The UK Way

What a recent decision of the UK Supreme Court can teach us about courts, legislatures, and rights

A recent decision of the UK Supreme Court, R (SC) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, [2021] UKSC 26, might be of interest for Canadian readers. Lord Reed’s judgment for the Court addresses issues that are relevant to current Canadian debates about the relationship between courts, legislatures, and rights, equality rights in particular. To be sure, the UK context is not the same as Canada’s. Still there are lessons to be learned there.

In a nutshell, at issue in SC was a statutory rule providing that one particular tax credit available to low-income families would only be payable in respect of a first and second child, but not for any subsequent children in a family. (Other benefits remained unaffected.) This was alleged to constitute discrimination, on a number of different grounds, in the protection of a right to family life, which is guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, and thus by the Human Rights Act 1998. The Supreme Court found that there was indeed prima facie discrimination against women (who were more likely to be caring for multiple children) and children living in families with three or more children, as opposed to those living in smaller ones. But the rule was still justified as a reasonable means of ensuring the fiscal sustainability of the credit programme.

One could make many interesting observations about this. Canadian readers might want to consider the different approach to equality rights under the Convention and under s 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms ―no abstruse inquiries into human dignity, histories of stereotyping, and so on, and a ready recognition of what we’d term “analogous grounds”, but also a greater willingness to defer to Parliamentary judgment, except where some particularly invidious forms of discrimination are concerned. But in this post I focus on a different issue: namely, Lord Reed’s comments on the nature and scope of Parliament’s engagement with rights, and the courts’ consideration of this engagement in assessing the compatibility of resulting legislation with the Convention.


These comments are part of Lord Reed’s discussion of “the use which can be made of Parliamentary debates and other Parliamentary material when considering whether … legislation is compatible with Convention rights”. [163] This was necessary because the parties argued about whether or not Parliament gave sufficient consideration to “matters which were argued to be relevant to the proportionality of the legislation, such as its impact upon the interests of the children affected”. [163] Lord Reed, however, cautions about this kind of argument, both out of respect for Parliament’s privileges and, no less importantly, in light of Parliament’s distinct constitutional role.

Parliamentary privilege, as part of the separation of powers, means relevantly “that it is no part of the function of the courts … to exercise a supervisory jurisdiction over the internal procedures of Parliament”. [165] In particular, courts should not expect and must not demand “transparent and rational
analysis” of rights claims by Parliament, because this “would be liable to make the process of resolving political differences through negotiation, compromise and the exercise of democratic power more difficult and less likely to succeed”. [171] The quality of the reasons given by individual Members of Parliament, or even by Ministers, is not what is at issue when courts assess the effect of statutory provisions on rights or their justification and proportionality in a democratic society.

Another aspect of the separation of powers, Lord Reed points out, is the distinction between Parliament and government. Among other things, this means that “[a]s a matter of daily reality, ministers and party whips
have to negotiate and compromise in order to secure the passage of the legislation which the Government has promoted, often in an amended form.” [166] And it follows from this that “[t]he reasons which the Government gives for promoting legislation cannot therefore be treated as necessarily explaining why Parliament chose to enact it”. [166] Neither the government nor individual members can be taken to be speaking for Parliament. Its “will … finds expression solely in the legislation which it enacts”, [167] and its “intention … or (otherwise put) the object or aim of legislation, is an essentially legal construct, rather than something which can be discovered by an empirical investigation”. [172]

At most, Lord Reed says, courts inquire into “whether matters relevant to compatibility” between an impugned statute and Convention rights “were raised during the legislative process”, while “avoid[ing] assessing the adequacy or cogency of Parliament’s consideration of them”. [182] If they were, then ― regardless of the quality of these debates ― Parliament’s enactment may be entitled to an additional measure of deference. The converse, however, is not true: lack of Parliamentary consideration of the issues does not count against the statute.

Canadian courts need to take heed. The most egregious example of their failure to attend to the principles Lord Reed expounds is surely the one Maxime St-Hilaire and I have written about here: the first instance judgment in the Québec mosque shooter’s case, R c Bissonnette, 2019 QCCS 354 (since reversed in part by the Court of Appeal, and now under appeal at the Supreme Court). There, Professor St-Hilaire and I noted, the judge engaged in

play-by-play commentary on Parliamentary debate, praise for “[o]pposition members [who] did their job”, [1146] denigration of a government member’s answer as being of “dubious intelligibility” [1137] and of the Parliamentary majority as a whole for its “wilful blindness” [1146] in the face of opposition warnings.

Another recent example is provided by Justice Zinn’s comments in Smith v. Canada (Attorney General), 2020 FC 629 to the effect that “[a] statement made by the Prime Minister at the time as to the intent of Parliament and its members ought to be accorded significant weight, if not considered conclusive on the issue of Parliamentary intent”. [85]

But even the Supreme Court has sometimes succumbed to such misguided reasoning, if in less extreme forms. Thus in R v Safarzadeh‑Markhali, 2016 SCC 14, [2016] 1 SCR 180, Chief Justice McLachlin, writing for a unanimous court, picked and chose among various purposes offered by the Minister who had promoted the legislation at issue, declaring one to be the real purpose of the statute and the others “peripheral”. This arguably crosses the line into “impeaching” Parliamentary statements, and certainly wrongly attributes a Minister’s supposed purpose to Parliament, to the detriment of the separation of powers and to the advantage of the executive over the legislature.

That said, two caveats are in oder. First, Lord Reed’s emphasis on the separation of the executive and the legislature may not always be appropriate in the Canadian context, at least outside of minority government situations. When one considers the law-making practices of some governments and legislatures ― notably, ubiquitous abusive omnibus legislation, or laws interfering with constitutional rights passed in a matter of days, it is difficult to maintain that the legislatures involved are anything other than inanimate rubber-stamps, quite devoid of any “will of their own”. More generally, Canadian legislatures lack certain features and institutions that serve to maintain the Westminster Parliament’s partial independence from the executive. But that doesn’t change the principle that courts should not attribute the executive’s purposes to the legislature. Partly, this is to avoid rewarding the executive for overwhelming the legislature; partly because, as Lord Reed says, it is not the courts’ place to assess the quality of legislative deliberation, and that includes the degree of its independence from the executive.

Second, Lord Reed’s discussion of deference ― both the narrow point described above, to the effect that Parliament’s consideration of an issue should reinforce curial deference to its choices, and what he says elsewhere in the judgment ― is also to be treated with the greatest caution in Canada. Lord Reed is judging in a constitutional system where Parliamentary sovereignty rather than constitutional supremacy is the ultimate principle. But, moreover, section 1 of the Canadian Charter requires any limitations on the rights it protects to be “demonstrably justified” (emphasis mine). The wording of the European Convention is a bit different ― it speaks (for example in article 8, which was at issue in SC) of limits “necessary in a democratic society”. Those readers ― and judges ― who, like me, attach importance to the words of constitutional texts may well think that the Charter‘s emphasis on demonstrable justifications calls into question the appropriateness of judicial deference to legislative choices, and especially of deference on no stronger a basis than the fact that the legislature turned its mind to an issue.

But judges are not the only Canadians who should take note of Lord Reed’s explanations. The proponents of the use of the Charter‘s “notwithstanding clause”, which allows legislatures to maintain in operation laws that are contrary to the Charter‘s guarantees, ought also to consider what Lord Reed says about the difference between courts and legislatures. Their argument is premised, in part, on the claim ― often asserted though seldom supported ― that legislatures will serve “as a forum where rights are debated, articulated and enacted” with “the thoughtful participation of the people themselves”, in the words of Joanna Baron and Geoffrey Sigalet in a post over at Policy Options. Lord Reed’s explanations show why this claim is unlikely to be true, or at least nearly as true as its proponents make it out to be.

Lord Reed points out that the way in which Parliament does its business does not require debate and articulation of rights, or any particular degree of thoughtfulness on the part of the people’s representatives, let alone the people themselves. He writes:

First … Parliament does not give reasons for enacting legislation: it simply votes on a motion to approve a proposed legislative text. There is no corporate statement of reasons, and the individual members of Parliament do not give their reasons for voting in a particular way. …

Secondly, the decisions which Parliament takes are not necessarily capable
of being rationalised in any event. In the first place, Parliament does not operate only, or even primarily, as a debating chamber. It is also a forum for gathering evidence, and for extra-cameral discussion, negotiation and compromise. Furthermore, the way in which members of Parliament vote will usually, but by no means always, reflect party policy, and may be influenced by the discipline imposed by the party whips. [167]-[168]

Lord Reed further explains that while the courts’ task is “the production of decisions arrived at by an independent and transparent process of reasoning”, Parliament’s is

the management of political disagreements … so as to arrive, through negotiation and compromise, and the use of the party political power obtained at democratic elections, at decisions whose legitimacy is accepted not because of the quality or transparency of the reasoning involved, but because of the democratic credentials of those by whom the decisions are taken. [169]

In other words, when Parliament makes a decision, including a decision that impacts or even directly concerns the rights of citizens, it need not act on the basis of reasoned deliberation. It is just as likely to be giving effect to the results of horse-trading or to the political tactics of the majority, its ministry, and its whips. Rights, or any other considerations, need not be articulated in any sort of intelligent fashion in this process. To be sure, sometimes they will be ― but this is no more than a happy accident. It cannot be the foundation of a constitutional theory, let alone the basis on which anyone should accept that their rights can be suspended by a political faction that holds them in contempt.


For all that Canadians like to think of themselves as open to learning from the constitutional law of other countries ― and despite some reservations I have on this score! ― I think that we do not do it nearly enough. There is indeed a great deal to learn out there, and not least from the courts that, to some, might seem passé ― those of the United States and the United Kingdom. SC is a good reminder of that.

Citizens and Judicial Independence

A lawyer’s attempt to spy on a judge is a threat to judicial independence

This is a joint post with Mark Mancini

The goings-on in the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench seldom make for front-page news. This time is different though, as that Court’s Chief Justice, Glenn Joyal, has revealed that he has been followed and his house visited by a private investigator, and lawyers for the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) have admitted that they are the ones who hired the investigator (though the Board of the JCCF has disclaimed any knowledge or responsibility for the incident). The JCCF is representing people challenging pandemic-related restrictions on religious worship and apparently thought that it would be a brilliant idea to find out whether Chief Justice Joyal, and seemingly other public figures too, complied with these orders.

This has elicited prompt and entirely proper condemnation. It is, of course, “astonishingly inappropriate” for lawyers to be gathering dirt on judges in their cases, with―presumably―the intent to embarrass them at the “right” moment, should the opportunity arise. If a lawyer is concerned about a judge’s impartiality, he or she needs to raise this with the judge, instead of proceeding in this underhanded fashion. But we want to make a further point here. This situation reminds us of the limited but still meaningful ways in which judicial independence imposes obligations on citizens, as well as on government officials—apart from and in addition to any obligations imposed on lawyers as officers of the court.

Generally speaking, we think of judicial independence as a constraint on what are (especially in the United States) sometimes called the “political branches” of government, i.e. the legislature and the executive. They are required by explicit constitutional provisions or implicit but enforceable constitutional principles to respect the judges’ security of tenure, financial security, and administrative independence. Private citizens cannot meaningfully threaten these incidents of judicial office, which makes it easy to think that judicial independence does not concern them.

