Why Governments Are Not Angels

The SNC-Lavalin affair reveals serious challenges to the functioning of all three branches of the Canadian government

This post is co-written with Mark Mancini

Law Matters has approached us suggesting that we write a short piece on the lessons of the SNC-Lavalin affair ― and kindly accepted to let us post it here without waiting for their publishing process to take its course. So, with our gratitude to their Editor-in-Chief Joshua Sealy-Harrington, here it is.

Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould was shuffled out of her office, and then resigned from cabinet; fellow minister Jane Philpott resigned too, and so have Gerald Butts, the principal secretary to Prime Minister, and Michael Wernick, the Clerk of the Privy Council. Ms. Wilson-Raybound and Dr. Philpott have now been expelled from the Liberal caucus. Indeed, the Trudeau government’s future is seemingly imperiled by the SNC-Lavalin scandal. In the unflattering light of these events, Canadians may rightly wonder about the way our government works.

It appears that many of the key decisions in the affair were made by the Prime Minister’s surrogates, who had no regard for the legality of the situation, but were only too happy to advance a political agenda. While the situation is still unfolding, one can already say that it has revealed significant challenges faced by all three branches of our government, and the defects in the ways in which they relate to one another.

Most fundamentally, the SNC-Lavalin affair requires us to take a grittier view of the way government works in Canada. As one of us wrote previously, government in the 20th century was widely perceived as a means to achieve certain substantive ends associated with the social welfare state.  The basic mythology held that, to break the “individualistic” mould of a judicially-developed law focused on upholding property rights and private contractual arrangements, Parliament and legislatures enacted complex legislation, to be administered by expert and efficient tribunals and agencies nested within the executive branch but more or less independent from the supervision of its political masters. This delegation was meant to remove from courts issues of collective justice deemed ill-suited for judicial resolution. The courts, meanwhile, were given a different but even more prestigious role: that of upholding a confined but elastic range of (mostly) non-economic individual rights and liberties.  

This rather Pollyannaish view of government persists today. The executive and agencies are seen as trustworthy technocrats, entitled to judicial deference (regardless of the absence of any real empirical evidence to support this view). Parliament, as the high-minded centre of political representation (at least so long as it is controlled by parties sympathetic to the redistributive project) and accountability. The courts, as the protectors of the rights of minorities. The SNC-Lavalin affair provides strong evidence that this picture is naïve.


The executive branch of government, it turns out, is not only populated by neutral, technocratic arbiters of policy. Rather, politically-minded actors, people like the Prime Minister’s former Principal Secretary, lurk in the shadows―and consider themselves entitled to really call the shots. These are the people who, in the face of an Attorney General’s refusal to cede to the Prime Minister’s pressure, said that they did not want to talk about legalities. They were ready to line up op-eds in newspapers to provide cover fire for their dismissive attitude toward law and discredited legislation adopted by a previous Parliament in which their party did not control the seats.

Instead of being guided by the law, or even (their own conception of) justice, these unelected, unaccountable apparatchiks are only motivated by the prospects of electoral success. Their empowerment means that even those decisions of the executive branch that are ostensibly protected by constitutional principles and conventions mandating their independence (like the prosecutorial function), are perceived as always up for grabs, according to the demands of political expediency.

Meanwhile, some civil servants are a quite prepared to act as the political hacks’ supporting cast, instead of standing up for rules and procedures. Mr. Wernick, the former head of the civil service, certainly was, having apparently had no compunctions about relaying the Prime Minister’s unconstitutional threats to the former Attorney-General and persisting when she warned him of the inappropriateness of his behavior.

But what of Parliament’s role in fostering accountability? Here again, one should not be too optimistic. A government that has the support of a majority of members in the House of Commons will also command a majority on, and thus control the work of, Select Committees, which are key to ensuring that the government is held to account beyond the limited opportunities afforded by the spectacle of question time. Admittedly, the committee supposedly looking into the SNC-Lavalin affair has let the former Attorney General present her version of the events, and it has made public the further documents she supplied, including the damning recording of one of her conversations with Mr. Wernick. Yet the committee is still resisting the calls to allow Ms. Wilson-Raybould to appear again to respond to Messrs. Butts and Wernick’s subsequent attempts to discredit her.

Parliament’s role as a locus of accountability is further compromised by the restrictions on what Ms. Wilson-Raybould is able―as a matter of ethics, at least―to say, even under cover of Parliamentary privilege. The problem is twofold. First, there is some debate about whether Parliamentary procedure would provide the former Attorney General an opportunity to speak despite the opposition of her former party colleagues. Second, even if such an opportunity is available, there is the matter of cabinet privilege, which in principle binds former (as well as current) ministers, even when they speak in Parliament. The Prime Minister could waive privilege in this case, to allow Ms. Wilson-Raybould to speak freely, but he is refusing to do so. 

Finally, the judiciary is unlikely to come out well of the SNC-Lavalin affair―even though it is not directly involved. For one thing, someone―and it is not unreasonable to suppose that that someone is not very far removed from the Prime Minister’s entourage or office―has seen it fit to drag a respected sitting judge, Chief Justice Joyal of the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench, through the mud in an attempt to cast aspersions on the former Attorney General. (One of us, we should perhaps note, has been more critical than the other of that judge’s views. In any case, the insinuations that Chief Justice Joyal would not follow the constitution are based on, at best, a fundamental misreading of his extra-judicial statements.)

But beyond that deplorable incident of which a sitting judge has been an innocent victim, it is the former members of the judiciary whose standing has been called into question. In particular, it is worth noting that Mr. Wernick, in his conversations with Ms. Wilson-Raybould, seemed to have no doubt that the former Chief Justice would be able to provide support for the Prime Minister’s position―despite his repeated acknowledgements that he was no lawyer. There is no question that the former Chief Justice, and other former judges involved in or mentioned in connection with the SNC-Lavalin affair, were independent while they were on the bench. Yet their willingness to become hired guns once retired, and perhaps to take aim in accordance with the government’s commands, is still disturbing.


One view of the matter is that―despite the gory appearances it projects and creaky sounds it makes― “the system works”. As Philippe Lagassé wrote in Maclean’s, referring to James Madison’s well-known remark in Federalist No. 51 that “[i]f men were angels, no government would be necessary”, the test of a government is not whether its non-angelic members turn out to be fallible, and sometimes unethical, human beings, but whether “our constitutional constructs include checks and balances to deal with their naturally occurring slip-ups”.

And perhaps the SNC-Lavalin affair ought to give new life to the idea that responsible government—and its attendant norms of political accountability and control of the executive by Parliament—provide adequate checks and balances for government in the 21st century. Despite the limitations on Parliament’s ability to hold the government to account, the opposition party has been able to whip up sufficient public scrutiny to force the hand of the incumbent ministry. Notably, the exposure of the roles played by Messrs. Butts and Wernick is a consequence of the opposition’s pressure―as well as, arguably, of the ability of the media, old and new, to involve experts capable of explaining complex constitutional issues in the discussion of political events. Perhaps, if public attention to aspects of our system that we typically do not consider can be sustained once the interest in the scandal at hand subsides, the system will even come out of it stronger than it was, especially if Parliament can, henceforth, put its mind to holding the executive accountable for its exercise of the powers Parliament has delegated to it.

