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!

Still Wrong, Just a Little Less So

The Québec Court of Appeal errs in thinking the Charter prevents the imposition of, in effect, life imprisonment without parole

This post is co-written with Maxime St-Hiliaire

What punishment is just for someone who takes the lives of many other human beings? And what punishment for such a person is constitutional? In Bissonnette v R, 2020 QCCA 1585 answers the latter question, and its answer is at odds with the answer to the former. In an unattributed unanimous opinion, the Court holds that a provision of the Criminal Code that allowed―but did not require―sentencing judges to stack minimum parole ineligibility periods imposed for multiple counts of first-degree murder is unconstitutional. The Court finds that the very possibility of such stacking is cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and a deprivation of liberty and security of the person contrary to the principles of fundamental justice prohibited by section 7 of the Charter.

The sentencing judge in R v Bissonnette, 2019 QCCS 354 thought that the ordinary sentence of life imprisonment without parole eligibility for 25 years would not have been adequate. However, he also found the stacking of multiple 25-year periods constitutionally objectionable, and took it upon himself to rewrite the Criminal Code so as to give himself the discretion to fashion what he took to be the appropriate sentence of life imprisonment without parole for a 40-year period. The Crown appealed the finding of unconstitutionality, while Mr. Bissonnette appealed the sentencing judge’s remedy (which the Crown defended as an alternative).


The Court of Appeal first considers whether the stacking of parole ineligibility periods amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. In its view, the fact that such stacking is not required and can be ordered at a judge’s discretion does not remedy its constitutional defects: “notwithstanding the existence of a discretionary power by which the judge can refrain from imposing a cruel and unusual sentence, the provision is invalid simply because it authorizes a judge to impose such a sentence”. [79] It clarifies, however, that a discretionary sentence that will be cruel and unusual in some cases ought to be upheld if it will nevertheless be proportionate in others. Thus “the question to be resolved is this: are there situations in which it would not be cruel and unusual to impose minimum parole ineligibility periods of 50, 75, 100, 125, 150, indeed 1,000, years?” [89]

The Court takes the position that there are no such situations. Indeed, in its view, the idea is simply irrational. For one thing, “the number of victims to be used as a basis for a judge to stack periods of ineligibility is a legislative choice that is difficult to reconcile with the sentencing criteria in place in Canada”. [91] The possibility of a court “imposing a parole ineligibility period that highly exceeds the life expectancy of any human being” [92] is particularly disturbing. For the Court of Appeal, “[a] court must not make an order that can never be carried out”, because this “brings the administration of justice into disrepute” and amounts to “senselessness” that “is, in and of itself, cruel and unusual punishment … degrading because of its absurdity”. [93] Indeed, even a sentence of life imprisonment without parole “is at least tied to the lifetime of a human being, while ineligibility periods totalling 100 years and more have nothing in common with the duration of a human life”. [95]

But the problem the Court sees with stacked parole ineligibility periods, even just two, is more than just irrationality. It also has to do with the possibility that a rehabilitated offender would be denied the opportunity to apply for parole:

An inmate rehabilitated after 25 years and not eligible to apply for parole before a second 25-year period would, in all cases, be subject to cruel and unusual treatment. The excessive length of the unnecessarily prolonged incarceration would be grossly disproportionate. … [107]

For the Court of Appeal, “preventing a reformed accused from having genuine access to the parole application process” [111] is in itself a fatal constitutional flaw, compounded by the fact that the sentencing “judge is not in a position, barring speculation, to genuinely know the likelihood that the accused will be rehabilitated in 25 years. He is in an even worse position, if that is possible, when dealing with a period of 50 years.” [110] This flaw cannot be justified under section 1 of the Charter.

The Court then turns to section 7 of the Charter. It notes that sentencing judge’s findings that not only are stacked parole ineligibility periods a deprivation of liberty, but also that “an actual irreducible sentence of imprisonment for life” [117] produce psychological impacts that amount to a deprivation of the prisoners’ security of the person are not challenged. The issue is whether these deprivations accord with principles of fundamental justice.

The Court of Appeal does not follow the judge below in accepting the protection of human dignity as a principle of fundamental justice and finding that it too has been breached. For it, two such principles are at play: the prohibitions on overbreadth and gross disproportionality. Both are assessed relative to the objective of the impugned legislation. The purpose of allowing sentencing judges to stack parole ineligibility periods for multiple murders is to “(1) protect society from the most incorrigible killers, and (2) restore the balance between the rights of victims and those of multiple murderers and acknowledge the value of ‘every life lost’”. [135]

The Court finds that the possibility of stacking parole ineligibility periods is overbroad “because it applies to all multiple murderers, regardless of the specific circumstances of each case”, [139] and not “only to psychopaths, organized crime hitmen or incorrigible murderers”. [140] Some might be sentenced to extended parole ineligibility without being unusually dangerous. The rule thus produces effects not rationally connected to its ostensible objectives, and so is overbroad. Nor is the stacking of parole ineligibility periods rationally connected to acknowledging every victim, since in any case a person so sentenced is likely or bound to die before all of the consecutive periods have elapsed. Such sentencing is also grossly disproportionate to its stated objectives. The overbreadth and gross disproportionality cannot be justified in a free and democratic society.