Parliamentary rules and constitutional convention also strictly limit the ability of Members of Parliament and Ministers to criticize judges. This serves to avoid creating unconstitutional pressure or, perhaps more likely, the appearance of such pressure on the courts. Here, the position of ordinary citizens is radically different. They must be free to criticize individual judges and the courts as a whole. Judges and courts exercise the public power over citizens; the state’s armed force is wielded at their behest; the power of legislatures and thus the citizens is limited by their pronouncements. Their decisions, no less than the decisions of those who write the laws they apply, must be subject to public scrutiny. For this reason, arguments to the effect that citizens (or specifically the media) must respect judicial independence are sometimes little more than cover for disturbing attempts to silence legitimate criticism of the judiciary.

That said, there is indeed a way in which even private citizens ought to respect judicial independence. This obligation is so narrow that it is seldom worth discussing, but the JCCF’s shenanigans bring it to the fore. As with other fundamental constitutional principles, although the main responsibility for upholding and fostering them rests with officials, citizens should avoid undermining judicial independence, just as they should avoid undermining democracy (say, by making false allegations of electoral fraud) or the Rule of Law (say, by condoning private violence).

The most obvious way in which citizens can undermine judicial independence is by engaging in intimidation intended to make judges decide cases otherwise than in accordance with the judges’ honest understanding of the facts and the law. Indeed, the reason why political actors are so constrained in their ability to criticize the judiciary is precisely that their doing so risks being perceived as intimidatory even if it is meant as respectful disagreement. This is not normally true of private citizens or even the media. But there are exceptions. One of us (Sirota) has written here about some instances of extreme criticism of judges by UK media in the wake of Brexit. As that post suggested, that looked like an attempt to intimidate the courts into ruling in accordance with perceived popular will rather than the law.

The JCCF’s “investigation” of Chief Justice Joyal appears to have been a similar attempt at intimidation, intended to influence a judge’s decision (or at least his decision as to whether or not to recuse himself from a case). It may be worth noting that if, say, the media learn that a judge has been breaking the law―especially if this happens to be a law that the judge in question found to serve some important public purpose―they would surely be justified in reporting on it. But this would be very different matter from what the JCCF seems to have attempted. It is one thing to say that public power has been exercised hypocritically; it is quite another to attempt to direct the exercise of public power toward irrelevant considerations, such as potential embarrassment.

In short, the JCCF broke even the narrow obligations that ordinary citizens owe to the independence of the judiciary. This is apart from and in addition to a possible breach of the distinct, and more onerous, obligations that lawyers to the courts before which they practise. (We express no view on the JCCF lawyers’ actions from that perspective.) The JCCF’s conduct is reprehensible. While it may be tempting to write the situation off as the initiative of one person, it illustrates a deeper willingness of some—even legal professionals—to run roughshod over constitutional principles in service of their own legal or partisan goals. Whatever “advantage” the JCCF thinks it may have attained from its inappropriate investigation is clearly outweighed by the pound of flesh taken from the integrity of the legal system. Over time, these situations open the door to more enterprising litigants and private citizens who seek to maximize their chances of “winning,” however they describe it. The result is the continual erosion of cherished constitutional principles like judicial independence.

The widespread condemnation that has followed was thus reassuring―and we hope that it was the result of a widespread commitment to the principles at stake, and not only of the fact that the JCCF is known for defending views at odds with those of much of the legal profession. Some principles are so fundamental that they must be defended from ideological friend and foe alike.

Esprit d’Escalier

Just two years after its notorious decision in Gray’s case, the Supreme Court took a more skeptical view of the executive’s claims of broad emergency powers

There is a wonderful French phrase that describes the flash of wit that only comes well after the conversation in which it would have served is over ― say, as one is walking down the stairs, leaving the party: esprit d’escalier. We’ve all had it, no doubt. A so has the Supreme Court ― or so it seems to me after reading an old decision co-blogger Mark Mancini recently pointed out to me, In re Price Bros and The Board of Commerce of Canada, (1920) 60 SCR 265.

This case offers a spirited example of robust statutory interpretation being used to counter-act an overbroad grant of discretion to the executive in wartime legislation. For this it deserves to be more widely known (and I take it that this was Mark’s first interest in the decision). But, for my part, I cannot fail to note the sad contrast with the Supreme Court’s better-known engagement with such things just two years earlier, with In Re George Edwin Gray, (1918) 57 SCR 150.


Recall that in Gray, a majority of the Supreme Court adopted an extremely broad reading of the powers delegated to the Governor-in-Council by the War Measures Act, 1914. Specifically, the key issue there was whether the governor could, by regulation, override an exemption from the obligation to do military service that had previously been granted by statute. In the leading judgment (in which three of the four judges in the majority concurred), Justice Anglin recognized that

[n]o doubt the amendment of a statute or the taking away of privileges enjoyed or acquired under the authority of a statute by order-in-council is an extreme exercise of the power of the Governor-in-council to make orders and regulations of a legislative character. (180)

Still, he found that it was justified, in view of the breadth of the grant of powers in section 6 of War Measures Act

to do and authorize such acts and things and to make from time to time such orders and regulations as he may by reason of the existence of real or apprehended war, invasion or insurrection deem necessary or advisable for the security, defence, peace, order and welfare of Canada.

These words were followed by an enumeration of specific subjects the regulations could address, but since that was introduced by a clause providing that the enumeration was “for greater certainty, but not so as to restrict the generality of the foregoing terms”. For Justice Anglin, this meant that it would be wrong to apply to ejusdem generis maxim of statutory interpretation, which suggests that mention of examples means that the general category has to be understood by reference to these examples.

And Justice Anglin insisted, too, that

The exercise of legislative functions such as those here in question by the Governor-in-council rather than by Parliament is no doubt something to be avoided as far as possible. But we are living in extraordinary times which necessitate the taking of extraordinary measures. (181-82)

Chief Justice Fitzpatrick made a similar point:

It seems to me obvious that parliament intended, as the language used implies, to clothe the executive with the widest powers in time of danger. Taken literally, the language of the section contains unlimited powers. Parliament expressly enacted that, when need arises, the executive may for the common defence make such orders and regulations as they may deem necessary or advisable for the security, peace, order and welfare of Canada. The enlightened men who framed that section, and the members of parliament who adopted it, were providing for a very great emergency, and they must be understood to have employed words in their natural sense, and to have intended what they have said. (158-59)


Meanwhile, Price Bros concerned an order of the Board of Commerce requiring a paper company to supply specified quantities of newsprint to certain newspapers. (Remember those?) Simplifying somewhat, the Board’s jurisdiction to make such an order was supported on two grounds. First, a previous order under the War Measures Act invested the Board with the powers of a “Commissioner and Controller of Paper”, including, specifically, the power to make orders of this nature. Second, the Board separately had jurisdiction under the Combines and Fair Prices Act (the forerunner of the Competition Act) to regulate trade in a “necessary of life”, defined as

a staple and ordinary article of food (whether fresh, preserved, canned, or otherwise treated) clothing and fuel, including the products, materials and ingredients from or of which any thereof are in whole or in part manufactured, composed, derived or made, and such articles of any description as the Board may from time to time by special regulation prescribe.

The Supreme Court, with only Justice Mignault dissenting as to the War Measures Act, and unanimously as to the Combines and Fair Prices Act, found that the Board’s order was ultra vires.

Justice Idington, who had dissented in Gray, effectively rejected its holding that the delegation of power under section 6 of the War Powers Act is practically unlimited and isn’t confined to the matters enumerated in that provision. For him, one of these subjects had to support the impugned regulations, and none could. In particular, authority to regulate “trading, exportation, importation, production and manufacture” cannot

apply to the mere direction of selling newsprint paper by a manufacturer thereof to a person wishing to use it. Indeed, after much consideration, I cannot think how that purely business transaction of a very ordinary type can be said to have any relevancy to the matters therein specified of possibly vital importance in many ways conceivable in a state of war. (270)

Justice Brodeur, who had also dissented in Gray, was of a similar view.

For their part, Justices Duff and Anglin, who had been in the majority in Gray, neither contradicted nor endorsed this analysis; nor did they so much as mention Gray. (Nor did their colleagues, for the record.) They focused on a somewhat different issue: that regulation of the paper trade in 1920, a year and a half after the armistice and almost a year after peace was officially concluded, could not sensibly be said to be “necessary or advisable for the security, defence, peace, order and welfare of Canada” “by reason of the existence of … war”. Justice Duff was all circumlocution, but Justice Anglin went so far as to say that it would take bad faith to really think so, and the government must rather have been mistaken about its war powers subsisting despite the war having ended, to “[t]he common knowledge possessed by every man on the street, of which courts of justice cannot divest themselves”. (279)

As for the other argument, to the effect that the Board could regulate newsprint as a “necessary of life”, the Court was, as mentioned above unanimous in rejecting it, and indeed in finding it rather unserious. Justice Anglin’s reasons, though, are worth a closer look, because they offer yet another point of contrast with Gray. In that case, he had found that the prefatory “for greater certainty, but not so as to restrict the generality of the foregoing” excluded the application of the ejusdem generis canon of interpretation. Not so here with the “articles of any description” clause, though Justice Anglin explicitly noted that

[a]t first blush the words “of any description” appended to the general words “other articles” would almost seem to have been inserted  to indicate an intention to exclude the application to this section of the ejusdem generis rule, and to require that the general words “other articles” should here be given their ordinary general construction. (283)

But, Justice Anglin said, “consideration of the character of the Act and of the context as a whole” suggests “that Parliament cannot have meant that words the ‘other articles’ should bear their ordinary broad signification”. (285) For one thing, Parliament wouldn’t have needed to describe staple foods explicitly, if it were otherwise; for another, because the designation of an item as a “necessary of life” by the Board allowed for the imposition of criminal penalties for its “accumulation or withholding from sale”, he found it

inconceivable that Parliament meant to confer such wide and unheard of powers. I rather think that no one would be more surprised and shocked than the legislators themselves were they informed that they had done so. I am therefore satisfied that Parliament must have intended that the words “other articles of any description” in sec. 16, notwithstanding their obvious and emphasized generality, should receive a much more restricted construction. (286)

Justice Anglin observes, for good measure, that Poarliament “must be taken to have been fully cognizant of … the ejusdem generis rule of construction so frequently acted on by the courts”. (286)


All that makes sense to me; there is much to like about Price Bros. But wouldn’t the arguments that prevailed there ― and prevailed rightly ― have applied with equal force in Gray? If general language referring to “articles of any description” could be read down to only apply to a comparatively narrow class of items; if the courts, rather than an administrative board, could authoritatively interpret what is necessary for life; if Parliament must be taken to be cognizant of the ejusdem generis principle when legislating; a fortiori, if the limited reading of the War Measures Act offered by Justices Idington and Brodeur deserved no express disagreement; why wasn’t any of that so in the earlier case?