But this view may well be too optimistic. Just a couple of sentences before his “if men were angels” quip, Madison issued a no less famous exhortation: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” The worry is that our constitutional set-up fails to adequately establish this connection; that it does not guarantee that ambition will counteract instead of abetting ambition; and it relies too much on human character being, if not angelic, then unusually virtuous.

As Dr. Philpott observed in a statement following her expulsion from the Liberal caucus, “[i]t is frankly absurd to suggest that I would leave one of the most senior portfolios in government for personal advancement”. Similarly, it seems most unlikely that Ms. Wilson-Raybould would have taken the principled stand she took, rather than doing the bidding of Messrs. Butts and Wernick and the Prime Minister himself, had she been the ordinarily self-interested politician. The ambitious thing to do for someone in her position would have been to take a hint, and to do as she was told.

And what would have happened then? Sure, her decision to overrule the Public Prosecution Service and to make a deal with SNC-Lavalin would have had to be published, and would have generated some negative publicity. But friendly journalists marshaled by Mr. Butts, and perhaps the former Chief Justice too, would have provided cover. It seems reasonable to suppose that the SNC-Lavalin affair, if we would even have been calling it that, would have been over already, and almost a certainty that it not have become the major political event that Ms. Wilson-Raybould has made it.

In other words, it is at least arguable that whether fundamental constitutional principles are upheld by our government turns rather too much on individuals doing the right thing under great political pressure, and despite their self-interest. It is to Ms. Wilson-Raybould credit that she has acted in this way. But it seems unwise, to say the least, to rely on her successors always following her example, or to suppose that her predecessors always have set a similar one.

A more realistic view of government, and of its more or less visible denizens, may thus lead us to conclude that all is not well with our constitutional system. In one respect, Madison (in Federalist No. 48) turned out to be wrong. It is not the legislative branch but the executive that “is everywhere extending the sphere of its activity, and drawing all power into its impetuous vortex”. Law enforcement, Parliament, and perhaps even the judiciary, are endangered by its obstruction, threats, and promises of favours. We must recognize the difficulty to have the slightest chance of doing anything about it.

Nothing to Celebrate

Québec’s irreligious dress code proposal isn’t an opportunity to extol democracy, or to do away with judicial review of legislation

In a recent post at Policy Options, Joanna Baron and Geoffrey Sigalet argue that the invocation of section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the notorious “notwithstanding clause”, to insulate Bill 21, Québec’s proposed legislation making irreligion the province’s official creed from judicial scrutiny “is an opportunity for democratic renewal” in discussions about matters constitutional. In doing so, they come another step closer to overtly taking a position that has always been implicit in the arguments of many of section 33’s fans: that the enactment of the Charter was a mistake. Indeed, they go further and, intentionally or otherwise, make the same suggestion regarding the courts’ ability to enforce the federal division of powers under the Constitution Act, 1867. It is brave of Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet to make this argument with Bill 21 as a hook. Yet courageous though it is, the argument is not compelling.

Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet dismiss claims to the effect that, while section 33 prevents the scrutiny of Bill 21 for compliance with the Charter’s guarantees of religious freedom and equality, other constitutional arguments remain available. (I have presented one such argument, building on Maxime St-Hilaire’s work, here.) To them, they are no more than a “legalistic … distraction”. Opponents of Bill 21 should, rather, be “making the democratic case for protecting religious freedom”. Indeed, we should be celebrating “the legislative process … with its tradition of active debate”, which allows Québec to take a “collaborative approach to fleshing out important rights”. We should also be celebrating street protests, open letters, and even threats of disobedience issued by some of the organizations that will be responsible for applying Bill 21 when it becomes law. After all, letting the courts apply the Charter “can wind up overriding rights in ways similar to Bill 21”, while causing “an atrophying of the democratic process as a forum where rights are debated, articulated and enacted”. In short, “rights should not be taken for granted, nor left to judges. They require the thoughtful participation of the people themselves.”

I agree with this last point. Rights are unlikely to enjoy much protection in a political culture in which they are seen as something of concern to the courts alone. In one way or another ― whether through judicial acquiescence or through legislative override ― whatever constitutional protections for rights might exist in such a society will be cast aside. Québec is an excellent example of this. And, for my part, I have made a political, as well as a legal, case against Bill 21 here. The two can, and should, coexist.

And this is where Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet go badly wrong. In their headlong rush to praise politics, they denigrate the law. Without seriously addressing their merits, their dismiss plausible (albeit, to be fair, not unassailable) legal arguments as mere legalism. This applies not only to an argument based on the Charter, but also to one based on federalism. Presumably, we should count on the political process to sort out which of two different but equally democratic majorities should have the ability to impose its religious views on Canadians ― or any other issues about which order of government has the ability to legislate with respect to a particular subject. Similarly, Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet appear to see no harm in state institutions, such as school boards, threatening to act lawlessly, the Rule of Law be damned.

Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet also take a remarkably optimistic view of the political process. They say not a word of the fact that the “active debate” for which the praise Québec’s legislature may well be curtailed by the government. They call for democratic persuasion in the face of a law that is designed to impose few, if any, burdens, at least in the way in which it is likely to be enforced, on Québec’s lapsed-Catholic majority, and great burdens on a few minority groups that have long been subjects of suspicion if not outright vilification. A thoughtful advocate of democratic control over rights issues, Jeremy Waldron, at least worried in his “The Core of the Case against Judicial Review” about the possibility that political majorities will put their interests above the rights of minority groups. “Injustice”, he writes, “is what happens when the rights or interests of the minority are
wrongly subordinated to those of the majority”, (1396) and we may legitimately worry about the tyranny of the majority when political majorities dispose of the rights of minority groups without heeding their concerns. Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet show no sign of being so worried, or of entertaining the possibility that the Québec society’s commitment to religious liberty is fundamentally deficient.

To be sure, Professor Waldron (rightly) reminds us that minorities “may be wrong about the rights they have; the majority may be right”. (1397) He also insists that, in societies genuinely committed to rights, it will rarely be the case that questions of rights will provoke neat splits between majority and minority groups. Still, we should be mindful of his acknowledgement that it in is cases like Bill 21, where majorities focus on their own preoccupations and are willing to simply impose their views on minorities, that the arguments in favour of judicial enforcement of constitutional rights protections are at their strongest. There is also a very strong argument ― and a democratic argument, too ― to be made in support of judicial enforcement of the federal division of powers, which serves to preserve the prerogative of democratic majorities to decide, or not to decide, certain issues.

Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet do not recognize these arguments, which leads me to the conclusion that they see no room for (strong-form) judicial review of legislation, under any circumstances. I believe that this position, at least so far as the Charter is concerned, is implicit in most if not all of the recent attempts to rehabilitate section 33. If one argues that we should trust legislatures to sometime come to views about rights that deserve to prevail over those of the courts, indeed perhaps to correct judicial mistakes, then why trust them in some cases only, and not in all? The application of this logic to federalism isn’t as familiar in the Canadian context, but in for a penny, in for a pound, I suppose.

