What Do You Want?

A proposal for an expanded (and entrenched) statutory bill of rights is confused and misguided

In an op-ed in the Globe and Mail, Patrick Visintini and Mark Dance make the case for a new legislative bill of rights, to supplement the guarantees of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They argue that “a dusted-off” and much-expanded version of the Canadian Bill of Rights would produce a variety of benefits, at once empowering legislators and securing the neglected rights of the citizens. Yet these ambitious objectives are contradictory, and the argument rests on a confused, if all too common, vision of the constitution.

Messrs. Visintini and Dance lament the popular conception of members of Parliament as “nobodies”. If I understand them correctly, they are also none too pleased with the fact that, unlike in the process that led to the enactment of the Charter, “[c]ritical debates about rights in Canada have been largely left to lawyers and judges, expanding rights through constitutional interpretation rather than amendment”. A legislative update to the Bill of Rights “could reverse both these trends”, ensuring that legislators once again contribute to the protection of rights, overcome the pressures of ” electoral interests and ironclad party control” and “hold[] themselves and the federal government to account for future law-making and administrative action”.

This Bill of Rights 2.0 (my cliché; don’t blame Messrs. Visintini and Dance) would have further benefits too. It “would enhance the public’s ability to understand, track and organize to defend their rights”. It could be the vehicle for enshrining in law “now-pertinent rights [that] never made it into the Charter: environmental rights, victims [sic] rights, housing rights and the rights of Indigenous peoples to self-determination and self-government”. And it could

serve as a shield against judicial reactionaries. While we enjoy a relatively state-of-the-art constitution and a Supreme Court that understands those laws as a “living tree,” we may not always be so lucky. We cannot assume that we will always be immune to the American affliction of constitutional originalism, petrifying our living Constitution where it stands or even shrinking it to fit in the “ordinary meaning” that it would have had in 1982.

Messrs. Visintini and Dance also propose “[r]equiring a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament to add to or amend the new Bill of Rights”. In their view, this “would practically guarantee that cross-party consensus and collaboration would be needed” to effect such changes. They are not quite clear on whether they envision their proposed bill of rights being enacted by such a majority in the first place, although they refer appreciatively to the cross-party collaboration in the run-up to the enactment of the Charter.

More democracy! Less partisanship! More rights! Less Parliamentary abdication! More living constitutionalism! Less non-consensual tinkering with rights! If it all sounds too good to be true… that’s because it is. You can’t have all these things at once. What Messrs. Visintini and Dance are proposing is to empower Parliament, but just this once, for a grand act of abdication that will put a new plethora of rights beyond the reach of ordinary legislation, and empower the courts whose takeover by “reactionaries” they seem to fear. This makes no sense.

The point of a quasi-constitutional, or a fortiori constitutional, legislation protecting rights is to take them off the political agenda to some non-negligible extent and involve the courts in their enforcement. (Given their preference for immunizing their bill of rights from amendment by ordinary law, it is arguably a constitutional rather than a quasi-constitutional instrument that Messrs. Visintini and Dance are proposing.) Normally, one advocates enacting such laws because one thinks that the political process is not especially trustworthy, if not generally then at least with respect to the particular issues covered by one’s proposal. Of course, it may be that the political process will function well enough for the specific purpose of enacting rights-protecting legislation. Perhaps this was the case with the Charter, though looking beyond the Special Joint Committee on the Constitution one might argue that politicians did a lot of damage too, removing property rights protections and introducing the “notwithstanding clause”. Be that as it may, it is odd to expect any lasting empowerment of legislators to result from the enactment of a law whose raison d’être is to curtail their power.

Conversely, if one has sufficient confidence in the ability of legislators to deal with rights issues on an ongoing basis, or even if one simply has faith (a naïve faith, as I have argued here) that keeping legislators in control of constitutional issues will force them to take these issues seriously, the enactment of (quasi-)constitutional laws empowering the courts to set aside legislative decisions is counterproductive. One could still advocate for a legislated bill of rights in the New Zealand style, one that does not allow the courts to refuse to apply inconsistent statutes at serves, at most, to alert Parliament to the possible existence of a rights issue. One might, just, support the Canadian Bill of Rights, which allows a Parliamentary majority to override a judicial decision declaring a statute inoperative due to inconsistency with rights. But one would not demand that this law be protected from amendment by the ordinary legislative process.

Besides, if one professes confidence in the legislators’ ability to come up with a good bill of rights, as Messrs. Visintini and Dance do, one should not in the same breath demand that courts re-write those legislators’ work product. If the Special Joint Committee did good work, then what’s wrong with a constitution that has the meaning its members chose to give it? If they really want reverse the trend of judicial interpretations displacing the good work done by Members of Parliament in 1981-82, then Messrs. Visintini and Dance should be demanding originalist judges, not denouncing these (mostly hypothetical) creatures as suffering from an “American affliction”.

It’s not that I am opposed to expanding constitutional protections for rights, though my preferences would be quite different from those of Messrs. Visintini and Dance. Property rights, freedom of contract, and due process in the administration of civil and administrative justice would be my wish-list. I would also want any such expansion to follow proper procedures for constitutional amendment; it is far from clear that the entrenched bill of rights proposed by Messrs. Visintini and Dance can be enacted consistently with Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982. But one should be clear about what the point of such a change to our present constitutional arrangements would be. It would serve the cause not of legislative empowerment, or even accountability, but that of counter-majoritarian individual liberty.

And if one would rather serve those other causes, which have something to be said for them, there is plenty that one can campaign for. Improved legislative procedures are one area for reform: fewer omnibus bills, less delegation of broad law-making authority to the executive, more free votes perhaps. Many governments are elected promising to do some of these things at least. Few, if any, follow through. As an election is coming up, there is plenty of room for worthy, if perhaps quixotic, advocacy here. One could also demand more effective control over the administrative state. Again, less delegation of power to bureaucrats, but also more effective parliamentary scrutiny of the exercise of that power which has been delegated, as well as reform of the law of judicial review of administrative action. In particular, Parliament could, and should, repeal privative clauses, and clarify that administrative determinations of law are subject to full review on a correctness standard. One could also try to persuade the Supreme Court to finally abandon its deference to bureaucrats on constitutional issues. There is no point in creating new rights if administrators, rather than independent courts, are given the ability to determine their scope and effect.

In short, would-be promoters of democracy and accountability in Canada have plenty to do. A new bill of rights will not advance their purposes; other, less sexy but more realistic, measures might. Democracy, accountability, individual liberty, or glamour: they need to figure out what it is that they are after.

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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