Comeau’s Lesson

It’s not that the courts have generally messed up Canadian federalism, still less that they should improve it

The Supreme Court’s decision in R v Comeau, 2018 SCC 15, which eviscerated section 121 of the Constitution Act, 1867 to uphold the power of the provinces to impose barriers to inter-provincial trade (so long as they are “rationally connected” to some real or made-up regulatory objective) has been sharply and almost universally criticized. Indeed, I can’t recall another decision of a court that, according to more than a few Canadian lawyers, can do virtually no wrong, that was met with such widespread disapproval. But, though I too have argued that Comeau was wrongly decided and very poorly reasoned, I would like to push back against a view expressed by some of my fellow critics, especially by Emmett Macfarlane in Maclean’s, that not only Comeau, but the broader Canadian federalism jurisprudence is fundamentally wrong.

Professor Macfarlane argues that this jurisprudence distorts “the obviously centralized constitutional design implemented in 1867”. He writes that

past courts … trampled over the written text and intent of the framers to dramatically broaden the powers of the provinces while artificially narrowing relevant federal provisions like the trade and commerce clause. … [L]ongstanding federalism jurisprudence … is … a product of judicial invention rather than a reflection of the constitutionally established powers.

Professor Macfarlane also faults the Supreme Court for “abandon[ing] its famous ‘living tree’ metaphor to treat ancient federalism precedent as inviolable.” Philippe Lagassé, paraphrasing Craig Forcese, similarly writes that “it’s hard not to notice that the [Supreme Court] is encasing Canadian institutions in amber”.

With respect, I think that these critiques are largely misguided. Canadian federalism jurisprudence is far from perfect, and I have criticized it from time to time, but it does not merit wholesale condemnation. It is important to distinguish among the multiple issues that arise under the general label of federalism. Failures to deal with some of them do not negate successes in other areas. And it is important not to lose sight of the courts’ task in enforcing a federal distribution of powers ― or, for that matter, any kind of entrenched constitutional provisions: not to make federalism great again, let alone the best it can be, but to give effect to the arrangements arrived at by political actors in the past (and susceptible of revision by political actors in the future).

One kind of issues that courts applying a federal constitution must address has to do with the interpretation of the heads of power it assigns to one or the other level of government. In Canada, these are mostly, though not exclusively, found in sections 91 and 92 of the Constitution Act, 1867, and much of the groundwork of interpreting them was done in the first decades after Confederation by the British judges sitting as the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. It is a venerable Canadian tradition, going back to FR Scott and even earlier scholars, to attack these judges ― pausing only to fawn over them for their decision in the “Persons Case”, Edwards v. Attorney-General for Canada, [1930] AC 124, [1930] 1 DLR 98 (PC), from which the “living tree” metaphor is drawn.

For my part, however, I do not agree that they somehow distorted the Constitution Act, 1867. As Benjamin Oliphant and I explain in our article on “Originalist Reasoning in Canadian Constitutional Jurisprudence“, their interpretation of sections 91 and 92 was based on the public meaning of these provisions at the time of their enactment. It also took into account the most obvious, and distinctive, fact about the distribution of powers in Canada: that the powers of both orders of government are set out in the Constitution Act, 1867 (in contrast to the United States, and also Australia), and thus must be read together so that all can be given effect. The oft-heard complaint about the courts’ narrow reading of the federal “trade and commerce” power ignores  the existence of both the provincial power over “property and civil rights”, and of other federal powers, such as “banking” and “bankruptcy and insolvency”, which a broad reading of “trade and commerce” would render nugatory. Without going into more detail, I remain of the view that the interpretive part of the Canadian federalism jurisprudence is mostly, if not entirely, satisfactory. It is, moreover, a good thing, not a bad one, that the Supreme Court has resisted the temptation of re-writing these precedents in the name of the living tree; absent a showing, such as one that was made in Comeau, that they were at odds with the original public meaning of the Constitution Act, 1867, their endurance is cause for celebration.

The second type of federalism issues involves the drawing of the boundaries between the powers attributed to the two levels of government. These can overlap, even if they are interpreted in a way that accounts for the distribution and so reduces the overlay to some extent. Doctrines like federal paramountcy, inter-jurisdictional immunity, double aspect, and co-operative federalism determine, for example, whether the courts will conclude that a federal and a provincial law that are plausibly within the respective powers of the legislatures that enacted them are in conflict, and what happens if they are. The Constitution Act, 1867 bears on these questions, but only to some extent, so that the courts have mostly operated without textual guidance in this area.

