Comeau crossed the border between the two solitudes, unaware his every move was being monitored.
It was Oct. 6, 2012, a beautiful, crisp, fall Saturday. While it's unclear what exactly Messr. Comeau's master plan was, it was clear he was crossing the border into Quebec with criminal intent. He drove to Point-à-la-Croix. He proceeded to the Listiguj First Nation Reserve. He was under surveillance from the moment he arrived in La Belle Province.
The operation was the brainchild of Cpl. René Labbé, hereinafter referred to as Officer Obie for reasons that may, or may not, become obvious. Officer Obie knew this sort of crime was rampant in his peaceful community of Campbellton, notwithstanding the fact no one in town had filed any kind of complaint, though everyone knew it was going on. Indeed, it seemed many of the fine residents of Campbellton had fallen under the spell of the very criminal actions Officer Obie decided, of his own volition, to eradicate.
To that end, he enlisted fellow RCMP officers in Quebec. They were quick to seize the opportunity to practice their stealthy surveillance skills. Spotting Messr. Comeau, who made the fatal mistake of driving his own car with New Brunswick licence plates, they followed him as he made stops and purchased the means of pulling off his caper. They followed, patiently, in unmarked cars, onto the bridge. They radioed ahead to the New Brunswick officers waiting on the other side of the bridge, providing an accurate description the car, its licence plate and the soon to be notorious Messr. Comeau.
Busted. The takedown occurred with no bloodshed and little resistance. A search of the trunk of Messr. Comeau's car provided all the evidence needed. It proved beyond a doubt that Messr. Comeau had crossed a provincial border in pursuit of illegal activity — saving money on cheaper booze in Quebec. It also proved he had questionable taste in beer.
The heinous crime with which Messr. Comeau was charged was violating section 134(b) of the New Brunswick Liquor Control Act, the possession of liquor not purchased from the provincial liquor monopoly in excess of one bottle of spirits or 12 pints of beer. In total, Messr. Comeau had in his possession three bottles of spirits and 354 cans of beer, albeit eight cases of beer were various brands of light beer, which should have been, but wasn't, a lesser offence.
While it is unclear what was going through Messr. Comeau's mind at the time of his bust, it's not unfair to speculate it must have been something akin to the trauma Arlo Guthrie documented in his rambling song, Alice's Restaurant. While no mention was made of "... twenty-seven 8 x 10 colored glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explainin' what each one was, to be used as evidence..." it is likely evidence was carefully documented, given the magnitude of both the crime and the bust.
And I'm certain, if in fact he was familiar with the song, Messr. Comeau might have been thinking about the uncomfortable consequences of being taken down to the station and finding himself sittin' on the Group W bench with all kinds of mean, nasty, ugly-lookin' people... mother-rapers... father-stabbers... father-rapers, asking him what he'd been busted for. "Smugglin' beer... light beer at that."
But as it turned out, all he got was a $292.50 ticket for illegal possession of alcohol and, of course, his beer taken away. It is unclear what happened to the 17 other people caught in the sting that day, or exactly how many others were caught in the two-day operation. But evidence was tendered at Messr. Comeau's trial — yes, it went to court; that's why I'm writing about it — that upwards of two-thirds of the customers at popular liquor outlets across the border from Campbellton during a two-week period during the summer of 2015 were from New Brunswick.
It's unclear why Messr. Comeau decided to fight his ticket or how he enlisted the services of Arnold Schwisberg's — who you may recall for his ill-fated and shabbily treated Whistler Jazz Festival a few years back — team to defend him. But he did... and they won... and if the decision holds up on appeal it just may significantly change the very nature of Canada.
The court held the applicable section of New Brunswick's Liquor Control Act contravened section 121 of the Constitution Act, 1867 the document formerly known as the British North America Act, 1867. That section of Canada's founding document says, "All Articles of the Growth, Produce, or Manufacture of any one of the Provinces shall, from and after the Union, be admitted free into each of the other Provinces."
On its face, it would seem to mean there should be free trade between the provinces. That undoubtedly would be a surprise to anyone who's ever done cross-border business.
But words mean what people in authority say they mean and those words have been interpreted by Canada's Supreme Court to mean interprovincial trade must be free of tariffs or taxes. Clearly the New Brunswick law was more in the nature of a non-tariff trade barrier.
I'll spare you the rest of the details except to say the Honourable Judge Ronald LeBlanc, a provincial court judge in New Brunswick, said the Supreme Court got it wrong back in the day and found the law unconstitutional.
Yea, cheap beer. Not so fast, Grasshopper. Such a ruling would also call into question, among other things, marketing boards, different professional accreditation and licensing standards, differential tax rates designed to attract business, in short, pretty much everything that actually makes the confederation model work... up to this point.
If upheld, the Comeau decision has the potential to remake the social fabric of Canada, possibly for the better, possibly not, depending on your perspective.
But it's going to be one heck of a show to watch play out.