Day 11: Asher Honickman

Standing on basic principles

Partner, Matthews Abogado LLP

As with many of the other contributors to this excellent symposium, the three dissenting judgments I have chosen share a common theme. Each articulates a basic principle of Canada’s constitutional order ― one which was true before the decision was handed down and continues to be true today, but which was ignored or marginalized in the majority decision.

These are not necessarily my “favourite” dissents. I have had the benefit of reading most of the other contributions and have consciously avoided dissents that have already been discussed. I have also cast the net wide and selected one dissent from each of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, with (coincidentally) 68 years between each one. Without further ado, here they are.

Justice Strong in Severn v The Queen (1878) 2 SCR 70: Judicial Restraint

As with many division of powers cases of the era, Severn was about alcohol. John Severn was charged with manufacturing and selling large quantities of beer without a license in what was then the Town of Yorkville, contrary to Ontario law. Severn argued that the law was unconstitutional as it came within Parliament’s exclusive authority to regulate trade and commerce under s.91(2) of the then BNA Act. A majority of the Supreme Court agreed.

The various majority judgments (Supreme Court decisions were written seriatim until the second half of the 20th century) adopted a decontextualized plain reading of the Act. Despite the fact that the impugned law concerned manufacture and sale wholly within the province, the majorities held that it nevertheless came within “trade and commerce”. The judges drew comparisons between the United States Constitution and the more centralized BNA Act. But there was very little discussion of the text and architecture of sections 91 & 92 and particularly the interplay between the provincial power to regulate “property and civil rights” on the one hand and the federal trade and commerce power on the other (the Privy Council would take up this task several years later in Citizens Insurance v Parsons, (1881) 7 App Cas 96, significantly narrowing the scope of the trade and commerce power in the process).

Justice Strong began his dissent by stating that the Court should afford the legislature the presumption that it was acting constitutionally and should seek to discover a constitutional construction of the statute. This “presumption of constitutionality”, first articulated by Strong J., would become a defining feature of constitutional interpretation by the end of the century (A.H.F. Lefroy would cite it as one of the 68 leading propositions of constitutional law) and continues to be applied to this day. Strong J. continued with a second even more central principle: “that it does not belong to Courts of Justice to interpolate constitutional restrictions; their duty being to apply the law, not to make it”.

Justice Strong agreed with the majority’s flawed interpretation of the trade and commerce power. However, he correctly noted that the language of the BNA Act limited this power to what had not been exclusively granted to the provinces – in this case, the power over licensing. The term “other licenses” in s.92(9) had to be read broadly – if it was confined to those types of licenses that had been in existence prior to Confederation as the majority preferred, then the power to impose licenses would be disparate across the provinces, which is not what the BNA Act envisages.

Severn was the first decision of the Supreme Court of Canada to interpret the division of powers, predating all of the doctrinally significant decisions of the Privy Council. And it shows. The majority judgments appear adrift in a sea of doctrinal uncertainty. Strong J.’s dissent is far from perfect, but it provided an early and important articulation of the judicial function in the realm of constitutional interpretation – apply the law and approach the task with a degree of humility and restraint.

Justice Rand in Reference to the Validity of Orders in Council in relation to Persons of Japanese Race, [1946] SCR 248: Executive Power is Constrained by Law

The Japanese Persons Reference was a low point in Canadian history. In December of 1945, the Governor in Council ordered all individuals of the “Japanese race” who had previously expressed a desire in writing to be “repatriated” to Japan to be sent there. The Order applied to Japanese nationals, naturalized Canadian citizens and natural born British subjects. A second related Order revoked the British status and Canadian citizenship of naturalized Canadians of Japanese background. These Orders were made pursuant to the War Measures Act, which remained in place notwithstanding the war had ended several months earlier. The majority held that the Orders were intra vires, a finding that was affirmed by the Privy Council. Nearly 4,000 individuals of Japanese ethnicity were sent to Japan. It is not clear how many went involuntarily, but presumably at least some (and perhaps most or all) wished to continue living in Canada once hostilities ceased and Japan came under military occupation.