The last question for the Court is that of the remedy. Unlike the judge below, it holds that it must simply declare the possibility of stacking ineligibility periods invalid, “without being rewritten by the courts”. [186] It is clear that Parliament considered and rejected the solution adopted by the sentencing judge ― granting judges discretion as to the duration of parole ineligibility beyond the usual 25 years for a first-degree murder. It would not be appropriate for courts to impose it anyway.


In our view, the Court of Appeal’s judgment is less troubling than that of the Superior Court, which we criticized here. In particular, it is important to note that the Court takes the correct approach to the question of the remedy ― assuming, of course, that its conclusion of unconstitutionality is also correct. But it is not. The Court of Appeal’s reasoning on the issue of constitutionality misapprehends the inquiry and consequently falls into doctrinal error, as well as moral myopia.

Indeed, its most fundamental flaw is one that it ascribes to the legislation it pronounces unconstitutional: a refusal to engage with the circumstances and deserts of the individual accused. The very first sentence of the Court’s reasons proclaims that

[t]his judgment is not about the horror of Alexandre Bissonnette’s actions on January 29, 2017, nor even about the impact of his crimes on an entire community and on society in general; it is, rather, first and foremost, about the constitutionality of a provision of the Criminal Code. [1]

The Court subsequently adds that “[t]he analysis of the provision’s constitutionality must be carried out independently of the appellant’s case, notwithstanding the horror of his actions”. [54] The Court no doubt means this as a reminder that even the worst wrongdoers have rights under the Charter, which must be not be overlooked by focusing on their wrongdoing alone. That is true, so far as it goes. But there is a reason why Canadian courts normally assess the constitutionality of legislation on the facts of particular cases rather than in the abstract. This case, which is, pace the Court of Appeal, about the sentencing of man who murdered six worshippers at a mosque in Québec City and injured 19 others, ought to have been a reminder of that fact. 

In the Supreme Court’s first explication of section 12 of the Charter in R v Smith, [1987] 1 SCR 1045, Justice Lamer (as he then was) wrote that

[i]n assessing whether a sentence is grossly disproportionate, the court must first consider the gravity of the offence, the personal characteristics of the offender and the particular circumstances of the case in order to determine what range of sentences would have been appropriate to punish, rehabilitate or deter this particular offender or to protect the public from this particular offender. … Section 12 ensures that individual offenders receive punishments that are appropriate, or at least not grossly disproportionate, to their particular circumstances. (1073)

In other words, contrary to the Court of Appeal’s approach, the offence and the offender ― including “the horror of his actions” are the primary consideration in assessing an alleged infringement of section 12. The Supreme Court has followed this approach more recently too, including in R v Boudreault, 2018 SCC 58, [2018] 3 SCR 599. The Court of Appeal neglects “to determine what range of sentences would have been appropriate to punish, rehabilitate or deter this particular offender”, and this failure warps its subsequent analysis.

In particular, the Court of Appeal is single-mindedly focused on the issue of rehabilitation as the overriding consideration in deciding whether stacked parole ineligibility periods can ever be a constitutionally acceptable punishment. But, focusing on the facts before it, the Court ought to have remembered that ― as Justice Lamer suggested in Smith ― rehabilitation is not necessarily the primary factor in deciding on a fit sentence. Sometimes, the need to punish will dominate. This is not a crass desire for vengeance, but a recognition that different circumstances ― different offenses and different offenders ― call for different responses on the part of society.

A comparison with the sentencing judgment of the New Zealand High Court in the case of the Christchurch mosque shooter, R v Tarrant [2020] NZHC 2192, is relevant. As one of us (Sirota) has explained here, in that case Justice Mander found that

no minimum period of imprisonment would be sufficient to satisfy the legitimate need to hold [the shooter] to account for the harm [he] ha[d] done to the community. Nor [would] minimum term of imprisonment would be sufficient to denounce [his] crimes. [179]

Ironically, the Court of Appeal refers to the Christchurch shooting, noting in a footnote that “the Christchurch massacre (51 victims) could have resulted in a period of 1,275 years” of parole ineligibility. For the Court this is self-evidently absurd. But for the judge who actually sentenced its perpetrator only a sentence of life imprisonment without parole would have sufficed.

This illustrates the fact the Court of Appeal has no regard to deserts of the man before it ― in violation of another cardinal principle of sentencing, that of the indivudalization of the sentence. It is also confused about the significance of the fact that a sentencing judge retains the discretion as to whether to sentence a given offender to a stacked period of parole ineligibility, at one point suggesting that this discretion is of no significance. Like it or not, Parliament enacted a law that allows individualized, if rough, justice. The Court of Appeal, by contrast, reasons entirely in the abstract.