Yet in my view, this is a mistake. As the circumstances surrounding Bill 21 show, politics is often little more than the imposition of the preferences of one group on another by brute force. This is as true in a democracy as it is under any other political regime. Democracy makes it more likely (although it does not guarantee) that the triumphant group will be a majority of the citizenry, which may or may not be a good thing. Democracy means that governmental decrees are, in principle (although not always in practice) reversible, and this is most definitely a good thing, and the reason why democracy is the least bad form of government. But I see no basis for pretending that democratic politics is somehow wise, or that it fosters meaningful debate about rights or other constitutional issues. Yes, there are some examples of that, on which opponents of judicial review of legislation like to seize. But these examples are few and far between and, more importantly, nothing about the nature of democratic politics makes their regular occurrence likely.

And of course it is true that strong-form judicial review of legislation, or judicial enforcement of rights (and of federalism) more broadly, sometimes fails to protect rights as fully as it should. I’m not sure that Dr. Sigalet and Ms. Baron’s chosen example, Alberta v Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, 2009 SCC 37, [2009] 2 SCR 567, is especially compelling ― I think the case was wrongly decided, but the majority’s position at least rested on the sort of concern that can in principle justify limitations on rights. The more recent decisions in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, [2018] 2 SCR 293 and the companion Ontario case are much worse in this regard, and provide compelling examples of an abject judicial failure to enforce the rights of a (rightly) maligned minority against an overbearing majority. Judicial review provides only a chance that what the political or administrative process got wrong will be set right, not a guarantee. But there is no compelling reason to think that the (usual) availability of judicial review causes the political debate about rights or other constitutional issues to atrophy. After all, as I have argued here, politicians are just as wont to ignore the constitution when they know or think that their decisions are not judicially reviewable as when they know that they are.  

In short, I am all for making the case for rights, and even federalism, outside the courtroom, and in ways that do not only speak to those carrying the privilege, or the burden, of legal training. I am all for making submissions to legislatures to try to prevent them from committing an injustice ― I’ve done it myself. And I’m all for protest, and even for civil disobedience by ordinary citizens when the politicians won’t listen ― though I have serious misgivings about officials declining to follow the law, partly for the reasons co-blogger Mark Mancini outlined here, and partly due to concerns of my own. But if the legally-minded among us should not neglect the political realm, then the politically-inclined should not disparage the law. The would-be prophets of popular sovereignty ought to remember Edward Coke’s words in his report of Prohibitions del Roy :

the law [is] the golden met-wand and measure to try the causes of the subjects; and which protect[s] His Majesty in safety and peace: with which the King was greatly offended, and said, that then he should be under the law, which was treason to affirm, as he said; to which I said, that Bracton saith, quod Rex non debed esse sub homine, sed sub Deo et lege.

This is no less true of today’s democratic sovereign, though it be no less apt to stand on its own dignity as James I.

Abellian “Law”

It is with an utter lack of surprise that I yet again fill the virtual pages of Double Aspect with thoughts on another of Justice Abella’s comments on the nature of judging. Both Leonid and I have continuously written about how Justice Abella frequently displays a judicial arrogance  that is inconsistent with the role of a judge in a constitutional democracy, both descriptively and normatively. I hesitate to write yet again on the same subject.

But I am moved to do so by the utter lack of accuracy in Justice Abella’s recent speech at Fordham University, where she described a bastardized version of the Canadian approach to constitutional and statutory interpretation. Here are the comments in a release from Fordham:

“Our judges don’t draw lines over whether to follow a linguistic word approach or an intentionalist approach,” she said. “We just look at how we think this provision should be interpreted in light of all the things you worry about: what did the legislature mean, what do the words say, what was the purpose of the statute, all of that.”

Justice Abella discussed the importance of the Edwards v Canada case, more commonly known as the Persons Case, which concluded that women were eligible to sit in the Senate of Canada. In the 1929 decision, Lord Sankey stated that the British North America Act is “a living tree capable of growth and expansion within its natural limits.” Justice Abella spoke about this idea, the living tree doctrine, as a basic guiding principle.

“[The living tree doctrine] is constitutional but it’s also philosophically foundational,” she said. “It’s how we approach not only the constitution but also our statutes. What is the fair, appropriate, and just meaning of the phrase? We read it in the most reasonable way possible.”

I need not repeat yet again, from the constitutional perspective, why Justice Abella’s comments are wrong as a normative matter respecting the living tree.  I want to concentrate on the seemingly more mundane matter of statutory interpretation, and Justice Abella’s statements that we apply a “living tree” methodology in that context. She is flat-out, embarrassingly wrong as a positive law matter; but as a normative matter, the view is dangerous.

On positive law grounds, it is completely untrue that courts in Canada apply a “living tree” approach to the interpretation of statutes as a matter of course. The Supreme Court has held, time and time again, that statutes should given the meaning they had at the time they were adopted. This was the definitive statement of Dickson J in Perka, at 264-265, citing authorities noting that “The words of a statute must be construed as they would have been the day after the statute was passed…” and “Since a statute must be considered in the light of all circumstances existing at the time of its enactment it follows logically that words must be given the meanings they had at the time of enactment, and the courts have so held.”  Most recently, as co-blogger Leonid Sirota stated on Twitter, this was the approach adopted by the Supreme Court in R v DLW  where the Court cited Perka, noting that while broad terms might be afforded a more flexible interpretation, the original meaning governed in that case. Justice Abella dissented. So, contrary to her belief,  the general rule is that the original meaning of a statute applies.

This makes sense. No matter what one thinks the strengths of living constitutionalism are in the constitutional context, the argument loses force in the statutory world.  At a formal level, constitutions are restrictions on the legislature, and one could argue that they are developed by the judicial branch through strong-form judicial review, in Canada. But statutes are clearly the product of the legislative branch (or their delegates). Judges have no warrant–at least since 1688–to legislate. At a functional level, it could be true that Constitutions are not easily amended, and so judges should develop their meaning to new facts. But that same argument is so clearly wrong in the statutory context, where statutes are passed and amended by legislatures all the time.

One might try to steel-man Justice Abella’s comments by relying on the comments in R v DLW and other general interpretive principles. It is true that “dynamic interpretation” is indeed a distinct method of interpretation, recognized in Canada: see Ruth Sullivan on the Construction of Statutes at 175 (2014). While it is true that the Court in R v DLW and other cases have noted that statutory terms can take on a “dynamic meaning,” this is far from the ordinary rule, generally only applicable in defined circumstances given defined statutory language: see Sullivan, at 177. And even if it was, the dynamic approach is not inconsistent with original meaning, and it does not support Justice Abella’s broad misunderstanding of textualism. One can speak of two types of original meaning:

  1. Situations in which statutory terms should be statically applied to the same situations that were in their contemplation at the time of enactment.
  2. Situations in which statutory terms are broad and must be applied to new facts as they arise.

 

Both of these situations are consistent with original meaning. In the first case, both meaning and application are largely frozen at the time of enactment. Sullivan says an interpretation of this sort is justified when “…new facts are functionally equivalent or analogous to facts that were within the ambit of the legislation when it first came into force” (Sullivan, at 179), for example. In the latter case, though, the legislature has spoken more broadly, and this is where a “dynamic” approach enters the fray. But this does not mean that the statute receives a new meaning according to some Abellian idea of an unbridled living tree: it just means that its contours are applied to new facts. We constrain the meaning–the scope of application– using text, context, and purpose. I always use the example of the Kyllo decision in the US, in which the Court endorsed the proposition that the 4th Amendment (protecting against searches and seizures) applied to infrared searches of the home. The scope of the 4th Amendment always protected the home, and it applied to the new facts of infrared searches.