Justice Rand agreed that the Governor in Council could deport Japanese nationals and naturalized Canadians of Japanese background, but he disagreed that the Order could be applied to natural born British subjects who wished to remain in Canada. The reason was twofold. Firstly, in the case of Japanese nationals and naturalized Canadians, Supreme Allied Commander General MacArthur had made a corresponding order for their “repatriation”. However, no such order existed in relation to natural born British subjects. The effect of the Order would be to banish a British subject to a country without that country’s invitation or consent in circumstances where that person would remain a British subject. This was surely beyond the scope of the War Measures Act. Secondly, since natural born British subjects remained Canadian citizens and thus had the right to return to Canada at any time after being deported, it seemed improbable that the Governor in Council had deemed the one-time removal of such a to be necessary or advisable for the peace, order and welfare of Canada, a precondition for deportation under the War Measures Act.    

Rand J. also took issue with the revocation of British subject status of naturalized citizens of Japanese origin. Any revocation had to be made in accordance with the Naturalization Act, which stated that citizenship could only be revoked where the person demonstrated “disaffection or disloyalty” to the King. The Governor in Council had made no such finding regarding these individuals, but the justices in the majority argued it was implicit as each person had made a request in writing for repatriation. It is far from clear the circumstances that prevailed when these requests were made; in any event, they came on heels of the internment of Japanese people during the war. Justice Rand noted that the Order was, in effect, a “penal provision of a drastic nature” and that he was not prepared to simply conclude by implication that the Governor in Council was satisfied in each case that the naturalized subject was disaffected or disloyal.

The Japanese Persons Reference is seldom thought of as an administrative law decision. But at its core, it is about how judges ought to review executive action. The case is a sobering reminder that if administrators are not constrained by law and are left alone to exercise their discretion, then they will invariably trample upon individual freedom.

Justice Rand could not turn to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to invalidate the Orders; but he appealed to the foundational rule of law principle that any exercise of state power must find its source in a legal rule. His dissent illustrates that liberty does not begin or end with enumerated rights, and that a government constrained by law is a necessary condition for any free society.

Justice Rothstein in Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, [2014] 3 SCR 31: The Primacy of Constitutional Text

As I argued in my post for last year’s symposium, B.C. Trial Lawyers Association is one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in modern history. In grounding a novel constitutional right of access to justice in section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867, the Court ignored the text, context, and purpose of the provision, along with settled doctrine.

Justice Rothstein’s lone dissent is powerful throughout, but particularly in its criticism of the majority’s reliance upon the rule of law as a basis to invalidate legislation. There is no doubt that the rule of law is a foundational principle of the Canadian state. But it means particular things in particular contexts (for example, as noted above, that state action must be grounded in a legal rule). The majority employed the term in a far more nebulous manner, and relied upon it to elevate another amorphous concept – access to justice – to constitutional status. By contrast, Justice Rothstein emphasized the “primacy of the written constitutional text”, and that the rule of law requires courts to give effect to legislation that conforms to that text. As such, “the rule of law does not demand that this Court invalidate the [law] — if anything, it demands that we uphold it”.

This is the salient point of the dissent. Judges exercise public power that is both granted and limited by the text of the Constitution. Justice Rothstein acknowledged that the courts may, on occasion, turn to unwritten principles to fill in “gaps” in the constitutional text; but he cautioned that “gaps do not exist simply because the courts believe that the text should say something that it does not”.  Where a court changes the meaning of a constitutional provision, it has, in effect, amended the Constitution by judicial fiat and, in doing so, has endangered the rule of law and the very basis upon which the judiciary is empowered to review legislation.  


Note: Mr. Honickman stepped in, almost without notice, to replace one of the contributors, who had to withdraw for reasons beyond her (let alone our) control. Co-blogger Mark Mancini and I are most grateful to him for helping us out! – LS

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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