The answer, I’m afraid, seems inescapable. When the judges saw “extraordinary times”, a “time of danger”, “a very great emergency”, they saw also “extraordinary measures” taken by “enlightened men”. Once the danger had passed, the enlightened men became capable of incompetence if not bad faith, and judges gathered their wits, or redressed their backbones. A Marxist take on it all might point out that the Supreme Court refused to take the side of a simple farmer torn off from his land and sent to do and die, but did side with capitalists denied the opportunity of profit. But I am no Marxist, and have no reason to suppose that this is fair. More likely, the older maxim is the better: Inter armes tacent leges.

So perhaps this is all inevitable. Perhaps we should even be happy that the judges did, after all, recover ― mostly. Consider Justice Mignault’s partial dissent in Price Bros: Neither common knowledge nor even proclamations by the King satisfied him, and he insisted that only a proclamation by the Canadian government, in the form prescribed by the War Measures Act, would have put an end to the government’s emergency powers under that Act. The government had not troubled itself with issuing such a proclamation. This might be something to ponder as we are dealing with one emergency, and facing strident calls for governments to proclaim and assume enormous powers to try to deal with yet another, climatic, one.

But this brings me to the last point I’ll make here, and it might be a somewhat hopeful one. Gray is usually taken as authority for Parliament’s ability to delegate vast powers to the executive, especially in emergency contexts. That’s true, so far as that goes. But it’s worth noting, first, that just two years after it was decided it may already have been seen as something of an embarrassment, including by the same judges who decided it. Perhaps more significantly, at the very least, Price Bros should be taken as authority for the proposition that courts should not take the executive’s assertions about the existence of emergencies and the need for emergency powers on faith. However deferential they may be while the emergency is ongoing, their willingness to check the executive in this respect is a salutary constraint on powers that could easily destroy the constitution in its absence.

Common Power Grabs

A defence of Ontario’s use of the notwithstanding clause as “common good constitutionalism” is the same old tripe, under a new sauce

Over at Ius et Iustitium, Kerry Sun, Stéphane Sérafin, and Xavier Foccroulle Ménard (I shall refer to them collectively as SSM) have a new addition to the rather stale menu of notwithstanding clause apologetics: a post that attempts to justify legislative override of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a form of “common good constitutionalism”. SSM write

that the notwithstanding clause should be viewed as enshrining a form of coordinate interpretation. Under this approach, ideally, the invocation of s. 33 may be contemplated in those cases where a legislature seeking to advance the common good reasonably disagrees with the judicial interpretation of a rights provision

Except for the invocation of the “common good”, this is the usual fare. Legislatures are supposed to have their own views about what Charter rights mean and entail, and are justified in imposing these views on the citizens. Joanna Baron and Geoffrey Sigalet made one such argument over at Policy Options a couple of years ago (I critiqued it here), and more recently Professor Sigalet made a similar case in a National Post op-ed with Ben Woodfinden.

But the addition of the “common good constitutionalism” sauce is noteworthy. So far as it is possible to define, “common good constitutionalism” is a branch of right-wing anti-liberal thought which seeks to re-establish constitutional law on foundations ostentatiously grounded in traditionalist ideology and/or medieval natural law, and thereby to make it serve the general good, as understood by its exponents. In substance, “common good constitutionalism” often amounts to a celebration of political power at the expense of the rights of minorities. In form, it distinguishes itself not only by the aforementioned ostentatious traditionalism or medievalism, but also by its a refusal to seriously engage with non-adherents to the doctrine. (Its celebrity chef, Adrian Vermeule, is notorious for blocking people who have not attacked or sometimes even interacted with him on Twitter.)

Unfortunately, these traits are all present in SSM’s post. I address a number of specific faulty arguments it makes below, but first let me note that ― remarkably for a piece of scholarly writing ― it never quotes or even cites the people it disagrees with. They are merely nameless, faceless “critics” of this or that, and the only source SSM refer to for their views is the not-at-all critical op-ed by Professor Sigalet and Mr. Woodfinden linked to above. Mr. Ménard tries to make a virtue out of this in a subsequent Twitter exchange with Emmett Macfarlane, candidly admitting that he would “rather cite jurists who share” his fundamental premises “than political scientists with whom I share piecemeal views. It makes for better scholarship”, he says. No, it doesn’t. Participants in scholarly debate should endeavour to bring their opponents’ best arguments to their audience’s attention. Those who fail to do so risk becoming propagandists, no matter how many footnotes their writings include.


The entrée for SSM’s paean to the notwithstanding clause is the enactment by the Ontario legislature of the Protecting Elections and Defending Democracy Act, 2021, which invokes s. 33 of the Charter to override the decision of the province’s Superior Court of Justice in Working Families Ontario v Ontario, 2021 ONSC 4076. I will eventually post a detailed analysis of the Court’s decision, but as I have already noted in The Line, its conclusion is self-evidently correct. Section 1 of the Charter requires limits on the rights it guarantees to be reasonable and demonstrably justified. Yet the Ontario government simply provided no justification for extending the duration of very severe restrictions on the ability of civil society groups to engage in political advertising from six months before the start of an election campaign to a year. It own experts had previously said that the six-month period was reasonable. The law could not stand. But the legislature re-passed it in four days.

SSM’s presentation of the situation is misleading. For one thing, they claim that the “arguments” against Ontario’s legislation were “very similar to those raised in” Harper v Canada (Attorney General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 SCR 827. This is doubly wrong. First, the case actually decided by the Superior Court was focused on the lack of justification for the latest extension of Ontario’s censorship regime, not the validity of such a regime in principle. But even the original dispute about the six-month-long pre-campaign censorship period is far outside the scope of Harper. There the majority invoked the lack of restraint on political speech outside a five-week-long election campaign as evidence of the limited (and hence justified) nature of the restraints during that campaign. SSM further mislead their readers by suggesting that, “[a]s a result of the court ruling, Ontario would likely have no spending limits by unions, corporations, or other third parties in place prior to the next election period, slated to begin in the summer of 2022”. Needless to say, the Ontario legislature could have re-enacted a six-month (or shorter) restriction period just as easily is it re-enacted a year-long one. Its masters in the executive just chose not to do that.

This brings me to another weakness in SSM’s argument. Responding to critics of “the Ontario legislature’s failure to advance a justification for” invoking the “notwithstanding clause”, they insist that “a justification was in fact given in this case: preserving the fairness and integrity of Ontario’s provincial elections”. Leave aside its substantive merits for the moment, and notice the artful use of the passive voice: a justification “was advanced” ― by whom? The text does not say, but the footnote supporting this sentence refers to two sources. One is a passage from the Working Families judgment quoting the Attorney-General’s speech to the legislature about the bill it struck down; it simply has nothing to do with the use of the notwithstanding clause. The other is a news story quoting a statement by a spokesman for the government’s House Leader. Neither, in other words, reflect the legislature’s considered views about the notwithstanding clause. Instead, certainly the former and arguably the latter emanate from the executive rather than the legislature.

Without meaning to, SSM give away the notwithstanding clause defenders’ sleight of hand: while they denounce those who have but “a limited regard for the legislature’s capacity to reason about rights”, they are, in reality, apologists for executive power. Unsurprisingly, they repeatedly speak of the government, not the legislature, invoking the notwithstanding clause. Earlier, they cheerfully note that Premier Doug “Ford’s government controlled the legislature, and so the bill” that expanded the censorship of political advertising before elections “passed with little difficulty”. This all is, of course, of a piece of the “common good” movement’s embrace of executive and administrative power elsewhere. Professor Vermeule, for instance, is an advocate of “law’s abnegation”, as the title of one of his books has it, in the face of the administrative state. SSM themselves defend approaches to legal interpretation that would empower administrative decision-makers instead of holding them to the limits enacted by legislatures.

This power, moreover, is an unbridled one. Recall that, contrary to SSM’s insistence on (legislative) reasoning about rights, the Ontario government advanced no reason at all to justify its expansion of political censorship. To repeat, the Superior Court did not disagree with the government’s justification or rule that it was insufficiently supported by evidence ― though it’s worth pointing out that there never has been any evidence that the integrity and fairness of Canadian elections were compromised by the lack of a year-long gag on the civil society, or even by the absence of the much more modest restrictions upheld in Harper. The Harper majority specifically held that evidence was unnecessary ― a reason, among others, why Harper is one of the Supreme Court’s worst decisions of all time.

Be that as it may, the Working Families court found that there was no justification at all for limiting the freedom of expression of civil society groups for as long as the legislature had. For all that SSM claim to regard “law as a work of reason”, for all their insistence that “[t]hrough a prudent exercise of reason, the law-maker is free and apt to make a practical judgment in choosing among the many alternatives, the many legitimate and reasonable possibilities”, the law they actually extol is an unreasoned power-grab by the executive. By asking us to accept it in the name of reason, SSM show that this rhetoric is just a spice intended to mask the insipid taste of their actual position.

And, for all their contempt for legal positivism and posturing as the heirs to the natural law tradition, SSM are, in truth, asking us to accept the authority of law simply because it has been enacted by the state. They deprecate as simple-mindedly positivistic the view of “legal rights as solely the emanation of judicial decisions”, so that “a Charter right is effectively nullified if the legislature derogates from judicial review via the notwithstanding mechanism”. (SSM never say, of course, who actually holds these views.) For them rights, being emanations of the natural law, exist even if they cannot be enforced through the courts.

But individuals must accept the legislature’s ― or rather, as we have seen, the executive’s ― specification of these rights, even when, as in the case of Ontario’s censorship regime and its use of the notwithstanding clause, the legislature manifestly failed to turn its mind to the right in question. No other reason than the legislature’s authority, and the common good constitutionalists’ naïve believe in its ability to reason, is necessary. And of course, like all notwithstanding clause apologists, SSM trot out the historical fact that it is “part of the Charter and the political settlement that made possible the constitutional entrenchment itself”, as if that can legitimate political actors resorting to it. But that is only so on a nakedly positivist view, where the legality of something is sufficient warrant for its legitimacy.


As co-blogger Mark Mancini and I have previously suggested here and here, SSM’s embrace of common good constitutionalism is superfluous at best, and actively pernicious at worst. If is superfluous if it only serves to provide a baroque vocabulary for warmed-up arguments for in favour of political power and against judicially-enforceable individual rights. It is pernicious if they really mean to embrace the most reactionary views associated with, and sometimes openly embraced by, their ideological fellow travellers.

On the whole, their Ius et Iustitium post is evidence for the former possibility. Little if anything in it could not have been said, and has not been said, without the “common good” sauce. But even stripped of this rhetoric, the argument remains distasteful enough. Citizens ought to defer to the choices executive branch officials, so long as they have been laundered through supine legislatures, because these legislatures in theory could have ― and it doesn’t matter that they actually haven’t ― engaged in reasoned deliberations about rights. Calling something an exercise of reason directed at the common good does not make it so. Tripe is tripe, and a power grab is a power grab.

Keeping Out or Stepping In?

When should the courts intervene in internal disputes of voluntary associations?

This is my first post since February. Apologies. Things haven’t been great, and might not improve for some time, but I do hope that, at least starting in July, I will be posting more regularly.

In Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Canada St. Mary Cathedral v Aga, 2021 SCC 22, the Supreme Court considered the scope of the courts’ power to interfere with the decision-making of an unincorporated private association. The dispute involved a congregation and some of its members, whom its authorities excommunicated, apparently without having given them much of a hearing.