The situation, then, is much more subtle and sophisticated than Justice Abella suggests, and the subtletly does not work in her favour.

Undeterred, she goes on to suggest that courts in Canada take an “anything goes” approach to statutory interpretation, seemingly rejecting textualism. This mistake is even more bizarre, considering the very recent decision in Telus v Wellman, which I wrote about here. Justice Abella, in her Fordham talk, suggests that courts do not draw lines between “textualism” and “intentionalism” in Canada. But she herself attempts to do so (wrongly) in her dissent, at para 107 of the decision:

The debate between those who are “textualists” and those who are “intentionalists” was resolved in Canada in 1998 when this Court decided that “there is only one principle or approach, namely, the words of an Act are to be read in their entire context and in their grammatical and ordinary sense harmoniously with the scheme of the Act, the object of the Act, and the intention of Parliament. We do not just look at the words.

Not only that, but the majority in decision in Wellman comes down on the side of text over abstract, judicially defined purposes. Justice Abella was in dissent–she did not win the argument, for very good reasons. So, again, Justice Abella finds herself claiming that the law is something when it is not.

Two normative conclusions can be drawn about Justice Abella’s odd talk at Fordham, one about the merits of what she says the law is and one about the role of a judge in Canada. Take the latter first. It would be one thing if what Justice Abella said was an honest, innocent mistake. But I find it that hard to believe in these circumstances. Wellman just happened, and Justice Abella lost the argument she now claims she won. Why a judge in our democracy would say this—especially to an international audience—is unclear. We should expect better

The merits of the suggestion that courts in Canada apply a living tree approach to statutes are also lacking. First, as Craig Forcese said on Twitter, the suggestion would amount to a complete reversal of the ordinary structure of our Constitution. The judicial function is, to state what I thought was the obvious, completely separate from the legislative. Justice Abella seems to have much in common with the old English judge who told an unfortunate lawyer trying to give his best interpretation of the statute: “Do not gloss the statute, for we know better than you, we made it.” We’ve moved far beyond these days, and it is odd for a “progressive” judge like Justice Abella to suggest we go back in that direction. Parliamentary sovereignty should stand for something.

The suggestion that judges should make up statutory meaning as they go along would have positively corrosive effects in many areas of law. Criminal law is an obvious example, but administrative law is another. Judges, rather than Parliament, would be the master of agencies if they could expand or narrow the scope of delegated power exercised by these agencies depending on the judges’ particular worldview. Not only does this stand inconsistently with the Court’s own professed idea of deference, it is dangerous to subvert Parliament’s laws in service of a judge’s ideology.

And this, I suppose, is the point. While I believe that Justice Abella means well, she reveals an unfortunate arrogance that crops up in speech after speech. For one, she claims the law is her opinion when it is not. Then, she takes on the mantle of judging what a statute should mean, given her own impressions of what it requires. It takes someone with much self-confidence to do this. Whether or not we should have confidence in her is quite another matter altogether. A Supreme Court judgeship is not enough, in a democracy, to give its holder the mantle of deciding what laws should mean or which laws should apply. Someone who believes so is better suited to be a politician than a judge.

 

Is This Correct?

Should deference be denied to administrative interpretations of laws that implement international human rights?

Gerald Heckman and Amar Khoday have recently posted on SSRN a forthcoming article, due to be published in the Dalhousie Law Review, called “Once More Unto The Breach: Confronting The Standard of Review (Again) and the Imperative of Correctness Review When Interpreting the Scope of Refugee Protection”. As the title suggests, Professors Heckman and Khoday advocate that correctness, rather than reasonableness, be standard used to review questions of law relating to the interpretation of the provision of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) relative to refugees, especially sections 96-98, which implement in Canadian law the requirements of international treaties on the rights of refugees and persons in danger of being subject to torture. Long-time readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear that I welcome this pushback against the dogma of reasonableness review. Despite this, I have serious reservations about the argument made by Professors Heckman and Khoday. If its implications are pursued to their logical conclusion, they may swallow the law of judicial review whole. This may not be a bad result, but I would rather that it were brought about differently.

Professors Heckman and Khoday begin by reviewing the existing cases on the standard of review in the refugee protection context. They find that

the Federal Court and Federal Court of Appeal are now reviewing decisions involving administrative decision-makers’ interpretation of provisions of the IRPA that implement the basic human rights conferred by international conventions on a reasonableness standard because in their view, the presumption of reasonableness review of these decision-makers’ interpretations of their home statute has not been rebutted. (9-10)

They also note, however, that the Supreme Court, when it has ventured into the immigration and refugee law area, has often conducted searching review, albeit sometimes under the label of reasonableness, which in principle calls for judicial deference to administrative decision-makers. The Federal Court of Appeal too has sometimes remarked that, while the reasonableness standard applies, the range of reasonable outcomes in this area may be very limited, so that there is little to choose from between reasonableness and correctness.

Professors Heckman and Khoday disagree. They are concerned that deferential review opens the door to inconsistent decisions behind upheld as reasonable. In their opinion, this is intolerable: “[t]he scope of universal protections” embodied in IRPA’s provisions “cannot depend on whether a refugee claimant has the good fortune of having her claim decided by an adjudicator who happens to subscribe to” a view of those provisions that is favourable to her case instead of a different “yet equally reasonable alternative interpretation”. (22) And while “disguised correctness review” would help avoid this problem, it is not principled or transparent.

Intead, Professors Heckman and Khoday insist that

a non-deferential approach to judicial review is required for questions of law arising from administrative decision-makers’ interpretation of statutory provisions that serve to implement human rights conferred in international conventions that bind Canada (11)

After all, non-deferential correctness review is still supposed to be applied to questions of central importance to the legal system ― and, according to Professors Heckman and Khoday, the interpretation of statutory provisions that give effect to Canada’s commitments under international human rights law belong to this category. This is both because of the importance of the substantive interests at stake for refugee claimants and because, due to their “proclaimed universality”, “basic international human rights” must receive a uniform interpretation. (13) Indeed, “[t]he provisions of an international convention defining the scope of basic human rights protections can only have one true meaning”. (22)

Professors Heckman and Khoday add that there is a multitude of decision-makers who may be involved in deciding questions involving the interpretation of the IRPA‘s refugee-related provisions; that most of them are not legally-trained; and that Parliament itself has recognized, in section 74(d) of the IRPA, the existence of “serious question[s] of general importance” in this area. These reasons too suggest that courts should see to it that the IRPA‘s provisions receive a uniform, and legally correct, interpretation. And, they argue, if the Supreme Court will not do so, then Parliament should intervene and legislate correctness review for questions of law arising out of the application of the IRPA‘s refugee-protection provisions.


