The Charter Conscription

The trouble with governments forcing citizens to advance their constitutional agendas

In his Policy Options post on the federal government’s denial of funding under the Canada Summer Jobs Programme to those who do not share its views on reproductive and equality rights, Brian Bird wrote that the government “has weaponized the Charter, using it as a sword against nonconforming citizens”. As I have already noted here, I think this observation is fundamentally correct. But Mr. Bird’s metaphor doesn’t quite capture what is going on.

It is not just, or perhaps even so much, that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is being used as a weapon against citizens. After all it is true that, as Jennifer Taylor pointed out in her defence of the government’s policy in the CBA National Magazine, anti-abortionists “are free to promote their views on social media, fundraise from private donors, and advocate against abortion in certain spaces to those willing to listen”, though the space for advocacy is being narrowed ― a point to which I will return. But if the Charter is not yet being used to take away people’s rights (except when it really is, as in Slaight Communications Inc v Davidson, [1989] 1 SCR 1038), it is already being help up as a banner under which increasing numbers of citizens must be conscripted to advance the government’s agenda of protecting some real or purported constitutional rights.

The federal government’s endeavour to enlist the recipients of Canada Summer Jobs funding in the service of productive Charter and “other” rights, and Charter values too, in the bargain, is not an isolated one. In Nova Scotia, Ontario, and British Columbia, law societies ― which are, though people apparently forget this, not private clubs but regulatory instrumentalities of the state ― have sought to ensure that law schools respect the equality rights of gays and lesbians by denying accreditation to one that conspicuously fails to do so. In Ontario, the law society is also demanding that all lawyers acknowledge an (inexistent) obligation to “promote equality, diversity and inclusion”.

In this context, the insistence of Ms. Taylor and what few other defenders the federal government has that “[t]he government shouldn’t be funding activism against constitutional rights when the Constitution is the supreme law of Canada” is rather selective. While the issue in the case of the Summer Jobs Programme is public funding, in other cases it is accreditation or licensing that cost the government nothing (or, in the case of lawyer licensing, is highly lucrative). Yet the government’s reasoning in these different cases is essentially the same. It seeks to ensure that individuals or groups subject to its control act consistently with its agenda, defined ― hypocritically, as I will presently argue ― as a constitution-protecting one. Whether the instrument, in each case, is a subsidy, a license, or some other regulatory tool, is beside the point ― certainly as a matter of political morality but also, I would suggest, as a matter of constitutional law.

Now, the professed adherence of those who would force others to advance their “constitutional” agenda to the Charter is, in my view, selective to the point of hypocrisy. I have already argued, here and elsewhere, that the federal government in particular is guilty of “playing favourites” with the constitution, as indeed are large parts of Canada’s legal community. Something similar is happening here too. For instance, the self-anointed defenders of the Charter ignore its section 32(1), which provides that the “Charter applies … to the Parliament and government of Canada … and … to the legislature and government of each province”. The Charter, by its own terms, does not apply to or bind private parties, and it is wrong to invoke it to justify the imposition of rights-protecting obligations on those on whom it was not intended to impose any.

And then, there is the fact while governments seem increasingly happy to impose their duty to uphold some Charter rights on others, they would do no such thing with other rights, which they deem less pressing or less in need of widespread compliance. For example, while Law Societies are much alarmed by the fact that a law school might discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, nobody seems especially concerned by the fact that a different law school in the same province apparently conditions its hiring decisions on the prospective candidates’ commitment to social justice or “equity in scholarship” ― freedom of opinion, academic freedom, and the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of political belief be damned. The federal government doesn’t want to fund anti-abortionists, but would it object to funding, say, a women’s group working to dilute the presumption of innocence or other protections available to men accused of sexual assault? Or would deny benefits to a crime-victims’ group campaigning against the Supreme Court’s understanding of the right to be tried within a reasonable time?

These last two examples show, by the way, that, as much as we may love the Charter, the precise contours of its protections can and ought to be debated ― and that it’s not a given that the scope of what are currently recognized as Charter rights should never be restricted. Now, I hasten to add that I personally think that undermining the presumption of innocence would be disastrously wrong, and I’ve argued here that the Supreme Court’s decision in R v Jordan, 2016 SCC 27, [2016] 1 SCR 631, which imposed strict time limits on criminal trials, is more defensible than its numerous critics allowed. But these are my opinions, and I really don’t think that the government should seek to impose them on those who happen not to share them. Similarly, I do not think that the government should seek to impose the Supreme Court’s misguided opinions about the purported “rights” of trade unions on people like me. One can support the constitution while seeking to have it amended; one can certainly support the Charter while seeking to have some interpretations of it by the Supreme Court overturned; and, in any case, in a free society, no citizen ― as opposed to an office-holder ― is under no a duty to support the constitution at all.

But governments and their acolytes have no time for such complexity. They are convinced that anything less than enthusiastic universal support for whatever definition they happen to espouse of whatever rights they happen to prioritize is a threat to these rights and to the constitution as a whole. This is simply not so. To Ms. Taylor “[i]t seems self-evident in 2018 that an anti-abortion organization should not receive federal government funds to hire summer students”, since funding anti-abortionists would threaten “the Charter rights of women, like the right to autonomy over their own bodies”. What should, instead be self-evident, though it manifestly isn’t, is that anti-abortion advocacy, whether federally funded or not, does not by itself impede anyone’s access to abortions. Unless governments themselves decide restrict access, this advocacy is so much hot air. Similarly, the creation of a homophobic law school out in British Columbia doesn’t reduce gays’ and lesbians’ access to any of the other law schools in Canada. And, needless to say, my or anyone else’s failure to “acknowledge” a purported obligation to “promote equality, diversity and inclusion” doesn’t take anything away from the rights that various persons or groups have under the equality-protecting provisions of the Charter or human rights legislation.

