Civics, Feelings, and Politics

Expatriates’ alleged lack of connection to particular ridings is not a good reason to disenfranchise them

When it held, in Frank v Canada (Attorney-General), 2019 SCC 1 (summarized here), that denying the franchise to Canadians who have been resident abroad for more than five years is unconstitutional, did the Supreme Court go with “feelings over civics”? Did it decide the case in a way that ignores the fact that Canadians vote not for national parties but for candidates in local constituencies, to which expatriates are not meaningfully connected, even if they maintain, as the Court’s majority said, a “profound attachment” to Canada? Over at Routine Proceedings, Dale Smith argues that that’s precisely what the Court did. I disagree.

As Mr. Smith sees it, “five of seven justices of the Supreme Court failed to properly understand the importance of constituency-based democracy”. He also faults the government’s lawyers “for not making the case adequately either”, “and virtually all of the commentary” on Frank, including presumably my comment, for ignoring the issue. Yet in his view, it ought to have been a decisive consideration:

[W]e vote for local representatives. We don’t vote for parties, or party leaders, no matter what we may have in mind when we go into the ballot box – we mark the X for the local candidate, end of story. For an expat, it’s not the connection to Canada that should be at issue – it’s the connection to the riding, because that’s how we allocate our votes.

One might, of course, reproach the government lawyers for failing to emphasize this particular rationale for disenfranchising Canadians abroad. The Frank majority, even on this view, is blameless, because it wasn’t at liberty to sustain the disenfranchisement on the basis of a justification that the government did not even put forward. Section 1 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides that limits on Charter rights, including the right to vote, must be “demonstrably justified” ― and as the Supreme Court has long held, it is the government that must carry out the demonstration. But there are other reasons, based in both what we might (loosely) call civics and feelings, as well as some realism about politics, that mean that, had the government chosen to make connection to the riding as the hill its case would die on, this case would be every bit as dead as it now is.


Start with the civics. Mr. Smith is quite right that, in point of law, we vote for local representatives, not for national parties or their leaders. Whether this ought to matter as much as he suggests, I will discuss below, when I turn to politics. But it’s important to consider a couple of other legal issues.

First, though there seems to be a good deal of confusion or even obfuscation on this point, the Canada Elections Act already takes care of the need for a connection between a Canadian voting from abroad (who may be a short-term expatriate, a long-term one previously allowed to vote, such as a diplomat’s family member, or a newly-enfranchised long-term expatriate). Paragraph 223(1)(e) provides that, when applying to be registered as an elector resident outside Canada and requesting to vote by special ballot, a would-be voter must provide the Canadian address to which his or her vote will be tied. Once the choice has been made, section 224 prevents the voter from changing it. This prevents forum shopping, as it were, and seems a sensible regulation.

Now, there is a range of options for the prospective voter from abroad to choose from:

the address of the elector’s last place of ordinary residence in Canada before he or she left Canada or the address of the place of ordinary residence in Canada of the spouse, the common-law partner or a relative of the elector, a relative of the elector’s spouse or common-law partner, a person in relation to whom the elector is a dependant or a person with whom the elector would live but for his or her residing temporarily outside Canada.

It has been put to me that the breadth of this range is excessive and gives the elector too much choice. If Parliament agrees, it can eliminate some superfluous options by legislation; this should not be constitutionally problematic. But I don’t think that Parliament should do this. On the contrary, giving the voter the ability to tie his or her vote to a former residence or a family member’s one makes it more likely that the elector will choose to vote at the particular place in Canada to which he or she is feels the strongest connection, which will not be the same for all expatriates, and which each voter is much better positioned to figure out when registering than Parliament when legislating.

Second, one must keep in mind that when it comes to voters in Canada, the law does not require any sort of evidence of a connection between the voter and his or her riding other than the fact that the voter resides there. Perhaps that’s because residence is simply deemed to be determinative of the community to which the voter belongs. But this seems a very rough assumption, especially in today’s urbanized world, in which many ridings are quite compact and the boundaries between them, fluid. A voter might be live in a bedroom community or a residential neighbourhood, but work in a downtown in a different riding, and perhaps have other attachments in yet a third one. It is, to say the least, not obvious which of these the voter is genuinely connected to. Residence, arguably, is only the most easily administrable way of sorting voters into ridings (both at the point of counting them through the census and at the point of registering them), simply because it tends to be more stable than other connections. As Chief Justice Wagner, writing for the Frank majority, put it, “residence can best be understood as an organizing mechanism for purposes of the right to vote”. [28] It is nothing more than that.


This brings me to what Mr. Smith might calls “feelings”. He and others who defend the disenfranchisement of Canadians abroad are very quick to demand that expatriates meet conditions that are not imposed on other Canadians to qualify for the franchise. Whether it be some subjective connection to a riding or to Canada as a whole, or knowledge about the local state of affairs, or tax liability, or subjection some undefined but substantial number laws, not all residents will meet these conditions that are said to justify denying the franchise to expatriates. But no one thinks to inquire into whether they really do, and no one, I’m pretty sure, would accept (re-)introducing tests of this nature into our election laws. Expatriates are the only people whom people judge on such criteria.

Indeed, it is not so much a judgment as prejudice. Expatriates are simply assumed to fail such tests ― and arguments to the contrary are dismissed as “feelings”. Mr. Smith guesses that Canadians who live abroad cut themselves off from communities where they used to live, or have family, or intend to return (or all of these things). Why? My personal experience, for what that’s worth, is that I keep up with the news from Québec and Montreal (and occasionally write on Québec-specific issues), more than from other provinces. Do I specifically track the news for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce-Westmount, where my parents live and I will vote in October, if I can be bothered? Not particularly, but then again, I wouldn’t even if I actually lived there. To say that I’m not a suitable voter for this reason would be applying a groundless double standard.

And speaking of double standards (and, I suppose, of civics), it’s worth noting that pursuant to section 222 of the Canada Elections Act some long-term expatriates are already allowed to vote: namely, members and employees of the Canadian forces, federal provincial public servants, employees of “international organization[s] of which Canada is a member and to which Canada contributes, as well as anyone who “lives with” such voters. The rationale for this is, presumably, that all such persons ― not just public servants, mind you, but their family members too ― are deemed to maintain a connection with Canada that other expatriates lack. Yet even assuming that this is so, is it remotely plausible that such persons (who, if anything, probably tend to be more mobile than the average voter even when they live in Canada) maintain their special connections to their home ridings? I really don’t think this is plausible, and so, the invocation of the riding connection as a justification for disenfranchising some, but not all, expatriates is another sort of unwarranted double standard.


