In the Beginning

Learning about, and from, Pierre Trudeau’s 1968 proposal for what would become the Canadian Charter

Canadian judges and lawyers, including of the academic variety, tend not to think very highly of our constitutional history. This is, in part, because we ― and I must include myself in this ― do not know it as well as we should. There is an unhealthy feedback loop at work: a predisposition to be dismissive of the past fosters ignorance about it, which in turn makes it easier to be dismissive. The good news is that, once one starts looking into this history about which we have so much to find out, it is easy to find fascinating stories to learn, and to learn from.

Case in point: the proposal for “A Canadian Charter of Human Rights“, put forward in early 1968 by then-Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau, made available by the wonderful resource that is the Primary Documents project. I have to admit: I didn’t really know anything about this text before coming across it recently. But it is, surely, of considerable interest, if we accept that ― like every other rights-protecting text from the Magna Carta onwards ― the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the direct descendant of the 1968 proposal, isn’t just a shadow in Plato’s cave, but a document that was written and enacted by particular people, at a particular time, in a particular place. And in addition to both the interest that I think this text deserves and the way in which it illustrates the value of constitutional history more broadly, it also sheds some light on ongoing debates.


Trudeau began his introductory chapter by claiming that “Interest in human rights is as old as civilization itself.” (9) (This, I am afraid, is reminiscent of bad student work.) For a long time, he wrote,

these rights were known as ‘natural’ rights; rights to which all men were entitled because they are endowed with a moral and rational nature. … These natural rights were the origins of the western world’s more modern concepts of individual freedom and equality. (9)

Trudeau appealed to Cicero and Aquinas, as well as Locke and Rousseau, and quotes at some length from the Declaration of Independence. I’m not sure that his presentation of the concept of natural rights is fully accurate, but his reliance on these authorities as the starting point of an argument for constitutional protection of human rights is relevant to the recent debates about the nature and origin of the rights protected by the Charter.

Another point which has been the subject of recent discussion that Trudeau’s introduction addressed was that of Parliamentary supremacy. Trudeau was quite clear that his proposal involved “some restriction on the theory of legislative supremacy”, although this theory, he said, “is seldom pressed to its full extent”. (11) Equally clear, as will appear below, was his understanding that the courts would have the last word on the meaning and import of the rights guarantees that he proposed adding to the Constitution. The point of the exercise was to secure “the fundamental freedoms of the individual from interference, whether federal or provincial”, and also to “establish that all Canadians, in every part of Canada, have equal rights”. (11)


This theme of inviting judicial enforcement of rights’ guarantees is further developed in the next chapter. Trudeau discusses the Canadian Bill of Rights, and finds it wanting because it is “not a constitutional limitation on Parliament, only an influence”, (13) and has not been vigorously enforced by the courts. Even if it had been, it would, like provincial legislation protecting human rights, be subject to repeal through the ordinary legislative process. In short,

a constitutionally entrenched Bill of Rights is required which will declare invalid any existing or future statute in conflict with it. Language in this form would possess a degree of permanence and would over-ride even unambiguous legislation purporting to violate the protected rights. (14)


The next Chapter outlines the contents of the proposed “charter of human rights”. It explains how existing law deals with each right it proposes to protect ― what the existing protections, if any, are; how they are limited; and also how legislative powers affecting the right are distributed between Parliament and the provincial legislatures. In some cases at least, there is thought given to the wording of future constitutional clauses ― for example, “whether freedom of expression is best guaranteed in simple terms without qualification, or whether the limitations of this freedom ought to be specified” (16) ― which suggests that the Charter‘s text is not just a collection of “majestic generalities” that could just as easily have been cast in very different, if equally general, terms. And there is a great deal of speculation about the way in which the courts will treat various rights, if they are constitutionally entrenched. This speculation is informed by references to Canadian case law, where it exists, as well precedents from the United States. There are also occasional references to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Some future controversies are already foreshadowed in Trudeau’s discussion. For example, the section on the freedom of religion highlights “the imposition of Sunday closing of businesses on Christians and non-Christians alike” ― which would, indeed, produce one of the first Supreme Court decisions based on the Charter, R v Big M Drug Mart Ltd, [1985] 1 SCR 295. For its part, the section on “life, liberty and property” ― note that, as Dwight Newman and Lorelle Binnion have pointed out, Trudeau was quite keen on entrenching some form of constitutional protection for property rights ― anticipates the issue in another early Charter case, Re BC Motor Vehicle Act, [1985] 2 SCR 486 about whether substantive or only procedural constraints exist on deprivations of “life, liberty and the security of the person”. In 1968, Trudeau thought, based on the jurisprudence under the “due process clause” of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution

that the guarantee [of due process] as applied to protection of “life” and personal “liberty” has been generally satisfactory, whereas substantive due process as applied to “liberty” of contract and to “property” has created the most controversy. It might therefore be possible to apply the due process guarantee only to “life”, personal “liberty” and “security of the person”. The specific guarantees of procedural fairness set out elsewhere in the bill would continue to apply to any interference with contracts or property. In this fashion the possibility of any substantive “due process” problems would be avoided. (20)

