Playing Favourites, Anniversary Edition

On the anniversary of the Constitution Act, 1982, a shout out to the provision restricting constitutional amendment

Today (Canadian time) is the anniversary of the signing by Queen Elizabeth II and entry into force of the Constitution Act, 1982. The government is celebrating, as are many constitutional aficionados, but ― with some honourable exceptions ― celebrations are focusing on one or two parts of the Act ― mostly the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and to some extent s. 35, which protects aboriginal rights. The official statements of both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Justice only mention these provisions ― and not the other parts of the Constitution Act, 1982.

The tendency to play favourites with the constitution, which I have repeatedly criticized, notably in the context of the Court Challenges Programme (here and here) and with respect to the relative importance given to this year’s constitutional anniversaries, shows no sign of disappearing. Indeed I will contribute to it with this post, focusing on one provision of the Constitution Act, 1982. In my defence, it is a much-neglected one, both today and more generally.

This provision is subsection 52(3), which provides that “[a]mendments to the Constitution of Canada shall be made only in accordance with the authority contained in the Constitution of Canada.” The authority in question is contained in Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982, which sets out the procedures for effecting various types of amendments.  Now, I have been sharply critical of Part V in the past ― I have argued that it was a “less-than-fully-legal mess” that in some circumstances failed to guide both the political actors to whom it was addressed and the courts to whom the political actors turned to clarify things. While I might have overstated certain points in that critique, I still think that it is fundamentally fair. The Constitution Act, 1982 is not perfect ― no law is, and least of all any law that emerged from a difficult compromise made necessary by the requirement to obtain super-majority consensus. But it is still, on that much we agree, part of “the supreme law of Canada”, as section 52(1) has it.

It is therefore incumbent on all constitutional actors ― Parliament, the executive, and courts alike ― to uphold this law. Even in those cases where the supreme law fails to fully guide their behaviour, they ought to act consistently with whatever guidance it does provide. And of course it does not always so fail. It is sometimes difficult to choose the right amending procedure among the six or more (depending on how you count the number of additional procedures created by section 47) outlined in Part V. But for many cases Part V is tolerably clear, and even when it is not, it does have the virtue of limiting the universe of possibilities from which the choice must be made. To repeat, if they are to comply with the principles of the Rule of Law and constitutionalism, all constitutional actors are bound to stay within these limits.

Unfortunately, Canadian constitutional actors ― and citizens, especially legal scholars ― are often inclined to disregard this obligation. Parliament enacted An Act respecting constitutional amendments ― the so-called regional veto law that in effect seeks to modify Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982 otherwise than with the clear terms of paragraph 41(e). Prior to the 2015 election, the federal executive was committed to a policy of abolishing the Senate by attrition, also in violation of what the Supreme Court had found were the requirements of Part V for abolition. (The then-official opposition was committed to a similar policy.) And of course the Supreme Court itself is fond of adding rights to the Charter by its own “constitutional benediction“, even though judicial invention is clearly not among the amending procedures listed in the Constitution Act, 1982.

Those who defend one or the other form of constitutional amendment in contravention to subsection 52(3) ― usually by the Supreme Court ― argue that the procedures listed in Part V are too difficult to comply with to effect necessary constitutional change. This amounts, of course, to an admission that there is no consensus about the necessity of the constitutional change in question ― and to a claim that a constitutional actor is authorized to change the constitution simply because it thinks the change is a good one, regardless of whether anyone else agrees. Yet this claim is incompatible with the Rule of Law. It allows a constitutional actor to put itself above the “supreme law of Canada”, and to become a law unto itself. Those who support such claims should be clear about their implications. In particular, they have no right to celebrate any part of the supreme law whose authority they ultimately deny.

Living under law is difficult. Constitutional celebrations usually serve as reminders of what constitutions make possible, and the reminder is a useful one. But we should acknowledge that, as all law, a constitution constrains in order to enable. If we seek to free ourselves from the constraints, we risk losing the possibilities. This is no less true of constraints on constitutional amendment as of those on the denial of our rights. Happy birthday, Constitution Act, 1982 ― and that includes you, subsection 52(3).

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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