One way to read Professors Heckman and Khoday’s article is as a recognition of the dark, repressive side of the administrative state. Contrary to a certain progressive mythology, in whose thrall we still live, as co-blogger Mark Mancini recently observed here, the administrative state doesn’t only consist of benevolent and beneficent technocrats, rainbows, and unicorns. As I wrote in my contribution to last year’s Dunsmuir Decade symposium, we must

recall what is at stake in judicial review of administrative decisions. Proponents of deference often think of it as a means of protecting the decisions of an administrative state devoted to economic regulation in the name of social justice, or at least of enlightened technocracy. But there is much more to the administrative state economic than labour boards or arbitrators, whose decisions supply a disproportionate share of material for the Supreme Court’s administrative law decisions. The law of judicial review of administrative action applies also to the review of correctional authorities, professional licensing bodies, immigration officers, human rights tribunals, even universities and municipalities, and much else besides. People’s ability to enjoy their property or to practice their profession, their right to enter into or to remain in Canada, even their liberty … can depend on the way in which an official or a body exercising powers (purportedly) delegated by a legislature interpret the law. 

I asked, then, whether “[i]s it enough to tell” people whom the state is about to deprive of these important rights or interests, that this deprivation rests on a legal interpretation that is “justified, transparent, and intelligible” ― but doesn’t have to be correct. Professors Heckman and Khoday say that, at least as to refugee claimants, the answer is “no”. I certainly make no objection to that, and I would welcome similar blows being aimed at as many of the other heads of the administrative hydra as possible. If anything, I think it is too bad that Professors Heckman and Khoday don’t say much about this broader context.

Now, of course there is nothing wrong with an article such as theirs concentrating on the inadequacy of deferential review in just one area. But the trouble with the approach taken by Professors Heckman and Khoday is that, although they do not say so, it reaches very far indeed. If the fact that a Canadian law implements some supposedly important right under international law must mean that this law has “one true meaning” that must be ascertained and enforced by the courts, then reasonableness review of administrative decisions is an endangered species, perhaps critically so.

It’s not just the bureaucrats who administer refugee law and the human rights tribunals, which Professors Heckman and Khoday briefly mention, who will lose the benefit of deference. It’s the correctional authorities, since Article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that “[a]ll persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person” and, further, that “[t]he penitentiary system shall comprise treatment of prisoners the essential aim of which shall be their reformation and social rehabilitation”. It’s labour boards of all sorts, since the right to join labour unions is protected by Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as provisions of both the ICCPR and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR); the latter specifically protects the right to strike, too. It’s employment tribunals and arguably various professional licensing bodies, too, since Article 23 also protects “the right to work [and] to free choice of employment”, and the ICESCR includes provisions to the same effect. It’s various social security tribunals, since Article 11 of the ICESCR protects “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living”. It might be the CRTC, since Article 19 of the ICCPR protects “the right to freedom of expression … includ[ing] freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas … through any … media of his choice”. It will even be the Patent and Copyright Offices, since Article 27(2) of the Universal Declaration stipulates that “[e]veryone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author”.

This list is not at all intended as exhaustive ― I’ve put it together after quickly skimming just the three major international human rights documents. There are many others, and they contain rights galore, any number of them reflected, in one way or another, in Canadian law. (I should, perhaps, make it clear that I do not mean to suggest that we should have all the “rights” purportedly recognized in these documents. Some of them, such as the “rights” of organized labour, are pernicious nonsense. But the point is that international law recognizes these things as important rights, and Canada subscribes to this view, however unfortunate this may appear to me personally.)

Of course not all legislation giving effect to these rights draws the connection as explicitly as the IRPA does in the case of its refugee protection provisions. But that shouldn’t matter, I think. Whether Parliament legislates in order to give effect, more or less transparently, to pre-existing international commitments, or the Crown subscribes such commitments on the strength of pre-existing legislation, the issue for Canadian administrative tribunals, and for Canadian courts reviewing these tribunals’ decisions, is how Canadian legislation is to be interpreted (if possible, consistently with Canada’s international obligations). So, to repeat, if follow the approach proposed by Professors Heckman and Khoday, we might have to get rid of deferential judicial review, if not across the board, then at least in many of the cases where it currently applies.

As an outcome, this would not be half bad. My own inclination would be to get rid of deference (almost) everywhere. A recognition that legislation has correct meanings that can and must be established by courts (even though this is, admittedly, not always easy) is most welcome, as I noted here. But if we are to come to this recognition, I would rather that we do in a different way than that suggested by Professors Heckman and Khoday. The existence ― or otherwise ― of legally ascertainable meanings is not, surely, a function of whether a statute reflects or even incorporates an international treaty. If legislative texts can have no meanings, then it’s not clear why treaties would escape this sorry fate; if they can, then treaties are not unique.


Canadian administrative law must change, and change radically, for reasons that have nothing to do with Canada’s commitments under international law ― though it may well be the case that such radical change will make it possible for Canada better to fulfill these commitments. That said, Professors Heckman and Khoday provide a practical illustration of one of the downsides of the status quo. More than this, they help undermine the prevailing assumption of the goodness of the administrative state and the judiciary’s deference to it. For these reasons, theirs is a welcome, if not an entirely compelling, contribution to the standard of review discussion in Canada; it is reasonable, one is tempted to say, if not altogether correct.

The “Return” of “Textualism” at the SCC[?]

Under the so-called “modern approach” to statutory interpretation, courts are instructed to take into account the text, context, and purpose of a statute. But perhaps because the “text, context, and purpose” recital is so commonplace, other difficult interpretive questions are masked under its patina. For example, which takes priority—text or purpose? The Supreme Court has said that clear text is dominant in the interpretive process (see Placer Dome, at para 21; Canada Trustco, at para 10), but at the same time, the Court has often adverted to the role of purpose in interpretation, to the extent that purpose or policy considerations could override clear text (see the opinion of then-Chief Justice McLachlin in West Fraser Mills, at paras 40, 43). And, even if one could work out what the proper relationship is between text and purpose ,there is no guidance from the Court about what purpose, at what level of abstraction, should be relevant in the analysis. I have written about these issues before.

Luckily, the Supreme Court has provided some guidance to answering these questions in Telus Communications v Wellman, 2019 SCC 19. While the approach advanced in the case is not strictly textualist, it does represent the important idea that text dominates in the interpretive process, and that overall policy goals should not be permitted to override that text. While the Supreme Court is a laggard to these important conclusions (see the opinions of Stratas JA in Williams, Cheema, and Hillier), they come better late than never.

Facts

The case involved an important question of statutory interpretation under Ontario’s Arbitration Act and Consumer Protection Act. Wellman filed a class action against Telus, consisting of both “consumers and non-consumers” [2]. The action alleged that Telus “engaged in an undisclosed practice of ‘rounding up’ calls to the next minute such that customers were overcharged…” [2]. All of the contracts binding the class provided that any claims “arising out of or in relation to the contract, apart from the collection of accounts by Telus, shall be determined through mediation, and failing that, arbitration” [3].

The problem for Wellman et al, though, was that not all of the members of the class were “consumers.” Under the Consumer Protection Act, the arbitration clauses in the contracts are invalid, because “it would otherwise prevent class members who qualify as ‘consumers’ from commencing or joining a class action of the kind commenced by Mr. Wellman” [4]. The Consumer Protection Act “shields consumers from a stay of proceedings under the Arbitration Act” [4]. Telus conceded this point as regards the consumers. But there were non-consumer, business customers included in the class. The core question was whether they could escape the effect of a stay sought by Telus.

