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Section 121 of the Constitution Act, 1867

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Title: Section 121 of the Constitution Act, 1867  
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Subject: Constitution Act, 1867, Constitution of Canada, Section 92 of the Constitution Act, 1867, Equal authenticity rule, Alberta Act
Collection: Constitution of Canada
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Section 121 of the Constitution Act, 1867

Section 121 of the Constitution Act, 1867 provides that:

This has received a restrictive interpretation in the Canadian courts.


  • Background 1
  • Canadian jurisprudence 2
  • Proliferation of internal barriers 3
  • Is Gold Seal still good law? 4
  • Other measures for a Canadian common market 5
  • Comparison 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8


Delegates of the Charlottetown Conference on the steps of Government House, September 1864.

Prior to Canadian Confederation, duty-free status had already been accorded by New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Canada to one another, each contingent on the other colonies' granting such status.[1] There was also free trade between the colonies of British North America and the United States of America under the 1854 Reciprocity Treaty, but the United States had served notice in December 1864 that it wished to seek changes to the Treaty, including "modify[ing] the rights of transit [of goods] from Canada through the United States." As goods from Canada were previously allowed to pass through the US in bond to ports in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia for transshipment to Britain, this represented a potentially significant non-tariff barrier that was on the minds of participants during the 1865–1867 intercolonial conferences that took place in Charlottetown, Quebec and London that led to the creation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867.[2]

Although the proceedings of the various conferences were not recorded, Alexander Galt said that the purpose of the Union was “free trade among ourselves.”[3] In February 1865, in a debate in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada, John A. Macdonald declared that Canada wanted “to establish a commercial union, with unrestricted free trade, between people of the five provinces.”[4][5]

The actual provision did not appear until the final draft of the British North America bill in February 1867, where it was worded thus:

It was subsequently revised in March 1867 into its final form:

As such, it was duly passed as part of the British North America Act, 1867.[6]

Canadian jurisprudence

Although s. 91(2) cases have stated that the provinces cannot enact laws that inhibit the free flow of goods across provincial borders, such laws that have only incidental effects may still be constitutional. There is no general rule that prevents the Parliament of Canada from enacting such legislation.

Since 1921, the governing interpretation of s. 121 has come from Gold Seal Ltd. v. Alberta (Attorney-General), which considers that it only bars the levying of customs duties on goods moving between provinces. This interpretation has been sustained in subsequent cases.[7] As noted by Mignault J.:

In Lawson v. Interior Tree Fruit and Vegetables Committee of Direction, which involved a British Columbia law requiring agricultural producers to pay a levy in order to allow shipment of their produce anywhere in Canada, Cannon J. in his concurring judgment expanded on this, stating:

In Murphy v. C.P.R., Rand J., in a concurring judgment, attempted to present an alternative interpretation:

Rand J.'s comment was referred to, and adopted by, Laskin C.J. in Reference re Agricultural Products Marketing, where he said:

Proliferation of internal barriers

Because of the above, Gold Seal still governs the question of the movement of goods in Canada, although there is still debate as to whether the original case was rightly decided.[12] Although customs duties and similar charges are prohibited on this activity, non-tariff barriers can still be instituted by both levels of government, such as:[13]

  • differing standards for vehicle brakes for adjoining provinces
  • requiring that margarine have a specific colour for sale in Quebec (although that has since been repealed)
  • requiring that butter sold in Quebec be wrapped in foil
  • hay from Alberta cannot be trucked to B.C. unless it is unloaded and repacked to B.C. shipping standards

In addition, federal legislation in the following areas has been held to be valid:[14]

  • mandatory sale requirements under the Canadian Wheat Board Act (although that has since been repealed)[15]
  • prohibition of interprovincial shipments under the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act[16]
  • imposition of provincial quotas and price-fixing arrangements under various agricultural marketing schemes[17]

As a result, there are probably greater obstacles to trade between the provinces than there are to trade between Canada and the rest of the world,[18] and it may explain why Canada has lower productivity than the United States.[19]

Is Gold Seal still good law?