Let me finally turn to politics ― and, specifically, to the need to be realistic about it. If we want to understand the rules of elections and government formation in Canada, we must keep in mind that each voter only casts a ballot for a local representative, not (directly) for a party or Prime Minister. But if we want to figure out whether Parliament is justified in preventing a person or a class of persons from voting, I don’t think it makes sense to pretend, as Mr. Smith asks us to, that this is all that matters. The reality, as he more or less acknowledges, is that what we “have in mind when we go into the ballot box” ― or at least the voting booth, for the less acrobatic among us ― very much has to do with parties and, especially, their leaders, for most voters.

Political parties themselves know this. The big ones tried to prevent to keep the small ones from getting their names on ballot papers, until the Supreme Court wisely put an end to that in Figueroa v Canada (Attorney General), 2003 SCC 37, [2003] 1 SCR 912, because candidates not identified with parties get fewer votes. They give pride of place to party names, logos, slogans, and leaders in their advertisements. They make sure their MPs have lookalike websites in party colours. Local candidates are often little more than props for a leader’s tour. I’m too lazy to look for the relevant research (if it exists) right now, but as a not-so-wild guess, I’m inclined to think that many voters don’t even remember the name of their local candidate when they go vote. This may be regrettable, but the parties themselves have ensured that it doesn’t matter; what does matter is the party identification on the ballot paper.

One key reason for this is that election campaigns are largely national events, not local ones. (By way of thought experiment, imagine we didn’t hold simultaneous general elections, but renewed the House of Commons with staggered elections, one riding at a time. Our politics may well be quite different ― and more local. But of course we don’t do that.) The centrality of leaders’ personalities to election campaigns makes this unavoidable, and an even starker phenomenon than in the past. But even to the (limited) extent that voters are preoccupied with actual issues rather than personalities, the issues are largely national in scope. This is perhaps especially the case in federal elections, since Parliament’s powers are, by design, largely those that concern the country as a whole. Admittedly Parliament doesn’t always keep to its jurisdiction. Even when it does, Justice Rowe points out in his concurring reasons that “federal policy can impact different geographically defined communities in different ways”. [89] Still, federal elections aren’t about the quality of your local school or the regularity of garbage removal from your street. Most voters, especially in federal elections, just aren’t especially concerned with riding-level matters. To say that expatriates, and only expatriates, ought to be disenfranchised because they aren’t is, once again, to apply an unwarranted double standard.


The existing law already ensures that Canadians voting from abroad cast their ballots in the ridings to which they have the strongest connections. At the same time, it does not require the existence of a very meaningful connection between any voters, including those resident in Canada, and their ridings. The idea that expatriates should be prevented from voting because they lack such a connection is thus a double standard. Moreover, Canadian elections, especially federal ones, aren’t local affairs anyway. For all these reasons, had the government argued that Parliament was entitled to deny expatriates the franchise because of their supposed detachment from the ridings in which their votes would be counted, it would have fared no better than it actually did in Frank.

Maryniuk on Doré

The Supreme Court’s decision in Doré v Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 SCR 395 continues to be one of its most consistently criticized. It was, for instance, one of the most frequently mentioned as being among the Court’s worst by the participants in our recent 12 Days of Christmas symposium. Even more recently, Doré and the concept of “Charter values” as the touchstone of judicial review of administrative decisions implicating the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was the subject of a fascinating discussion between Justices Lauwers and Sossin, expertly moderated by co-blogger Mark Mancini, at this weekend’s Runnymede Conference.

So it is a real pleasure for me to announce that we are shortly going to publish a guest post on Doré by Jonathan Maryniuk, a lawyer with Kuhn LLP who, among other things, represented Trinity Western University in its challenge the denial of accreditation to their proposed law school before the courts in British Columbia and the Supreme Court. This has, of course, given Mr. Maryniuk an opportunity to reflect a great deal on the Doré approach, which was crucial in that litigation, and I am very much looking forward to his sharing his insights with us.

Doing Right on Rights

Why the Supreme Court was right to find the disenfranchisement of Canadians abroad unconstitutional

In my last post, I summarized the majority, concurring, and dissenting opinions delivered in Frank v Canada (Attorney General), 2019 SCC 1, which held that the denial of the franchise to Canadians who have resided outside the country for more than five years is unconstitutional. As noted there, I believe that the majority, whose opinion was delivered by Chief Justice Wagner was correct so to hold. In this post, I explain why, and also make some observations about the strongly-worded dissent by Justices Côté and Brown. To make my biases clear once again, I remind readers that I am a Canadian abroad myself, and have been for six of the past eight years. While I vote rarely and reluctantly, I am emotionally invested in the issue of whether my right to do so can be taken away. Feel free to discount the following accordingly.


While I am the subject of emotions, let me say this. Justices Côté and Brown assert that the denial of the right to vote to Canadians abroad “is not a distinction based on moral worth”. [168] By my lights, that’s precisely what it is. On their own view, it is the product of “normative conceptions of what the Canadian political community is, and how it can best be protected and made to flourish”. [139] The conception embraced by Parliament in enacting the provisions invalidated in Frank sees the Canadian political community as excluding Canadians abroad, who are consequently less worthy of the franchise. Indeed, they are, according to the dissent, a threat from which the community must be protected, since it is “unfair to Canadian residents for their lawmakers to be elected by long-term non-residents who have no connection of any currency to their electoral district”. [153]

This is utterly wrong. As the Chief Justice rightly observes, many Canadians who live abroad maintain strong ties with Canada (and, I would add, often with the local community where they used to live and, in many cases, intend to return). As the Chief Justice also says, “[c]onversely, there may be citizens who have never left Canada but whose subjective commitment to the country is much weaker and who are less well versed in local issues”. [68] Indeed, though it would be impolitic for a judge to say so, “may be” in this sentence should read “obviously are”. As, for example, Ilya Somin and Bryan Caplan respectively have shown, voters are both ignorant and irrational ― rationally so, but ignorant and irrational all the same. Yet we would not generally accept disenfranchising voters on that basis; we do not inquire into the degree of connection a voter has with his or her local community, or the country, before issuing him or her a ballot paper. It is only, it seems, in the case of expatriates that these things actually matter. To me, this is strong evidence that what is at work here is not really a concern with the fairness or integrity of Canada’s electoral system, but a judgment, or rather prejudice, about the moral worth of those Canadians who are taken to have left the community, and must “rejoin[]” [153] before being allowed to take part in the community’s affairs.