Justice Rowe provides a neat summary of his judgment for the unanimous Court:

[C]ourts can only intervene in the affairs of a voluntary association to vindicate a legal right, such as a right in property or contract. Membership in a voluntary association is not automatically contractual. Even a written constitution does not suffice. Membership is contractual only where the conditions for contract formation are met, including an objective intention to create legal relations. Such an intention is more likely to exist where property or employment are at stake. It is less likely to exist in religious contexts, where individuals may intend for their mutual obligations to be spiritually but not legally binding. A voluntary association will be constituted by a web of contracts among the members only where the conditions for contract formation are met. [49]

The idea that courts will only intervene in the face of an alleged violation of a legal right follows from the Supreme Court’s earlier decision in Highwood Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses (Judicial Committee) v Wall, 2018 SCC 26, [2018] 1 SCR 750. The rules of contract formation, including the requirement that parties intend to create legal relations, and not merely socially or spiritually binding ones, are longstanding. Here, they lead Justice Rowe to find that

there is nothing that can be characterized as an objective intention to make an offer on the part of [the congregation or its leadership], and nothing that can be characterized as an objective intention to accept on the part of any of the [excommunicated members], or vice versa. [52]

But a strict application of these rules, combined with (or perhaps resulting in) the position that even a self-proclaimed constitution of the association is not necessarily a binding contract, means that the courts will keep out of the internal disputes of voluntary associations ― especially, but not only, religious ones.


People whose opinion means more than mine have been critical of this. Over at Administrative Law Matters, Paul Daly writes

the sledghammer employed in Aga obliterates any judicial enforcement of any terms in a voluntary association’s “Constitution”, even terms relating to the basic procedures for removing individuals from the organization. When read with WallAga represents a significant judicial retreat. So much for the ‘supervisory’ jurisdiction.

Again, Professor Daly’s opinion on such issues is more important than mine. But here’s a note of doubt.

I’m not sure why we should be sorry about the judicial retreat, if that’s what Aga and Wall are. The Supreme Court is clear that when employment or property (or access to resources necessary to earn a living, as in some earlier cases involving expulsions from communes of coreligionists) are at stake, the courts still should intervene. What they are retreating from are disputes about membership or leadership of voluntary associations. But should they be involved in such disputes?

I would venture ― tentatively ― that it is sensible enough to think that they should not. As Justice Rowe explains

The law concerning the formation of contractual relations embodies practical wisdom. Many informal agreements that people undertake do not result in a contract. There are, for example, mutual undertakings between friends … or between members of a household … In neither of these examples do the parties (reasonably understood) intend to be subject to adjudication as to the performance of their commitments or to the imposition of remedies such as damages or specific performance. [21]-[22] (paragraph break omitted)

These rules aren’t only about practical wisdom though. They’re also about autonomy. As Justice Rowe himself says, they allow people who don’t want the law to step into their relationships to keep it at a distance. Arguably, unincorporated voluntary associations often are places where people exercise this kind of autonomy from the legal system. Not always, to be sure. But at least as a matter of presumption and default position, there is something to be said for Justice Rowe’s (and the Supreme Court’s) approach.

At the very least, this is a matter on which reasonable people might disagree, and on which compromise solutions may be available. Professor Daly notes that provincial legislation in British Columbia and Québec enables courts to intervene in the affairs of voluntary associations, including, in the case of Québec’s Code of Civil Procedure, of “groups not endowed with juridical personality”. Perhaps this is a defensible choice, albeit one less respectful of people’s autonomy. But it’s not necessarily the only defensible choice.

In fact, there is a difference between the Québec and British Columbia statutes to which Professor Daly refers. The latter only applies to “societies” which (as it makes clear) must be deliberately incorporated by their members. If people come together and form a voluntary association without incorporating, the default regime articulated in Aga will still apply. The position in New Zealand is similar: the Judicial Review Procedure Act 2016 defines “statutory power“, which is normally subject to judicial review, as, in relevant part, “a power or right … conferred by or under … the constitution or other instrument of incorporation, rules, or bylaws of any body corporate”. A constitution or bylaws of an unincorporated association do not count.

This may be a sensible distinction to draw: a group that goes to the trouble of formalizing its operations by incorporating, and obtains the benefits of incorporation, they submit to closer scrutiny by the courts. Otherwise, they will mostly be left to their own devices, except where legal relationships such as employment or ownership are involved, or where the association takes on some regulatory or quasi-regulatory role. In New Zealand, Electoral Commission v Cameron [1997] NZCA 301; [1997] 2 NZLR 421, involving the Advertising Standards Complaints Board which, although not incorporated, effectively regulated what advertisements could and could not be distributed by the media is an example.

In fact, Professor Daly’s position may not be all that dissimilar. He asks: “What is the point of setting out procedures, rights and obligations in a document made available to members when those procedures, rights and obligations can be discarded at will?” I’m not sure how strong this objection is in Aga (where the members of the congregation, even seemingly high-ranking ones, seem not to have been aware of the relevant documents for years). But Professor Daly’s point, if I understand correctly, is that choices about the degree of formality with which an association organizes itself are important. That makes intuitive sense. But I’m not sure that the line should be drawn at the creation of a “constitution” rather than at incorporation. The latter may be a more formal, and a more easily identifiable, step, and so perhaps a better marker for the courts to refer to.

Note, by the way, that my argument here is not about religious associations in particular. There are, indeed, good reasons for the secular courts to be especially wary of intervening in their disputes, because they are likely to implicate theological considerations. But this is only a specific application of the broader principle of autonomy that is implicated when the law chooses one approach or another to judicial intervention in the private sphere. Other kinds of associations may also have reasons for wanting to keep their workings informal and outside the state’s reach.


And, to repeat, perhaps they shouldn’t be allowed to do that. Perhaps the more interventionist position chosen by the Québec legislature is the wiser one. As I have already said, my views here are tentative. But I think that a debate about first principles ― about whether it is in fact right for the state to assume the role of a supervisor over the internal doings on voluntary associations ― is worth having. By tilting the default position towards non-interventionism and so putting the onus on legislatures to introduce a different set of rules, the Supreme Court’s decision in Aga may spur something like this debate.

One of the Institutions of the Land

More mixed feelings about John A. Macdonald

Some time ago, I posted my impressions on reading the first volume of Richard Gwyn’s biography of Sir John A. Macdonald. I came away from it with admiration for Macdonald’s role in creating Canada and its institutions, but not much love for the man. I have now finished reading the second volume, which covers the period from Confederation until Macdonald’s death in 1891. Here are some further thoughts on the man who continues to generate frantic hatred, determined admiration, and weary exasperation.

My dislike of Macdonald’s nationalism has only been reinforced, although this may be as much Gwyn’s fault as his own. My assessment of the first volume was mostly positive ― I said it was “serious but no less engaging for that, and written with both sympathy for its subject and honesty about his flaws”. These comments, so far as they go, apply to the second volume too. However, the biographer’s nationalist convictions ― already evident in the first volume ― really appear to overwhelm the narrative at times, and leave me wondering whether he does not attribute his own thoughts and purposes to his subject.

In this post, I will address three themes that stood out to me (and ignore any number of other aspects of Macdonald’s life: the Canadian Pacific scandal, for example, or his doting on a disabled daughter). First, nationalism and especially Macdonald’s National Policy, so iconic that my friend Asher Honickman and Ben Woodfinden have sought to recycle its label, if not also its substance, for contemporary purposes. Second, constitutional law and especially the jurisprudence of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. And third, Macdonald’s relationship with Aboriginal Canadians and other minorities.


The National Policy, which Macdonald first proposed in the 1870s in response to a global economic crisis and pursued through the remainder of his life and career, imposed high tariffs on most imports. The hope was to spur Canadian manufacturing and improve the prospects of the growing numbers of industrial workers. Gwynn does his best to write warmly of this policy, proceeding from what he takes to be the axiom that having stuff made in Canada by Canadians is a Good Thing. We are supposed to admire Macdonald’s nation-building instincts for seeking to bring about this result.

But why exactly? Gwynn recognizes that the National Policy was no great economic success. To be sure, the protected manufacturers initially did well. But it’s not clear that overall employment improved. What is clear is that the years of the National Policy were also the years during which, as Gwynn notes, Canada lost population: thousands upon thousands of its people left for the better prospects in the United States, while the hoped-for immigrants from Europe mostly did not come. I take it that this a complex story: many francophone Quebeckers left for reasons that might have been peculiar to their situation and beyond the power of federal politicians to remedy. But certainly the National Policy failed to achieve its economic objectives. And despite its protectionist policy, Canada’s economic fortunes remained tied to those of the world beyond its borders. Things went better when the global economy improved, and worse when it deteriorated.

But economic nationalism is not merely futile, or even counter-productive; it is also deceitful and, , despite its name, more divisive than truly national. While benefitting the manufacturers and perhaps their workers, the National Policy hurt farmers, who increasingly depended on manufactured implements, for which they had to pay more, and who were hit by retaliatory tariffs on their exports. In the name of the nation, a minority reaped the profits, while a majority paid the price. Macdonald knew this of course. But from the beginning of the policy, he misrepresented it as more or less cost-free and avoided using the language of protectionism, knowing that it would be unpopular. In his last election campaigned, he made thinly veiled insinuations of treason to discredit the pro-free trade Liberals.

To my mind, there is nothing admirable in any of this. The history of the National Policy is one of grift and lies. It ought to count against Macdonald on any assessment of his merits ― but even for people who do not admire him like Gwynn, it seldom does. That certainly says more about us than about Macdonald.


In contrast to the first volume’s relative lack of interest in the shaping of the text of what we now call the Constitution Act, 1867, the second volume of Gwynn’s biography devotes some attention to that text’s interpretation by the courts and Macdonald’s reaction to it. Or rather, from Gwynn’s perspective, the courts’ ― and specifically the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council’s misinterpretation and Macdonald’s failure to respond. Gwynn adopts entirely the view, which has long been ascendant in the progressive English-Canadian legal discourse, that confederation was meant to be highly centralized, and that blundering or outright malevolent British judges remade it into something almost, but not quite, entirely unlike its true self.

Macdonald, in Gwynn’s telling, is a victim of this process, suffering from a sort of Stockholm syndrome if not permanent false consciousness. Due to his longstanding admiration for the British legal system and the men running it, he never does much of anything to try countering the step-by-step perversion of his constitutional design. Power-hungry provinces and haughty, stupid jurists doing their bidding in London run the show, while the Prime Minister, so wily, so ambitious, and so determined in just about every aspect of politics, keeps a stoic, resigned silence.

As the reader may have guessed, I find this picture quite implausible. Granted, I also happen to think that the cases which Gwynn and his predecessors in the Canadian legal academy find so offensive were correctly decided. Perhaps that makes me biased here ― but at least it is not, as was often their case, a partisan bias. I dislike and fear both the federal and the provincial governments, roughly equally. They have a clear preference for federal power. But be that as it may, is it not simply more logical to think that, if Macdonald never seriously protested, and never sought to have the UK Parliament revise Canada’s constitutional balance, it is because he did not find the Privy Council’s jurisprudence so out of kilter with his own views of Confederation?

