Day One: Dwight Newman

Three dissents of principle

Professor of Law, University of Saskatchewan

In considering some dissents of note, it is important to consider what factors make a dissent stand out. Amongst these are its intellectual coherence, its adherence to basic principle, and its tendency to stand up to a majority opinion with some surface allures. In some cases, such dissents of principle end up shaping the law in future, and that is the case in varying ways with all three of the dissents I will discuss here: the dissent of Beetz J. in the Anti-Inflation Act Reference, [1976] 2 SCR 373, the dissent of La Forest J. in the Reference re Remuneration of Judges of the Provincial Court (P.E.I.), [1997] 3 SCR 3, and the dissent of LeBel J. in Alberta v. Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, 2009 SCC 37, [2009] 2 SCR 567.

Beetz J. in the Anti-Inflation Act Reference

Justice Beetz, though not always attracting as much attention today, was an intellectual giant of his era. His dissenting opinion in the 1976 Anti-Inflation Act Reference, in which he stood up for fundamental principles of federalism, is a landmark judgment. In the case, Beetz J. wrote against the majority judgments upholding relatively popular legislation designed to combat severe inflation, including the lead judgment of Laskin C.J.C. supported by the future chief justice Dickson J.

In doing so, Beetz J. had to articulate tests for the so-called “peace, order, and good government” (POGG) power. While the majority mistakenly stated the POGG test too broadly and in ways that would harm Canadian federalism had they come to be applied in other cases, the tests articulated by Beetz J. could inform future jurisprudence, notably shaping the approaches of both the majority and the dissent in the 1988 decision in R. v. Crown Zellerbach Ltd., [1988] 1 S.C.R. 401

On the use of the national concern branch of POGG, Beetz J. actually obtained a majority even in the Anti-Inflation Act Reference itself, as Ritchie J.’s opinion signed on with Beetz J. on this issue. The judgment of Laskin C.J.C. had a peculiar ambiguity to it, not drawing clear distinctions between “national dimensions” and a “national emergency”, and Beetz J.’s dissent thus offered an appealing intellectual rigour by comparison to an approach that would have failed to offer meaningful constraints on federal power. Indeed, Beetz J. presciently warned against the dangers of the federal government inventing new powers by developing creative names for matters it sought to claim under the POGG power.

On the emergency branch, Beetz J. was ready to insist upon the need for transparency in any invocation of emergency powers, along with the other elements needed for the use of the power, including genuine temporariness.  Writing of the mixed body of evidence put forth in support of the federal anti-inflation legislation allegedly being focused on an emergency, Beetz J. showed his readiness to describe matters frankly: “I remain unimpressed” (p. 466). His dissent in the case continues to stand as a tour de force in resisting federal overreach.

La Forest J. in the Provincial Court Judges Reference

The dissent of La Forest J. in the Reference re Remuneration of Judges of the Provincial Court (P.E.I.) (Provincial Court Judges Reference), saw La Forest J. standing alone against a Court that claimed to find unwritten constitutional principles governing judicial salaries. The forthrightness of the judgment is stark, as La Forest J. wrote that “the approach adopted by the Chief Justice, in my view, misapprehends the nature of the Constitution Act, 1867” (para. 320) and he suggested that the approach adopted caused the very legitimacy of the Court to be “imperiled” (para. 316). Indeed, he saw the case as being about “the nature of judicial power” (para. 300) in so far as the rest of the Court dreamt up arguments not proffered by the parties to find unwritten principles in the preamble of the Constitution Act, 1867.

In doing so, the majority set the stage for the kind of reasoning they would end up using in the Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 SCR 217 shortly thereafter. But it was La Forest J.’s resistance to judicially created principles that would later win out, as the Court had to take  steps in British Columbia v. Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., 2005 SCC 49, [2005] 2 SCR 473 to fend off a surge in litigation grounded in alleged unwritten principles. The majority managed to use unwritten principles on judicial salaries and on secession but came to realize that such an approach was unmanageable for the judiciary as an institution. In Imperial Tobacco, it also indicated its arguably newfound respect for “the delimitation of […] rights chosen by our constitutional framers” (para. 65). While unwritten constitutional principles were convenient in a particular moment, the principled position is to seek to focus on the written text, and that was what La Forest J. defended. 

There has been over the years much talk that La Forest J.’s  resignation from the Court—essentially simultaneous with the release of the judgment in being announced weeks before the release and taking effect weeks after—was a mark of his profound disagreement with the decision, its methodology, and its implications for the upcoming cases. His dissent lives on as a defence of the rule of law.

LeBel J. in Alberta v. Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony

There are many important Charter dissents, and the dissent of LeBel J. in Alberta v. Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony might not be a common choice.  In some ways, the dissent of Abella J. in the same case has attracted more attention and defends some of the same positions as those within the dissent of LeBel J. But it is LeBel J.’s dissent that has a certain starkness and that marks more profoundly a certain commonsensical resistance to the majority’s convenience-oriented rejection of a religious freedom claim.

The facts concerned the religious freedom claim of a small group of 250 Hutterite farmers from some particular colonies in rural Alberta whose understanding of Scriptural principles against graven images took a particularly strict form: they took the view that they could not have their photographs on their driver licences. The province of Alberta had implemented a universal photo requirement to create a universal facial recognition database and removed an exemption previously granted to these 250 Hutterite farmers that would exclude them from the database, along with the 700,000 Albertans who did not have driver licences at all.   

While the majority opinion of McLachlin C.J.C. (erroneously) accepted the creation of the database itself as the government objective for purposes of analyzing any infringement and McLachlin C.J.C went so far as to suggest that the farmers in question could simply arrange alternative transportation, LeBel J. eviscerated the majority logic in a few lines. Writing against the judgment of McLachlin C.J.C. —who grew up in rural Alberta—it fell to LeBel J. to point out the importance of a driver’s licence in rural Alberta and to suggest that an appropriate constitutional balance was not obtained “by belittling the impact of the measures on the beliefs and religious practices of the Hutterites and by asking them to rely on taxi drivers and truck rental services to operate their farms and to preserve their way of life” (para. 201). 

The defence of collective aspects of religious freedom resonating through various parts of LeBel J.’s dissent (and the subject of a beautiful passage about communities of faith at para. 182), also found in Abella J.’s dissent, won out in Loyola High School v. Quebec (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 12, [2015] 1 SCR 613.  There, McLachlin C.J.C. and Moldaver J., wth Rothstein J. also signing on, decided to state that LeBel J. had not actually been in dissent on the significance of religious communities and the collective dimensions of religious freedom (para. 93). Sadly, such reassurances may have come too late, as many understood the majority opinion in Hutterite Brethren as implicitly about worries about future cases involving Muslims, and the majority’s tolerance of government restrictions probably set a tone for the years to come. But, in principle, LeBel J.’s dissent came to be the law on these aspects.

Another, fascinating dimension of LeBel J.’s dissent also deserves more attention than it has received thus far. In his dissent, he also fosters new thought on the Oakes test for rights limitations, recognizing explicitly some problems in how it had come to be applied over the years. This thought was also prescient, and further rethinking of the Oakes test has emerged as an arena for ongoing discussion. Like other great dissents of principle, LeBel J.’s dissent in Hutterian Brethren sparkles with intellectual energy and stands on fundamental points of principle in ways that make it endure not as a mere minority report but as a light for the future.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law and legal philosophy 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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