Correct, but Wrong

Thoughts on the Supreme Court’s dismissal of the challenge to Ontario’s interference in the Toronto municipal elections

Last week, the Supreme Court handed down its judgment in Toronto (City) v Ontario (Attorney General), 2021 SCC 34, upholding a provincial statute cutting the number of wards and councillors in Toronto in the middle of a municipal election campaign. The Court divided 5-4, with Chief Justice Wagner and Justice Brown writing for the majority (also Justices Moldaver, Côté, and Rowe) and Justice Abella for the dissent (also Justices Karakatsanis, Martin, and Kasirer).

The majority gets the outcome right. As both co-blogger Mark Mancini and I have written here in response to the Superior Court’s decision in this case, the province was well within its rights to enact what was, by all accounts, a disruptive law of questionable usefulness. But the majority’s reasoning is underwhelming. It’s not bad on the first issue: that of an alleged violation of the freedom of expression. But it is just rubbish on the second: that of the constitutional principle of democracy. The majority’s attempt to synthesize and cabin the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on unwritten principles is a complete failure.

The first issue is whether the reorganization of the Toronto city council after the beginning ― though well over two months before the end ― of the municipal election campaign was a limitation of the freedom of expression of the candidates who had started campaigning under the old system. The majority holds that it was not. As a result, it does not get to the question of whether a limitation would have been justified.

For the majority, the matter falls to be considered as a claim for the provision by the state of a particular platform for expression, rather than as a (more usual) claim that a person is being prevented from conveying their ideas to others. As the majority explains,

the City does not seek protection of electoral participants’ expression from restrictions tied to content or meaning … ; rather, it seeks a particular platform (being whatever council structure existed at the outset of the campaign) by which to channel, and around which to structure, that expression. [32]

In other words, this is a “positive” rather than a “negative” right claim. The majority reformulates the test for such a claim as whether it is

grounded in the fundamental Charter freedom of expression, such that, by denying access to a statutory platform or by otherwise failing to act, the government has either substantially interfered with freedom of expression, or had the purpose of interfering with freedom of expression? [25]

The majority adds that “substantial interference with freedom of expression requires “effective preclusion” of “meaningful expression”, which is “an exceedingly high bar that would be met only in extreme and rare cases”. [27] 

The City has not cleared this bar. The majority states that “the candidates and their supporters had 69 days — longer than most federal and provincial election campaigns — to re‑orient their messages and freely express themselves according to the new ward structure”, with “no restrictions on the content or meaning of the messages that participants could convey”. [37] There was a meaningful election campaign, albeit a different one than had originally been planned.

The majority also rejects the City’s alternative argument on freedom of expression, to the effect that it implies a guarantee of “effective representation” which the Supreme Court originally articulated in the context of section 3 of the Charter. This provision protects the right to vote in federal and provincial ― not municipal ― elections. For the majority, “[e]ffective representation is not a principle of s. 2(b), nor can the concept be imported wholesale from a different Charter right”.

The dissent, for its part, begins by stressing the disruptiveness of the reform imposed by the province, and the lack of justification for it ― indeed, the new electoral structure had been considered by the City itself, and rejected. It goes on to argue that

When a democratic election takes place in Canada, including a municipal election, freedom of expression protects the rights of candidates and voters to meaningfully express their views and engage in reciprocal political discourse on the path to voting day. … When the state enacts legislation that has the effect of destabilizing the opportunity for meaningful reciprocal discourse, it is enacting legislation that interferes with the Constitution. [115]

This is what the province has done here, as the dissent emphasizes by quoting at great length the statements of candidates impacted by the disruption.

The dissent also argues strenuously that the majority is wrong to see the dispute as being about the positive provision of a platform for expression, and so to apply a higher threshold of seriousness to the question of whether the freedom of expression has been infringed. Indeed, in its view

There is no reason to superimpose onto our constitutional structure the additional hurdle of dividing rights into positive and negative ones for analytic purposes. Dividing the rights “baby” in half is not Solomonic wisdom, it is a jurisprudential sleight-of-hand that promotes confusion rather than rights protection. [155]

The province has also failed to advance a justification. This means that the impugned law contravenes the Charter.

As noted above, I think that the majority is basically right, notably in treating the claim advanced by the city as being for the provision or maintenance of a specific set of arrangements within which expression is to be channelled. The freedom of expression is the ability to say things one thinks, and not to say things one doesn’t. It’s not a guarantee that what one says will be interesting or relevant to anyone. If a province goes dry tomorrow, a great deal of alcohol advertising will have been rendered pointless, as will a great deal of campaigning for moderate drinking, research into the health benefits of red wine, and what not. But prohibition will not infringe the Charter. (It will be abominable, but constitutional.) It is the same when a province renders pointless a great deal of campaigning for a municipal election. Stupid, but constitutional, as Justice Scalia used to say.