Wellman said that, under the Arbitration Act, s.7(5), the court had discretion to refuse Telus’ request for a stay against the business customers, so that the business customers could continue in the class. Section 7(5) says the following:

7 (5) The court may stay the proceeding with respect to the matters dealt with in the arbitration agreement and allow it to continue with respect to other matters if it finds that,

(a) the agreement deals with only some of the matters in respect of which the proceeding was commenced; and

(b) it is reasonable to separate the matters dealt with in the agreement from the other matters.

Telus, though, fundamentally disputed this claim, arguing that under other provisions of the Arbitration Act, exceptions are set out that are exhaustive of all the legislative exceptions in the Arbitration Act scheme. Accordingly, to Telus, the Consumer Protection Act does not apply to the business consumers, and instead, the business claims should be stayed under the Arbitration Act [7].

Analysis in the Case

Moldaver J wrote for the majority, accepting Telus’ argument. After citing the general modern approach to statutory interpretation of text, context, and purpose, he first grounded his view of the statute in its purpose. One of the principles of the Arbitration Act, appearing in the legislative history, was the need to ensure that parties “abide by their agreements,” and that the law was designed to enshrine this idea [50]. Subsequent cases in courts across the country, to Moldaver J, accepted this idea [54].

Turning to the text, specifically s.7(1) of the Arbitration Act, Moldaver J wrote that it established a general rule: “where a party to an arbitration agreement commences a proceeding in respect of a matter dealt with in the agreement….the court “shall,” on the motion of another party to the agreement, stay the court proceeding in favour of arbitration” [63]. This is, obviously, a mandatory statutory rule. Wellman, though, argued that s.7(5) excerpted above is an “independent, standalone” exception to s.7(1) [74]. This provision, which permits a “partial stay”—meaning that the court has a discretion to stay some of the claims for arbitration—is available if certain statutory preconditions are met and if the court exercises its discretion in favour of the stay. Wellman argued that s.7(5) could be read so that the court “may refuse to stay” the business customers’ claims. But Moldaver J rejected this proposition, focusing on the text of s.7(5) in its statutory context. The text of s.7(5) says nothing about a court “refusing to grant a stay,” and to him: “…where the legislature intended to authorize the court to refuse a stay, it did so through the words ‘may refuse to stay’” [73]. Those words did not appear in s.7(5). And, with this text and context in mind, Moldaver J turned to purpose: allowing Wellman’s argument would “reduce the degree of certainty and predictability associated with arbitration agreements,” permitting the business customers to escape the effect of a stay [76].

Wellman also relied on certain policy considerations to support his preferred interpretation of the text [77]. One of these was a general principle of “access to justice,” which “[removes] barriers to seeking relief in court” [77]. But there were two problems with importing this idea as a decisive principle for the case: (1) a rarefied idea of access to justice should not “be permitted to distort the actual words of the statute, read harmoniously with the scheme of the statute, its object, and the intention of the legislature, so as to make the provision say something it does not…the responsibility for setting policy in a parliamentary democracy rests with the legislature, not the courts…[i]t is not the role of this Court to re-write legislation [79]; and (2) the Ontario regime pursues access to justice by “shielding consumers from potentially harsh results of enforcing arbitration agreements…” by exempting consumers “and only consumers” from “otherwise freely negotiated agreements” [80]. This is in conjunction with the Arbitration Act’s pursuit of the overall principle that parties should abide by their agreements. Access to justice, as a general idea, should not “be permitted to overwhelm the other important objectives pursued by the Arbitration Act…” [83].

While I do not have space to recount the minority opinion of Abella and Karakatsanis JJ, I want to note a particularly fiery charge that they chose to level at Moldaver J: “The majority’s approach, with respect, in effect represents the return of textualism. The words have been permitted to dominate and extinguish the contextual policy objectives of both the Arbitration Act and the Class Proceedings Act [citations omitted]…” [109]. To the minority, the “overall purpose” of the Arbitration Act “was to promote access to justice” [137].

Evaluation

I want to say three things about this case. First, the minority’s charge of “textualism” against Moldaver J is inaccurate and sloppy; (2) Moldaver J’s approach, while not textualism, represents a defensible “textually constrained purposivism,” that guards against a court aggrandizing to itself the power to “read-in” language to a statute; (3) both of the opinions show why relying on legislative history is such a fraught enterprise.

Consider first the minority’s textualism charge. I can only imagine that Abella and Karakatsanis JJ were trying to make a rhetorical point, because I cannot believe that they—learned judges of our Supreme Court—could so misunderstand an entire school of interpretive thought. Textualism is directly opposite to “purposivism,” which is primarily concerned with the ends a statute pursues. To the textualist, purpose is encompassed in the means the statute pursues. It is not concerned with an overall statement of purpose, per se: consider Scalia J’s opinion in MCI and WVUH v Casey, and also Judge Easterbrook’s article, “Statutes’ Domains.”

But Moldaver J’s opinion does not just focus on means. It considers the ends of the Arbitration Act, including the overall “purpose” of respecting the agreement reached by parties in their contracts. Moldaver J’s approach is much more realistic than the minority’s approach, which chooses the “access to justice” purpose as the “overall purpose”—with no justification other than, apparently, judicial fiat. Moldaver J’s approach recognizes that there are other purposes of the statute at play. This is not textualism.

That said, Moldaver J’s approach does recognize that purposes do not exist in the abstract. They must be tied to statutory means. What is relevant is not the court’s appreciation of what access to justice means, but what the legislature thinks it means, and the words the legislature used to represent that idea. And that legislative instantiation is existent in the Arbitration Act and Consumer Protection Act, working in pari materia. As Moldaver J noted, the Ontario regime is focused on permitting access to justice for “consumers,” by allowing them to pursue claims in court. When we are talking about business customers, though, the legislation does not speak in abstract terms about access to justice writ large–the Arbitration Act has defined means to grant a partial stay, not means to refuse to grant a stay. It pursues the goal with limited means, in conjunction with other fairly discernible statutory purposes. Abella and Karakatsanis JJ—poets, apparently—say that “a provision must be assessed in all its textures — language, purpose, effect — to prevent the suffocation of its meaning by a technical literal reading of the words” [130]. But here, poetry suffocated prose, because the language of the statute works in symbiosis with purpose. Purpose does not override text. And in this respect, to my knowledge, it is not hornbook law that the Canadian approach is “intentionalist,” as Abella and Karakatsanis JJ say [107], understood in the sense that intentions should override text. Intentionalism would mean taking a psychologist’s armchair and determining what a legislator meant to say; not what was said.

This makes sense from a democratic perspective. Legislators, in their heads, may think of purposes when they enact laws. These purposes may range from “the public good,” on one hand, to minute, technical considerations on the other. Because a court cannot discern which purpose ended up becoming law, we have to think about what the best evidence of the law could be in the circumstances. Usually, text is that best evidence. While it is not always definitive and clear—because language is not always definitive and clear—it is better than unexpressed intentions or abstract, tangential purposes.

I want to raise a final note about the use of legislative history. Both sides of the case relied on different aspects of the legislative history to support their particular interpretation. Because various statements existing in the legislative history are not ranked by importance, it is difficult for any court or observer to put more or less weight on various statements. So, like Judge Leventhal once said, legislative history is like looking over a crowd and picking out your friends. A judge predisposed to one interpretation will use legislative history to support his own view of the matter. If we are going to allow legislative history to be a valid part of statutory interpretation, it should only be relied on with severe caution, as an afterthought, and with the idea that its probative value is exceedingly low.

