Among the panoply of difficult constitutional decisions rendered by the Supreme Court of Canada, there are many occasions when the majority of justices provide reasoning that can only be described as less than compelling (some might simply say ‘wrong’). The virtues of dissenting reasons – which, even on a highly consensual court like the Supreme Court, appear in roughly one-quarter of all cases – are multiple, and include presenting a counterpoint that might sharpen the overall decision, identifying weaknesses in the majority’s reasons, and, perhaps most importantly, providing a potential foundation for a future iteration of the Court to overturn itself (indeed, this has happened in cases involving assisted dying and labour rights.)
An invitation to identify three favourite dissents poses a considerable challenge given the long list of candidates, but I’ve managed to settle on the following:
- Dissenting opinion in R. v. Keegstra (1990), by Justice McLachlin (as she then was).
The Keegstra case involved a Charter of Rights challenge to the criminal law against unlawfully promoting hatred. The majority upheld the law as a reasonable limit of freedom of expression. They did so in part on the basis that hate speech “is of limited importance when measured against free expression values … the state should not be the sole arbiter of truth, but neither should we overplay the view that rationality will overcome all falsehoods in the unregulated marketplace of ideas.” Moreover, hate speech subverts the democratic process by denying dignity to at least some segments of the community. The majority is dismissive of efforts to “prove a causative link between a specific statement and hatred of an identifiable group” and even states that requiring such proof of direct harm “would severely debilitate” Parliament’s objectives. Instead, it is enough that there is a risk of harm.
McLachlin’s dissent acknowledges the intuitive kinds of harm that hate speech can generate, particularly the pain and indignity it can inflict upon its targets. Yet she rightly questions the effectiveness of criminalizing hate speech. Indeed, the law is rarely enforced in Canada precisely because it does not capture that vast majority of hateful utterances. McLachlin also notes that hatred is notoriously broad, and that identifying it requires reliance on vague or subjective understandings. Importantly, this had already resulted in dramatic state overreach. She points to instances where copies of Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses were stopped by border authorities in a misguided effort to enforce the criminal provision. In another incident, arrests were made when pamphlets were distributed that happened to include the words “Yankee Go Home.”
The Keegstra dissent is a principled defence of free expression and the dangers of permitting state line-drawing on a vague basis like the promotion of hatred. McLachlin’s dissent correctly highlights the lack of evidence that hate speech laws mitigate hateful expression, the very real risk of state overreach, and the chilling effect such laws might induce. It is a shame that, when offered a chance to revisit the issue of hate speech in the statutory human rights context years later in Saskatchewan (Human Rights Commission) v, Whatcott, McLachlin essentially disregarded her own important points of caution.
- Dissenting opinion in Chaoulli v. Quebec (Attorney General) (2005), by Justices Binnie and LeBel.
The Chaoulli case involved, at its core, a fundamental principle of the design of the health care system – equity, specifically access to health care regardless of ability to pay – and whether a provision designed to protect it, the prohibition on the purchase of private medical insurance, violated the right to life, liberty and security of the person under section 7 of the Charter. Had there been clear evidence that the provision at stake in the case contributed to waitlists and delays in access to health care, this might have been a straightforward decision. But regardless of whether one supports, as a matter of policy, a greater role for private options in health care, everyone should be concerned about the majority’s capacity to properly assess the evidence at stake in the case.
In a remarkably frank and punchy dissent, Justices Binnie and LeBel excoriate their colleagues for their overconfidence and questionable assumptions in deciding that the law ought to be invalidated. Noting that their colleagues contend the failure to provide “public health care of a reasonable standard within a reasonable time” violated rights, the dissenters ask:
What, then, are constitutionally required “reasonable health services”? What is treatment “within a reasonable time”? What are the benchmarks? How short a waiting list is short enough? How many MRIs does the Constitution require? The majority does not tell us. The majority lays down no manageable constitutional standard. The public cannot know, nor can judges or governments know, how much health care is “reasonable” enough … It is to be hoped that we will know it when we see it.
The dissent rightly criticizes the majority for a lack of deference to finding of facts at the trial level, for disregarding the majority of experts, and for failing to pay heed to comparative evidence that waitlists exist in countries with private options. In a particularly noteworthy passage for a Supreme Court of Canada opinion of any kind, the dissent notes bluntly that the “resolution of such a complex fact-laden policy debate does not fit easily within the institutional competence or procedures of courts of law.” Moreover, they note that a “legislative policy is not ‘arbitrary’ just because we may disagree with it.” If only this message was one Canadian justices heeded more often.
- Dissenting opinion in Reference re Remuneration of Judges of the Provincial Court (P.E.I.), (1997), by Justice La Forest.
The Remuneration reference is one of the most dramatic cases of judicial overreach in Canadian history. In it, the majority of the Court mandated “independent compensation commissions” for judges based on the “unwritten principle” of judicial independence (grounded in the preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867 of “a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom” and an analysis of section 11(d) of the Charter, a plain reading of which comes nowhere close to imagining the requirements invented by the majority).
Justice La Forest’s partial dissent stands as the lone voice of reason on a Court wildly stretching and misapplying the concept of judicial independence. He describes the majority’s approach as “a partial usurpation of the provinces’ power to set the salaries of inferior court judges” under the Constitution Act, 1867. That the reference involved “an issue on which judges can hardly be seen to be indifferent, especially as it concerns their own remuneration” was not lost on him either. La Forest criticizes the majority for its view that the constitutional preamble is a source for limiting the power of legislatures to interfere with judicial independence. Indeed, the idea that the British Constitution imposes such limits on Parliament is ahistorical nonsense.
La Forest also correctly notes that judicial review is “politically legitimate only insofar as it involves the interpretation of an authoritative constitutional instrument. … That legitimacy is imperiled, however, when courts attempt to limit the power of legislatures without recourse to express textual authority.” It is unreasonable, in La Forest’s view, to assume changes in judicial salaries or discussions between the two branches of government about salaries impair judicial independence.
The dissent in Daviault (1994), against a defence of extreme intoxication for offense of general intent like sexual assault.
The dissent in Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (2015), against constitutionalizing the right to strike.
The dissent in Reference re Supreme Court Act (2014), against a cherry-picked connection between the general eligibility requirements for Supreme Court justices and those for judges from Quebec.
The dissent in R. v. N.S. (2012), against the notion that requiring a sexual assault complainant to remove her niqab when testifying at trial protects the right to a fair trial.
The dissent in Sauvé (2002), in favour of deference to Parliament’s legitimate moral and philosophical objectives in denying the right to vote to those currently in prison for having committed serious crimes.