Now, Parliament’s response to the prospect of vicious mass murder is, in our view, rather clunky. It would have been more straightforward, indeed more honest, to make sentences of life imprisonment without parole available, just as the New Zealand Parliament has done, instead of simply stacking non-eligibility periods until they quickly reach the same point. But the Court of Appeal does not really argue ― it merely asserts ― that the absurdity of extended ineligibility periods is inherently cruel. The person sentenced to such a punishment will understand what it means. And as for the claim that stacked parole ineligibility periods, because they cannot be served in full, discredit the administration of justice, it is simply beside the point. Section 12 of the Charter is concerned with justice to the offender, not the courts’ opinion of themselves.

As for the Court of Appeal’s reasoning on section 7 of the Charter, it also suffers from the Court’s failure to account for the discretionary nature of the stacking of parole ineligibility periods permitted ― not required! ― by the Criminal Code. The Court says that in some cases a stacked sentence can be imposed on multiple murderers who are not among the worst of the worst, and so not the sort of offender to deal with whom the stacking was permitted. But if indeed such a sentence is inappropriate ― and it is worth noting yet again that, as this very case highlights, the categories of the incorrigible are not closed, and are not limited to “psychopaths” and “organized crime hitmen” ― the sentencing in the particular case can be overturned on appeal. It seems that the Court of Appeal, like the judge below, simply does not trust to the discernment of other judges.      


Like the Court of Appeal and the Superior Court, and like the New Zealand High Court, we believe that sentencing ― even for terrorist mass murderers ― must not be an exercise in raw vengeance. It is a good thing that Parliament’s authority to direct sentencing is constitutionally constrained. It is all too true that Parliament can sometimes demand punishment incommensurate to crime, especially when it seeks to curtail the sentencing judges’ ability to assess the actions and culpability of the offender in a pursuit of a law that will be equally harsh to all.

But nor can sentencing lose sight of the actions for which the sentence is being imposed. It would be a perverse constitution that required this, and fortunately the Charter is not so perverse. The principles consistently set out by the Supreme Court make clear both that the primary responsibility for sentencing policy is Parliament’s, and that applying constitutional constraints on Parliament must only serve to prevent abuses ― not to become an exercise in abstract, and ultimately soulless, humanitarianism. We hope that the Supreme Court will step in and reassert these principles once more in this case.

Textualism for Hedgehogs

Why substantive canons belong in textualist interpretation, and what this tells us about neutral interpretive principles

I hope that you have read co-blogger Mark Mancini’s post on “Neutrality in Legal Interpretation“. In a nutshell, Mark argues for the application of politically neutral principles to the interpretation of legal texts, and against the fashionable view that it is inevitable, or indeed desirable, that interpreters will seek to fashion texts into instruments for the advancement of their preferred policy outcomes. It is a superb essay, and I agree with almost everything Mark says there.

Almost. In this post, I would like to explore one point of disagreement I have with Mark. Although it concerns a minor issue and does not detract from Mark’s overall argument at all, I think it helps us clarify our thinking both about legal interpretation and also about the meaning and purpose of legal neutrality. This point of disagreement concerns, of all things, “substantive canons of construction”.


Mark argues that textualism is a set of morally-neutral interpretive techniques that allow an interpreter to (my words, but Mark’s meaing, I think) serve as a faithful agent of the body enacting the legal text. (Mark focuses on statutes, but the same considerations apply to constitutional texts.) Other approaches allow or even require the interpreter to impose a certain set of substantive commitments, which may or may not be shared by the authors of the legal texts, on them. Textualism seeks to avoid doing so by asking the interpreter to focus on the text itself, relying on its letter and its spirit alone, rather than on any external commitments. In this context, Mark notes a possible (and indeed common) objection:

[O]ne might say that textualism and its family of tools are not themselves neutral. For example, some of the substantive canons of construction might be said to be imbued with presuppositions about the ways laws must be interpreted. For example, there is the rule that statutes altering the common law require a clear statement in order to do so.  This is not a value-neutral tool, it could be said, because it makes it difficult for statutes to override what one might call a generally “conservative” common law. 

Mark appears to grant this objection to the use of substantive canons in statutory interpretation, while denying that it undermines his broader argument:

I do see the merit of this argument, which is why I (and some other textualists) may wish to assign a lesser role to substantive canons. Indeed, since I believe in legislative sovereignty, the legislature should be able to change the common law without a clear statement. 

But then Mark walks back the concession to some extent, writing that “these canons could be justified on other grounds” , for example “as a matter of precedent, or as a matter of ‘stabilizing’ the law.”

By my lights, Mark’s initial concession is a mistake, and the walk-back too half-hearted. Substantive interpretive canons ― interpretive presumptions such as those requiring clear statements for statutes to derogate from common law or statutory rights, to change the law retroactively or to create exorbitant powers (for example Henry VIII clauses), or calling for narrow constructions of penal or taxing statutes ― deserve a more robust defence, which I will offer here. Most of them are not only “justified on other grounds” but are actually closely connected to the reasons for endorsing textualism and neutral interpretation more broadly.