More precisely, is it not more consistent with everything else we know about Macdonald to suppose that he understood that, whatever his personal preferences ― which were, to be sure, for greater centralization ― these preferences weren’t shared even by his political allies (in Québec and, say, Nova Scotia), let alone his opponents. He knew that the constitution that was enacted in 1867 was not quite as centralized as he might have wished. He would also have known that the way in which it was interpreted was not an aberration or an usurpation, but a plausible application of what had been enacted. It’s likely enough that he would have preferred the courts to rule differently. But there is quite a gap between such a preference and a regret that things turned out the way they did, and the picture of pathetic impotence presented by Gwynn.


I turn now to the issue on which Macdonald’s reputation now seems be foundering, at least in some circles: his relationship to the non-white-male sections of society. It’s complicated. One thing to note is that Gwynn’s book, published less than a decade ago, already seems somewhat dated. It barely even mentions residential schools, if it mentions them at all. That seems like a gap. At the same time though, this does suggest that there is a lot more to judge Macdonald by, for the better and for the worse, than this one issue.

Gwynn does devote a great deal of attention to Macdonald’s policy and views toward the Métis (including, but not only, Louis Riel and his companions) and the Prairie First Nations. Macdonald seems to have been somewhat inconsistent, and often the issue did not attract as much of his attention as it deserved. By today’s standards he could be utterly heartless, and the people whose way of life was crumbling in the face of advancing white settlement were often left to suffer without aid or sympathy. As Gwynn points out, the principle that people should not be counting on the state’s help was not only applied to Aboriginals ― but he doesn’t note, in this connection, that the National Policy was a welfare policy of sorts, albeit a destructive one, as welfare policies tend to be. And generally, Gwynn writes that Macdonald ― despite flashes of recognition of the priority of Aboriginal presence in Canada ― didn’t believe that First Nations could truly be part of the Canadian society. (It was a more complicated story with the Métis.)

And yet. It may be daft to point out that, if nothing else, the Canadian state under Macdonald (or later) didn’t physically exterminate its Aboriginal population ― unlike its neighbour across the 49th parallel. But it mattered then. And there is more than just that. How many people tearing down his statutes know that in 1885 Macdonald pushed through electoral legislation that enfranchised (some) First Nations men? They were then disenfranchised by legislation enacted by Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals. I have to admit, I did not know that either. One can certainly object that the franchise is pretty useless when you are starving. That’s fair enough. But if we are interested in assessing Macdonald’s views and record, I still think that his choice to expend political capital on this legislation, from which he did not stand to benefit much at all, has got to count for something. Towards the end of his life, Macdonald was a man increasingly behind the times, a mid-19th century man surviving in the century’s closing decade. As it happens, though, attitudes towards Indigenous peoples were more benevolent ― not, to be sure, egalitarian ― in the middle of the century (not just in Canada ― this was true in New Zealand also), and Macdonald’s views reflected this.

Just as strikingly, to me, Macdonald sought to include women’s suffrage in the same bill that enfranchised First Nations Canadians for the first time. He failed. Despite the fact that this measure would likely have benefitted his party ― Macdonald being very popular with women, apparently ― there was more determined opposition to it, and Macdonald did not get his way. If he had, Canada would have beaten New Zealand to egalitarian bragging rights and, more importantly, enfranchised women a generation before it eventually did (under another self-interested Conservative government). Again, I did not know this, and I suspect that many of Macdonald’s critics ― and perhaps more than a few of his boosters ― don’t either.

The last point I will mention here concerns immigration. Here too, Macdonald’s record is better than Laurier’s. But it’s not great. Macdonald’s government made an effort (not always successful, but real) to recruit immigrants in Europe, including (and even especially) within minority groups persecuted in their home countries. But things were very different where non-white immigration was concerned. Macdonald himself seems to have had little sympathy for the anti-Chinese feelings growing in Canada, especially in British Columbia, towards the end of his life. But he eventually went along with them and brought in legislation that imposed a tax on Chinese immigrants, and so sharply reduced their numbers, although it wasn’t yet set at the prohibitive levels that Laurier’s government would bring in. It was, if I understand correctly, the first immigration restriction in Canadian history, and there is no question that it was motivated by racism, even if not personally felt racism.


So what are we to make of Macdonald? Much depends of course on how we go about making the judgment. The common assumption seems to be that Macdonald was a great man and blameless of any particularly great sins by the standards of his time, and also that he deserves clear condemnation if judged by our contemporary views of political morality. I’m not sold on either view.

Even against the standards of his own time, the National Policy and, more generally, Macdonald’s nationalism, especially in its ugly partisan aspects deserved condemnation. Macdonald knew that the policy was benefitting a section of the nation at the expense of others ― and did his best to hide this and deceive the voters. And the advantages of free trade had been understood for a century by the time he deluded the voters into thinking that he found a weird trick for economic prosperity. Similarly, Macdonald knew that the restrictions on Chinese immigration were an unprincipled sop to populist feeling, even though he wouldn’t have thought about them in terms of racial equality as we do now.

And then, of course there is the matter of the Canadian Pacific scandal, and government corruption more generally. I haven’t focused on that, partly because, to be honest, I’m still not sure I understand what happened, and partly to save space. But mostly, I think this is not the most interesting or important part of Macdonald’s legacy. If, however, we think about him from the perspective of his own time, this issue should probably assume the importance it had for his contemporaries. And this is not to Macdonald’s advantage.

Conversely, though, looking back at Macdonald from today’s vantage point need not lead to unreserved condemnation. As I argued in my post on Gwynn’s first volume, for all his failings on an egalitarian standard, he has had a decisive influence in securing Canada’s independence, and sovereignty in the West. This was not, to put it mildly, an unmitigated blessing for the West’s Indigenous peoples, but it beat the alternative, which was not ― by 1870 ― the preservation of the Indigenous peoples’ freedom and way of life, but colonization by the United States. Macdonald’s enfranchisement of First Nations’ men and even his failed attempt to secure women’s suffrage also deserve a great deal more credit by our standards than by those of his own time.

Wilfrid Laurier eulogized his late rival by observing that “his stesmanship … is written in the history of Canada” and that

the life of Sir John Macdonald, form the date he entered Parliament, is the history of Canada, for he was connected and associated with all the events, all the facts which brought Canada from the position it then occupied―the position of two small provinces, having nothing in common but their common allegiance, united by a bond of paper, and united by nothing else―to the present state of development which Canada has reached.

Laurier also compared Macdonald to “one of the institutions of the land”. All this was accurate, and remains relevant. Ultimately, one’s judgment on Macdonald is one’s judgment on Canada itself. Many people see the very real flaws and sins, and judge negatively. But, for my own part, I compare to the alternatives, and judge―not without sorrow and reproof―but with gratitude.

Interpretation and the Value of Law

Why the interpretation of law must strive for objectivity, not pre-determined outcomes

This post is co-written with Mark Mancini

We write in defence of a simple proposition: there is a value in ordering relations among individuals in large communities through law, rather than through other modes of exercising authority, and this value is not reducible to the goodness―by whatever metric―of the content of the law. Of course, good law is better than bad law, but law as a form, as the institution that allows individuals, groups, and organizations to interact with one another in predictable ways while constraining what those with power can do to those without, is precious quite apart from its substantive merits.

Law is the only mediator we have in a pluralistic society where there is limited agreement on foundational moral values, and still less on the best ways of giving them effect. Law records such agreement as exists for the time being, while also exposing this record to critique and providing a focus for efforts at reform. It is neither sacred nor permanent, but it is a common point of reference for the time being for people who disagree, sometimes radically, about the ways in which it should be changed. These are valuable functions regardless of whether one agrees with the substance of the law as it stands from time to time. Increasingly, however, certain schools of thought tend to deny that law has any value apart from its utility as a means to some political or another. We regard this as a dangerous development.

Now, to serve as the common point of reference in the face of widespread disagreement about values and policies, law must have some characteristics beyond its substantive political content; it must contain other features, often described in the literature on the Rule of Law. For example, it must be public, sufficiently certain, and stable. Of course, law actually enacted by constitution-makers, legislators, or officials exercising delegated authority, or articulated by common law courts, sometimes falls short of the ideals of clarity or certainty. Sometimes the words of this law will be broad, dynamic, and open-textured. But for law to fulfil its function, indeed to be law at all, it must have a fixed content independent of the views and preferences of those to whom the law applies. To the extent this understanding of law is now considered unorthodox, we hope to correct the record.


When law as enacted or articulated is not self-explanatory, it must be interpreted, ultimately by judges. The orthodox view, which we regard as correct, however old-fashioned it may seem, is that judges must do this by applying legal tools and techniques. Ideally, these must themselves be well-known, certain, and stable, although we acknowledge that the law of interpretation has often failed to live up to this ideal, even if the strongest critiques of legal interpretation as radically indeterminate have always been overstated. Judges will sometimes develop legal doctrine beyond what is apparent on the face of a constitutional or statutory text, engaging in the activity American scholars describe as construction. They may also distinguish or even overrule precedents. In doing so, however, judges must remain faithful to the principles and purposes of the law as they have found it enacted or articulated by the institutions―above all, the democratic institutions―our polities have authorized to resolve, for the time being, disagreements among their members.

Those who have come to reject the value of the law as law often regard legal interpretation as the weakest link which they can break to subvert the law’s function as the common guide and reference for people who disagree with one another. They want, instead, to use interpretation to impose values and policies that are not in the law as enacted or articulated, and which are, instead, those of the parasiti curiarum who seek to give the courts this inflated, and fatally distorted, sense of their role.

These parasiti belong to schools of thought―and political factions―that are, ostensibly, fiercely opposed to one another. On the one hand, there are those who favour “living tree” interpretation in constitutional law and freewheeling pragmatism in statutory interpretation, aiming to keep up with ever-changing notions of social justice by means of “progressive” and “modern” interpretations that update the law from time-to-time. On the other, there are those who demand that constitutions and statutes be read so as to promote a religiously-infused “common good”. The substantive political commitments of these schools are far apart.

Yet the two camps share one key belief: they both see law as merely an instrument with which to achieve their preferred political aims. Both are firmly convinced that it is legitimate to impose their respective hierarchy of values on society through judicial and administrative fiat, and urge judges and administrators to do just that, regardless of whether the constitutional and statutory texts being interpreted in fact embody these values. Indeed, they also share a certain legal and linguistic nihilism that causes them to deny that a legal text can have a meaning independent of its interpreter’s will. As a result, they are quite happy to use interpretation to reverse-engineer the meaning of laws in accordance with their preferences, regardless of these laws’ text or history and of the longstanding interpretive techniques.


For our part, we maintain that the judges’ interpretive role is not to impose some pre-determined set of values onto the law but to seek out the moral and policy choices that are embedded in the law as they find it. Judges do so by—to the extent possible—making the law’s text the object of interpretation. Even in the “construction zone”, where they apply legal texts to new situations or develop doctrine to apply vague textual commands, judges must seek, in good faith, to implement the choices made by those who made the law. At all times, they must strive to put aside their own moral and policy views about what the law should be, because they are not the ones charged with resolving moral and policy disagreements in our constitutional systems.