Now, it is true that most Canadians abroad do not, in fact, go to the hassle and the expense of requesting a special ballot and returning it to Elections Canada. This means, of course, that the idea of non-resident voters swamping elections and deciding them at the expense of residents is far-fetched if not entirely implausible. But more importantly, as the Chief Justice points out, this means that those who do take the trouble value their involvement in Canada’s political life ― probably more so than a great many of their resident fellow-citizens. In the Chief Justice’s words, they “demonstrate[] a profound attachment to Canada”, [75] and it seems absurd to pretend otherwise on the basis of no evidence whatsoever.


This brings me to another issue: that of the correct approach to deciding whether legislation is unconstitutional because it unjustifiably contravenes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Justices Côté and Brown issue what they regard as a profound challenge to the way we not only discuss but also think about the relationship between Charter rights and policies that interfere with them. They note that it is commonplace to speak of such policies as “infringing” or even “violating” rights, only for these “infringements” or “violations” to be upheld, or “saved” by applying section 1 of the Charter. Yet, as they further point out, section 1 provides that the Charter “guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society” ― limits, not infringements or violations. So we should stop talking about justified infringements, and talk about limits instead. The majority is not interested, observing that the words “limits” and “infringements” have long been used interchangeably. (The Chief Justice is probably too polite to note this, but I am not: Justices Côté and Brown themselves spoke in terms of “infringement” as recently as seven months ago, in their excellent dissent in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32.)

I take the dissent’s textual point. The word section 1 uses is “limits”, and it arguably makes more sense to say that the state can justifiably limit rights, not that it can violate them. But I fail to see what great change to the way we actually think about rights and scrutinize the state’s possible interference with them follows from this. Contrary to some, indeed quite a few, of the participants in this blog’s recent 12 Days of Christmas symposium, Justices Côté and Brown show no interest in reconsidering the test for verifying the permissibility of limitations on rights that was first set out in R v Oakes, [1986] 1 SCR 103. They apply the same proportionality analysis, warts, subjectivity, and all, under the label of assessing the “limit” on the right to vote as the majority does when considering “infringement” of this right. They have much to say about the fact that the right to vote is a “positive” one, requiring legislation to “breathe[] life into” it, [142] but that it is true of many of the rights the Charter protects (notably, but by no means only, the various rights of criminal suspects and accused) and, more importantly, it simply does not follow that the legislation that “breathes life into the right” may not fail to do so to a constitutionally required standard. (Similarly, Justices Côté and Brown point out that the legislation imposing a five-year expiry period on expatriates’ franchise replaced that which gave no expatriates the vote. So what? The test of constitutionality is not whether Parliament comes closer to respecting the Charter than it once did, but whether it respects the Charter now.)

The real methodological disagreement between the dissent and the majority (as well as Justice Rowe’s concurrence) has to do with the level of deference each accords Parliament. The majority insists, at the outset, that “[a]ny limit on the right to vote must be carefully scrutinized and cannot be tolerated without a compelling justification”. [1] Although, as noted in yesterday’s post, it later wavers a little on this point, its approach is, indeed, one that refuses to take the government’s claims about the need for or usefulness of the legislation it examines on faith. By contrast, the dissent waxes deferential, “eschews rigid and technical application” [124] ― it’s not quite clear of what, but presumably of the justification requirements ―, and plays up “Parliament’s policy-making expertise”. [126]

Yet here the dissenters’ professed textualism fails them. To repeat, section 1 of the Charter says that “only such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society” (emphasis mine) can be countenanced. The constitutional text, therefore, requires a demonstration ― not judicial acquiescence on the basis that Parliament knows best. And this requirement, in turn, suggests that contrary to what Justices Côté and Brown say Charter rights can only be limited in order to deal with an identifiable problem, to address some specified mischief, and not merely because a legislature thinks that in an ideal political community these rights would be limited in this way. The enactment of the Charter, as a law superior to ordinary legislation, has taken that moral judgment out of the Canadian legislatures’ hands. (To be clear, this is a separate question from that of the permissibility of what used to be called “morals legislation”, which proscribes what the legislature sees as immoral behaviour, such as taking drugs. There is no argument that expatriates act immorally by voting.)

In short, by all means, let’s be careful with our language, and speak of reasonable limits on rights instead justified violations. But let’s also insist that limitations on rights, to qualify as reasonable, must be ones whose justification is capable of being demonstrated, rather than merely asserted, and is in fact demonstrated, rather than taken for granted. Indeed, I think that this substantive concern is rather more important than the semantic one. In Frank, it is the majority, not the dissent, that follows an approach that is closer to that required by the constitution.


In my view, the majority decided Frank more or less as it should have. It correctly insisted that any exclusion from the franchise except the one based on citizenship must be justified. Contrary to the dissent’s strident warnings, it does not follow that no exclusions could ever treated as reasonable limits ― only that the justification process for upholding these limits cannot be elided by saying that some limits on the right to vote must obviously be admissible. This goes even for the denial of the right to vote minors (which, as Ilya Somin, for example, has argued, is not as self-evidently reasonable as the dissenters would like us to think). I think that it would be quite easy to sustain the disenfranchisement of three-year-olds, the dissent’s scaremongering example, should anyone challenge it; but as for the denial of the vote to teenagers, I for one wouldn’t mind seeing the governments put through their justificatory paces.

The majority is also right to be skeptical of the government’s arguments based on an ill-defined “social contract” of which expatriates are allegedly no part. I’m not too impressed with the Chief Justice’s definition of Parliament’s objective in terms of “fairness” ― fairness is too capacious a word for my liking, and the dissent’s suggestion that Parliament was pursuing a currency of relationship between the voter and his or her community seems closer to the mark. But one should also acknowledge that objectives that are largely symbolic (or, as Justices Côté and Brown see it, moral) do not lend themselves to easy definition, and so inevitably compromise the quality of the Charter analysis. The majority’s skepticism about the existence of a rational connection between the objective of fairness and disenfranchisement of Canadians abroad is also warranted. Indeed, I would have liked the Chief Justice to have been bold enough to say that, given both the possibility that expatriates maintain current links with Canada and their Canadian communities, and the lack of any assessment of whether any other voters do so, disenfranchising expatriates alone based on their deemed lack of connection to Canada is actually irrational. But the Chief Justice is not the first judge not to want to go there.

I’ll live with that, because the Chief Justice ends up making the right arguments at the “minimal impairment” stage of the analysis. Like I had in criticizing the decision of the Court of Appeal for Ontario in this case, he points out that Canadians abroad can and do maintain close links with Canada; that they are affected by Canadian laws and government policies; that, moreover, “Parliament can change laws on its own initiative and thus alter the extent to which Canadian legislation applies to non-resident citizens”, [72] so that one cannot invoke the limited scope of current extra-territorial legislation to deny expatriates the vote ― I had called this “let[ting] the statutory tail wag the constitutional dog”; and that in any event “attempting to tailor Charter rights to the extent to which citizens are burdened, or not burdened, by Canadian laws would be an impossible exercise”. [71] If all this is not enough to qualify the disenfranchisement of expatriates as irrational, than it certainly suffices, as the Chief Justice says, to show that it is grossly overbroad, and not “minimally impairing” of the right to vote.

