Toronto v Ontario: A Remedy Seeking a Right

Constitutional politics and the notwithstanding clause

Yesterday, Justice Belobaba of the Ontario Superior Court released his decision on the Ford government’s plan (“Bill 5”) to cut Toronto City Council in half, deciding that it infringed the s.2(b) Charter right to freedom of expression. In response, Ford announced his government would reconvene the legislature and pass a bill to invoke the so-called “notwithstanding” clause of the Charter, under which Charter rights can be “overridden” (though this word isn’t used in the text) for a period of five years.

It was an eventful day all around, and there were many comments from people more qualified than I to speak on freedom of expression, the notwithstanding clause, and the interaction between the two. I will, however, comment on two points in this sordid saga: (1) the conflation of s.2(b) and s.3 of the Charter in Justice Belobaba’s decision; (2) the notwithstanding clause

Freedom of Expression in the Electoral Context

First, to the decision. Justice Belobaba began the analysis by properly noting that the question was “not whether Bill 5 is unfair. The question is whether the enactment is unconstitutional” [7]. But just as quickly, Justice Belobaba ultimately concluded that the province had “clearly crossed the line” [9] because (1) Bill 5 was enacted in the middle of an election campaign and (2) it doubled the population size of wards in the city, breaching a voter’s right to “effective representation” [20]. On the timing issue, Justice Belobaba concluded that the freedom of expression right was impacted because of “confusion” and “uncertainty” owing to Bill 5 [30]. The ultimate conclusion was that “…the candidate’s ability to effectively communicate his or her political message to the relevant voters” was impacted by Bill 5.

While I won’t dwell on the point, this seems a stretch. Section 2(b) is broad and the Supreme Court has rightly affirms the particular importance of political speech (see Libman, at para 31). But it doesn’t guarantee a right to expression in perfect circumstances—nor does it proscribe government conduct that could make political speech “ineffective.” The fundamental question under s.2 is whether a government law “limits” speech. There is a distinction between effectiveness of speech and freedom of speech; the latter is a necessary condition, the former is not. If courts begin to delve into the messy business of striking down government laws that merely affect the effectiveness of speech, the Charter could end up restricting the marketplace of ideas in ways that are typically repugnant to a liberal order. Practically, it also means that in some cases the court will need to determine whether a law renders speech “ineffective,” which would require some fairly metaphysical evidentiary standards, not to mention a voyage into the content of the speech. It is even more difficult to prove an infringement in cases where, as here, the purported restriction speaks only to the environment (confusion and uncertainty) in which candidates campaign, not to legal restrictions on the political campaigns and voters themselves, such as in the typical s.2(b) electoral cases: BC FIPA, Thomson Newspapers, Libman.

I’m more concerned with the second finding in the decision—the essential application of s.3 of the Charter concerning voting rights in a case where it does not apply. Section 3 textually reads that it applies to voting for federal and provincial representatives. Under the purposive approach to constitutional interpretation, the purpose of s.3 is to guarantee “effective representation” (Reference Re Prov Electoral Boundaries) in these fora. Mathematical parity is not the test, but what constitutes effective representation appears to be a fraught question. But in this case, against the backdrop of one affidavit, Justice Belobaba concluded that the expressive right to vote for effective representation had been breached because the ward population size had been doubled [51, 60]. This is fundamentally the language of s.3, not s.2(b). Justice Belobaba, to his credit, is alive to this concern. He ultimately concludes that voting is a form of expression rendered ineffective by Bill 5, and whether or not it is rooted in s.3, it can be transposed to the s.2(b) context [43 et seq]. But here again we get into the business of effectiveness—especially what constitutes an effective vote. The language is striking, calling to mind a category mistake; should we be in the business of assigning value to votes based on resulting effectiveness?

Regardless, s.2(b) and s.3 are distinct Charter guarantees. They have distinct purposes, with “effective representation” being the purpose of s.3. While these purposes may sometimes overlap, it seems to me that the purposive approach to Charter interpretation has to insist on some analytical distinction between the rights to be of any use. If rights are to be interpreted in their “historic, political, and philosophic” context, surely that purposive context changes with the right in question. This has particular implications for the relationship between Charter rights and s.1 of the Charter. As Peter Hogg notes in his important article, how we construe Charter rights at the infringement stage has implications for the s.1 stage. If a right is construed broadly at the first stage (the purpose is construed broadly), then we leave s.1 for more work to do. Similarly, a right that is characterized with a narrow purpose may leave less work for s.1. This is a rough-and-ready purposive analysis, but it means that regularly mixing and matching Charter rights can have consequences for the evidence required to prove a Charter breach, the evidence required to sustain one, and the intensity of review that courts apply to particular infringements.

There is also the obvious problem here of essentially applying a Charter guarantee where it doesn’t apply to municipalities (despite Justice Belobaba’s comments regarding Haig, I think he fundamentally imported s.3). I call this “constitutional substitution.” It means that a court, seeking to vindicate a result that seems unfair or unjust in the abstract, massages a chosen constitutional right that will best achieve that result. It is perhaps an uncommon phenomenon, but it is present in this decision—s.3 does not apply, s.2(b) does. While I’m alive to the idea that the s.2(b) electoral cases could implicate s.3, those cases dealt with different legislative schemes that, again, directly impacted/limited the ability of participants in the political system to participate (ie) through financial restrictions.

