Stupid. But Constitutional.

The Globe and Mail reports that the government is seeking to introduce wideranging methods to permit the Cabinet to raise revenue. However, this report has now evolved, and the proposed measures have been walked back. But the original Globe article said:

One section of the bill grants cabinet the power to change taxation levels through regulation, rather than through legislation approved by Parliament. It states that cabinet will have this power during the period “before 2022.”

“For greater certainty, a regulation made under this section may contain provisions that have the effect of repealing or imposing a tax, decreasing or increasing a rate or an amount of tax or otherwise changing the incidence of tax,” the bill would have stated.

Let’s assume that this reporting was accurate. Let’s also assume that there are more provisions in the bill that set out some more detail on the tax (based on the words “[f]or greater certainty”). In my view, and despite opposing arguments from unwritten principles, I think this Bill would have likely been constitutional. I first address my argument that s.53 of the Constitution Act, 1867 would likely not have been abridged; and second, that the presence of unwritten principles does not change this conclusion.


While this Bill has now been walked back (and probably for very good reason), the old proposal would have been constitutional, because (at least at face value) it clearly delegated taxing power.

Let’s start with the basic point. Section 53, as noted in the seminal Eurig Estate case, encodes the principle of “no taxation without representation, by requiring any bill that imposes a tax to originate with the legislature” (Eurig, at para 30). The restriction here is simple: s.53 prohibits the executive from imposing new taxes ab initio “without the authorization of the legislature” (Eurig, at para 31).

Notably, however, this does not mean that the executive cannot raise taxes. Merely, the executive’s ability to do so is parasitic on clearly-delegated legislative authority. As John Mark Keyes notes in his work Executive Legislation, “[s]ection 53 does not set up an absolute bar to the delegation of taxation powers” (at 122). If it is clear that Parliament has delegated taxing authority to some executive actor, there is no reason to impugn the delegation, constitutionally. This means that executive legislation raising revenue will be constitutionally proper if it does two things: (1) the legislation is enacted pursuant to a delegated power; (2) it is clear that the delegation is a delegation of taxing authority.

Most of the conceptual work is done at the stage of determining whether the delegation is clear. And on that note, the Supreme Court has spoken: consider its opinion in the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Assn case, at para 74:

The delegation of the imposition of a tax is constitutional if express and unambiguous language is used in making the delegation. The animating principle is that only the legislature can impose a new tax ab initio. But if the legislature expressly and clearly authorizes the imposition of a tax by a delegated body or individual, then the requirements of the principle of “no taxation without representation” will be met. In such a situation, the delegated authority is not being used to impose a completely new tax, but only to impose a tax that has been approved by the legislature. The democratic principle is thereby preserved in two ways. First, the legislation expressly delegating the imposition of a tax must be approved by the legislature. Second, the government enacting the delegating legislation remains ultimately accountable to the electorate at the next general election.

The point of the clarity principle, then, is to ensure that the executive is actually acting pursuant to lawfully delegated authority. So long as the delegating provision is clear, there is no constitutional basis to assail it.

Additionally, and as noted above, I am making an assumption that this is not the only operative delegating provision. In other words, it may be a requirement that a bare delegation of taxing authority must be couched in language that sets out the tax’s “structure, base and principles of imposition” (see Keyes, at 124; see also Ontario English Teachers Association, at para 75). I am assuming that this is the case here. But if my assumption is wrong, this becomes a closer case. If the delegation says it is delegating a tax, is that enough on the Supreme Court’s terms? Or is a framework a requirement?

If only the word “tax” is required, or if the taxing power is cabined by other provisions (as it appears to be in this case), then the case for constitutionality is strong. As such, this statute seems to clearly delegate power to the executive to take any number of actions with respect to taxes. Since that authority is lawfully delegated, it likely cannot be impeached in a constitutional sense. And so long as the executive remains responsible for these powers, there is no sense in which it could be said that the executive is evading parliamentary scrutiny.


More broadly, the Supreme Court’s comments on delegation also support the constitutionality of this measure. Though these comments do not relate to taxation, they do underscore the broader context of how the Court has historically viewed delegated power. In short, the Court has permitted extremely broad delegations of power—especially in crisis situations—so long as the executive remains responsible to Parliament for the exercise of these extraordinary powers. The same goes in this situation.

I highlight two cases to this end. In Re Gray, the context was WWI. Under the War Measures Act, Parliament granted power to the executive under a so-called Henry VIII clause; the power to amend or repeal laws, delegated to the executive. The Court upheld this delegation. It said, even though the delegation was extensive, Parliament has not abandoned control over the executive carrying out these powers, and the Ministry remained “responsible directly to Parliament and dependent upon the will of Parliament for the continuance of its official existence” (Gray, at 171). Therefore, so long as Parliament retains control over the delegated power—so long as it does not “abdicate” its power (Gray, at 157) there is no legal concern.