This is a pragmatic as well as a dogmatic position. Judges lack not only the legitimacy but also the ability to make moral and policy choices. Living constitutionalism, for example, asks judges to interpret the Constitution to take account of the moral views or practical needs of a particular political community at a particular point in time. This is impossible, even putting to one side the difficulties in defining the relevant community (especially in a federation such as Canada!), and even if members of political communities did not, in fact, sharply disagree with one another. Even politicians, with their access to pollsters, constant communication with their constituents, and the incentives provided by regular elections are not especially good at assessing the voters’ values and needs. Judges could not succeed at this, and should not try.

More importantly, though, living constitutionalism asks judges to change or override the meaning of the law as written in the name of extraneous moral principles or policy preferences, which it purports to locate in the political community. Pragmatism in statutory interpretation does much the same thing. This approach is problematic enough when it comes to ordinary legislation, because it arrogates the process of amendment to judges. It is doubly troubling in the constitutional realm: not only does it arrogate the process of amendment to judges, but it undermines the purpose of Constitutions—to place certain structural choices about institutions, as well as certain individual rights and freedoms, beyond the reach of the ebb and flow of divided public opinion, leaving their amendment to more consensual procedures.

Unfortunately, this problem is not confined to one side of the political spectrum. A new illiberal strain of legal thought has risen on the right. Driven by Adrian Vermeule’s theory of “common good constitutionalism”, the idea is that conservatives should adopt a style of constitutional interpretation that would “involve officials reading vague clauses in an openly morally infused way … to reach determinations consistent with the common good.” The moral principles that would guide this endeavour are those drawn, above all, from the Catholic natural law tradition; the definition of the common good to which judges would advert is thus one which is, to put it mildly, not universally shared in pluralistic societies.   

This attempt by those on the right to reverse-engineer such an interpretive theory should be rejected just as firmly as living constitutionalism, which it mimics. For Professor Vermeule, for example, the very fact that progressives have used constitutional law itself to achieve their aims justifies a conservative attempt, not to put an end to such tactics, but to resort to them, albeit in the service of a different set of values. Like the progressives, he and his disciples look to extraneous moral and policy commitments as guides for legal interpretation, disregarding the law’s role as the authoritative record of the settlement of disagreement and point of reference for citizens whose views of what is good and just differ, seeking to impose pre-ordained results regardless of whether they are consistent with what the law actually is. It too regards separation of powers as passé, a relic of the Enlightenment’s mistakes and an obstacle in the path of those who know better than voters, constitutional framers, and legislators.

Indeed, not only the substance but the language and specific proposals of the two anti-liberal camps resemble one another. In a striking parallel with Justice Abella’s embrace of the courts as the “final adjudicator of which contested values in a society should triumph”, the reactionaries want judges to exhibit “a candid willingness to ‘legislate morality’ because one of if its core premises is that ‘promotion of morality is a core and legitimate function of authority’ given its link to securing the common good.” And, just as  Justice Abella  wants to upturn settled jurisprudence (except, of course, when she doesn’t) and “give benediction” to new constitutional doctrines, common good constitutionalism is skeptical about aspects of constitutional law that have been taken as a given for generations, including fundamental freedoms and structural limits on the accumulation of power within a single institution. Perhaps especially salient is the embrace by both the progressives and the reactionaries of the administrative state, and the corresponding rejection of the separation of powers. In other words, for both camps, established limits on actors in the system are of no moment if they stand in the way of certain political goals.

Now, to be charitable, it is possible that the illiberal thinkers are simply seeking to discover whether certain values are embedded in particular texts. Maybe it is true, for example, that the “peace, order, and good government” power reflects certain values that coincide with the political preferences of those on the right, or for that matter on the left. But this cannot be stipulated: those making such claims must demonstrate that general constitutional language―cabined and explained as it is by enumerated and limited grants of power―really carries the meaning they ascribe to it. Such demonstrations tend to be lacking, and the claims are often implausible. The “peace, order, and good government” language, for example, is only relevant when it comes to the federal heads of power; is it possible that the federal, but not the provincial, powers in the Canadian constitution reflect a “common good” view of government? Such questions abound, and in truth we suspect that the project pursued by the majority of those for whom concepts such as the “common good” or the “living tree” must guide legal interpretation has little to do with objective analysis and discovery.


Before concluding, a few words are in order about what we do not argue here. First, we do not claim that law and politics, or law and morality, are entirely separate realms. Obviously, law is shaped by politics: the making of constitutions and of legislation is a political process. It involves heated debate about moral and policy considerations, with which―one hopes―constitutional framers and legislatures wrestle. The outcome of these political processes is then subject to political critique, which again will feature arguments sourced in morality and policy. In a democracy, the legal settlements are only ever provisional, although some require greater degrees of consensus than others to displace.

And even at the stage of interpretation, it would be impossible to say that judges are merely robots mechanically following prescribed algorithms. Judges are influenced by their own experiences, which is perhaps to some extent for the better; they aren’t always able to shed their pre-dispositions, though this is surely generally to the worse. Indeed, it is important to recall that constitution-makers and legislators often invite judges to engage in moral and practical reasoning by appealing to concepts such as reasonableness in the provisions they enact. This is not always an appropriate legislative choice, but it is not the judges who are to blame for it.

That said, when it comes to interpretation, there should be a separation between law and politics. That is, interpretation must be guided by rules and doctrines that help judges to avoid, as much as humanly possible, making decisions on their own say-so, arrogating to themselves the roles of legislators to decide what laws should be under the pretense of declaring what they mean. This is admittedly a matter of degree. No one should insist that judges unduly fetter the natural import of words they are asked to interpret by insisting on so-called “strict constructions,” or read appeals to their own moral and practical reasoning as having been fully determined by the law-maker. Nonetheless, the judicial task should not be unbounded, with no restriction on the sorts of moral considerations judges are equipped to take into account.


In sum, we propose not to purge the law of moral and policy considerations, but to re-commit to the view that considerations embedded in legal texts adopted by democratic institutions after proper debate and subject to revision by the same institutions are the ones that ought to matter in legal interpretation. They, that is, rather than the real or hypothetical values and needs of contemporary society, let alone the conjectures of 16th century scholars from the University of Salamanca.

This upholds the authority of democratic institutions while calling on the courts to do what they ought to be able to do well: apply legal skills to reading and understanding legal texts. No less importantly, this allows the law itself to perform its unique and precious function, that of providing a touchstone for the diverse members of pluralistic communities, who disagree with one another’s moral and political views, yet still need a framework within which disagreements can be managed and, more importantly, they can simply get on with their lives. The illiberal attempts to subvert the law’s ability to do so, in the pursuit of victories which would come at the expense of citizens’ personal and political freedom, are a cause for concern, and for resistance.

Putting Stare Decisis Together Again

Originalists and living constitutionalists alike have good Rule of Law reasons for being wary of appeals to reinvigorate stare decisis

It is hardly news for those who follow Canadian public law that the Supreme Court tends to have little regard for precedent. Indeed, to the surprise of most people and the chagrin of many, it even freed lower courts to disregard its own precedents, in some circumstances, in Canada (Attorney General) v Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 SCR 1101. For many people, this lack of regard for stare decisis is part of a broader pattern of erosion of the Rule of Law. Dwight Newman and, separately, Brian Bird and Michael Bookman, made this argument in their respective contributions to the collection of essays/special issue of the Supreme Court Law Review on threats to the Rule of Law in Canada edited by Maxime St-Hilaire and Joana Baron in 2019.

The relationship between stare decisis, the Rule of Law, and the desire to do justice in particular cases and to improve the law going forward is not only a source of difficulties in Canada, however. So tomorrow (December 15) at 2PM Eastern, a panel of the Global Summit, an online conference organized by Richard Albert, will try to shed some light on it with participants from the United States (Jeffrey Pojanowski and Marc DeGirolami), and Australia (Lisa Burton Crawford), as well as yours truly. Our chair will be an Italian colleague, Andrea Pin. This should be a lot of fun, and the other participants are all first-magnitude stars. (In case you’re wondering how they let me in ― well, I helped Prof. Pin put it together, so they couldn’t conveniently boot me out!)

The proceedings will, naturally for these plague times, be on Zoom. You can register here ― it’s free! My understanding is that they will be recorded and will, eventually be made available to all. These things tend to take some time though, and are bound to with an event as big as the Global Summit, so I encourage you to watch tomorrow if you can. And, to convince you to give it a go, here is a flavour of own presentation.


Critics of the lack of respect for precedent in Canadian public law tend to argue that enough is enough, and the Supreme Court should go back to a much more robust ― and consistent ― application of stare decisis. My argument is that this is too simple, too idealistic a response. In a perfect world where judges had generally been committed to the Rule of Law, unwavering respect for precedent may well be what an ongoing commitment to the Rule of Law requires. But the world of Canadian public law is far from being perfect in this way. Much of this law suffers from deep Rule of Law problems, some of which I described in my own contribution to the St-Hilaire & Baron volume. As a result, while I share the desire to put stare decisis together again, I argue that this operation will be a delicate one, and must be careful and somewhat selective.

One issue which I’ll address here ― there will be more in my talk (assuming I don’t run out of time, that is!) ― is the concern that respect for precedent may force courts to apply something other than the correct legal rule, be it constitutional, statutory or, arguably, even a common law principle. Lord Sankey, perhaps the chief ― if also most misunderstood ― authority on constitutional interpretation in Canada describes the issue eloquently in the Aeronautics Reference, [1932] AC 54, [1932] 1 DLR 58. Pointing out that “[u]nder our system, decided cases effectively construe the words” of enactments, including constitutional enactments, Lord Sankey highlights

a danger that in the course of this process the terms of the statute may come to be unduly extended and attention may be diverted from what has been enacted to what has been judicially said about the enactment. To borrow an analogy; there may be a range of sixty colours, each of which is so little different from its neighbour that it is difficult to make any distinction between the two, and yet at the one end of the range the colour may be white, and at the other end of the range black. (DLR 64)

Lord Sankey’s concerns in the Aeronautics Reference are those of an originalist avant la lettre: “[t]he process of interpretation as the years go on”, he warned,

ought not to be allowed to dim or to whittle down the provisions of the original contract upon which the federation was founded, nor is it legitimate that any judicial construction … should impose a new and different contract upon the federating bodies.

Some prominent academic originalist voices have echoed this belief, notably Gary Lawson, Randy Barnett, and Amy Coney Barrett (back when she was still in academia). However, they are not alone in worrying about precedent standing in the way of an accurate application of the law. Debra Parkes raises the same concern from a Canadian living constitutionalist perspective: “[t]he entrenchment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 has arguably strengthened the case for overruling earlier decisions that are inconsistent with the evolving interpretation of various Charter rights”. (137) Similarly, the late Joseph Arvay and his co-authors have argued that “it is the role and duty of the [Supreme] Court to provide what it believes to be a correct interpretation of the Charter, even if that involves admitting long-standing and oft-repeated past judicial error”. (69)

Of course, originalists or those who are chiefly concerned with the stability of the law may view the living constitutionalist position as simply empowering judges to legislate their particular preferences from the bench. And, admittedly, some living constitutionalists seem to seek a sort of permanent revolution in constitutional law. Mr Avray and his co-authors wrote that “an examination of the role of stare decisis in Charter litigation reveals some transformative Charter moments lost”, (62; emphasis in the original) suggesting that they might be expecting the courts to change society rather than be its reflection, as living constitutionalism seems to suggest. I personally think that this tension between applying the law, even an ever-evolving law, and transforming it is fatal to living constitutionalism’s claim to be a sustainable approach to constitutional interpretation. But let me put that aside for the purposes of this post (and of my talk tomorrow).