Notwithstanding the quibble about legislative history, Moldaver J’s opinion is worthy of note because it finally recognizes that judges, under the guise of judicially divined “purposes,” cannot override a contextual interpretation of the text. The text is what the legislature enacted. It should govern.

End of a Scandal

An attempt to criminalize criticism of New Zeand’s judges is rejected by a parliamentary select committee

Last year, the New Zealand Parliament took up a bill to update and reform the law of contempt of court. A worthy endeavour, but one that was seriously flaw in at least one very important way, as I argued at the time: one of the ways in which the bill changed the law was that it not only codified but seriously expanded the common law offence of “scandalizing the court” ― that is, according to a classic definition in R v Gray, [1900] 2 QB 36, doing or saying something “calculated to bring a Court or a judge of the Court into contempt, or to lower his authority”. (40)

Obviously, the common law offence, if understood broadly, might have applied to vast amounts of perfectly legitimate criticism, including of the sort that is this blog’s trademark, so the courts applied it sparingly and with an eye ― indeed both eyes ― towards preserving the freedom of expression in this context. Even so, the offence has been abolished by statute in the United Kingdom, and left in a zombie-like state in Canada following the decision of the Court of Appeal for Ontario in R v Kopyto, which held that, in its current form, the law of scandalising the court was not consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

By contrast, the bill before the New Zealand Parliament would have expanded the offence, notably by criminalizing the expression of opinion ― including opinion honestly held on the basis of publicly known or fairly stated fact ― if that opinion could undermine public confidence in the independence, integrity, or impartiality of a judge or court. The bill would also have criminalized the true statements of fact having that tendency, unless the accused were able to prove their truth on a balance of probabilities ― thus trenching on the presumption of innocence. And, in addition to this, the bill would also have created enforcement powers that would have made it possible for the prosecutors to exact apologies and retractions from people merely suspected of having committed the “scanadalizing” offence.

In addition to blogging about this, I co-wrote (with Edward Willis) a submission to the Justice Committee of Parliament, which studied the bill. Dr. Willis and I were joined by a number of scholars from across New Zealand. We also presented our views to the Committee in person (we come in at ca. -1:04:07). Our submission recommended that the offence of “scandalizing the court” be abolished, but it also set out alternative provisions that could have ameliorated the worst abuses of the original bill, should the Committee have been inclined to preserve the offence. Of course, our submission was not the only one (though not all the submissions were directed at the issues that interested us).

The Committee delivered its unanimous report last week, and I am happy to say that the expanded offence and created in the original bill is now gone, as are, mostly, the novel enforcement mechanisms. The common law offence, as it now stands, remains, if I understand correctly. (Subclause 29(2) of the Bill provides that “[n]othing in [it] limits or affects any authority or power of a court … to punish any person for contempt of court in any circumstances to which [the Bill] does not apply”, which I think would encompass the contempt of “scandalizing the court”.) There is also a provision, a new Clause 25, allowing the High Court to order a person “to take down, or disable public access to” “a false statement about a Judge or court [such that] there is a real risk that the statement could undermine public confidence in the independence, integrity, impartiality, or authority of the judiciary or a court”. An interim order can be made on a showing of an “arguable case”, but a final order requires the government to prove the falsity of the statement concerned on a balance of probabilities.

This is not perfect. It would have been better for the offence of “scandalizing the court” to have been abolished altogether. And while, in this second-best of all possible second-best worlds, take-down orders for information which has actually been shown to be false (with the burden of proof, albeit the civil one, being on the government) are not the biggest freedom of expression concern there is, I’m also not a fan of the low threshold for the making of interim orders. Still, much worse has been averted.

As Andrew Geddis ― one of the scholars who have joined Dr. Willis’ and my submission ― has put it,

the system works as you would hope it does. A well intentioned, but overly punative, proposed legislative measure is identified and criticised by those with some expertise in the matter, with MPs having time to reflect and recommend changes in response.

The system has, indeed, worked remarkably well in this case, though when we say “the system”, we should also give credit to the individual members of the Justice Committee. We should also, however, recognize that this is a technical bill of a sort that neither triggers any strong partisan reactions nor makes for good political point-scoring. As Professor Geddis explains, the system isn’t working nearly well enough with the gun control legislation being currently rammed through the New Zealand Parliament; nor did it work especially well in the case of a recent bill to ban some offshore drilling, about which I have written elsewhere.

Professor Geddis also points out that, while the Justice Committee has recognized that it is wrong to punish people for expressing unpleasant opinions about the judiciary, or to make them apologize for it, the New Zealand House of Representatives still takes a different view where it is itself concerned:

 Basically, saying rude things about an MP (even true rude things about an MP) can be regarded as a contempt by the House and punished accordingly.

And what can the House do in response to some contempt? Well, it can censure the person responsible. It can fine them up to $1000. It can imprison them for a period up until the next election. And … it can require that they apologise to an MP and to the House itself for committing a contempt.

This power is still used from time to time ― and not just against MPs, but against members of the public too. So there is still some way to go before the evil of compelled apologies is banished from the land. But the Justice Committee has, at least, taken a stand against allowing it to fester.

And I would like to think that, in some small part, this is because I raised hell, and encouraged others to raise hell with me. And of course others still engaged in their own hell-raising activities with which I had nothing to do. Some people, it appears, are not fans of this blog’s rabble-rousing ways. That’s their right, of course. But if the rabble is of the right kind, it can help do great things. As Boris Vian told us, en protestant/quand il est encore temps/on peut finir/par obtenir/des ménagements ― by protesting while there is still time one could end up getting some concessions.

Ce qui compte

Que le projet de loi anti-religieux du Québec soit ou non raciste ou islamophobe est sans importance. Ce qui compte, c’est son illibéralisme

Dans le débat autour du Projet de loi 21, la législation mise de l’avant pour faire de la laïcité la doctrine religieuse officielle du Québec et pour imposer une tenue vestimentaire fondée sur ce dogme aux enseignants, juristes et policiers de la province, on consacre beaucoup d’attention à la question de savoir si ce projet est un reflet du racisme, de l’islamophobie ou d’une autre forme de discrimination. Ceux qui critiquent le projet de loi le disent souvent. Ceux qui le défendent, et même certaines personnes qui ne le font pas, s’en déclarent offusqués et insistent pour dire que la forme agressive de laïcité que le Québec cherche à imposer découle d’une vision politique fondée sur des principes. Or, il me semble que tout cela est sans importance. Que le Projet de loi 21 soit le produit de la discrimination ou de principes fondamentaux importe peu. Il est tout aussi abominable dans un cas comme dans l’autre.