These reasons include the separation of powers and democracy, which, taken together, mean that law should be changed in consequence of the choices of democratically elected legislatures and of such other actors to whom legislatures have properly delegated their law-making powers (assuming that such delegation can ever be proper). But they also include the Rule of Law, notably the idea that the law ought to be sufficiently public and certain to guide the subject. Textualism gives effect to the separation of powers and democracy by asking judges to give effect to legislatures’ choices and warning them not to override these choices by applying their own subjective preferences or substantive values not endorsed by the legislature. It also gives effect to the Rule of Law by ensuring that subjects, or at least their legal advisors, have access to the same information that will be used by those who interpret and apply the law. They can thus anticipate the law’s application better than if it can be given a meaning based on unenacted values available only to judges or administrators at the point of application.

Consider now how substantive canons serve the same ends. Their contribution to upholding the Rule of Law values of notice and guidance is perhaps most obvious. When courts refuse to read unclear or ambiguous statutes as imposing criminal or tax liability, they are ensuring that people are warned before their liberty and property are put in jeopardy, and can guide themselves accordingly. Similarly, when courts apply the principle of legality, which requires clear statutory language to over-ride or oust established common law rights, be they the right to access court (as in Justice Cromwell’s concurring opinion in Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, [2014] 3 SCR 31 or property rights in Wells v Newfoundland, [1999] 3 SCR 199, they ensure that people are given warning before these rights are abrogated. Justice Major, writing for the unanimous court in Wells, explained this:

In a nation governed by the rule of law, we assume that the government will honour its obligations unless it explicitly exercises its power not to.  In the absence of a clear express intent to abrogate rights and obligations – rights of the highest importance to the individual – those rights remain in force.  To argue the opposite is to say that the government is bound only by its whim, not its word.   In Canada this is unacceptable, and does not accord with the nation’s understanding of the relationship between the state and its citizens. [46]

The argument about the relationship between textualism and separation of powers and democracy is perhaps somewhat less straightforward. But I think it’s not unfair to say that the obverse of insisting that it is the prerogative of legislatures, as the bodies representing the electorate, to have the law reflect their choices is that the law should reflect their choices. Textualism does this by emphasizing the primacy of text, which the legislature actually enacted, as the object of interpretation. Substantive canons are nothing more than an insistence that certain choices clearly appear to have been made in the text. Mark writes that “legislative sovereignty” means that “the legislature should be able to change the common law without a clear statement”, but I’m not sure that legislative supremacy requires deference to sotto voce or accidental legal change.

On the contrary, I think that for an interpreter to insist that the legislature spell out the consequences of its enactments rather than let them be inferred promotes legislative authority by requiring the democratic sovereign to squarely address the issues instead of leaving them to be worked out by unelected officials and judges. At the same time, however, it also promotes the more “negative” aspect of the separation of powers by freeing judges from becoming the legislatures’ accomplices is abuse of power. Subject to constitutional constraints, it is wrong for the courts not to give effect to legislation, but they are not, I think, under a duty to add to legislated iniquity of the legislature itself has not dared require it.

To be sure, it is possible for judges to misapply substantive interpretive canons so as to make them into instruments for refashioning legislation in accordance with their own preferences and values. Judges can be skillful practitioners of Nelsonian blindness and refuse to see in a statute that which is clearly there ― just as, on other occasions, they can see there that which is not. But I do not think that this necessarily makes substantive canons anathema to textualism. As then-Judge Amy Barrett has explained in a lecture devoted largely to a defence of textualism (which I summarized here), textualist adjudication is not mechanical. It requires judgment. A sparing ― judicious ― application of substantive canons calls for good judgment, but in this it is no different from other aspects of textualist interpretation or judicial decision-making more generally.

All that having been said, the impulse to disclaim and renounce the use of interpretive techniques that seem to bias adjudication in favour of particular outcomes is understandable as part of a broader appeal for neutrality. But here, I think, an appeal to precedent is relevant. Judges applying established substantive canons (or any other established interpretative techniques) is not introducing their own values into the law. They are not ― again, assuming they are not abusing their power ― wielding discretionary authority to bring the law into alignment with their policy preferences. They are not springing a surprise on the legislature (or the litigants). They are following established conventions for reading legal texts, which legislatures (or least the people drafting bills for them) can and ought to know.

Now, perhaps there is a further point of subtle disagreement between Mark and me here. Mark writes that “while the making of law may be a political activity, that does not mean that the rules we use for interpretation should be”. I think this a little imprecise. Like other legal rules, the established conventions of interpretation are not, themselves, value-free; I don’t think they could be. The conventions of textualism promote democratic authority, the separation of powers, and the Rule of Law. These are political values, in a broad sense, and I think that a defence of textualism should proceed on the basis that these are good values, not that that textualism has nothing to do with them. What should indeed be apolitical, to the extent possible for human beings, is the application of interpretive rules, not their content. However, an interpretive rule whose content is such as to make apolitical application impossible, is of course flawed from this standpoint.


