Do Not Pass Section 1: Go Directly to Invalidity

Some infringements on rights are never acceptable in a free and democratic society, including requirements to state facts one doesn’t believe in

In my last post, I argued that Ontario’s recently-enacted and not-yet-in-force Federal Carbon Tax Transparency Act, 2019, which requires gas stations to display stickers purporting to inform their clients of the cost of the federal carbon tax, is likely unconstitutional, as well as morally wrong. The requirement obviously compels the owners of gas stations to engage in speech from which they would otherwise have abstained, and so limits their right to freedom of expression protected by section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In my last post, I followed the orthodox approach to ascertaining whether this limitation was justified and therefore constitutional, which consists in applying a proportionality analysis along the lines first set out in R v Oakes, [1986] 1 SCR 103. But, as I indicated there, I actually think that this approach is not right for this case. Here, I explain why.


Pursuant to section 1 of the Charter, the rights the Charter protects can be “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”. Proportionality analysis is not an end in itself or an explicit requirement of the constitutional text. It is only a means to the end of ascertaining whether a given limitation on rights is “demonstrably justified”. (Indeed, one may well argue that the proportionality analysis is a bad means to that end; one would not be wrong; but it is much easier to poke holes in proportionality analysis than to come up with a convincing all-purpose alternative.) Proportionality analysis is inherently case-by-case. It focuses a court’s attention on the reasons for and the effects of particular statutory provisions or administrative decisions, applied to the particular circumstances detailed by the persons whose rights are allegedly infringed.

But it should be possible to say that certain limitations of rights are such as to be categorically impermissible in a free and democratic society, regardless of particular circumstances. With limitations of this sort, proportionality analysis is unnecessary; indeed, it only serves to obfuscate their inherent unacceptability. I can see no bar in the text of section 1 of the Charter to taking this position. In his article on the history of section 1, Adam Dodek notes that a number of groups that took part in the proceedings of the Special Joint Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons on the Constitution pushed for some rights (equality rights were a popular candidate, but not the only one) to be excluded from the scope of the application of section 1 altogether. Obviously, this was not done, but I don’t think that this rejection entails that of a more fine-grained approach. In other words, while the history may suggest that no provision of the Charter is absolutely immune from limitation, at least as a textual matter, it does not follow that any and all limitations conceivable are, potentially, justifiable in a free and democratic society.

Indeed, I think that it does not follow that a categorical bar on justifying limitations of certain rights, introduced in the process of constitutional construction, is foreclosed by section 1, even in light of the history described by Dean Dodek. The idea that section 1 had to apply to every right guaranteed by the Charter was put to the Supreme Court in Attorney General) v Quebec Association of Protestant School Boards, [1984] 2 SCR 66, but the Court accepted it “for the sake of discussion only and without deciding the point”. In any case, this is an issue for another day.

And there are precedents, in early Charter cases, for applying the approach that I am considering. Protestant School Boards is one. There, the Supreme Court observed that limits on rights, within the meaning of section 1 of the Charter,

cannot be exceptions to the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Charter nor amount to amendments of the Charter. An Act of Parliament or of a legislature which, for example, purported to impose the beliefs of a State religion would be in direct conflict with s. 2(a) of the Charter, which guarantees freedom of conscience and religion, and would have to be ruled of no force or effect without the necessity of even considering whether such legislation could be legitimized by s. 1. (88)

But the best known precedent is R v Big M Drug Mart Ltd, [1985] 1 SCR 295. There, Justice Dickson (as he then was), wrote that

it should be noted that not every government interest or policy objective is entitled to s. 1 consideration. Principles will have to be developed for recognizing which government objectives are of sufficient importance to warrant overriding a constitutionally protected right or freedom. Once a sufficiently significant government interest is recognized then it must be decided if the means chosen to achieve this interest are reasonable―a form of proportionality test. (352)

Justice Dickson went on to reject the government’s attempt to justify the Lord’s Day Act, which imposed the Christian holy day as a mandatory day of rest for most Canadian workers. He found that

[t]he characterization of the purpose of the Act as one which compels religious observance renders it unnecessary to decide the question of whether s. 1 could validate such legislation whose purpose was otherwise or whether the evidence would be sufficient to discharge the onus upon the appellant to demonstrate the justification advanced. (353)

However, the proportionality analysis foreshadowed in Big M and sketched out by now-Chief Justice Dickson in Oakes quickly took over Charter cases, and the possibility that some limitations of Charter rights could never be justified, regardless of the circumstances and the evidence the government brings in their support has been a road not taken by Canadian constitutional law in the last 35 years.


