Doing Right on Rights

Why the Supreme Court was right to find the disenfranchisement of Canadians abroad unconstitutional

In my last post, I summarized the majority, concurring, and dissenting opinions delivered in Frank v Canada (Attorney General), 2019 SCC 1, which held that the denial of the franchise to Canadians who have resided outside the country for more than five years is unconstitutional. As noted there, I believe that the majority, whose opinion was delivered by Chief Justice Wagner was correct so to hold. In this post, I explain why, and also make some observations about the strongly-worded dissent by Justices Côté and Brown. To make my biases clear once again, I remind readers that I am a Canadian abroad myself, and have been for six of the past eight years. While I vote rarely and reluctantly, I am emotionally invested in the issue of whether my right to do so can be taken away. Feel free to discount the following accordingly.


While I am the subject of emotions, let me say this. Justices Côté and Brown assert that the denial of the right to vote to Canadians abroad “is not a distinction based on moral worth”. [168] By my lights, that’s precisely what it is. On their own view, it is the product of “normative conceptions of what the Canadian political community is, and how it can best be protected and made to flourish”. [139] The conception embraced by Parliament in enacting the provisions invalidated in Frank sees the Canadian political community as excluding Canadians abroad, who are consequently less worthy of the franchise. Indeed, they are, according to the dissent, a threat from which the community must be protected, since it is “unfair to Canadian residents for their lawmakers to be elected by long-term non-residents who have no connection of any currency to their electoral district”. [153]

This is utterly wrong. As the Chief Justice rightly observes, many Canadians who live abroad maintain strong ties with Canada (and, I would add, often with the local community where they used to live and, in many cases, intend to return). As the Chief Justice also says, “[c]onversely, there may be citizens who have never left Canada but whose subjective commitment to the country is much weaker and who are less well versed in local issues”. [68] Indeed, though it would be impolitic for a judge to say so, “may be” in this sentence should read “obviously are”. As, for example, Ilya Somin and Bryan Caplan respectively have shown, voters are both ignorant and irrational ― rationally so, but ignorant and irrational all the same. Yet we would not generally accept disenfranchising voters on that basis; we do not inquire into the degree of connection a voter has with his or her local community, or the country, before issuing him or her a ballot paper. It is only, it seems, in the case of expatriates that these things actually matter. To me, this is strong evidence that what is at work here is not really a concern with the fairness or integrity of Canada’s electoral system, but a judgment, or rather prejudice, about the moral worth of those Canadians who are taken to have left the community, and must “rejoin[]” [153] before being allowed to take part in the community’s affairs.

Now, it is true that most Canadians abroad do not, in fact, go to the hassle and the expense of requesting a special ballot and returning it to Elections Canada. This means, of course, that the idea of non-resident voters swamping elections and deciding them at the expense of residents is far-fetched if not entirely implausible. But more importantly, as the Chief Justice points out, this means that those who do take the trouble value their involvement in Canada’s political life ― probably more so than a great many of their resident fellow-citizens. In the Chief Justice’s words, they “demonstrate[] a profound attachment to Canada”, [75] and it seems absurd to pretend otherwise on the basis of no evidence whatsoever.


This brings me to another issue: that of the correct approach to deciding whether legislation is unconstitutional because it unjustifiably contravenes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Justices Côté and Brown issue what they regard as a profound challenge to the way we not only discuss but also think about the relationship between Charter rights and policies that interfere with them. They note that it is commonplace to speak of such policies as “infringing” or even “violating” rights, only for these “infringements” or “violations” to be upheld, or “saved” by applying section 1 of the Charter. Yet, as they further point out, section 1 provides that the Charter “guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society” ― limits, not infringements or violations. So we should stop talking about justified infringements, and talk about limits instead. The majority is not interested, observing that the words “limits” and “infringements” have long been used interchangeably. (The Chief Justice is probably too polite to note this, but I am not: Justices Côté and Brown themselves spoke in terms of “infringement” as recently as seven months ago, in their excellent dissent in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32.)

I take the dissent’s textual point. The word section 1 uses is “limits”, and it arguably makes more sense to say that the state can justifiably limit rights, not that it can violate them. But I fail to see what great change to the way we actually think about rights and scrutinize the state’s possible interference with them follows from this. Contrary to some, indeed quite a few, of the participants in this blog’s recent 12 Days of Christmas symposium, Justices Côté and Brown show no interest in reconsidering the test for verifying the permissibility of limitations on rights that was first set out in R v Oakes, [1986] 1 SCR 103. They apply the same proportionality analysis, warts, subjectivity, and all, under the label of assessing the “limit” on the right to vote as the majority does when considering “infringement” of this right. They have much to say about the fact that the right to vote is a “positive” one, requiring legislation to “breathe[] life into” it, [142] but that it is true of many of the rights the Charter protects (notably, but by no means only, the various rights of criminal suspects and accused) and, more importantly, it simply does not follow that the legislation that “breathes life into the right” may not fail to do so to a constitutionally required standard. (Similarly, Justices Côté and Brown point out that the legislation imposing a five-year expiry period on expatriates’ franchise replaced that which gave no expatriates the vote. So what? The test of constitutionality is not whether Parliament comes closer to respecting the Charter than it once did, but whether it respects the Charter now.)