What we should be looking for, then, are interpretive rules that can be applied impartially ― not mechanically, to be sure, but without the interpreter drawing on his or her subjective values, preferences, and beliefs about good policy. At least some forms of purposivism, as well as living constitutionalism and its analogues in statutory interpretation fail this test. Textualism, as Mark argues, is a more promising approach. But at the same time ― and not coincidentally ― textualism promotes important constitutional values: the Rule of Law, democracy, and separation powers.

Substantive interpretive canons, I have argued, promote the same values, and thus have a place in textualist interpretation. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that substantive canons are pre-eminently textualist interpretive tools, rather than those of some other interpretive approach. Like other kinds of interpretive canons, to which Mark refers, they are rules about reading texts ― albeit more than the other kinds, perhaps, they are rules for reading legal and, even more specifically, legislative texts. Their use has little to with legislative purpose, for example, and they may sit uneasily with a pragmatist or evolutionist approach to interpretation. They are not attempts to devine a legislature’s intentions hidden between textual lines, but rather rules about the legal meaning of enacted texts. Textualists should embrace substantive canons, not just as a grudging concession to precedent, but as a set of tools to wield with discernment, but also with confidence.

Still Keeping It Complicated

The Supreme Court tries to bring more rigour to constitutional interpretation and takes a step towards textualism, but won’t admit it

In my last post, I summarized the opinions delivered in Quebec (Attorney General) v 9147-0732 Québec inc, 2020 SCC 32. While the Supreme Court unanimously holds that corporations are not protected from cruel and unusual punishment by section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the majority (Justices Brown and Rowe, with the agreement of the Chief Justice and Justices Moldaver and Côté) and the principal concurrence (Justice Abella, with Justices Karakatsanis and Martin) strongly disagree about the proper approach to constitutional interpretation and to the role in this process of international and foreign legal materials.

As promised, in this post I present my thoughts on these opinions, primarily on their general approach to interpretation, though I’ll say something on the role of international and foreign materials too. I will, once again, begin with Justice Abella’s opinion, which in my view is representative of what I have described as “constitutionalism from Plato’s cave” ― the judicial creation of constitutional law out of abstract ideals favoured by the judges themselves rather than genuine interpretation of a constitutional text. I will then turn to the majority opinion, which repudiates constitutionalism from the cave, but also seemingly rejects what I regard as the best interpretive method, public meaning originalism. I will argue that there is less to this rejection than meets the eye.

One question on which I will say nothing, although the majority and the principal concurrence trade sharp accusations on it, is which of these opinions is more consistent with precedent. As Benjamin Oliphant and I have pointed out in our article on “Originalist Reasoning in Canadian Constitutional Jurisprudence”, the Supreme Court has never been consistent in how it interpreted the constitution, mixing and matching originalist and living constitutionalist approaches in any number of unpredictable ways. (Mr. Oliphant has developed this theme elsewhere too.) Justices Brown and Rowe are right to call for more rigour and consistency on this front; but they are wrong, as is Justice Abella, to suggest that has been any rigour and consistency in the past. Whatever their flaws, neither the majority nor the concurring opinion break with established law, because there is no real law to break with.


As mentioned in my last post, Justice Abella insists that her approach to interpretation is “contextual” and, above all, “purposive”. In truth, it might be better described as authorizing constitution-making by the Supreme Court. It is “the Court” ― following an American usage, Justice Abella does not bother specifying which one ― that “has, over time, decided who and what came within the Charter’s protective scope”. [49] The Supreme Court does not simply decide cases in which the question arose. No, it apparently ruled, as a matter of discretion, on whom the Charter will protect going forward.

Judicial rulings in constitutional cases are not, for Justice Abella, mere workings out of the constitution’s meaning. Indeed, the constitutional text plays no special role in interpretation for her. This is unsurprising, because Justice Abella embraces the view that co-blogger Mark Mancini recently described as “linguistic nihilism” ― the idea “that language is never clear, or put differently, hopelessly vague or ambiguous”, so that “the task of interpretation based on text is a fool’s game”. (Of course this is of a piece with Justice Abella’s commitments in administrative law.) It is also unsurprising, then, that her discussion of international materials suggests that text does not really matter at all, and a variety of differently-worded provisions all stand for the exact same principles, without any meaningful inquiry into the relevance, if any, of their language. In fact, Justice Abella is openly disdainful of the possibility that textual nuance ― such as “the presence of a comma” [75] ― might make a difference in interpretation.

Another reason for Justice Abella’s refusal to be bound by constitutional text is that this ” could unduly constrain the scope of [constitutional] rights”. [75] This reflects the conviction, common among living constitutionalists, that judicial re-writing of constitutions is a one-way ratchet unfailing causing rights to expand. This view is belied by experience. But, quite apart from that: “unduly” by what standard? If not by reference to text, how do we know what is the due scope of constitutional rights? This ambiguity is of a piece with Justice Abella’s insistence that section 12 “is meant to protect human dignity and respect the inherent worth of individuals. Its intended beneficiaries are people, not corporations.” [51] Is meant… by whom? Intended… by whom? And how do we know?