I don’t mean to advocate for a “watertight compartments” approach to Charter rights, in part because I think the reality of constitutional facts make this difficult. That said, as Mike Pal very aptly noted, we have no real doctrinal means to deal with overlap of constitutional rights as opposed to the reconciliation of rights. We should start from the premise that the Charter lists distinct guarantees that the Supreme Court has insisted should be interpreted with distinct purposes. From there, we deal with the hard cases that arise where rights overlap, such as in the case of s.2(b) and s.3. And this isn’t the only area of the Constitution where rights can overlap—the recent Ktunaxa ruling demonstrates a contested area between the freedom of religion guarantee and Aboriginal rights under s.35. While each overlap may have to be resolved differently, some unified principles would be helpful.

Brief Comments on the Notwithstanding Clause

I can’t do much to add to the already booming discussion on the notwithstanding clause. I for one accept its legitimacy as part of the constitutional order, in part because of the evidence that it formed a part of the pact leading to the Charter, adopted itself by our elected representatives and because one part of the Constitution cannot be breached by another. The notwithstanding clause is a power that can be used by elected officials assuming they follow the form requirements set out in the Ford case (no relation).

I will venture two points. First, simply because the notwithstanding clause is legitimate itself doesn’t mean that it can’t be misused illegitimately. The exercise of state power—even a constitutionally entrenched power—does not operate in a vacuum. We should expect a duty of good-faith in a constitutional democracy to attach to the use of such powers; put differently, and without entering the foray into constitutional conventions, we should expect elected officials to abide by constitutional norms as they are defined.

Part of this norm, given the atrophied s.33, should be a public justification for the use of the extraordinary override. The populist justification put forward by Premier Ford is lacking for this reason. No one says that the seminal Ford case compels Premier Ford to do anything but pass a properly formed bill. But in a deliberative, representative democracy, we should expect leaders to justify their use of extraordinary state power, especially as it applies to the override of constitutional rights, themselves adopted by legislative actors. As James Madison wrote in the Federalist No. 10, we expect in a representative democracy that our leaders will not appeal to factions (as in a direct democracy) but to the highest ideals of the legal order.

A second point about the notwithstanding clause, especially on constitutional substitution. The effect of Justice Belobaba’s ruling is to open the door to the use of the notwithstanding clause on s.3 of the Charter, the essence of his legal findings. Yet this is doubly prohibited by the Constitution. As I say above, s.3 only applies to Parliament and the legislatures and at any rate cannot be overridden by the notwithstanding clause. Though Justice Belobaba framed his findings under s.2(b), his ultimate conclusion was framed in the right to effective representation that would be infringed by having councilors who cannot respond to voter complaints [57]. He was most concerned with being able “to case a vote that can result in meaningful and effective representation” [59]. This is in substance a finding under s.3. Yet by framing the finding under s.2(b), Justice Belobaba opens the door both to the application of s.3 to municipalities and to the use of the notwithstanding clause against, in essence, a s.3 finding. If we accept that the right to effective representation is infringed, we should worry about the notwithstanding clause’s use here.

Vote ‘em out

I offer these comments tentatively, largely because we are in unchartered waters. At the same time, two final points. First, I disagree with those who say this is a constitutional crisis. Constitutions are meant to be durable, to withstand pressure by those seeking to break constitutional norms, or even the inadvertent pressure of complacence. In some ways (putting aside the constitutional substitution concern) this is a textbook case of the court issuing a ruling and the government responding.

Second, I think the best way to understand Justice Belobaba’s ruling is to conclude that he saw a wrong, fashioned a remedy, and hooked it to a right. On most accounts, though the duty of procedural fairness does not attach to acts of the legislature, there was something unfair about the way in which Bill 5 was introduced and the context of the Premier’s contentious relationship with Toronto Council. Most likely this was an arbitrary decision by the Premier. In the face of this unfairness, Justice Belobaba found a way to get around the problem of s.3 by applying s.2(b) and by stretching the meaning of s.2(b) itself. I do not see this as a proper response to legislative unfairness. The best responses are for PC MPPs to oust Ford, or for the voters to do so.

Author: Mark Mancini

I am a graduate of the University of New Brunswick Faculty of Law, and a current LL.M. student at the University of Chicago Law School. I clerked at the Federal Court for Justice Ann Marie McDonald. I have interests in administrative law broadly, with specific interests in substantive review of administrative interpretations of law. I am also interested in law and economics, particularly remedies law viewed from an economic perspective. Any views expressed on Double Aspect are mine, and mine alone.

3 thoughts on “Toronto v Ontario: A Remedy Seeking a Right”

  1. Good post.

    I’m not so sure that Justice Belobaba’s decision opens the door to applying the notwithstanding clause to section 3 rights – the text is clear that section 33 cannot be used to override rights under section 3. To the extent that section 2 and 3 overlap, a law which had effect notwithstanding a violation of section 2 would still be offside section 3 and of no force and effect.

    On the other hand, I think the fact that section 33 applies to section 2 and not to section 3 rather reinforces your point that the rights set out in section 2 and section 3 are, and were intended to be, distinct.

    1. Thanks for your comment!
      I don’t mean to say that s.33 can override s.3 as such. I do mean to say that if s.2(b) incorporates some element of voting rights or “effective representation,” s.33 can override that provision. In substance, I see this as an override of the right(s) entrenched in s.3, which was excluded from s.33 for good reason.

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