Here are my three favourite dissents at the Supreme Court of Canada. All of my dissents are united by a focus on the Rule of Law and constitutionalism, traditionally understood. In other words, they prioritize constitutional text over abstract values; and they focus particularly on the hierarchy of laws under which the Constitution>statutes>the common law. These might be considered “boring” themes on which to base my dissents, but to my mind, these structural arrangements are fundamental to law in Canada. These dissents focus on the majority’s subversion or misapplication of these fundamental structural constraints.
The TWU decision was one of the most anticipated Supreme Court decisions in 2018. My favourite aspect of this dissent, penned by Brown and Côté JJ, was the rigorous attack on Doré/Loyola as an organizing framework to analyze the constitutional claims in TWU. The dissent admirably showed why these cases are inconsistent with the Rule of Law and constitutionalism.
The Doré/Loyola approach to assessing the constitutionality of decisions engaging Charter rights asks decision-makers to balance Charter values engaged on particular facts with statutory objectives arising in a statutory framework. Courts are supposed to defer to the decision-maker’s balancing of values and objectives. But the slippery nature of Doré/Loyola has been subject to widespread criticism (see my particular criticisms here). Brown and Côté JJ also pointed out the widespread problems with the Doré/Loyola framework: see para 302. But the majority largely ignored these problems, and the suggestion by interveners that Doré/Loyola were unworkable. In a laughably weak paragraph, the majority simply stated that Doré and Loyola are binding precedents , without any attempt to justify the approach from first principles.
Brown and Côté JJ’s dissenting opinion admirably dealt with the problems with the Doré/Loyola framework head on. First, the dissent stated that there is no pressing justification for a separate analytical track when speaking of administrative decisions, particularly because the traditional Oakes test is “already context-specific” . Second, the dissent noted that Doré and Loyola permit statutory objectives to trump Charter rights—but such a situation is completely unjustified from the perspective of the Rule of Law and constitutionalism, under which the Constitution trumps potentially unconstitutional statutory objectives, subject only to reasonable limits under s.1—not statutory objectives writ large . Finally, the majority’s navel-gazing with regards to Charter values received the dissent’s ire: these values—as opposed to Charter rights—do not receive constitutional protection , and should not because they are not law. Since they are “unsourced,” they can be “entirely the product of the idiosyncrasies of the judicial mind that pronounces them to be so” .
Brown and Côté JJ’s dissenting reasons sound in the Rule of Law and constitutionalism. Under Doré, as Brown and Côté JJ note, the traditional hierarchy of laws is perverted. The use of statutory objectives to moor the analysis means that rights can be infringed insofar as a decision limiting those rights is consistent with an enabling statute. This reverses how we typically understand constitutionalism. Under a system based on the Constitution, once a decision is found to limit a constitutional right, that decision is void insofar as it infringes the Constitution—statutes cannot save a decision that infringe the Constitution . True, infringements of Charter rights can be justified under the Oakes test. But it is not only every statutory objective and means that are worthy of the Oakes imprimatur. Yet under Doré, “Charter rights are guaranteed only so far as they are consistent with the objectives of the enabling statute” .
More seriously, the use of Charter values allows for potential judicial expansion of rights beyond the text of the Constitution—that which is enacted by the people through democratic processes. As Brown and Côté JJ persuasively note, “values” lack doctrinal rigour, permitting judges to define rights as they see fit. This perverts the relationship that courts should have to constitutional text. The relationship is that of an interpreter, not a creator. Constitutionalism is as much about control on elected representatives as it is on courts, who are supposed to faithfully elucidate the existing Constitution, not create a new one.
- Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v Saskatchewan, 2015 SCC 4
At issue in the SFL case was a prohibition on striking interfered with s.2(d) of the Charter, protecting the freedom of association. The majority (Abella J) concluded that s.2(d) incorporated a right to strike, despite the fact that the Court had previously held that the right to strike is not constitutionally entrenched in Canada. While there had been changes in the s.2(d) jurisprudence in the intervening years, those changes, in my view, fell far short of endorsing a free-standing right to strike.
Yet the majority did so, powered by the reasoning that “It seems to me to be the time to [the right to strike] constitutional benediction.” This reasoning—a weak, unsupported assertion of judicial power—was the target of Rothstein and Wagner JJ’s partial dissent.
The dissent in SFL focused on two problems with the majority’s acceptance of a right to strike. First, it noted that constitutionalizing a right to strike upsets the prerogatives of the legislature and the executive, the branches constitutionality assigned to “balance competing tensions in making policy decisions” . As the dissent posits, “Governments, not courts, are charged with adapting legislation to changing circumstances in order to achieve a balance between the interests of employers, employees, and the public” . But secondly, to the dissent, the majority’s approach was inconsistent with existing precedent of the Court, undermining certainty in the law [137, 139].
Rothstein and Wagner JJ’s dissent is so powerful because it resists the judicial usurpation (“benediction”) evident in the majority reasons. It asserts that the text of the Constitution, not judicial predilections or results-oriented reasoning, should be the starting point of constitutional analysis. It refers to the importance of precedent as the bedrock of the legal system; precedent which the majority overrules for no convincing reason. It asserts that the court cannot usurp the power of the legislature in an area traditionally assigned to political channels. These are reminders that courts should keep in mind in the era of Charter adjudication.
Dissents are sometimes valuable because they have the potential to tell the future. Sometimes it takes a long time for a dissent to find majority support. But in Edmonton East, at least part of Brown and Côté JJ’s dissent received majority support in the Supreme Court’s recent administrative law re-do, Vavilov.
The controversy in Edmonton East centred around the selection of the standard of review. The majority (Karakatsanis J) ultimately concluded that a presumption of reasonableness review should govern, based on existing precedent. That presumption was justified by (1) the legislative choice to delegate in the first place  and (2) expertise, which “inheres in a tribunal itself as an institution…”  and (3) access to justice . But Karakatsanis J, in her reasons, actually ended up strengthening the presumption of reasonableness, by rejecting the idea that a contextual analysis should not often rebut the presumption of reasonableness , and the idea that statutory rights of appeal cannot rebut the presumption of reasonableness .
Brown and Côté JJ took significant issue with all of this. In their view, the existence of a statutory right of appeal on certain questions of law and jurisdiction led to the conclusion in this case that correctness was the applicable standard . To Brown and Cote JJ, statutory rights of appeal could be a signal that the legislature intended more intrusive review . And the dissent was also reticent about the majority’s broad claims of expertise .
Brown and Côté JJ’s dissent is justified in principle. The selection of the standard of review is a matter of determining what the legislature meant when it delegated power to a decision-maker. This is because administrative actors are vested with powers only so far as statute provides, and it is for the legislature to prescribe the degree of deference courts must afford decision-makers . This means that courts must carefully parse the delegation of authority to decision-makers, and the statutory context, to determine the degree of deference owed: statutory rights of appeal play a role in this task, as they signal that legislatures intended courts to interfere with a lower administrative decision as it would in any normal appeal. And expertise is not a good justification for a broad-based presumption of expertise, because legislatures may sometimes delegate to a non-expert decision-maker, and a decision-maker might not be expert on all the questions that come before it .
All of this, as noted above, was recognized by the Court’s recent opinion in Vavilov. Statutory rights of appeal now serve as valid legislative signals that correctness applies, on questions of law. Expertise is no longer a valid consideration in determining the standard of review. Brown and Côté JJ foretold the future, then, in their Edmonton East dissent.