Of course, the example of property rights shows that what was ultimately enacted in 1982 was not always what Trudeau had wanted in 1968. Still, given the widespread conviction that the Supreme Court’s holding in the Motor Vehicle Act Reference that the “principles of fundamental justice” which must be respected when depriving a person of “life, liberty or security of the person” were not only procedural but substantive too went against with the wishes and expectations of the Charter‘s framers, it is interesting to note that the Supreme Court’s interpretation is actually quite consistent with Trudeau’s original proposal.

There are instances, admittedly, where Trudeau’s powers of prediction failed. For example, he wrote that “a court would likely be extremely reluctant to substitute its opinion of a proper punishment for that of the legislature”. (21) Stephen Harper, not to mention Justice François Huot of the Québec Superior Court, might have a thing or two to say about that. Trudeau thought that constitutionalizing the presumption of innocence would not mean “that the various federal and provincial penal statutes which contain ‘reverse onus’ clauses … will be declared unconstitutional”. But of course it was just such statute that was in fact declared unconstitutional in R v Oakes, [1986] 1 SCR 103.

And property rights weren’t the only ones that he thought important but the Charter ended up not protecting: so was the right to a fair hearing in civil and administrative proceedings. On the other hand, some rights that Trudeau did not think advisable to incorporate in the constitution were read into it by judicial fiat. Thus, notably, Trudeau listed “the right to form and join trade unions” along with other rights “which seek to ensure some advantage to the individual and which require positive action by the state”, (27) and which should not be protected by his proposed “charter of human rights”. That is because “[i]t might take considerable time to reach agreement on the rights [in this category] to be guaranteed and on the feasibility of implementation”. (27) Someone should have told the Supreme Court before it decided in Health Services and Support – Facilities Subsector Bargaining Assn v British Columbia, 2007 SCC 27, [2007] 2 SCR 391, that a right to collective bargaining would have been “within the contemplation of the framers of the Charter“. [78]


The very brief final chapter in Trudeau’s text suggests that egalitarian and linguistic rights might have to be implemented gradually, after political and legal rights have been protected, and muses on the advisability of special provisions for wartime and other emergencies. Section 32(2) of the Charter, which provided that equality rights would only come into effect three years after the rest of the Charter, seems to reflect the former concern, as does, in part, section 59 of the Constitution Act, 1982 which requires Québec’s consent ― which has never been given ― for the application of section 23(1)(a) to the province. No special provision has been made specifically to accommodate the concern about emergencies, though Trudeau actually contemplated the possibility of leaving it to “the courts to determine what limitations are made necessary in times of crisis”. (30)


In case I have not made this sufficiently clear already: these are only one man’s ideas about what a future constitutional charter of rights for Canada should look like and accomplish. To be sure, the man was influential ― indeed his influence was decisive in Canada having a constitutional charter of rights 14 years later ― and the ideas were given the stamp of approval by the government of which he was part. But many years would pass, and many governments would change, before these ideas would become law, and then, as noted above, only in a much modified form.

It is the law that was enacted that binds Canadian governments, and Canadian courts. As I have unfortunately had occasion to note here, Pierre Trudeau’s political programme is not the appropriate object of constitutional interpretation, “and the courts’ duty is to apply the Charter as it has been enacted, and not to expand it forever until the day the just society arrives”. For the better and for the worse ― often much for the worse ― the ideas of other political actors and members of the civil society helped shape Charter as it developed from a political proposal to a constitutional law.

Nevertheless, the original proposal of which the Charter is the consequence deserves our attention. Although in no way binding or definitive, it sheds some light on important controversies surrounding the Charter, some of which are ongoing to this day ― in part, I would argue, because we have not paid sufficient attention to history. Studying this history is a way not only of indulging our curiosity ― though there’s nothing wrong with that ― but also of reminding ourselves that the Charter, and our constitution more broadly, was the product of specific circumstances and ideas. For all their flaws, these circumstances and ideas were more interesting and praiseworthy than those who denigrate them in order to make the constitution that they produced into a blank canvas onto which their own preferences can be transposed care to admit. The constitution is neither such a blank canvas nor a projection from a Platonic world of forms that must be interpreted by philosopher kings in judicial robes for our edification and government. It is a law, and must be interpreted as such.

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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