The dissent’s response to this would be, I think, that the context of an election is different, but that really just proves the majority’s point. The claim at issue is about a specific platform for expression. The dissent’s analogy with Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority v Canadian Federation of Students — British Columbia Component, 2009 SCC 31, [2009] 2 SCR 295 also doesn’t work. That case was concerned with a ban on political advertisements on city buses, and the issue, as the majority explained, was not access to the platform in question ― that is, advertising on buses ― but a restriction on the content of what could be said on that platform. Here, the situation is exactly the opposite. The province hasn’t changed how it regulates the content of municipal election campaigns, but instead has shut down the old platform for expression and substituted for it a different one.

My objection to the Chief Justice’s and Justice Brown’s reasons has to do not with what they do, but with some of the things they say. The describe the threshold at which the “positive” freedom of expression is engaged as “an exceedingly high bar that would be met only in extreme and rare cases”. This may be tantamount to reading this aspect of the freedom out of the doctrine entirely ― but they also say that it has, in fact, some value. This language of “extreme and rare cases” isn’t necessary here, and I don’t think it provides useful guidance for the future; the words are too imprecise and subjective. The other troubling aspect of the majority’s reasons is its mention ― seemingly in passing, but I suspect that it is with at least a measure of approval ― of the fact that the Charter’s guarantee of freedom of expression “has been interpreted so broadly that the framework has been criticized for setting too low a bar for establishing a … limitation”. [16] This has nothing to with this case, since that broad framework traditionally traced to Irwin Toy Ltd v Quebec (Attorney General), [1989] 1 SCR 927, doesn’t apply. The Supreme Court is already far too accepting of limitations on the freedom of expression, and its possible willingness to restrict the freedom’s scope bodes ill.

I turn now to the second issue, that of whether interference with an ongoing municipal election is an unconstitutional violation of the democratic principle. This principle, which the City suggested required the provision of “effective representation” in the municipal context, as well as in the cases governed by section 3 of the Charter, would serve as a limit on the legislature’s ability to enact laws in relation to “Municipal Institutions in the Province” pursuant to section 92(8) of the Constitution Act, 1867.

The majority is unimpressed. It says that unwritten principles such as democracy “are … part of the law of our Constitution, in the sense that they form part of the context and backdrop to the Constitution’s written terms”. [50] However,

because they are unwritten, their “full legal force” is realized not in supplementing the written text of our Constitution as “provisions of the Constitution” with which no law may be inconsistent and remain of “force or effect” under s. 52(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982. Unwritten constitutional principles are not “provisions of the Constitution”. [54]

They can serve two functions: on the one hand, they can be used as aids in interpreting constitutional text; on the other, they can fill textual gaps. What they cannot do, the majority says, is directly invalidate legislation. To hold otherwise would be to “trespass into legislative authority to amend the Constitution”, [58] and to make an end-run around section 1 and 33 of the Charter, which allow, respectively, reasonable limitation of rights and legislative override of some of them, including, relevantly for this case, the freedom of expression.

To support its claim that principles have only interpretive and suppletive effects, the majority reviews various cases that might suggest otherwise. Notably, it dismisses the dissent on the legal question in the Patriation Reference, Re: Resolution to amend the Constitution, [1981] 1 SCR 753, which the Supreme Court later unanimously endorsed in Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 SCR 217, on the basis that “while the specific aspects of federalism at issue there may not have been found in the express terms of the Constitution, federalism is“. [52] As for the Provincial Judges Reference, Reference re Remuneration of Judges of the Provincial Court (PEI), [1997] 3 SCR 3, it stands, the majority says, for the proposition that “where the constitutional text is not itself sufficiently definitive or comprehensive to furnish the answer to a constitutional question, a court may use unwritten constitutional principles as interpretive aids” [65] and “to fill a gap where provincial courts dealing with non‑criminal matters were concerned”. [66]

In this case, “the unwritten constitutional principle of democracy cannot be used to narrow legislative competence” over municipalities, which is “plenary” and “unrestricted by any constitutional principle”. [80] Moreover,

The constitutional status of municipalities, and whether they ought to enjoy greater independence from the provinces, was a topic of debate during patriation … In the end, municipalities were not constitutionalized, either in amendments to the Constitution Act, 1867 or by reference in the democratic rights enshrined in the Charter. … Were the unwritten democratic principle applied to require all elections to conform to the requirements of s. 3 (including municipal elections, and not just elections to the House of Commons or provincial legislatures), the text of s. 3 would be rendered substantially irrelevant and redundant. [81]

The dissent, again, sees matters differently. It points out that unwritten principles have been recognized as binding both in Canada and in other “Parliamentary” [166] constitutional systems. (The dissent thus does not mention the United States.) It insists that

unwritten principles are our Constitution’s most basic normative commitments from which specific textual provisions derive. … Constitutional text emanates from underlying principles, but it will not always be exhaustive of those principles. In other words, the text is not exhaustive of our Constitution. [168]

The dissent rejects the majority’s insistence on the primacy of the text. Unwritten principles are just as important. It is they that “assist in developing an evolutionary understanding of the rights and freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution” ― that is, they “make[]” the constitutional living “tree grow”. [179] As for the majority’s argument based on section 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982, it “is a highly technical exegetical exercise designed to overturn our binding authority establishing that unwritten constitutional principles are a full constitutional partner with the text”. [183]

For the dissent, in “rare” cases “unwritten principles may be used to invalidate legislation” that “elides the reach of any express constitutional provision but is fundamentally at odds with our Constitution’s ‘internal architecture’ or ‘basic constitutional structure'”. [170] As the dissent sees things, this is what happened in the Provincial Judges Reference, as well as in Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, [2014] 3 SCR 31. That said, the dissent does not say anything about the application of the democratic principle in this case, which it has already resolved on the Charter argument.