The Chief Justice’s reasons are not perfect. He does, as the dissent points out, get somewhat carried away in patriotic praise for the Canadian democracy, and there are shades of what I’ve been calling “constitutionalism from the cave” in his claim that “a broad interpretation of” the Charter‘s guarantee of the right to vote “enhances the quality of our democracy and strengthens the values on which our free and democratic state is premised”. [27] Constitutional interpretation must aim at ascertaining the text’s meaning, not at strengthening values or anything of the sort. Still, what the Chief Justice’s opinion for the majority does is substantially in line with the constitutional text, despite its rhetorical imperfections. (And still on the subject of rhetoric, or style: can someone please ask the Chief Justice and his colleagues to stop using the initialism “AGC”? It is a recent innovation ― the Court hadn’t done it at all before 2010 ― and not a good one. It is ugly and has a jargon-y feel that is quite at odds with the Chief Justice’s stated desire to make the Court’s work more accessible, including to laypersons.) But as majority opinions of Supreme Court have gone in the last few years, the one in Frank is up there with the best.


The Supreme Court has held that Canadians who live abroad cannot be disenfranchised based on, in effect, stereotypes about their lack of relationship with their home country. This is a relief. In doing so, it has insisted on carefully and critically examining the government’s claimed reasons for limiting Charter rights, and this is a good thing too, one that doesn’t happen often enough. There is something to learn from the dissenting opinion, too, about our constitutional vocabulary, and I hope that this lesson is not lost just because the substance of that opinion is bitterly disappointing. But the constitution was upheld in Frank, and so right was done. May 2019 bring more of that.

“A Profound Attachment”

The Supreme Court holds that disenfranchising Canadians abroad is unconstitutional

Yesterday, the Supreme Court at last delivered its judgment on the constitutionality of disenfranchising Canadians abroad, Frank v Canada (Attorney General), 2019 SCC 1. By five votes to two, the Court holds that disenfranchisement is indeed unconstitutional. This is, as I have long argued (especially in criticizing the decision to the contrary by the Court of Appeal for Ontario), the right result. Full disclosure, in case this is necessary: I am myself a Canadian abroad, and while I would not have been disenfranchised at the coming election under the rules the Supreme Court has found unconstitutional, and am only an occasional and reluctant voter anyway, I am emotionally invested in this issue.

Section 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides that “Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.” The Canada Elections Act sets out the details of how this right can be exercised ― and denies it to some groups of citizens. One of these disenfranchised groups consists of Canadians who have not resided in Canada for more than five years, although those who are representatives of a Canadian government or members of the Canadian forces, as well as members of such persons’ families, are not subject to disenfranchisement.

The government conceded that denying their right to vote breached section 3 of the Charter, but contended that the breach was justified as a reasonable limit authorized by the Charter‘s section 1. The majority ― Chief Justice Wagner (who wrote the majority opinion) and Justices Moldaver, Karakatsanis, and Gascon ―, as well as Justice Rowe, who concurs, reject this view. In dissent, Justices Côté and Brown say that the denial of the franchise to Canadians abroad is justified.


Relying on the Court’s decision in Sauvé v Canada (Chief Electoral Officer), 2002 SCC 68, [2002] 3 SCR 519, which invalidated the disenfranchisement of long-term prisoners, the Chief Justice writes that the right to vote must be given a “broad and purposive interpretation”, and “any intrusions on [it] are to be reviewed on the basis of a stringent justification standard”. [25] The Chief Justice rejects deference to Parliament, insisting that “reviewing courts must examine the government’s proffered justification carefully and rigorously”. [43] Unlike in cases that involve “complex” or “nuanced” choices among competing priorities, deference “is not the appropriate posture for a court reviewing an absolute prohibition of a core democratic right”. [44] Later, however, when considering whether the prohibition is “minimally impairing” of the right, the Chief Justice grants that “some deference must be accorded to the legislature by giving it a certain latitude”. [66]

As for residency requirements for voting, they are “an organizing mechanism”, “an important device” [28] that helps structure our electoral system, but have no constitutional value in themselves: “In clear language, the Charter tethers voting rights to citizenship, and citizenship alone.” [29] In any case, there already are Canadian citizens who are allowed to vote from abroad, suggesting that residence within cannot be an implicit pre-condition for having the right to vote.

Applying the test for the justification of Charter infringements set out in R v Oakes, [1986] 1 SCR 103, the Chief Justice begins by rejecting the idea, accepted by the Ontario Court of Appeal, that “preserving the social contract” whereby citizens’ obedience to laws is exchanged for a say in making them as a pressing and substantial objective capable of justifying the infringement of rights. While Sauvé had invoked the language of social contract theory, correctly understood, it stands for the proposition “that deeming that a citizen has ‘withdrawn’ from the social contract is not a legitimate basis for denying him or her the right to vote”. [52] However, the Chief Justice accepts that “maintaining the fairness of the electoral system to resident Canadians”, [55] which he seems to interpret by focusing on the existence of a connection between voters and the Canadian polity, is an important governmental objective.

At the second stage of the Oakes test, Justice Wagner finds that the government “has not definitively shown that a limit of any duration” on the ability of Canadians to vote from abroad “would be rationally connected to the electoral fairness objective advanced in this case”, [60; emphasis in the original] but declines to reach a firm conclusion. He argues, however, that neither the existence of residence requirements for voting in provincial elections nor the prevalence of such requirements abroad make their imposition by Parliament rational, and observers that “there is no evidence of the harm that these voting restrictions are meant to address”, [63] or even any complaints about those non-resident citizens who already are able to vote.

As often, it is the next stage, originally described as that of “minimal impairment” although the word “minimal” has not been taken literally, that is crucial. The Chief Justice finds that disenfranchising Canadians after five years abroad, “[f]ar from being a measure that is carefully tailored so as to impair voting rights no more than is reasonably necessary, … seems to have been simply a ‘middle-of-the-road’ compromise”. [67] There is no “correlation between, on the one hand, how long a Canadian citizen has lived abroad and when he or she intends to return and, on the other hand, the extent of his or her subjective commitment to Canada”. [68] Indeed, whether the issue is knowledge of and commitment to Canada, the impact of Canadian laws on a given voter, many Canadians abroad will be better qualified as voters than those residing in the country. Chief Justice Wagner concludes by noting that “[a] non-resident citizen who takes the trouble to vote by way of special ballot … has demonstrated a profound attachment to Canada. We have nothing to gain from disenfranchising such citizens.” [75] In the same vein, he notes that any positive effects of this disenfranchisement are speculative, while the negative impact on those disenfranchised is real and present.