Yet in all these situations the existence of expression that contradicts rights claims (such as anti-abortionist propaganda) or indeed silence that is often unfairly interpreted to do so (such as failure to “acknowledge” whatever “obligations” the Law Society of Ontario invents) is deemed harmful. There is, in reality, no harm other than the hurt feelings of vocal factions ― whose membership is in no way coterminous with the groups on whose behalf they purport to speak. But if someone’s hurt feelings give the government the right to impose that person’s views on everyone else, there is nothing the government cannot do. Under the guise of an impassioned defence of the Charter, those who adhere to this logic of empowering government are actually working ― wittingly or not ― to remove constitutional barriers on its powers, so that the full weight of these powers can be brought to bear on ideological minorities.

Already, the room for dissent is shrinking. To repeat, Ms. Taylor points out that anti-abortionists remain “free to promote their views on social media, fundraise from private donors, and advocate against abortion in certain spaces to those willing to listen” (emphasis mine). But, as the emphasized part of that sentence suggests, some spaces for public advocacy have already been closed off to them. In Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform v Grande Prairie (City), 2016 ABQB 734, the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench upheld a city’s decision to ban anti-abortionist advertising, which was neither especially strongly worded nor particularly visually upsetting (though the website of the organization promoting was both), from its public buses. It was, I have argued here, a “disturbing if not perverse” decision, inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent; I further explained that its reliance on a specious argument to the effect that the people who might see the ads at issue were a “captive audience” was specious and unsupported by authority. But there it is ― and if the decision stands (there is, I take it, an ongoing appeal), governments will be allowed to ban the communication of anti-abortionist ― and otherwise obnoxious ― messages except perhaps to those who already agree with them. And of course, they will not need to stop at censorship. On the same logic that allows government to deny subsidies to organizations based on their views or agendas, it should be possible to deny them or their donors tax credits, which after all are just another form of subsidy, putting them at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to fundraising too. Nor need the government stop at interfering with the freedoms of ideologically-driven organizations. How about requiring anyone who wants to receive money from Employment Insurance or Old Age Security to submit an “attestation” similar to the one required of applicants to the Summer Jobs Programme? They too might use their money to advocate against abortion rights! There is nothing in Ms. Taylor’s ― or the federal government’s ― position that would prevent such an imposition.

The constitution binds the government. It limit its freedom of action. It does not, however, bind, constrain, or even command the unconditional support of citizens or the organizations that citizens form. The government cannot conscript citizens into a pro-constitutional task force; it cannot bind them to constitutional obligations in a way the constitution itself conspicuously does not. Citizens remain free peacefully to challenge the constitution in whole or in part, and to contest the way in which it has been interpreted by the courts. The government may not demand that citizens refrain from doing so, or induce them to refrain. The government, to be sure, need not encourage or subsidize contestation ― but only so long as it does not encourage or subsidize support either. If money is offered, it must be offered on equal terms to the holders of all views. And if this means that less money will be offered in various programmes, subsidies, and tax credits ― so much the better.

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.

3 thoughts on “The Charter Conscription”

  1. This controversy doesn’t have anything to do with what Morgentaler means or whether it was rightly decided. To the extent there is a legal question here, it is whether s. 2(a) or s. 2(b) restrict governments’ abilities to set conditions for funding programs. If you think that they do, then you have to develop some limiting principles, because it cannot possibly be the case that governments are required to provide funding on equal terms to all views that they are obliged not to suppress.

    To take some tricky examples, if government funds a program to raise awareness of the importance of blood transfusions, is it obliged to also fund Jehovah Witnesses’ arguments that blood transfusions are contrary to scripture? If it funds vaccinations, is it obliged to fund anti-vaccination arguments? Or anti-global warming arguments?

    There is some American case law on these issues, but even in the land of the First Amendment, government expenditures are treated differently from regulation or prohibition.

    (To be clear, I am not defending the wisdom of the Trudeau government’s policy here, just questioning whether the constitutional issue is obvious.)

    1. I’m not sure if the point about Morgentaler is addressed to me ― I have done my best to stay out of this particular debate, because I agree that its merits are not relevant for the funding question. As for limiting principles ― I think that goes both ways, because those who say the government can engage in viewpoint discrimination probably need to show why that wouldn’t extend to, say, loyalty tests for EI recipients. That said, I agree that there will be difficult borderline cases.

      To address your examples, which I think are fairly easy, if the government itself is speaking, it doesn’t need to finance counter-speech. If it wants to promote vaccination, or Charter rights, that’s fine. I suppose that extends to cases where the actual promotion is outsourced, provided that it remains identified as the promotion of governmental agenda.

      On the other hand, I don’t think the government can engage in viewpoint discrimination or impose loyalty tests as part of regulation whose purposes have nothing to do with the tests in question. The purpose of regulating legal services is not to promote “diversity and inclusion”, so using this regulation to get those subject to it to further that agenda is a form of conscription which I think should be unconstitutional.

      Again, there might be difficult cases, but that’s not what we’re dealing with here.

      1. This sounds like American “unconstitutional conditions” jurisprudence. Which is fine. But I don’t think we can say this jurisprudence has actually been adopted in Canada in relation to government expenditures (possibly in relation to access to government property). And it has lots of critics in the US.

        Anyway, my main claim is just that, whatever happens, for free expression purposes, we can’t treat government expenditures like prohibitions.

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