I think that this unfortunate. The Oakes-based proportionality analysis, at least as it has developed, focuses on one part of section 1: the “demonstrably justified” requirement. But it has little to say about other parts of section 1: the “democratic society” qualifier, and the notion of “limits” on, as opposed to exceptions to or denials of rights. Perhaps it didn’t have to be this way. In Oakes itself, Chief Justice Dickson wrote referred to this phrase as “the final standard of justification for limits on rights and freedoms” (136) and offered an explanation of what they referred to:

the values and principles essential to a free and democratic society …  I believe embody, to name but a few, respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, commitment to social justice and equality, accommodation of a wide variety of beliefs, respect for cultural and group identity, and faith in social and political institutions which enhance the participation of individuals and groups in society. (136)

One might quarrel with this list, of course ― I am not a fan “social justice” as an inherent component of democracy, for instance ― or, at least, expect it to be refined as cases develop. More fundamentally, one might quarrel with the way Chief Justice Dickson proffers this catalogue of values, as the product of his own meditation on freedom and democracy. An originalist, for example, might want to ask what the words “free and democratic society” meant to the public at the time of the Charter‘s enactment, and not simply how a judge ― even a thoughtful and distinguished judge writing mere years after the Charter came into force ― understood them. But, however that may be, the idea that limitations of rights must be justifiable not just in the abstract, but in a particular kind of society, namely a free and democratic one, was there in Oakes ― and has (like certain other aspects of that decision) fallen by the wayside since.

To repeat, I would like to recover this idea and, more specifically, to argue that there are some limits on rights that are never acceptable in free and democratic societies. Protestant School Boards offers and Big M applies one example: it is not acceptable, in free and democratic society, to impose a state religion. One might imagine a specious proportionality-based defence of the Lord’s Day Act: it serves the objective of social cohesion and public affirmation of a national religion, in a way that could not be achieved by less restrictive means, and after all it is but a small imposition ― dissentients are not forcibly dragged to divine service ― in comparison with purported benefits. A sufficiently deferential court might even, conceivably, swallow this. But we don’t need ask whether it would. The alleged benefits of the Lord’s Day Act are not something a government is entitled to pursue in a free and democratic society.

I tentatively think that a similar argument can be made with respect to many speech compulsions. In particular, I think that a free and democratic society is necessarily one in which there is no official ideology prescribed by the state that citizens are required to parrot. I suspect that the idea would have been familiar at the time of the Charter‘s framing, during the Cold War. Thus the rejection of official ideologies may well be part of the original meaning of the phrase “free and democratic society”, although I don’t know enough to be confident. But even if it cannot be read into section 1 as a matter of interpretation, I think that it has to be as a matter of construction ― the process of elaboration of legal doctrine implementing constitutional text. Just like a free and democratic society has no state religion, as the Supreme Court confirmed in Big M, it must have no set of secular beliefs mandatory for citizens. Perhaps having an official ideology would be convenient or useful; perhaps it would foster equality, or social cohesion, or prosperity. This doesn’t matter. Free and democratic societies don’t do official ideology ― just like they don’t do official history, official economic theory or, I would add, official science. (Official, of course, in the sense of mandatory for citizens; the state itself can, and indeed must to some extent, commit to specific views on many of these issues.)

Now, some cases of compelled speech cannot rightly be described as or assimilated to attempts to impose a state ideology. This is, in particular, the case of mandatory disclosure of information that is in the possession of the person subject to the compulsion ― whether in the shape of nutritional information that is required to be printed on food packing or that of data about trust accounts or self-study hours that lawyers are made to provide on their annual reports. Mandatory requirements to use a particular language for certain communications are in this category too. For these, and perhaps other, cases of compelled speech, the proportionality framework, with its case-by-case scrutiny of the tailoring of means to ends and weighing of costs and benefits is appropriate (assuming, that is, that it is appropriate for anything).