Similarly, in the Chemicals Reference, another broad delegation was at issue. The delegated power permitted the Ministry, in service of WWII efforts, to make rules allowing censorship, control of transportation, forfeiture and disposition of property, and arrest and detention. Again, the Court upheld the delegation :

Parliament retains its power intact and can, whenever it pleases, take the matter directly into its own hands. How far it shall seek the aid of subordinate agencies and how long it shall continue them in existence, are matters for. Parliament and not for courts of law to decide. Parliament has not abdicated its general legislative powers. It has not effaced itself, as has been suggested. It has indicated no intention of abandoning control and has made no abandonment of control, in fact. The subordinate instrumentality, which it has created for exercising the powers, remains responsible directly to Parliament and depends upon the will of Parliament for the continuance of its official exist­ence (Chemicals Reference, at 18).

While these cases might not be directly applicable in the taxation context, they do shed light on the underlying theory that was also present in the Ontario English Catholic Assn case. That is, so long as Parliament controls the delegation and the executive is responsible for the exercise of delegated powers, there is no way to impeach the delegation of power.


I do want to address one potential argument, that is primarily made by Alyn (James) Johnson, in his delegation piece in the UBC L Rev. That argument is based on unwritten constitutional principles (and perhaps constitutional architecture) set out in cases like the Secession Reference and the Senate Reference. One might make the argument that constitutional architecture—the structure and separation of the legislature and the executive—should serve here to prohibit the legislature from delegating its power away in this fashion to the executive. Additionally, Johnson makes the argument primarily based on the principle of democracy: he contends that a “marginalized legislature delegating un-cabined power to willing executive instrumentalities is incoherent and unprincipled.” (Johnson, at 823). More specifically, legislatures are a place for discussion and deliberation; they are fora for democratic contention; but if delegation is widespread, the political/democratic process is lost, and people lose “authorship” over laws (Johnson, at 879-880). Moreover, one could make an argument from the separation of powers: it fundamentally transforms the functions of each of the branches for widespread delegation of this sort to be permitted.

My initial impetus is to be skeptical of unwritten principles and arguments from constitutional structure. For one, the role of unwritten principles is somewhat limited: they may have “normative force” (Quebec Secession Reference, at para 54) they also cannot be used to attack the content of legislation (or so the Court held with respect to the Rule of Law: see Imperial Tobacco, at para 59). In whole, while it could be true that unwritten principles could strike the content of statutes, their role appears to be limited; they cannot, for example, “dispense with the written text of the Constitution” (see Quebec Secesstion Reference at para 53; see also literature questioning the extent of use of unwritten principles: Jean Leclair, “Canada’s Unfathomable Unwritten Constitutional Principles” 2002 27 Queen’s LJ 389 at 400).

Moreover, unwritten principles arguments lack the coherence and structure of traditional doctrinal arguments, and in my view, can be used to support whatever outcome a person wishes. For example, in my view, the principle of “democracy” for example, endorsed by the Supreme Court, might just as well support a Parliament taking an expansive view of its ability to delegate, and delegating widespread authority to the executive. After all, the Court has said that “regulations are the lifeblood of the administrative state” (see Hutterian Brethren, at para 40), and if the Bill of Rights of 1688 meant anything, it meant that Parliament came into its own as the controller of the executive; it became a sovereign body: “each successive delegation of legislative power has been a fresh recognition of that sovereignty” each delegation “a victory at the expense of the Crown” in which the Crown gives up pretensions to legislate by itself (see C.T. Carr, “Delegated Legislation: Three Lectures” at 48-52; see also A.V. Dicey, at Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution, at 6 ). What we are talking about is a sovereign Parliament, and as the Supreme Court has recognized, “parliamentary sovereignty remains foundational to the structure of the Canadian state: aside from constitutional limits, the legislative branch of government remains supreme over the judiciary and the executive” (Pan-Canadian Securities Reference, at para 49). If that is the case, Parliament can just as well delegate its power away if it is sovereign.


In conclusion, I am not trying to say that this law is a good idea. Indeed, there are abstract worries we might think about: what about the separation of powers? What about the institutional functions of each of the branches of government? There are also significant policy reasons to dislike the old proposal. Are these powers proportionate and strictly tailored to their purpose, for example?

Nonetheless, I believe the legal case for a statute of this sort was at least facially strong.

Author: Mark Mancini

I am a PhD student at Allard Law (University of British Columbia). I am a graduate of the University of New Brunswick Faculty of Law (JD) and the University of Chicago Law School (LLM). I also clerked at the Federal Court for Justice Ann Marie McDonald. I have interests in: the law of judicial review, the law governing prisons, and statutory interpretation.

2 thoughts on “Stupid. But Constitutional.”

  1. Three observations.

    First, on your point that unwritten principles cant be used to attack content: as I discuss in my article, an enabling clause that lacks content is in fact formally deficient within the meaning of Imperial Tobacco. In other words, a nondelegation inquiry underlines the specious nature of Imperial Tobacco’s distinction between acceptable (formal) and unacceptable (content) applications of the rule of law.

    Second, on your preference for “the coherence and structure of traditional doctrinal arguments” over vague unwritten principles, again as I observe in my article, while democracy is certainly subject to a range of interpretations, the Supreme Court’s discussion of democracy in the Secession Reference (the Court’s most fulsome discussion to date) clearly sides towards deliberative (and at one point even epistemic) approaches to democracy. This fairly rich approach has tentacles in the ‘bill of rights’ caselaw and thus is doctrinally sound.

    Finally, unwritten principles could well be relevant to section 53 should we end up with a government reckless enough (in the Trump-Johnson-Orban fashion) to attempt to amend the provision.

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