Many of the rules the courts have developed are of more recent vintage than the interpretations of the heads of powers in sections 91 and 92 ― and of lesser quality. Since I started blogging (and it’s only been a little over six years), I have had occasion to denounce the Supreme Court’s paramountcy jurisprudence, as well as the uncertainty surrounding the doctrine of inter-jurisdictional immunity and the Court’s attempt to freeze it. Meanwhile, in an important recent article, Asher Honickman has criticized the Supreme Court for abandoning the textually-required exclusivity of the federal and provincial heads of power. Both Mr. Honickman’s criticisms and mine, as well as a noticeable part of the invective directed at the Supreme Court in the aftermath of Comeau, has to do with the Court’s embrace of the concept of “co-operative federalism”, which seems to be based on the idea that the more regulation there is, the better off we are. The court has sometimes tried to rein in this idea, notably in Quebec (Attorney General) v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 14, [2015] 1 SCR 693, where it rejected Québec’s attempt to force the federal government to hand over the data from its defunct gun registry. But, as Comeau demonstrated, co-operative federalism keeps coming back to haunt its jurisprudence.

There is, I think, a third category of federalism issues ― those that have to do with the general implications of this principle, as implemented in the Constitution Act, 1867 and other constitutional provisions. It encompasses cases such as Hodge v The Queen, (1883) 9 App Cas 117Liquidators of the Maritime Bank of Canada v. Receiver-General of New Brunswick, [1892] AC 437, to some extent the Labour Conventions Reference, [1937] AC 326, [1937] 1 DLR 673, and more recently cases concerning constitutional amendment, including the Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 SCR 217. In various ways, these cases hold that provinces are autonomous political communities and not mere components of the Canadian whole. This conclusion is an inference from the history and text of the Constitution Act, 1867. Perhaps the inference is wrong. All I can say here in its defence is that it is not enough to point to John A. Macdonald’s hope that provinces would in due course become no more than glorified municipal governments, if not wither away. Macdonald had initially hoped for a legislative union instead of a federal one. He lost that all-important fight, and the federation created by the Constitution Act, 1867 did not reflected the vision of Macdonald alone. To be sure, a federation without economic union may have been of little use; but a federation without meaningfully autonomous provinces would have been impossible.

Balancing these two considerations is no doubt exceedingly difficult ― but, fortunately, it is usually not the courts’ job. For the most part, it is the framers of the Constitution Act, 1867 (and its amendments) who did it when they distributed powers between Parliament and the provinces. They were, on the whole, remarkably successful, though of course, that’s not to say that they got everything right, still less that what was right in 1867 is also right a century and a half later. But, right or wrong, the Constitution Act, 1867 is the law, the supreme law of Canada, and the courts must enforce it to the best of their ability ― not re-write it. As the one British judge for whom Canadian lawyers usually profess admiration, Lord Sankey LC, wrote in the Aeronautics Reference, [1932] AC 54, [1932] 1 DLR 58, that

[t]he process of interpretation [of the Constitution Act, 1867] as the years go on ought not to be allowed to dim or to whittle down the provisions of the original contract upon which the federation was founded, nor is it legitimate that any judicial construction of the provisions of ss. 91 and 92 should impose a new and different contract upon the federating bodies. (DLR 65)

Thus, when they adjudicate, the courts’ task is usually to ascertain what the framers of the Constitution Act, 1867 did. They do not need to update the balance between centralization and decentralization, between union and autonomy, from case to case. Nor have they the authority to try.

The problem with Comeau is that the Supreme Court made the attempt. According to the classification I sketched out in this post, the main question in Comeau was of the first, interpretive type (albeit that it concerned a limitation on, not a grant of, legislative powers). Had the Court got the interpretation right, it would have had to deal with additional questions belonging to the second, line-drawing, category. Comeau was not a case of the third type, and the Supreme Court erred in treating it as such. One of the rare defenders of Comeau, the usually very astute Chantal Hébert, makes the same mistake in her column for The Star. In her view, the case was “a timely reminder that Constitution does not cast the provinces as junior partners of a unitary federation”. Perhaps that’s how the Supreme Court saw it, but it’s not what the legal issue was.

Yet regrettably, many of Comeau‘s critics too seem to be taking the wrong lesson from it. They want the Supreme Court to remake Canadian federalism in the name of the “living tree” or of the desire which, Andrew Potter tells us, Canadians feel for an ever closer union. To ask the Court to remake the law in this way is only to encourage further mistakes in the future. To be sure, some corrections are in order, mainly in the realm of doctrines operating at the boundary of federal and provincial jurisdictions. But they would involve, in Mr. Honickman’s words, “getting back to the constitutional division of powers” laid down in 1867 ― not updates in the service of economic policy or nation-building. If such updates are necessary, they must be carried out by politicians following the procedures provided for constitutional amendment, not judges. What Comeau teaches us is not that our federalism jurisprudence as a whole is hidebound or perverse, but that the Supreme Court should stop playing constitution-maker’s apprentice and stick to enforcing the law.

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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