Justice Rowe agrees that disenfranchising Canadians who live abroad is unjustified, but writes separately to emphasize the “significance and centrality of residence to our system of representative democracy”. [84] He details the history of residency requirements in Canadian election legislation (including the slow expansion of voting rights for Canadians abroad), and pointedly rebukes the majority by claiming that “residence has been historically and remains today more than just an ‘organizing mechanism’. It is foundational to our system”. [90] As a result, Justice Rowe says, while “[s]ection 3 [of the Charter] protects the right to vote … it does not follow as a corollary that there is a right to vote in the constituency or province of one’s choosing”. [91] Provincial and territorial residency requirements, in particular, would be subject to different considerations than federal ones (including because provincial laws are more local in nature and applicability than federal ones).

Whatever might be justifiable in other cases, however, Justice Rowe concludes that the disenfranchisement of long-term expatriates is not. He accepts that it pursues the objective of electoral fairness, although he notes that fairness for resident citizens is being pursued at the expense of non-residents. Justice Rowe also accepts that fairness can reasonably be pursued by preventing “those who are largely unaffected (non-residents) [from] participating in decisions that would affect others (residents)”. [103] Passing over the question of whether the disenfranchisement of Canadians abroad is minimally impairing of their right to vote, he moves on to the balancing of its salutary and deleterious effects. The former, he finds, are “negligible”, [106] since very few expatriates actually vote. The latter are not. Expatriates who are disenfranchised “may not feel the local consequences of particular federal policies in the constituencies in which their votes would be counted, [but] they stand nonetheless to be affected by certain federal laws and policies, perhaps in life altering ways”. [107] As a result, the disenfranchisement of Canadians abroad is not justified.


Justices Côté and Brown dissent. They not only disagree with the outcome reached by the majority and Justice Rowe, but want to approach the issue quite differently. They stress that the right to vote “is a positive right which, unlike most Charter rights, requires legislative specification in order for the right to be operative”, [113; emphasis in the original] so that the denial of the franchise to expatriates is not the product of legislative action, but of a “failure to extend the right to vote” to them. [128] This right is also not absolute: “Nobody suggests that s[ection] 3 entitles three-year-old Canadian citizens to vote.” [114] Indeed, they deny that the legislative provisions at issue “disenfranchise” long-term expatriates, since they had not been allowed prior to these provisions’ enactment, or ever. They also accuse the majority (and, implicitly, any number of past judgments) of “distort[ing] the limitations analysis” [120] by speaking of a “breach” or “infringement” of the right to vote rather than of a “limitation” on this right, as the terms of section 1 of the Charter would suggest. (A breach, they insist, is caused by a limitation that is not justified.)

Thus the real question, Justice Côté and Brown argue, is whether the long-term expatriates’ right to vote has been reasonably limited. The way to answer this question is to apply the Oakes test. However, while they make a point of agreeing with the majority that the burden of justification under this test rests on the government, Justices Côté and Brown insist, citing the dissenting opinion in Sauvé (without acknowledging that they are relying on the dissent) on “a ‘flexible contextual approach’ … one that eschews rigid and technical application”. [124, citing Sauvé at [84]] They also argue that it is wrong to look for “a concrete problem or mischief” that rights-limiting legislation is meant to address, because it is “undeniable … that Parliament can constitutionally legislate in pursuit of, or in response to, considerations of political morality or philosophy”. [126] There is “moral nuance inherent in defining and defending the boundaries of rights — that is, in justifying rights limitations” — and, like “Parliament’s policy-making expertise”, it must be “afford[ed] due respect”. [126]

Justices Côté and Brown define Parliament’s objective as “privileg[ing] a relationship of some currency between electors and the communities in which they are eligible to vote”. [132] (In doing so, they spend four extensive paragraphs cautioning against reliance on statements by individual legislators during the course of parliamentary debate… and conclude by pointing to statements that support their understanding of the objective.) This objective “is clearly inspired by a particular moral philosophical understanding of the relationship between citizen and state in a democracy”. [140] Indeed, electoral “legislation is never designed to solve a problem or address a particular mischief. Rather, it breathes life into the right [to vote] so that it may be recognized and exercised.” [142] While limitations on the right to vote require justification, Justices Côté and Brown attack the majority for considering that, other than citizenship, “all other specifications [of this right] are necessarily unconstitutional”. [142] Justices Côté and Brown note that other groups are excluded from the franchise ― they mention citizens who have never resided in Canada and minors ― and argue that these exclusions too must be regarded as examples of Parliament’s permissible pursuit of philosophical objectives. Indeed, they say, majorities in Sauvé and here have acted in furtherance of philosophical views of their own.

Ultimately, ensuring a current relationship between voters and their communities is a pressing and substantial objective because it “ensures reciprocity between exercising the right to vote and bearing the burden of Canadian laws” [152] and “protects the integrity of the Canadian electoral system, which is founded on geographical representation”. [153] This integrity would be undermined by allowing people to vote in constituencies with which they lack a community of interest.

Justices Côté and Brown also consider that the limitation of the right to vote from abroad to those citizens who have not been outside Canada for more than five years is reasonable and therefore proportionate to Parliament’s objective. They insist that, under the majority’s reasoning, no time limit on voting rights could be upheld, including for provincial elections. They add that the majority is wrong to ignore the treatment of expatriates’ voting rights by New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom: “the majority’s patriotism risks descending into exceptionalism”, and blinding it to “some lessons” that “Canada would well have taken … from other countries” [166] (or at any rate from New Zealand, which enfranchised its aboriginal people and women well before Canada did). Indeed, the majority’s position is “highly political, rhetorical”, and “in tension with the majority’s own invocation of internationalism and of a ‘globalized’ world of connectivity and communication”. [167] As for the effects of the legislation, the deleterious ones are minimized since the denial of expatriates’ voting rights “is not … based on moral worth”, [168] while the salutary ones ― which consist in the attainment of Parliament’s objectives ― are considerable.


As I noted at the outset, I believe that the majority is correct (though Justice Rowe makes some valuable points about provinces and territories). The dissent, I confess, perplexes me. But this post is much too long as it is. I shall publish my comment separately ― and quickly, I hope.

John Finnis and the Law Society

Would the Law Society of Ontario punish a scholar for failing to promote equality, diversity, and inclusion? What about those who defended such a scholar’s academic freedom?