Je dois dire que, personnellement, je me doute bien de ce que la xénophobie contribue, de façon plus que négligeable, au soutien politique dont bénéficie le Projet de loi 21. Sans une peur irrationnelle d’un « envahissement », des étrangers (réels ou supposées tels) qui « imposent leurs façons de faire » aux populations existantes (30, 50, voire 100 fois plus nombreuses), l’ambition des tenants de la laïcité dogmatique d’imposer leur croyance au Québec serait selon toute vraisemblance restée parfaitement théorique. Elle l’a été, après tout, des décennies durant, avant que cette peur ne fût gonflée suite à la décision de la Cour suprême dans Multani c Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys, 2006 CSC 6, [2006] 1 RCS 256, alias l’affaire du kirpan. On nous demande certes de nous rappeler la relation unique et troublante qu’a entretenue le Québec avec la religion (catholique), mais l’appui à la laïcité virulente était sans commune mesure avec son niveau actuel à une époque où, pourtant, la mémoire de cette relation était bien plus vive qu’elle ne l’est à présent. Cependant, quoi qu’il en soit en général, on devrait probablement être réticent à l’idée de lancer des accusations de xénophobie à des individus ― à moins, bien sûr, d’avoir des raisons spécifiques de le faire dans leur cas particulier.

Concentrons-nous donc sur les principes qu’on prétend justifier le Projet de loi 21. Présumons, pour les fins de l’argument, que ceux qui l’appuient croient réellement que, pour citer Christian Rioux dans Le Devoir, “the diversity of modern societies makes state secularism an increasingly unavoidable requirement. The pluralist societies are, more citizens demand that the state’s religious neutrality be beyond reproach” (translation mine here and below). Let us ignore the delightful irony of a man named Christian preaching secularism. Let us even avert our eyes from the sleight-of-hand involved in the equation of “state neutrality”, which as the Supreme Court explained in Mouvement laïque québécois v Saguenay (City), 2015 SCC 16, [2015] 2 SCR 3, “is required of institutions and the state, not individuals”, [74] with the “neutrality” of men and women who work for the state. Let us concede, or imagine, that the supporters of Bill 21 believe in good faith that their vision of secularism is morally justified.

Pourquoi ont-il néanmoins tort? Tout simplement, parce que cette forme de laïcité requiert de grossières violations de la liberté individuelle. Elle veut dire que l’État peut imposer aux individus une façon particulière de pratiquer ou de ne pas pratiquer leur foi ― leur dire, donc, s’ils pourront ou non vivre selon leurs valeurs fondamentales. M. Rioux soutient que le Projet de loi 21 ne fait rien de tel, puisqu’il n’affecterait pas le droit de vivre sa foi, mais seulement le « droit de l’afficher pendant les heures de travail » ― comme si on pouvait avoir une foi à temps partiel. L’idée est risible. Si on demandait à M. Rioux de porter une kippah, mais seulement pendant les heures de travail, ça lui irait? (C’est pour cette raison que les tentatives, fréquentes, de dresser une analogie entre le Projet de loi 21 et les interdictions sur l’auto-identification politique ne fonctionnent pas : l’engagement politique, lui, est toujours à temps partiel, même pour un partisan endurci, et peut être mis de côté, puis renouvelé, alors que la foi religieuse ne le peut pas.)

Il va sans dire, l’État peut limiter, voire nier, la liberté d’une personne pour l’empêcher de s’en servir pour porter atteinte à la vie, à la liberté ou aux biens d’autrui ; et, peut-être, pour l’empêcher de nier l’appartenance égale d’une autre personne à la communauté. Or, les détenteurs de charges publiques ou les employés de l’État qui refusent de se convertir à une religion à temps partiel ou de faire acte d’apostasie ne font rien de tel. Ils ne volent personne, ils n’empêchent personne de faire quoi que ce soit, ils n’imposent leurs croyances à personne. Ils sont, bien sûr, manifestement identifiables comme appartenant à une confession religieuse ou une autre, mais la plupart de nous sommes manifestement identifiable comme apparentant à un genre ou à un groupe racial plutôt qu’un autre. Une enseignante musulmane qui porte le hijab ne fait pas plus de ses élèves des Musulmans qu’un enseignant blanc n’en fait des hommes blancs. (Il est bien sûr possible qu’une enseignante ou un fonctionnaire croyants fasse du prosélytisme ou accorde un traitement de faveur à un co-religionnaire. C’est cela qu’il faut réprimer, le cas échéant, tout comme il faut réprimer la propagande ou le favoritisme fondés sur d’autres aspects d’une identité personnelle.)

Sauf que, pour leur part, les obsédés de la laïcité qui soutiennent le Projet de loi 21 acceptent que l’État dénie la liberté individuelle pour bien d’autres raisons encore. M. Rioux écrit que, « [f]ace au multiculturalisme qui tente d’imposer partout sa pensée unique, le premier ministre a eu raison d’affirmer dimanche dernier que “c’est comme ça qu’on vit ici” », parce que « les Québécois ont beaucoup plus qu’une langue en partage ». Passons outre, encore une fois, l’ironie d’une dénonciation de la pensée unique conjuguée à l’insistance que l’État peut priver les citoyens de leur liberté au nom de la façon dont on « vivrait ici » et de ce qu’on aurait, supposément, « en partage ». Si M. Rioux n’était pas un hypocrite, l’idée qu’une façon de vivre officiellement reconnue ― réputée largement partagée malgré et, en fait, précisément en raison de l’évidence frappante du fait qu’elle ne l’est pas ― peut être imposée par la force par l’État à ceux qui n’y souscrivent pas ne serait ni moins fausse ni moins pernicieuse. Cette idée, c’est la prétention que ceux qui détiennent le pouvoir sont autorisés à dicter leurs croyances et leur façon de vivre à tous, pour la seule et unique raison qu’ils détiennent le pouvoir. Elle est incompatible avec toute liberté digne de ce nom.

Bien entendu, cette opinion illibérale est largement répandue. Elle n’est le propre d’aucun groupe racial ou religieux, d’aucune nation. M. Rioux en appelle, à l’encontre des accusations d’islamophobie, au fait qu’une large majorité de Musulmans français seraient favorables à des restrictions similaires à celles qu’imposerait le Projet de loi 21. Ils ne peuvent pas être islamophobes, eux, n’est-ce pas? C’est très juste, et sans pertinence aucune. Un Musulman français peut être tout aussi illibéral qu’un Canadien français catho-laïque. D’ailleurs, les chouchous judiciaires des intellectuels canadiens bien-pensants se sont montrés tout à fait capables de verser dans l’illibéralisme de cette sorte quand ils ont invoqué de mythiques « valeurs communes » pour permettre à un organe de l’État de nier une accréditation à une institution religieuse dissidente.

Le dire maintenant peut sembler étonnant, mais le débat autour du Projet de loi 21 démontre aussi bien que n’importe quel autre ne pourrait le faire que l’égalité, et les -phobies et les -ismes qui l’accompagnent, prennent beaucoup trop de place dans notre pensée et notre discours. Il ne s’agit pas de dire que ces choses sont sans importance. Cependant, ce qu’il y a de mauvais dans notre vie publique n’est pas toujours mauvais parce que cela contrevient à la valeur d’égalité. Par ailleurs, ce qui n’y contrevient pas n’est pas forcément permis pour autant, et ce qui contribue à la réaliser n’est pas, dès lors, requis. Il est temps qu’on se rappelle que la liberté est tout aussi importante ― mieux encore, qu’on réalise qu’elle est plus importante, mais je n’en demande pas autant tout de suite. Il est temps qu’on se rappelle que les individus en chair et en os, et non des abstractions rêvées ou des communautés imaginées, sont ce qui compte. Il est temps qu’on cesse de craindre l’usage que feraient les autres de leur liberté si on ne les menottait pas par prévention. Il est temps qu’on soit libre.