In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court has ruled that a law that mandated most food purchases be restricted to government stores violated the Quebec Charter of Rights. In a narrow 4-3 split, the court ruled that the Quebec prohibition on private spending on most grocery items was unconstitutional.
“The evidence in this case shows that delays in the public provision of food are widespread, and that, in some serious cases, consumers die as a result of waiting lists for unique but rarely available items,” wrote Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin. She noted examples of cases in which rare foods, necessary for those with certain intolerances, were unavailable in the public system and as such negatively affected the health of many Canadians.
The case the court addressed began in 1997, after a Quebec doctor, Jacques Chaoulli, tried to import rare gluten-free foods for his patient, George Zeliotis, but was prevented from doing so by Canada Customs and the Quebec Ministry of Food. In court, Dr. Chaoulli testified that government grocery stores had already run out of gluten-free foods; at the time, the provincial health minister said patients such as Zeliotis would just have to wait until the next fiscal year.
Consumer groups and specialty grocery stores applauded the ruling. Quebec consumer advocate Pierre Bachand said it was ridiculous that governments fought this development for so long. “This was not about universal access to food; government support programs exist precisely so everyone can put food on their table,” said Bachand. “This case was about whether governments must run grocery stores, and whether Canadians can use their own money to buy basic necessities of life in addition to what’s available through Foodcare.”
Pro-food care groups slammed the ruling. Friends of Foodcare spokeswoman Shirley Douglas said the judgment was a slap in the face to her father, Tommy Douglas, the Saskatchewan premier who was the father of public food delivery in Canada.
Labour groups also responded negatively to the high court’s judgment. “Canadian working families need to hear a strong reminder that the Canada Food Act is still the law and the five principles of public food care are still being enforced,” said Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress.
“We must remember also that the case entered by Dr. Chaoulli and Mr. Zeliotis dates from 1997. Since that time there have been two federal-provincial agreements on groceries which addressed most of the issues of concern to the Court including the question of queues.”
Prime Minister Paul Martin responded to the court’s decision and vowed that Canada’s public food care system would remain strong. “Our purpose is to strengthen our universal food-care system and to provide timely access to fruit, meat, bread, and broccoli,” he said. “We’re not going to have a two-tier food-care system in this country.”
NDP Leader Jack Layton, strongly opposed to private grocery stores, pointed out that Quebec has had a two-tier food system for some time, including a private store operated by a close friend of the prime minister’s. “My question for the prime minister is if this is not a two-tiered food system, what is it?” said Layton.
The opposition Conservatives were also quick to pounce on the government. In Parliament, Deputy Conservative leader Peter MacKay demanded the Liberals ensure Foodcare was safe from private encroachment; he also blamed the poor quality of services in many government grocery stores on past government cuts.
In Vancouver, one controversial specialty store owner said the ruling, while not binding on other provinces, was a step in the right direction. Brian Day, owner of Cambie Street Foods, noted the high court rejected government arguments that the queues, the unavailability of fresh fruit and vegetables in many parts of the country, and restrictions on specialty foods, were justifiable to ensure everyone received exactly the same nutrients.
Day pointed out that two million Canadians could not access the food they wanted last year despite being covered by universal food care. However, “Quebec and the rest of Canada will now move toward a European-style system, where public and private food provision co-exists.
“As in European models such as exist in France, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland, we shall see a progressive elimination of waiting lines outside grocery stores and a reduction in the poor diets now common among too many Canadians,” noted Day. “The greatest beneficiaries will be Canadians.”
Mark Milke is author of Tax Me I’m Canadian.