By my lights, this is the judicial equivalent of a Leafs-Bruins game, which both ought to lose, but one has to win, just because. Now, I think that the majority’s conclusion is correct as a matter of both precedent and principle. As the Supreme Court held in British Columbia v Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd, 2005 SCC 49, [2005] 2 SCR 473, it would be wrong to apply an unwritten principle so as to expand the scope of a Charter right so as to directly contradict clear text. Imperial Tobacco concerned the protection against retroactive legislation, which the Charter reserved to criminal law. Here we are dealing with the right to vote, and its love child “effective representation”, which the Charter reserves to federal and provincial, not municipal, elections. So far, so good. But only so far.

The rest of the majority’s analysis ― which, of course, is quite unnecessary, because the passage from paragraph 81 quoted above is enough to dispose of this issue ― rests on wholly untenable distinctions. The majority says that federalism is unlike the other constitutional principles ― indeed, that it is not a constitutional principle but part of the constitution’s “structure” ― because “federalism is” “found in the express terms of the Constitution”, notably the division of powers between the Dominion and the provinces. But the same is true of democracy and of the rule of law. We can point to some provisions, such as sections 1 and 3-5 of the Charter for democracy (as well, of course, as all the provisions having to do with the House of Commons in the Constitution Act, 1867), and sections 9-11 of the Charter and 133 of the Constitution Act, 1867 (again, this is not an exhaustive list) to say that these principles too are found in the express terms of the Constitution, and hence their other “specific aspects .. not found” in those express terms can nonetheless be judicially enforced.

Similarly, the majority’s distinction between alleged “gap-filling” in the Provincial Judges Reference “where provincial courts dealing with non‑criminal matters were concerned” and invalidating laws on the basis of unwritten principles is humbug. So far as these courts were concerned, the only reason the laws reducing their judges’ salaries were invalid was unwritten principle.

Last but not least, as Mark has noted, the majority doesn’t even begin to address  Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65, with its clear statement that

Where a court reviews the merits of an administrative decision … the standard of review it applies must reflect the legislature’s intent with respect to the role of the reviewing court, except where giving effect to that intent is precluded by the rule of law. [23; emphasis added]

In other words, Vavilov says that the Rule of Law principle does invalidate legislation to the extent that (though only to the extent that) it would require an incompatible standard of review.

The majority also says that “The unwritten constitutional principle of the honour of the Crown is sui generis” because, it seems, it “arises from the assertion of Crown sovereignty over pre‑existing Aboriginal societies … and from the unique relationship between the Crown and Indigenous peoples”. [62] But the other principles, such as federalism (a sine qua non for Canada’s existence) and democracy and the Rule of Law (1688 and all that), can also boast “unique” historical pedigrees.

The majority’s other arguments fare just as badly as its attempts at splitting hairs with a blunt axe. Applying principles to invalidate laws does not trespass into constitutional amendment if principles were already part of the constitution as enacted, in 1867 and in 1982. While some applications may inappropriately compromise section 33 of the Charter ― which is arguably one reason why Imperial Tobacco approach to cases to which the Charter already speaks is correct ― others will not. Principles are not reducible to expanded forms of Charter rights. Federalism is of course the obvious case in point. As for section 1 of the Charter, foreign precedents, such as the Australian jurisprudence on the implied freedom of political communication, suggest that something like a proportionality analysis can be combined with unwritten principles. Again, though, principles are not just a beefed-up Charter. Perhaps the best argument the majority advances is the one based on the word “provisions” in section 52(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982, but ― without endorsing the dissent’s rant about “technical exegetical exercises” ― I think that it is undermined by section 52(2)’s suggestion that “the Constitution of Canada” is not limited to textual sources, to say nothing of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence to this effect.

A word, finally, on the dissent. It advocates not only for living constitutionalism, which as readers will know I think is a misbegotten interpretive approach, but also, more precisely, for what I have described as “constitutionalism from the cave“. This is the view that the constitution’s text is just a pale shadow of the true constitution, which judges alone can, over time, discover and impose. As much as I think the majority’s attempt to swat constitutional principles away is unsound as a matter of both doctrine and, sorry, principle, this is not a tenable alternative.

Here we are, then, at the last chapter of this unfortunate saga. It began with institutional vandalism by the Ontario legislature, and concludes with a Supreme Court decision that, despite narrowly reaching the right outcome, may yet do considerable damage of its own. The majority’s statements on freedom of expression are worrying, and its discussion of constitutional principles ― admittedly, a difficult subject (I have had more to say on it here) ― is almost entirely wrong-headed. The dissent, meanwhile, is largely unmoored from the law throughout. The judicial end is not better than the legislative beginning.

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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