One of the less appreciated issues with the Law Society of Ontario’s demand that its members produce “statements of principles” acknowledging a purported “obligation to promote equality, diversity and inclusion generally, and in [one’s] behaviour towards colleagues, employees, clients and the public” is that it is inimical to academic freedom and the freedom of expression of scholars. This problem is neatly illustrated, however, by the story of the latest attack on an academic who happens to dissent from politically correct views.

The academic in question is John Finnis, “a giant of jurisprudence” in the words of Jeremy Waldron, another such giant himself. Robert George has posted a fairly detailed review of Finnis’s oeuvre (drawn from published work) over at Mirror of Justice (detailed, but still incomplete ― there is, understandably, no mention there of the not insignificant role Professor Finnis played in the patriation of the Canadian constitution; fortunately, he has told the story himself). But the most important point for the present purposes is elided in Professor George’s description: as Brian Leiter put it on his blog, Professor Finnis “has written foolish and sometimes quite ugly things about gay people for years”. And so, as the Guardian reports, “[m]ore than 400 people have signed a petition calling for [Professor] Finnis to be removed from teaching”. Now, there is no allegation that Professor Finnis has actually discriminated against a specific student. The complaint is based entirely on his scholarship which, however distasteful one might find it, is widely regarded as formidable and important ― if also, in many people’s view, profoundly misguided.

Being a generally acknowledged giant and not just an unknown graduate student who can be bullied into submission or chased out of the academy without anyone paying attention, Professor Finnis has been defended by other prominent scholars. Les Green, writing at his blog Semper Viridis, points out that “[t]o fire someone from an academic post solely on the basis that he defends false or repugnant views is a clear violation of academic freedom”. Professor Leiter use stronger language, writing that the students demanding to be got rid of Professor Finnis “disgrace themselves and their university”. Professor Waldron put it best:

The campaign to have John Finnis removed is preposterous. His views on many things-torture, assisted suicide, sexuality-are uncongenial to some of us … . But defending & elaborating those views doesn’t amount to discrimination[.]

I agree with all this (and, just for the record, I also find Professor Finnis’s views on many things uncongenial, to put it mildly). And so, to come back to the reason for this post, I have a couple of questions for the Law Society of Ontario.

First, if Professor Finnis were a member, would you disbar him? Now, I suspect that he would not in fact conform to the Statement of Principles requirement, much like I and many others, and you’d go after him for that. But suppose he’d ticked the box through oversight. I think it’s fair to say that, whatever their scholarly qualities and interest as an intellectual foil, Professor Finnis’s writings don’t do much for equality, diversity, and inclusion. Would you sanction him for failing to promote these values? Do you think this is compatible with his academic freedom?

And second, what would you make of people like Professors Leiter, Waldron, and Green, assuming that they had not objected to the Statement of Principles requirement? Would you deem speaking out in defence of the academic freedom of a scholar whose work opposes (certain kinds of) equality, diversity, and inclusion a violation of one’s Statement of Principles commitments? After all, if one understands equality, diversity, and inclusion along demographic rather than intellectual lines, as you pretty obviously do, it is at least arguable that defending a scholar with Professor Finnis’s views opposes rather than promotes them. Would you sanction scholars who undertake such a defence because they conclude that, in this instance, academic freedom is a more pressing concern than equality, diversity, and inclusion, on the basis that they fail to “promote” them “generally”? Do you think that would be compatible with academic freedom?

The law society might, I suppose, point to its now-mostly anodyne explanation of what the Statement of Principles requirement is supposedly about, which is largely about complying with anti-discrimination legislation and of no real relevance to academics. Yet the explanation is not the requirement. It has replaced a previous version that spoke of “demonstrat[ing] personal valuing of equality, diversity and inclusion”… and might again be replaced by something that would actually make sense of the never-retracted demand that lawyers ― including lawyers who are academics rather than practitioners ― “promote equality, diversity and inclusion generally”, and not only within their professional relationships with clients, employees, and the like.

In New Zealand, universities are required ― by statute ― to “to develop intellectual independence” in their students, and to “accept a role as critic and conscience of society”. A different provision “declare[s] to be the intention of Parliament … that academic freedom … be preserved and enhanced”, which includes “the freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions”. I’m not sure if there is an equivalent legislative framework in Ontario, but at any rate these seem to me to be sound moral guidelines ― principles to abide by, if you like ― for any free society that values learning and scholarship. I’d say that, for an institution that is statutorily required “to protect the public interest”, the Law Society of Ontario shows very little respect indeed for the fact that the public interest requires the existence of people and institutions capable of independent thought, however far astray they may sometimes go in the process of exercising this faculty.

Day Twelve: Leonid Sirota

It’s easy enough to make a list of very bad Supreme Court decisions ― there is no shortage of material. The challenge, rather, is to reduce the list to some fixed number. Anyway, here’s my attempt, influenced in part by a wish to present cases from a variety of areas and to highlight some that have not been mentioned by other participants in this symposium. Here’s what promoting diversity and inclusion can look like!

The Breathalyzer Reference, [1970] SCR 777

As part of an omnibus criminal law reform bill, Parliament imposed breath tests for drivers suspected of being intoxicated, but also provided that police were to furnish a suspect with a sample of his own breath, presumably for independent analysis. Only, when the government proclaimed the impaired driving provisions into force, it left out the breath sample requirement. The issue for the Supreme Court was whether this was a permissible use of the bill’s section allowing the government to proclaim its “provisions” into force at the time of its choosing.

By five votes to four, the Court said that it was. Despite vigorous dissents pointing out that the government effectively re-wrote what Parliament had enacted without having any clear authority to do so, Justices Judson and Hall both insisted that “provisions” could be any parts of the bill. And if, as Justice Hall diplomatically put it, “proclaiming parts only of” the scheme enacted by Parliament “may indicate on the part of the executive a failure to live up to the spirit of what was intended by Parliament”, that wasn’t the courts’ concern. Justice Laskin (as he then was) was even worse, arguing that “we should be very wary of judicializing the exercise of the very broad executive power conferred by Parliament”, and should moreover let the government define the word “provisions” as it pleases.

The Breathalyzer Reference itself is somewhat obscure now. Yet its abdication of the judicial duty to interpret the law and to see to it that Parliament’s will is carried out, antithetical to the separation of powers and the Rule of Law, still infects the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence ― above all in administrative law.

Nova Scotia Board of Censors v McNeil, [1978] 2 SCR 662

McNeil, as it’s usually referred to, is another decision that’s not especially well known, though it’s sometimes cited for its endorsement of a “presumption of constitutionality”. Yet the very fact that a “Board of Censors” was involved should ring alarm bells. This board had been given vast powers consonant with its name, and used them to ban The Last Tango in Paris from being shown in Nova Scotia, without even providing an explanation. The claim was that provincial legislation authorizing film (and theatre) censorship was, to that extent, an invasion of the federal criminal law power, and thus unconstitutional. 