As Mr. Oliphant and I noted in the paper linked to above, “[m]arks on paper have no will or agency and thus can have no ‘purposes’ or ‘intentions’ that are independent of willful actors”. (537) One possibility, as we suggested, is that this language becomes an opening for an inquiry into the intentions of the Charter‘s framers. But Justice Abella isn’t very interested in that. Unlike the Supreme Court in some cases, she doesn’t consider the Charter‘s drafting history or the views of its framers, beyond a passing reference to Pierre Trudeau’s general comments about the Charter‘s raison d’être.

Justice Abella’s use of ambiguous language and the passive voice, like her refusal to be bound by text or to commit to any hierarchy of interpretive sources, suggest that she believes herself to have has complete discretion in deciding what the Charter is to mean. Her own sense of justice is the only standard of who is “due” protection under the constitution, and what protection they are “due”. This is unsurprising, of course, from someone who professes impatience with the Rule of Law and prefers a “rule of justice”. Constitutional purposes, as she conceives of them, are Platonic abstractions, which the wise ― she the wisest ― must interpret for the rest of us.

As I have said a number of times in the past, “constitutionalism from the cave” is not real constitutionalism. It is antithetical to the Rule of Law. Ultimately, it undermines the foundations of judicial review: if the constitution means whatever unelected judges preoccupied with international approval more than with the law or the commands of the constitution’s framers say it means, there is no particular reason why the political branches would comply with these judges’ musings. It is good that this view is dealt a defeat by the Supreme Court’s majority.


In contrast to Justice Abella, Justices Brown and Rowe emphasize the importance of constitutional text. It is not, I think, merely a matter of the text being chronologically the first consideration for a court engaged in constitutional interpretation: “constitutional interpretation” is “the interpretation of the text of the Constitution”. [9] The text is its focus and overriding constraint; it has “primacy” over other considerations. [10, citing Caron v Alberta, 2015 SCC 56, [2015] 3 SCR 511 at [36]]

One way in which the text matters is, of course, through the ordinary meaning of its words and the inferences that can be drawn from it. Here, since the word “cruel” refers to the infliction of human suffering, it stands to reason that section 12 does not protect corporations. But the significance of the text goes further. The history of the text and the changes it underwent are relevant too, as Justices Brown and Rowe show by pointing ― in language that, as I noted in my last post, closely mirrors that of my comment on the Court of Appeal’s decision in this case ― to the contrast between the language of section 12 and that of its predecessors in Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights 1688. Other provisions on the text are relevant too.

To my mind, this ― so far as it goes ― is a sound approach to constitutional interpretation, and I am happy to see it forcefully stated by a majority of the Supreme Court. If I were to put a label on it, it would be “textualism”. Consider the definition of textualism given by then-Judge, now Justice Amy Coney Barrett in a lecture I reviewed here:

Textualism … insists that judges must construe statutory language consistent with its “ordinary meaning.” The law is comprised of words—and textualists emphasize that words mean what they say, not what a judge thinks that they ought to say. For textualists, statutory language is a hard constraint. Fidelity to the law means fidelity to the text as it is written. (856; footnote omitted)

This is what Justices Brown and Rowe are doing: insisting that the object of interpretation is words, text, and focusing on their ordinary meaning, which is a hard constraint on interpretation.

Yet Justices Brown and Rowe reject the label of textualism. To their mind, what they are doing is purposive interpretation. Judge Barrett, as she then was, saw purposivism as the opposite of textualism, though in my post I cautioned that “many approaches to interpretation and construction, including ones that respect the primacy and constraint of the text, might properly be described as purposive”. Perhaps this is what Justices Brown and Rowe are advocating ― a sort of “purposivism”, if that’s what they prefer to call it, but one that has a great deal more in common with textualism as defined by Judge Barrett than with “purposivism” as defined by Justice Abella.

So maybe the moral of the story here is that we all should be less hung up on labels. But in my view there is a real cost to the lack of clarity that the labels used by the Supreme Court generate. I wrote about this here when I commented on R v Stillman, 2019 SCC 40. In that case, similarly to here, the majority and the dissent both claimed to be engaged in purposive interpretation. But the majority, I argued, was in effect following a public meaning originalist (and hence textualist) approach, while the dissent was doing constitutionalism from the cave. As I said then, to pretend that textualist interpretation is really purposive generates unnecessary detours. Here, the majority’s references to human dignity as the purpose of section 12 do no real work, and unnecessarily burden the reasoning with what is, by the Supreme Court’s own well-known admission in R v Kapp, 2008 SCC 41, [2008] 2 SCR 483, “an abstract and subjective notion”. [22] And, as I also said in my comment on Stillman, mislabeling an originalist or textualist interpretation as purposivist makes it possible for the partisans of an entirely different version of purposivism to invoke cases that go directly against their views as support for them. Justice Abella does precisely that here (at [73]).