Here, I will take living constitutionalism at its word, as an approach to constitutional interpretation that holds that the law is shaped by the needs and values of society as they stand from time to time. On this view, updating legal doctrine to align it with these needs and values as they happen to stand now is not exercise of will, but simply what the Rule of Law requires. Living constitutionalists saying “this precedent no longer reflects the values of Canadian society and must therefore be discarded” are no different, in their relationship to the Rule of Law, from originalists saying “this precedent is inconsistent with the original public meaning of the constitutional text, and must therefore be discarded”.

Call this, if you will, the horseshoe theory of constitutional stare decisis. Radical originalists and radical living constitutionalists agree, at least at the level of broad principle. In practice, there may still be substantial disagreement between those originalists who, like Prof. Barnett, distinguish constitutional interpretation and construction, and see a role for stare decisis in the latter, and living constitutionalists (and those originalists) for whom all constitutional questions are essentially similar in being determined by the constitution itself. But, that important detail aside, both sides of the horseshoe agree that the constitution’s meaning cannot be superseded by judicial interpretation, and remains directly binding on courts, regardless of what their predecessors may have said about it.

From my own originalist perch, I agree with this view. The Rule of Law concerns about the stability of legal doctrine are serious, of course. But the concern on the other side of the scale is no less based on the Rule of Law. The issue is with what Lon Fuller called “congruence” between the law on the books and the law as it is actually applied. (I wrote about this here.) Law cannot guide behaviour ― and thus play its moral role in providing a secure environment for citizens and establishing a mutually respectful relationship between the citizens and the state ― if it is not applied in accordance with its terms. Officials, including judges, who do not apply the law as it stands are engaged in nothing less than “lawless application of the law”. In my view, lawlessness cannot become the foundation of a Rule-of-Law compliant law; it must be expunged for our legal system to have a claim to the kind of authority that Fuller envisions.


As mentioned, this is only a preview. In my talk ― and, hopefully, in a paper that will come out of it ― I will try to address a couple of other reasons why I think it is a mistake to simply insist that the Supreme Court go back to upholding precedents. The problems with the Rule of Law in Canadian public law run much deeper than a lack of regard for stare decisis, and addressing this issue in isolation will not really resolve them. I hope that you can “come” to the talk, and that we can continue this discussion there!

Mere Liberalism

A response to a common caricature of liberal beliefs

There is a rhetorical trope in contemporary critiques of liberalism and libertarianism, especially those coming from the political right, that holds it for fundamentally flawed because it conceives of individuals as “atomized”, isolated, a- or even anti-social creatures moved by no higher emotion than crass self-interest. We have even hosted one critic who made this argument as a guest on this blog.

A recent post on Law and Liberty, in which Luma Simms “reviews” Ilya Somin’s book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom, encapsulates this argument very neatly. I put “review” in scare quotes because, as Professor Somin points out, it misrepresents his book. But the exact same caricature is used to attack not only Professor Somin’s work, but liberalism and libertarianism more broadly; nor is it used by Mrs. Simms alone. So I think that a general response is warranted.


Mrs. Simms writes, summarizing the worldview that ― according to her ― underpins Professor Somin’s arguments in favour of greater freedom of movement and of personal choice more generally:

Man is a rational being; his actions are based on individual choice, guided only by reason; his judgement must be independent, free of any compulsion (including obligations and constraints that come from family, country, or culture); if he acts with others it is by his choice alone; he must live by his own achievements, for his own happiness and self-interest; he has no moral duty to others. As such, man must have the political freedom to follow his self-interest to achieve his happiness. It is autonomous individualism through and through.

As a summary of the liberal worldview ― and, to repeat, many critics of liberalism use descriptions like this one in just this way ― every one of these statements is grossly exaggerated or outright false.

Man is a rational being

Liberalism ― and for that matter conservatism or socialism ― does presuppose a measure of rationality in human beings. There would be no point in advocating for, say, freedom of speech, the Rule of Law, or democracy if human beings weren’t rational in the sense of thinking, making and carrying out plans, responding to incentives, and seeking to act on their (physical and social) environment in ways calculated to produce consequences.

But liberalism doesn’t require or depend on complete rationality. Liberals and libertarians can acknowledge failures of rationality: Bryan Caplan is no less of a libertarian for having explored at length The Myth of the Rational Voter. Liberals and libertarians can recognize that human beings are emotional, too. Love of freedom is an emotion, and no less than love of God or love of hearth and home.

His actions are based on individual choice, guided only by reason

As I have just noted, liberals and libertarians know that human beings can emotional or irrational. Needless to say they also know that their choices are constrained and their actions are shaped by the circumstances ― familial, economic, cultural, environmental ― in which they find themselves. Perhaps Mrs. Simms means that liberals want, as a normative matter, to create a state of affairs where humans are free to act exactly as they choose; but they do not. On the contrary, liberals respect property rights and the autonomy of individuals, families, and voluntary associations (including businesses, churches, NGOs, etc.), which means that they will uphold private arrangements that may diminish individuals’ choices.

Now, there are difficult questions that liberals and libertarians can struggle with about private choices that radically deny individual autonomy: self-enslavement is perhaps a silly example best left to philosophy seminars, but, say, parents who refuse to provide a minimum of education or healthcare to their children are a grim reality. But of course liberals recognize that interference with the freedom of some to secure some core of autonomy to others is still interference.

His judgement must be independent, free of any compulsion (including obligations and constraints that come from family, country, or culture)

I don’t think that any liberal or libertarian believes this. Yes, liberalism values independent judgment; yes, liberalism wants individuals to be free from legal compulsions of their judgment: hence its insistence on freedoms of conscience, thought, opinion, and so on. If this is what Mrs. Simms derides as liberalism’s rejection of “obligations and constraints that come from … country”, there’s something to the charge. If the critics of liberalism want “country” to introduce indoctrination and state ideology, let them say that clearly; better yet, let them spell out what they are going to indoctrinate us in (beyond platitudes about the common good), and give us a chance to decide whether we want to drink their particular kool-aid.

But as for other kinds of duties and compulsions, not only do liberals not reject them ― on the contrary, leading liberal thinkers have specifically insisted that the point of freedom is to have the ability to do one’s duty, as one sees it. Hence Lord Acton’s definition of “liberty”, in The History of Freedom, as “the assurance that every man will be protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion” (3). Hence Hayek writing, in The Road to Serfdom, that

[r]esponsibility, not to a superior, but to one’s conscience, the awareness of a duty not exacted by compulsion, the necessity to decide which of the things one values are to be sacrificed to others, and to bear the consequences of one’s own decision, are the very essence of any morals which deserve the name.

Liberals regard obligations to family and friends, to God if one so believes, and even to country and “culture”, whatever that might be, as matters of conscience. The claim they reject such obligations is preposterous calumny. What they reject is the claim of “authority and majorities, custom and opinion” to interfere with an individual’s conscience to impose obligations of this sort when they are not felt.

If he acts with others it is by his choice alone

Again, it’s a bit difficult to say whether this is supposed to represent what liberals believe is the case or what liberals believe ought to be the case. But neither representation is accurate. Liberals neither deny the existence of social ties, such as those of kin, in which individual autonomy is far from complete, nor wish to abolish them. Liberals also do not deny nor, except for anarchist libertarians, wish to rid themselves entirely of collective political action, which is also involuntary as to many individuals who are forced to go along with the decisions of the authorities.

Liberals do want to provide exit opportunities for people who may find themselves bound by social ties that are or become abusive. They also want to limit the ability of majorities to impose on dissidents through the political process. But they want to do these things precisely because they recognize that human beings belong to groups, associations, and communities which they have not freely chosen and because they have no wish to abolish such groups, associations, and communities.

He must live by his own achievements, for his own happiness and self-interest

I don’t know many, if any, flesh-and-blood liberals or even libertarians who believe this. It sounds like a paraphrase of Randian objectivism, but I must confess that I’ve never read Rand, so I don’t know if it’s an accurate representation of her views. What I think I can assert with a good deal of confidence is that these views, if indeed she held them, are not at all representative. There just isn’t anything in classical liberalism or (non-Randian?) libertarianism that says that people must be navel-gazers, hedonists, and egotists.

To be sure, liberals acknowledge the fact that human beings are generally pretty self-interested. They have their altruistic impulses too, but they are often selfish. Liberalism’s response is to try to channel self-interest through institutions that can turn it to the greater good. The market is one such institution, as Adam Smith explained by pointing out, famously, that “[i]t is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”. And liberals try to use politics in this way too: hence Madison’s insistence that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition”.

But, to repeat, none of that precludes or condemns altruism. In trying to channel selfish behaviour for the benefit of society, liberalism certainly does not say that unselfish behaviour should somehow be disapproved of. What liberalism does insist on is that there are limits ― depending on one’s version of liberalism, perhaps very stringent limits ― on the degree to which people can be coerced into acting and living for the sake of others. But liberalism has a better opinion of human nature than those theories that apparently say that human beings will be navel-gazing hedonistic egotists (or, all manner of other unedifying things, as other critics of liberalism claim) unless forced to be virtuous by the government. (Liberalism asks: how is government going to be more virtuous than the governed?)

He has no moral duty to others

I won’t repeat what I’ve already said about Lord Acton’s and Hayek’s championing of freedom as the space in which individuals can understand and discharge their obligations ― not one where they have none. Let me, instead, remind you of the Lockean argument for the state. In a nutshell: individuals have inherent natural rights and a moral duty to respect the rights of others; unfortunately, left to their own devices, they are not very good at complying with this duty even when they earnestly try; an authority that can clarify the scope of individual rights and corresponding duties, and impartially adjudicate allegations of breach is necessary. A concern with moral duty is that at the foundation of liberal politics.

Again, what liberals deny, with greater or lesser vigour depending on their preferred flavour of liberalism or libertarianism, is the claim of the state to create moral duties incumbent on those subjects to their jurisdiction. If they subscribe to the doctrine of natural rights, they will say, with Jefferson, that governments are instituted in order to secure these rights, and that, therefore, the creation of duties not tending to secure natural rights is beyond their just powers. But it does not follow, and liberals do not believe, that moral duties to others cannot arise otherwise than through the state.


Let me make just two additional points. One, which follows directly from the foregoing is that critics of liberalism are often confused, or obfuscating, about its nature: it is a political, not a moral, philosophy; a theory of how political power should be organized, not of how to live a good life. Liberal political institutions (understood broadly, to include things like constitutions, laws, and courts) serve to preserve the space in which individuals ― either alone or in community with others ― seek to live a good life, as they understand it. Some liberal thinkers such as Adam Smith or even, to an extent, Lord Acton, had ideas about the good life. Being a liberal doesn’t mean taking no interest in moral questions. It only means renouncing the imposition of one’s own answers to such questions by force on others whose answers might be quite different.