A 5-4 majority, in reasons by Justice Ritchie, rejected this argument. In part, its reasons are based on the idea that regulating movie theatres is no different from regulating any other kinds of business ― say, farms or restaurants ―, which provinces can do under their “property and civil rights” power. But the majority also insists that provinces can regulate morality to reflect local sensitivities. In making this case, the majority relies heavily on R v Quong Wing ― a decision that upheld a sexist and racist segregationist Saskatchewan statute intended to “protect” “white women or girls” from interacting with “Chinamen”, and is a good candidate for the worst and most shameful Supreme Court decision of all time. This reasoning could just as easily have been used to uphold the notorious “Padlock Law” struck down in Switzman v Elbling ― to which the majority conveniently doesn’t refer. 

Incidentally, McNeil was handed down (though it hadn’t been heard) simultaneously  with Dupond v City of Montreal, which features in Professor St-Hilaire’s contribution. January 19, 1978 was not a good day for the Supreme Court of Canada.

Provincial Judges’ Remuneration Reference, [1997] 3 SCR 3

Unlike the in the other cases on my list, the majority opinion in the Provincial Judges’ Remuneration Reference, written by Chief Justice Lamer, is animated by a principle of undoubted constitutional value: the independence of the judiciary. In response to legislation cutting judicial salaries, along with the salaries of other public employees, in a number of provinces, the Court was preoccupied with upholding the reality and perception of judicial independence in Canada. Even so, Chief Justice Lamer’s opinion is perhaps the nec plus ultra of what I have called “constitutionalism from the cave” ― the enforcement of an ideal constitution that we perhaps ought to have, but don’t.

The constitutional text guarantees the independence of only some courts: namely, superior courts and courts of criminal jurisdiction. No matter, said the Chief Justice. He found that the preamble of the Constitution Act, 1867 implemented the principle of judicial independence for all courts (alongside other principles, such as democracy and federalism). One wonders why in 1867 and 1982 people bothered with writing detailed constitutional texts. And then, to give effect to the principle of judicial independence, the Supreme Court required the creation of independent commissions that would propose the terms of judicial remuneration to legislatures. This too, needless to say, with no textual basis.

The question of whether a constitutional text can have implications beyond the letter of its provisions is not an easy one. For what it’s worth, I think the answer is at least sometimes in the affirmative . But these implications cannot be drawn from a preamble while ignoring the text itself. Nor is it plausible that complex institutional arrangements are constitutionally required if the constitution says nothing about them.

Harper v Canada (Attorney-General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 SCR 827 

The decision to uphold limits on the ability of members of the civil society to spend money to persuade voters during an election campaign, limits so low that even a single one-page advertisement in a national newspaper would have broken them, illustrates many of the pathologies in the Supreme Court’s Charter jurisprudence. There is the conviction that the Court knows which speech is a valuable in a free and democratic society (that of politicians) and which is not (in this instance, everyone else’s). There are mistaken guesses masquerading as common sense (it’s the wealthy whom spending limits silence ― yet we know, in fact, that in Canada it’s “ordinary” people pooling their resources together through unions and NGOs who are prevented from making themselves heard). There is the uncritical deference to a self-interested legislature (“a reasoned apprehension of … harm”, supported by no evidence, is enough to curtail fundamental freedoms).

None of these themes is a constant in the Court’s Charter cases, but each pops up again and again. Harper is arguably unusually bad in uniting them all ― and it does so in the service of upholding a law that could easily be used to ban books, and is now being expanded into a system of increasingly comprehensive political censorship.

Edmonton (City) v Edmonton East (Capilano) Shopping Centres Ltd, 2016 SCC 47, [2016] 2 SCR 293

One  might plausibly have filled this “top” five with just administrative law cases from the past decade. Edmonton East is probably not the most consequential of them but, like Harper, it neatly encapsulates a variety of pathologies that afflict its area of the law. The Supreme Court was asked to review a decision of a municipal valuation commission on a legal issue on which the commission had not explained its reasoning at all. The applicable legislation provided for appeals to the courts on questions of law. Nevertheless, the majority opinion by Justice Karakatsanis insisted that the commission was an expert decision-maker and, as such, was entitled to deference from the courts. Of course, in this case, there wasn’t anything for the courts to defer to, so Justice Karakatsanis simply made up reasons that the commission might have offered for its conclusion, and pretended to defer to that. 

In commenting on this case, I said that this was tantamount to Justice Karakatsanis “playing chess with herself, and contriving to have one side deliberately lose to the other”. As for her insistence on deferring to the purportedly expert commission on an issue on which the commission had no real expertise, I thought it was reflective of a “post-truth jurisprudence”. I stand by those comments. The Supreme Court occasionally claims that its approach to administrative law focuses on giving effect to the intentions of the legislatures, but this is simply not so. (Co-blogger Mark Mancini’s contribution, especially its discussion of Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) v Khosa, makes this point well.) The wishes of legislatures that want the courts to police administrative decision-makers are routinely ignored, because the Supreme court trusts the executive more than it trusts itself. It’s a sad state of affairs and, as Mark has observed, there is little hope of improvement.

Day Eleven: Geoff Sigalet

Post-doctoral Fellow at the Queen’s Faculty of Law and Research Fellow at Stanford Law School’s Constitutional Law Center

Thanks very much to Leonid Sirota and Mark Mancini for kindly inviting me to contribute to this symposium. I thought about which cases to include in my list of the “worst” Supreme Court cases of the 1967-2017 period during Christmas, and I hope that my list isn’t too out of touch with the charitable spirit of the season. This list is largely influenced by my own Madisonian argument for the need for constructive dialogue between Canadian legislatures and courts about Charter rights. My theory of rights dialogue is just one among many, and my ideas on dialogue and rights are significantly indebted to the work of Dennis Baker and Grégoire Webber (among many others).

Sauvé v Canada (Chief Electoral Officer), 2002 SCC 68, [2002] 3 SCR 519 (Sauvé II)

In my view, the Court deserves applause in cases where it not only exercises a proper degree of deference to Canadian legislatures, but is willing to recognize a measure of co-ordinate autonomy in constructing the indeterminate meaning of Charter rights. In R v Mills the Supreme Court explicitly used the idea of dialogue to justify its reasoning about the meaning of the Charter’s sections 7 and 11(d) right to a full answer and defence in criminal trials as it relates to the privacy rights of victims. It also considered how a statutory reply to an early decision (R v O’Connor) constructed the meaning of such rights in relation to the privacy rights of the accused, but also the Charter’s section 15 and 28 sexual equality rights of victims, and the public interest in encouraging the reportage of sexual assault, especially the sexual assault of women and children.  The opinion characterized the relationship between Parliaments and the judiciary as one of “dialogue”. It claimed that: 

The law develops through dialogue between courts and legislatures … Against the backdrop of O’Connor, Parliament was free to craft its own solution to the problem consistent with the Charter.”