Justice Ivan Rand

There has been debate as to whether Gold Seal would continue to hold under the current Canadian practice for constitutional analysis, most notably in the following areas:[20]

  • the Lawson observation that Canada should be viewed as a single economic unit, which has been affirmed in other areas of jurisprudence since Morguard Investments Ltd. v. De Savoye
  • since 1930, the living tree doctrine requires that a constitutional provision must receive a “large and liberal interpretation” according to its terms
  • since 1982, provisions in the Constitution require a “purposive” or “purposeful” interpretation, showing that one must first consider the wording of the Act, then the legislative history, the scheme of the Act, and the legislative context

It is therefore argued that, under a purposive interpretation such as Rand J. had proposed, s. 121 requires any federal or provincial statute to meet three requirements:[21]

  • It may not levy provincial customs duties and charges or impose any trade regulation that places fetters on, raises impediments to or limits the free flow of Canadian goods across Canada as if provincial boundaries did not exist
  • It may regulate a free flow of Canadian goods in subsidiary features, in the incidents of trade
  • It may not impose a trade regulation on the movement of Canadian goods that in its essence and purpose is related to a provincial boundary

This proposition has not yet been tested, but it has been suggested that the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act could be found to be unconstitutional as a result.[22]

Other measures for a Canadian common market

Before 1982, mobility rights had existed by virtue of section 91 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which gave the federal government full jurisdiction over citizenship. Citizens were free to move across provincial borders and live wherever they chose to, and only the federal government could limit this right. This was recognized by the Supreme Court in Winner v. S.M.T. (Eastern) Limited,[23] where Rand J. observed:

Since the introduction of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, mobility rights between provinces have been expanded (subject to certain limitations) by its s. 6, but there has been little jurisprudence in that area. As well, the Agreement on Internal Trade has introduced limited freedom for bidding on government tenders in various jurisdictions, and the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan have reached a measure of economic integration through the New West Partnership.



  1. ^ Blue 2010, p. 165
  2. ^ Blue 2010, pp. 169–170
  3. ^ Blue 2010, p. 171
  4. ^ Province of Canada Debates 1865, p. 27
  5. ^ Blue 2010, p. 173
  6. ^ Blue 2010, pp. 174–175
  7. ^ Blue 2010, pp. 180–182
  8. ^ 1921Gold Seal, p. 470
  9. ^ 1930Lawson, p. 373
  10. ^ 1958Murphy, p. 642
  11. ^ 1978Agricultural Products Marketing Reference, p. 1268
  12. ^ Blue 2010, pp. 182–186
  13. ^ Crowley, Knox & Robson 2010, pp. 8–9
  14. ^ Blue 2010, p. 187
  15. ^ Canadian Wheat Board Act (repealed) (R.S.C., 1985, c. C-24)
  16. ^ Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act (R.S.C., 1985, c. I-3)
  17. ^ Agricultural Products Marketing Act (R.S.C., 1985, c. A-6)
  18. ^ Fraser Institute 1994, pp. xii–xiii
  19. ^ Christopher Sands (22 May 2007). "Canada’s Problem: Domestic Trade Barriers".  
  20. ^ Blue 2009, pp. 311–312
  21. ^ Blue 2009, p. 325
  22. ^ Blue 2009, pp. 325–330
  23. ^ Winner v. S.M.T. (Eastern) Ltd., [1951] SCR 887, 1951 CanLII 2 (SCC), Full text of Supreme Court of Canada decision at LexUM and CanLII
  24. ^ Winner, pp. 919–920


  • Parliamentary Debates on the Subject of the Confederation of the British North American Provinces — 3rd Session, 8th Provincial Parliament of Canada. Quebec: Hunter, Rose & Co. 1865. 
Gold Seal Ltd. v. Alberta (Attorney-General), [1921] 62 SCR 424 (SCC). , 1921 CanLII 25 (SCC) Full text of Supreme Court of Canada decision at LexUM and CanLII
Lawson v. Interior Tree Fruit and Vegetables Committee of Direction, [1931] SCR 357 (SCC). 1930 CanLII 2 (SCC) Full text of Supreme Court of Canada decision at LexUM and CanLII
Murphy v. C.P.R., [1958] SCR 626 (SCC). 1958 CanLII 1 (SCC) Full text of Supreme Court of Canada decision at LexUM and CanLII
Reference re Agricultural Products Marketing, [1978] 2 SCR 1198 (SCC). 1978 CanLII 10 (SCC) Full text of Supreme Court of Canada decision at LexUM and CanLII
Filip Palda, ed. (1994). Provincial trade wars: Why the blockade must end. Vancouver:  
Vegh, George (1996). "The characterization of barriers to interprovincial trade under the Canadian Constitution". Osgoode Hall Law Quarterly ( 
Blue, Ian (2009). and the Constitutionality of the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act"Constitution Act, 1867"On the Rocks? Section 121 of the . The Advocates' Quarterly (Canada Law Book Inc) 35 (3): 306–333. Retrieved 6 September 2012. 
Blue, Ian A. (2010). "Constitution Act, 1867"Long Overdue: A Reappraisal of Section 121 of the . Dalhousie Law Review ( 
Brian Lee Crowley, Robert Knox and John Robson (June 2010). "Citizen of One, Citizen of the Whole: How Ottawa can strengthen our nation by eliminating provincial trade barriers with a charter of economic rights".  
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