The real methodological disagreement between the dissent and the majority (as well as Justice Rowe’s concurrence) has to do with the level of deference each accords Parliament. The majority insists, at the outset, that “[a]ny limit on the right to vote must be carefully scrutinized and cannot be tolerated without a compelling justification”. [1] Although, as noted in yesterday’s post, it later wavers a little on this point, its approach is, indeed, one that refuses to take the government’s claims about the need for or usefulness of the legislation it examines on faith. By contrast, the dissent waxes deferential, “eschews rigid and technical application” [124] ― it’s not quite clear of what, but presumably of the justification requirements ―, and plays up “Parliament’s policy-making expertise”. [126]

Yet here the dissenters’ professed textualism fails them. To repeat, section 1 of the Charter says that “only such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society” (emphasis mine) can be countenanced. The constitutional text, therefore, requires a demonstration ― not judicial acquiescence on the basis that Parliament knows best. And this requirement, in turn, suggests that contrary to what Justices Côté and Brown say Charter rights can only be limited in order to deal with an identifiable problem, to address some specified mischief, and not merely because a legislature thinks that in an ideal political community these rights would be limited in this way. The enactment of the Charter, as a law superior to ordinary legislation, has taken that moral judgment out of the Canadian legislatures’ hands. (To be clear, this is a separate question from that of the permissibility of what used to be called “morals legislation”, which proscribes what the legislature sees as immoral behaviour, such as taking drugs. There is no argument that expatriates act immorally by voting.)

In short, by all means, let’s be careful with our language, and speak of reasonable limits on rights instead justified violations. But let’s also insist that limitations on rights, to qualify as reasonable, must be ones whose justification is capable of being demonstrated, rather than merely asserted, and is in fact demonstrated, rather than taken for granted. Indeed, I think that this substantive concern is rather more important than the semantic one. In Frank, it is the majority, not the dissent, that follows an approach that is closer to that required by the constitution.


In my view, the majority decided Frank more or less as it should have. It correctly insisted that any exclusion from the franchise except the one based on citizenship must be justified. Contrary to the dissent’s strident warnings, it does not follow that no exclusions could ever treated as reasonable limits ― only that the justification process for upholding these limits cannot be elided by saying that some limits on the right to vote must obviously be admissible. This goes even for the denial of the right to vote minors (which, as Ilya Somin, for example, has argued, is not as self-evidently reasonable as the dissenters would like us to think). I think that it would be quite easy to sustain the disenfranchisement of three-year-olds, the dissent’s scaremongering example, should anyone challenge it; but as for the denial of the vote to teenagers, I for one wouldn’t mind seeing the governments put through their justificatory paces.

The majority is also right to be skeptical of the government’s arguments based on an ill-defined “social contract” of which expatriates are allegedly no part. I’m not too impressed with the Chief Justice’s definition of Parliament’s objective in terms of “fairness” ― fairness is too capacious a word for my liking, and the dissent’s suggestion that Parliament was pursuing a currency of relationship between the voter and his or her community seems closer to the mark. But one should also acknowledge that objectives that are largely symbolic (or, as Justices Côté and Brown see it, moral) do not lend themselves to easy definition, and so inevitably compromise the quality of the Charter analysis. The majority’s skepticism about the existence of a rational connection between the objective of fairness and disenfranchisement of Canadians abroad is also warranted. Indeed, I would have liked the Chief Justice to have been bold enough to say that, given both the possibility that expatriates maintain current links with Canada and their Canadian communities, and the lack of any assessment of whether any other voters do so, disenfranchising expatriates alone based on their deemed lack of connection to Canada is actually irrational. But the Chief Justice is not the first judge not to want to go there.

I’ll live with that, because the Chief Justice ends up making the right arguments at the “minimal impairment” stage of the analysis. Like I had in criticizing the decision of the Court of Appeal for Ontario in this case, he points out that Canadians abroad can and do maintain close links with Canada; that they are affected by Canadian laws and government policies; that, moreover, “Parliament can change laws on its own initiative and thus alter the extent to which Canadian legislation applies to non-resident citizens”, [72] so that one cannot invoke the limited scope of current extra-territorial legislation to deny expatriates the vote ― I had called this “let[ting] the statutory tail wag the constitutional dog”; and that in any event “attempting to tailor Charter rights to the extent to which citizens are burdened, or not burdened, by Canadian laws would be an impossible exercise”. [71] If all this is not enough to qualify the disenfranchisement of expatriates as irrational, than it certainly suffices, as the Chief Justice says, to show that it is grossly overbroad, and not “minimally impairing” of the right to vote.

The Chief Justice’s reasons are not perfect. He does, as the dissent points out, get somewhat carried away in patriotic praise for the Canadian democracy, and there are shades of what I’ve been calling “constitutionalism from the cave” in his claim that “a broad interpretation of” the Charter‘s guarantee of the right to vote “enhances the quality of our democracy and strengthens the values on which our free and democratic state is premised”. [27] Constitutional interpretation must aim at ascertaining the text’s meaning, not at strengthening values or anything of the sort. Still, what the Chief Justice’s opinion for the majority does is substantially in line with the constitutional text, despite its rhetorical imperfections. (And still on the subject of rhetoric, or style: can someone please ask the Chief Justice and his colleagues to stop using the initialism “AGC”? It is a recent innovation ― the Court hadn’t done it at all before 2010 ― and not a good one. It is ugly and has a jargon-y feel that is quite at odds with the Chief Justice’s stated desire to make the Court’s work more accessible, including to laypersons.) But as majority opinions of Supreme Court have gone in the last few years, the one in Frank is up there with the best.


The Supreme Court has held that Canadians who live abroad cannot be disenfranchised based on, in effect, stereotypes about their lack of relationship with their home country. This is a relief. In doing so, it has insisted on carefully and critically examining the government’s claimed reasons for limiting Charter rights, and this is a good thing too, one that doesn’t happen often enough. There is something to learn from the dissenting opinion, too, about our constitutional vocabulary, and I hope that this lesson is not lost just because the substance of that opinion is bitterly disappointing. But the constitution was upheld in Frank, and so right was done. May 2019 bring more of that.

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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