Worse still, from my perspective, than the mere confusion about labels is the seeming rejection by Justices Brown and Rowe of the substance of public meaning originalism, under the label of “new textualism” which they borrow from Aharon Barak’s Harvard Law Review Supreme Court Term Foreword, “A Judge on Judging”, where it stands as a shorthand for Justice’s Scalia’s interpretive approach. This is the idea, as President Barak put it, “that that the Constitution and every statute should be understood according to the reading of a reasonable reader at the time of enactment”. (82; reference omitted) Justices Brown and Rowe claim that this approach is “not remotely consistent” [12] with theirs. If they are right, this would be the first rejection of public meaning originalism by the Supreme Court. As Mr. Oliphant and I have shown, until now, the only versions of originalism that had been clearly rejected were those, disfavoured by originalists themselves, that focus on original expected applications and outcomes.

Yet it will take more than this opinion of Justices Brown and Rowe to make me give up on originalism. Let me note, first, that Justice Brown himself was a co-author of the Stillman majority opinion (and that its other co-author was Justice Moldaver, who agrees with Justices Brown and Rowe here). I described that opinion as “perhaps the most originalist, and specifically public-meaning originalist, in a constitutional case since that of the majority in Caron“. And yes, Caron ― which Justices Brown and Rowe repeatedly cite ― was a public-meaning originalist judgment, as I explained here. Both Stillman and Caron focused on ascertaining the meaning of the constitutional provisions at issue there by reference to how they would have been understood by “a reasonable reader at the time of enactment”, over dissents that favoured, respectively a more policy-infused approach and one based on the alleged intent of the framers. If Justices Brown and Rowe really meant to reject public meaning originalism, would they be relying on these cases? That seems implausible.

No less importantly, consider what Justices Brown and Rowe say elsewhere in their opinion. When they discuss the use of international and foreign materials, they draw an “important distinction … between instruments that pre‑ and post‑date the Charter“. [41] The former “clearly form part of the historical context of a Charter right and illuminate the way it was framed”, whether or not they were binding on Canada. The latter, only matter if they bind Canada, and even then subject to only a presumption that Canadian constitutional law conforms to them, and to the principle that international law does not automatically become part of Canadian law. This isn’t quite originalism: an originalist would be warier still of materials that post-date the Charter, although, as I am about to explain, without necessarily rejecting their relevance in all cases. But it’s pretty close. Originalists believe that constitutional text must be interpreted in context as of the date of its enactment, and reference to international materials available to Canadian framers is certainly a legitimate part of ascertaining the context in which the Charter‘s original meaning should be established. The fact that Justices Brown and Rowe draw a dividing line at the moment of the Charter’s enactment suggests that they are, in fact, open to something like originalist thinking.

All in all, my point is not that Justices Brown and Rowe are originalists. However, they are textualists, which is a big part of originalism, and their approach has at least some significant affinities with public meaning originalism. It is unfortunate that their self-misunderstanding muddies the waters. But if we focus on what they do rather than on what they say about what they do we can see that their opinion, despite its flaws, is an important step in the right direction, and by far preferable to Justice Abella’s.


I turn, finally, to the issue of international and comparative materials. I agree with the majority’s calls for care and discernment in the way such materials are used. Partly this is a matter of legal and intellectual rigour. Partly, as Justices Brown and Rowe say, of “preserving the integrity of the Canadian constitutional structure, and Canadian sovereignty”. [23] Justice Abella’s concerns about whether foreign scholars and courts will pay attention to Canadian constitutional law are beside the point. Ultimately, the Canadian constitution means what it means, and not what some international treaty, let alone foreign constitutional text, might mean ― a matter on which Canadian courts often could not pronounce. I would, however, add two further observations, which I already made here in discussing similar issues that arose in the Supreme Court’s decision in Frank v Canada (Attorney General), 2019 SCC 1, [2019] 1 SCR 3.

First, international and foreign materials may be more relevant and persuasive to courts engaged in constitutional construction, and in particular (but not only) in the demarcation of reasonable limits on rights under section 1 of the Charter, than in cases such as this one, which concern the interpretation of the Charter‘s text. When courts develop legal doctrine, they have more reason to look to international experience ― including international experience post-dating the Charter‘s enactment ― than when they seek to discern the meaning of the Charter‘s words ― an exercise to which, as Justices Brown and Rowe recognize, international and foreign materials post-dating the Charter are unlikely to be relevant. The majority’s unwillingness to seriously engage with public meaning originalism causes it to seemingly lump all constitutional questions together and so to lose sight of this nuance.

Second, when and to the extent that international and foreign law is relevant, judicial consideration of it should, as I wrote in my comment on Frank, “not be partial ― either in the sense of having a pre-determined result in mind, or in the sense of being incomplete”. I’m not quite sure what Justices Brown and Rowe mean by saying that such materials should be kept to “providing support and confirmation for the result reached by way of purposive interpretation”. [22; emphasis in the original] But it would not be intellectually honest for a court to only consider materials that agree with its conclusions and deliberately discard others. If the court considers foreign and international sources, it should address those that it does not find persuasive.