At the other extreme are cases like the Law Society of Ontario’s requirement that lawyers “promote equality, diversity, or inclusion”. This is a clear case where the government ― through the entity to which it has delegate coercive regulatory powers over the legal profession ― attempts to force people to embrace a particular set of values or beliefs and express their having done so. One can argue ― along with Dwight Newman ― that this is also an infringement of the freedom of thought (protected by the same provision of the Charter as freedom of expression, section 2(b)). One can also argue, as I have done here, that this is an infringement of the freedom of conscience. But of course this is also (and neither Professor Newman nor I deny this) a limitation of the freedom of expression ― and, I think, a limitation of a sort that cannot be justified in a free and democratic society, no matter how well-intentioned (which it is) or effective (which it isn’t).

The ant-carbon-tax stickers are something of an intermediate case. They ostensibly communicate information, and at least make no pretense about this information coming from the person coerced into transmitting it rather than the government. To that extent, they are less offensive, and less like an official ideology, than the Law Society of Ontario’s demands. However, it is arguable that stickers present incomplete information, and do so tendentiously. Not everyone, to say the least, would regard the message conveyed by the stickers as something that they could, in good faith, transmit. This is more than just a matter of preference. Perhaps the sellers of junk food would rather not tell people the number of calories their product contains; but their integrity is not threatened when they are made to do so. By contrast, when a person is made to communicate something that he or she does not, in good faith, believe, the stakes are higher, and the analogy to official ideology much closer. At the risk of being a bit dramatic, making Winston Smith love Big Brother was only the end point. The start was making him say that 2+2=5.

As Justice Beetz insisted in his dissenting opinion in Slaight Communications Inc v Davidson, [1989] 1 SCR 1038, to accept that it is permissible to order a person to tell the truth “beg[s] the essential question: what is the truth?” (1060) Some authority may think that it has established the facts, but one “cannot be forced to acknowledge and state them as the truth apart from his belief in their veracity. If he states these facts … as ordered, but does not believe them to be true, he does not tell the truth, he tells a lie.” (1061) Justice Beetz went on to add that

to order the affirmation of facts, apart from belief in their veracity by the person who is ordered to affirm them, constitutes a … serious violation of the freedoms of opinion and expression … [S]uch a violation is totalitarian in nature and can never be justified under s. 1 of the Charter. It does not differ, essentially, from the command given to Galileo by the Inquisition to abjure the cosmology of Copernicus. (1061)

Of course, Justice Beetz’s opinion was a dissenting one. All I can say is that I see nothing in Chief Justice Dickson’s majority opinion that addresses his colleague’s cogent arguments. Given the extent to which the Supreme Court has been willing to revisit its prior cases ― and to do so with much less justification than there would be to revisit Slaight on this point ― I feel no particular compunction in urging that Justice Beetz’s opinion should be followed, and that compelled statements of facts that the person required to make them believes, in good faith, to false or simply misleading should be treated like compelled statements of opinion and compelled professions of value. They are categorically unjustifiable in a free and democratic society.


The Charter‘s reference to “a free and democratic society” is not a mere description. As the Supreme Court held early on, it is the “final standard” against which purported limitations on the rights the Charter secures must be measured. It is true that rights must sometimes be limited, even in a free and democratic society. But the Charter exists because of a recognition by its framers ― and by their constituents ― that legislative majorities are apt to disregard rights, and to seek to limit them for the sake of convenience, or out of ignorance or even spite or hatred. Some limitations may appear defensible in principle but, on closer examination, are not supported by evidence, go too far, or do more harm than good. But others are incompatible with free and democratic societies as a matter of principle. It is unnecessary to scrutinize their tailoring to their purpose, or weigh up their effects. The Charter bars them categorically.

The imposition of official beliefs, or the requirement to express beliefs, is the sort of thing that simply must not happen in a free and democratic society; it is incompatible with freedom and democracy. This includes religious beliefs, as the Supreme Court has held. But political beliefs, or even beliefs about truth, should not be treated any differently. Canadian governments have no right to impose them, and the courts should peremptorily reject them.

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.

One thought on “Do Not Pass Section 1: Go Directly to Invalidity”

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