The second point I’ll make here is that while I have responded to a critique of liberalism coming from the right, this critique would need only minimal adjustments to its language to be embraced by the illiberal left. The view that liberalism is nothing more than a smokescreen for egoism and selfishness is a staple of socialist doctrines going back a century and a half. The criticism of liberalism as denying social ties, and the limitations that community and belonging impose on individuals might seem newer. Indeed, many right-wing critics of liberalism are convinced that it is no different from socialism in this regard. But real-life socialist regimes were actually quite nationalistic themselves. More importantly in 2021, the ascending left considers human beings to be largely shaped by their intersecting identities, and bound by the resulting sums of privilege and oppression. They use a different vocabulary from the one that appeals to the right-wingers, but their message, and their critique of liberalism, is much the same. And, of course, it is wrong for much the same reasons.


Left and right alike criticise liberalism for its commitment to respecting the autonomy of individuals in ordering their own moral universe, based on their understanding of their place in the world and their relationships with family, community, and perhaps God. They think they can do better: give people a purpose in life and a morality which, left alone, they sometimes fail to find. But there is, and can be, no agreement on an all-encompassing morality that is not imposed by force, and as difficult as it may be to find one’s purpose without coercion, it is more difficult still to accept a purpose imposed on us by others. The others, after all, are still our fellows, albeit that an accident of birth, or the privilege of education, or the fortune of an election, or the force of a coup has elevated them to a higher social ― not moral ― station.

Thus the illiberal right and left alike are doomed to failure in their quest for a better world. As Hayek wrote, they have “nothing to put in … place” of the individualist, liberal virtues ― “independence, self-reliance, and the willingness to bear risks, the readiness to back one’s own conviction against a majority, and the willingness to voluntary cooperation with one’s neighbors”. In their place, they can only make a “demand for obedience and the compulsion of the individual to do what is collectively decided to be good”. And because they know that they cannot persuade people to abandon liberalism with such demands, they try to caricature and defame it. Do not believe them.

Would That I Could Love You

My mixed feelings about Sir John A. Macdonald

Sir John A. Macdonald has been much attacked of late; despising him is a reliable signal of progressive virtue, and a symptom of a broader pattern of contempt for people and institutions that have created the most prosperous, freest, and most egalitarian societies the world has ever known. The Faculty of Law at Queen’s has decided to remove Macdonald’s name from its building; his statues have been vandalised or removed; and so on.

For my part, I have been sufficiently provoked by all this to finally, and belatedly, read the late Richard Gwyn’s biography of the man. I have now finished the first volume, which runs from Macdonald’s birth in 1815 to Confederation. Having gone into it with a great deal of sympathy for Macdonald, I come out with very mixed feelings ― but not for the reasons that motivate his progressive critics. What diminishes Macdonald in my eyes is his nationalism ― and, if anything, I wonder that it does not raise his stature in theirs.

Before I explain myself, I should say something about the book itself. Mostly this: you should read it, if you haven’t yet. It’s a breezy read despite being fairly long. It is serious but no less engaging for that, and written with both sympathy for its subject and honesty about his flaws ― and I say this despite not being fully persuaded by Gwyn’s assessment of Macdonald. From a constitutional history perspective, the discussion of Confederation feels a little thin, but this is unfair reproach to level at a book meant for a general audience, and really doesn’t take away from Gwyn’s achievement.


Gwyn’s thesis regarding Macdonald (at least Macdonald as a politician and up to Confederation) is that, other than the enjoyment of the political game and of the power that it brought him thanks to his supreme ability at it, Macdonald’s motivation was above all to preserve Canada as a non-American, and if possible as a British, political community. He sought, first, to make the Province of Canada work, and then to build a strong, centralized federation as a means to prevent what seemed to many ― in Canada itself, but also in the United States and even in Britain ― like the inevitable annexation of the British North American colonies to the American republic.

Loyalty to Britain and opposition to America was both Macdonald’s inner spring and his go-to rhetorical trope. One of the book’s chapters is named “Canada’s First Anti-American”. Macdonald seized on opponents’ flirtations with annexationism or simply on hesitations and accused them of treason. He did not have a very definite view of what his Canada ― first the province, then the Dominion ― ought to be like; he was (to his credit!) no religious zealot or bigot, and ideologically he insisted on leading a broad, perhaps even a shapeless, party, which he cheerfully persuaded erstwhile opponents to join. But on Canada’s distinctiveness, he was unflinching and ruthless.

Gwyn further makes the case, and he makes it convincingly, that Macdonald’s political talents were absolutely necessary to pull it all off. Of course we cannot know how an alternative history without him would have turned out. But it seems fair to take the widespread belief of politicians and journalists of the time that Canada must in due course ― and sooner rather than later ― become American as indicative of something. Macdonald wasn’t alone in making sure that this did not happen, but, as Gwyn argues, the others ― Cartier, Brown, Galt, McGee, Tupper ― wouldn’t have done it without him. Confederation happened when he accepted that it ought to, and it happened because he put his boundless skill and energy into it. And it seems plausible, quite likely even, that had it not happened then, annexation to the United States would indeed have been inevitable.

For this reason, at the risk of concern-trolling, I would suggest that those who are all about pulling down Macdonald’s statues wherever they can still find them may want to reconsider. Much as they are keen to condemn Canada, the one polity they like still less is the United States. On the specific issue of the treatment of Aboriginal peoples, which most exercises them, shameful though Canada’s record is, would things have been better if the prairies, and then the rest of Canada, had become part of America? And of course on any number of other issues also, the Canadian left has long seen the border as demarcating, if not the good, then at least the tolerable from the evil. That border is Macdonald’s doing. It is the monument to him that they neither can nor, in their brightest nightmares, would want to pull down.


But my own reaction to Gwyn’s argument is not so enthusiastic. Something is missing from it: namely, any clear sense of why Macdonald’s anti-Americanism is something for us to admire. Macdonald himslef was moved, so far as I can tell from Gwyn’s book, by little more than a small-c conservative sensibility and consequent gut reactions. Macdonald believed in Britsh institutions and distrusted, perhaps even despised, American ones, but Gwyn insists that he did not know America well, and was not interested in understanding it. He was horrified by the Civil War, but his absolute rejection of an American future for Canada long pre-dated that conflict. He wasn’t actively rejecting American expansionism (except as it affected Canada), or slavery, or acting on some other grand moral belief. He was a nationalist, driven not by principle but by identity.

The closest Gwyn’s Macdonald comes to articulating a rational argument for his nationalism is his criticism of the US Constitution. As Alastair Gillespie details in his essay on Macdonald for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (at 29), he equated American presidential system with despotism, and American federalism with anarchy. The president, he said, was unconstrained by his cabinet, while the States were sovereign and the federal government too weak, which he claimed was a cause of the Civil War. These complaints fit poorly together, and Macdonald’s interpretation of the Civil War’s causes is puzzling. I struggle to see what additional federal powers would have prevented the slave States’ rebellion, and it’s not clear that Macdonald ever explained this. I am inclined to think that he either misunderstood the American system (even the pre-1868 American system), or perhaps even gave a tendentious account of it the better to justify his own vision of highly centralized federalism.

To me, Macdonald’s nationalism, as described by Gwyn, is thoroughly unattractive. Like all nationalism, it is essentially negative, fueled by ignorance and incomprehension, which results in distrust and perhaps even contempt. Nationalism, as Macdonald’s fondness for rhetoric of treason shows, also provides easy means for rhetorical escalation, and for divisiveness under the banner of unity. Other forms of identity politics provide similar examples of intolerance in the name of diversity and inclusion.

Now, Macdonald was no ignoramus and no bigot. Quite the contrary! He was intelligent and well read, not only in history, politics, and law, but in literature too; he got on well with Catholics ― far too well for some of his more bigoted critics ―, and with French and Irish Canadians. He helped create a country where some of these differences could eventually be all but forgotten, while other, more enduring ones, have been peacefully accommodated. This is no accident: the accommodation and eventual diminishment of sectional, linguistic, and religious differences was both a motivation for and a consequence of the structure of government the Fathers of Confederation designed. But this is the tragedy of nationalism: it causes otherwise intelligent and open-minded people to act in thoughtless and petty ways. This is also, of course, the tragedy of other forms of identity politics, including those fashionable in progressive circles.

You might be wondering where rejecting nationalism ― Macdonald’s nationalism of all things, a civic-minded version of the doctrine and the sentiment that begat Confederation ― leaves me. Does it mean, for instance, that I must recant all the good I have said of Confederation and of the Constitution Act, 1867?

I don’t think so. I approach this question from an individualist position, expressed as well as anywhere else in Thoreau’s defence of civil disobedience: “Government is at best but an expedient”, he wrote, and “most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient”. The American government, the one Macdonald looked down upon without ever having seen it very clearly,

what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity? … It is a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves. But it is not the less necessary for this; for the people must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of government which they have.  

But of course the Canadian government, whether that of the Province of Canada or the one set up in 1867, is not much different. It too is at best an expedient, and often not even that. It too is a tradition ― much older now than it, or even its American counterpart, was back then ― and a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves, and a piece of din-making machinery. There is nothing about it to be revered.

Now, thinking this does not prevent me thinking that, as governments go, the one contrived by the Fathers of Confederation under Macdonald’s leadership is more expedient than most, and while that is a low bar to clear, it is a real, and meaningful, accomplishment. We can, and should, measure existing institutions against the requirements of our principles, to see how they can be improved. But we can, and should, also measure existing institutions against plausible alternatives. By the first measure ― the one on which the left tends to focus, and of which the right often loses sight ― Canada certainly falls short in important ways. By the second ― which is of more interest to the right, and which the left tends to ignore ― Canada does well enough.

Confederation, moreover, was a real improvement over the system it predated on both measures. It got closer to at least some ideals, by implementing a meaningful federal system and thus advancing the principle of subsidiarity, and was about as good a system as, realistically, one might have conceived of given the facts on the ground and the state of minds in 1860s Canada. As Gwyn makes clear, its achievement was by no means a given; indeed it is quite remarkable. I have no hesitation in admiring it, and the fact that Macdonald’s motivations, and those of the other Fathers of Confederation for that matter, do not strike me as admirable has nothing to do with it. The intent of their creators is not a useful metric by which to assess institutions.


When it comes to individuals, though, motivations and intentions are more appropriately part of what we should base our judgments on. So of course are deeds and consequences. My own judgment on Macdonald ― based on the first part of Gwyn’s biography and of course on my perspective as a constitutional lawyer ― is thus very ambivalent. He helped create institutions that, on the whole, I admire, although they are not without their flaws. But he acted for reasons that are, from my perspective, quite unadmirable.

Indeed, I’m left with the impression that Macdonald, for all his political talent, for all his ability to achieve the seemingly impossible feat of confederation, was rather less wise than I would have liked him to have been. Whatever may be the case in other disciplines, I think it is very true that, in history, he who increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. Gwyn tells of an opposition MP rather pathetically telling Macdonald “I love you so! Would that I could trust you!” My feelings are the reverse. From my ― very different ― vantage point, I trust Macdonald, or at least I trust his accomplishment. Would that I could love him!