This suggests that Parliament has autonomy in constructing the nature and scope of Charter rights.

But the Court also deserves criticism when it departs from this constructive type of dialogue. A few years after Mills, in Sauvé II a majority of judges on the Court repudiated its previous commitment to co-ordinate dialogue. The Court invalidated a legislative reply to a prior judicial ruling that had seemed to invite inter-institutional disagreement on whether the Charter’s section 3 protections for voting rights secured prisoners’ the right to vote. The Court repudiated Parliament’s attempt to reply to the Court’s prior invalidation of an 1898 statute disqualifying all prisoners from voting during their imprisonment with an enactment limiting disenfranchisement to convicted criminals imprisoned for a period of 2 years or more. The majority opinion argued that “[t]he healthy and important promotion of a dialogue between the legislature and the courts should not be debased to a rule of ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again’.”

This was at odds with the more constructive ideal of dialogue the Court embraced in Mills. In my view, the much narrower role for legislatures in the more interrogative ideal of dialogue embraced in Sauvé II presupposes that Courts are the supreme authority over the meaning of Charter rights, and this premise lacks a textual basis in the Constitution Act. The type of dialogue represented by Sauvé II involves courts interrogating legislatures for justifiable reasons for infringing rights. This type of dialogue threatens both democratic control over the meaning of indeterminate rights, and respect for rights as specifications of justice that should not be easily overridden.

Even setting aside the difficulties attending the interrogative ideal of dialogue articulated in Sauvé II, the case rested on questionable legal and philosophical reasoning about the construction of voting rights. While the text of section 3 of the Charter limits the right to vote to citizens, the Court did not consider at any length the question of whether the public meaning of entrenching the right to vote was thought to extend to prisoners (in spite of the interesting fact that the Joint Committee on the Constitution excised an internal limitation clause qualifying this right after debates concluding that it was vague and unnecessary). Instead, the Court extended the right to vote to prisoners without much comment, and then engaged in a problematic proportionality analysis of the justification of infringing their right to vote. Although the Court granted that the legislation had legitimate aims (encouraging civic responsibility and punishing crime) it found the enactment disproportionate to these aims in a way that appeared to deny the possibility of any proportionate limitation on the right to vote. Writing for the majority, McLachlin C.J. argued that limitation on prisoner voting was disproportionate to these ends because the “obligation to obey the law flows from the fact that the law is made by and on behalf of citizens”. This claim was not philosophically reconciled with the “practical matter” that “we require all within our country’s boundaries to obey its laws, whether or not they vote.” Liberal political philosophers such as H.L.A. Hart and John Rawls would have been puzzled at the majority’s reasoning on this matter and its invocation of social contract theory.

R v Oakes, [1986] 1 SCR 103

Like many of the other contributors to this symposium, I consider the approach to Charter rights developed in Oakes to have created confusion about the meaning and specification of rights. In turn, I think that this confusion has affected the norm of dialogue informing interactions between legislatures and the courts concerning Charter rights. Oakes introduced the European “proportionality” approach to reasoning about whether Charter rights are reasonable limited according to section 1. The Oakes test encourages courts to focus less on the scope and nature of rights as they relate to other rights and constitutional provisions, and more on the legitimacy (i.e. importance), suitability (i.e. rationally connected), necessity (i.e. minimally impairment), and proportionality (stricto sensu) of the state’s “infringements” of rights. But these latter questions lead both courts and legislatures to analyse rights in a utilitarian register. They orient judicial interactions with legislatures towards determining whether the reasons and means by which legislatures “infringe” rights are justifiable. This can have the unfortunate side-effect of decreasing legislative responsibility for constructing the indeterminate meaning of rights.

Alberta v Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, 2009 SCC 37, [2009] 2 SCR 567

This case involved Albertan Hutterites who objected to having their photographs appear on their driver’s licences and sought accommodation as a matter of their right to freedom of religion under section 2(a) of the Charter. The majority decision conceded that the provincial regulation infringed section 2(a), but held that the legitimate and suitable government aim of having a photo database lacking exceptions minimally impaired the right, and that Alberta’s interest in the security of its licencing system outweighed any case-by-case harm to the religious freedom of individuals.

The majority opinion was problematic because it failed to establish why the photographs of 250 Hutterites were necessary to maintaining a secure licencing system (in a province with 700,000 citizens without licences at that time). The majority also erred by implying both that the lack of accommodations really only threatened the religious claims of individuals, and that infringements on freedom of religion deserve more deference due to the “broad scope” of the right. The Court has since largely corrected the view that religious freedom cannot be unjustifiably limited in relation to a religious community (e.g. Mounted Police Assn. of Ontario v Canada). But, in my view, the Court has unfortunately continued Hutterian Brethren’s spirit of treating abridgements of religious freedom as worthy of less scrutiny than other rights and interests. However, in the spirit of the season, I should note that Abella and LeBel JJ.’s dissents are fantastic, especially LeBel’s critique of proportionality analysis.

Schachter v Canada, [1992] 2 SCR 679

Joanna Baron has already written persuasively in this symposium about the difficulties created by the Court’s understanding of judicial remedial powers in Schachter v Canada. In Schachter, the Court decided that the separation of powers should not strictly limit the ability of courts to “read-in” measures to remedy unconstitutional legislation according to section 24 of the Charter (even though such legislation is, per section 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982, null ab initio). I agree with Ms. Baron and Dean Robert Leckey that this type of expansion of the remedial powers threatens to spill the banks of the traditional judicial role.

Eldridge v British Columbia (Attorney General), [1997] 3 SCR 624

Eldridge is in a way the fruit of the problems with Schachter. In Eldridge, the Court interpreted the equality guarantee in section 15(1) of the Charter to require B.C.’s public health care system to include specific resources for deaf patients. The Court went so far as the specify that “sign language interpretation will be required in most cases” and that the cost of providing such interpreters is “only 150,000”. As Professor Baker points out in his book’s excellent discussion of the case, in Eldridge the Court not only potentially expanded the judicial role into the legislative function, but did so in a way that appears to have circumvented enumerated protections for legislative control over public spending in sections 53 and 54 of the Constitution Act, 1867.

A belated Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!