In one of my very first posts, I wondered what the Supreme Court meant by describing a statute, or a common-law right, as “quasi-constitutional.” I concluded that this description probably did not mean anything substantial, and was little more than an indication that the Court considered the statute or right in question as very important. Its decision yesterday in Thibodeau v. Air Canada, 2014 SCC 67, is further evidence for that proposition. The main issue in Thibodeau was whether the limitation of an airline’s liability for “damages” to its passengers set out in the so-called Montreal Convention, an international treaty dealing with commercial air travel and made part of Canadian law by the Carriage by Air Act, prevented the Federal Court from making an award of damages for Air Canada’s violation of its duties under the Official Languages Act.
A large part of the majority’s decision, and the dissent, are concerned with the issue of whether the Montreal Convention applies to an award of damages made under a statute such as the Official Languages Act, rather than a more traditional claim (say for injury or lost luggage). Justice Cromwell, writing for a five-judge majority concludes that it does, based on his reading of the Convention’s text, his understanding of the Convention’s purpose, and his review of foreign decisions. Justice Abella’s dissent (with which Justice Wagner agrees) comes to the contrary conclusion. I will not deal with the interpretation issue here.
What I want to briefly focus on ― though don’t expect any deep thoughts here ― is the subsequent issue of the interplay between the Montreal Convention and its implementing legislation, and the Official Languages Act. Subsection 77(4) of the Act gives the Federal Court the power to “grant such remedy as it considers appropriate and just in the circumstances” for violations. This is obviously a very broad grant of remedial power, and it would normally include the possibility of awarding damages. So having concluded that the Convention purports to exclude such awards of damages, the majority must decide whether the “quasi-constitutional” Official Languages Act trumps this exclusion.
To answer this question, Justice Cromwell says, one must first determine whether the Montreal Convention and the Official Languages Act actually conflict. Only if they do will it be necessary to determine which is to prevail. When legal rules merely “overlap in the sense that they address aspects of the same subject, they are interpreted so as to avoid conflict wherever this is possible” (par. 89). Justice Cromwell concludes that there is no conflict here, because subs. 77(4) of the Official Languages Act and the Montreal Convention can be reconciled by not interpreting the former as requiring damages to be available in all circumstances (and, in particular, when such an interpretation would conflict with Canada’s international obligations). Justice Cromwell points out that “[c]ourts are … slow to find that broadly worded provisions were intended to be an exhaustive declaration of the applicable law where the result of that conclusion creates rather than avoids conflict” (par. 99). They are also reluctant to conclude that there exists a conflict between provisions enacted for different purposes. These considerations apply here.
The appellants and the Official Languages Commissioner, however, argued that because the Official Languages Act is quasi-constitutional, it must be taken to apply fully, allowing for no “reconciliation” in the case of an “overlap.” Justice Cromwell acknowledges the “quasi-constitutional” status of the Official Languages Act, and says that it “should be interpreted generously to achieve its purpose” (par. 112), but holds that “[t]hese factors, however, do not alter the correct approach to statutory interpretation” (par. 112) ― which is the same as for all other statutes. For Justice Cromwell, the Act, “read in its full context, demonstrates that Parliament did not intend to prevent s. 77(4) from being read harmoniously with Canada’s international obligations given effect by another federal statute.” Subsection 77(4), Justice Cromwell adds, is “broad and general” rather than “an exclusive and exhaustive statement in relation to the Federal Court’s remedial authority … overriding all other laws and legal principles” (par. 113). Other remedies remain available against Air Canada, while the Montreal Convention does not restrict the availability of damages against anyone else. The provisions can be made to work together without either losing its meaning, so there is no conflict.
This may be a sensible outcome, though I find it difficult distinguish what Justice Cromwell does from an application of the principle that lex specialis derogat generalis ― a specific law applies in derogation of a broad one ― which is of course one way of resolving conflicts between statutes rather than of “harmonizing” them. And it is a way of resolving conflicts that is specifically excluded by subs. 82(1) of the Official Languages Act, which provides that its Parts I-V “prevail to the extent of the inconsistency” with any other act of Parliament. But even taking Justice Cromwell’s reasons at face value, they very strongly suggest that a statute’s “quasi-constitutional” standing is in reality, quasi-meaningless.