The court should also be careful not to misunderstand or mischaracterize these sources. Justice Abella’s invocation of the “judges in the majority” in Furman v Georgia, 402 US 238 (1972), as having “definitively discussed” the purpose of the Eighth Amendment is an example of such dangers. There was no unified majority in Furman; the two judges whom Justice Abella quotes, Justices Marshall and Brennan, were in fact the only ones who took the position they took, which was that the death penalty was necessarily cruel and unusual punishment. Three others took a more limited view that opened the door to the re-imposition of the death penalty, which was given the green light in Gregg v Georgia, 428 US 153 (1976), in effect reversing Furman. If judges are to refer to foreign law, they need to understand and be honest about it.


Overall, the Supreme Court, and specifically the majority opinion of Justices Brown and Rowe, brings a welcome dose of rigour to the task of constitutional interpretation in Canada. The primacy of constitutional text as the object of interpretation is affirmed, while freewheeling discretion to make the constitution the best it can be in a judge’s opinion is rejected. There is also a more rigorous approach to the use of international and foreign materials in constitutional interpretation. Compared to the alternative vividly illustrated by Justice Abella, this is all very welcome (and all the more so if, as I hypothesized in my last post, Justice Abella’s opinion was originally intended to be the majority one).

But the majority opinion is very far from perfect, and it will perpetuate much of the confusion that afflicts constitutional interpretation in Canada. Even as it adopts the methods of textualism and is largely compatible with public meaning originalism it disclaims the former and purports to reject the latter. This messiness is the sad consequence of a lack of serious thought about constitutional interpretation in Canada. One can only hope that this gap will be filled in the years to come.

You Read It Here First

The Supreme Court holds that the Charter does not protect corporations against cruel and unusual punishment

Can corporations avail themselves of the protection of section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms against “any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment”? In Quebec (Attorney General) v 9147-0732 Québec inc, 2020 SCC 32 the Supreme Court unanimously holds that it cannot. The question excited some debate, both for its own sake and also for its implications for constitutional interpretation more broadly, in the wake of the Québec Court of Appeal’s decision in this case, 9147-0732 Québec inc c Directeur des poursuites criminelles et pénales, 2019 QCCA 373. I argued against the position of the Court of Appeal’s majority and in favour of the one now adopted by the Supreme Court (here and then here); others, however, disagreed.

The narrow issue of the scope of section 12 is now decided, at least as a matter of positive law. But the splits among the Supreme Court’s judges and the ambiguities of the majority opinion delivered by Justices Brown and Rowe (with the agreement of the Chief Justice and Justices Moldaver and Côté) mean that the broader question of how Canadian courts should interpret the constitution remains unsettled. Although both the majority and Justice Abella, who concurs (with Justices Karakatsanis and Martin) claim for themselves the mantle of purposivism, the majority moves in a textualist direction, even as it denies doing so, while the concurrence defends an approach under which the constitution means whatever the Supreme Court thinks it should mean, though it does not quite admit it. Justice Kasirer, meanwhile, concurs in the result and pointedly refuses to step into his colleagues’ interpretive debate.

In this post, I summarize the opinions. I will follow up with comments, mostly on constitutional interpretation, in a separate post tomorrow. Benjamin Oliphant will also have comments in the coming days, dealing with both constitutional interpretation generally and the use of international law in particular.


The respondent (we’re not actually going to refer to it ― or to the case as a whole ― by the number, are we? what are supposed to call this case though?) was charged with having undertaken some construction work without the requisite license. It argued that the fine it would have to pay would be excessive, and thus in violation of section 12 of the Charter. All three judgments made short work of this view. All commended the dissenting reasons of Justice Chamberland at the Court of Appeal and, like him, all pointed to the fact that cruelty referred to the infliction of suffering in body or mind, of which human beings were capable, and legal persons were not. Justice Kasirer’s concurrence, which limits itself to making these points, is all of five paragraphs long.

But, for whatever reason, the other eight judges do not think this is enough. They debate the general principles of constitutional interpretation, focusing on two main issues: first, the primacy, or lack thereof, of the constitutional text; and second, the role of international materials. The subject of this debate is unusual for a Supreme Court of Canada decision: constitutional interpretation is seldom addressed at such length even in cases that actually turn on it, which this one doesn’t really. So is the debate’s vehemence. The perennial talk of the differences between the mean, originalism-debating US Supreme Court and its kinder, gentler Canadian counterpart was always overwrought, but it feels especially out of place now.

Another oddity of the debate between the majority opinion and that of Justice Abella is that the former seems to have been written entirely in response to the latter. It is a rare majority opinion that is introduced by a disclaimer that “[d]espite our agreement in the result, we find it necessary to write separately”. [3] I wonder whether the decision was originally assigned to Justice Abella, but some judges (starting presumably with Justices Brown and Rowe), being dissatisfied with her treatment of the interpretive issues, wrote separately, and ended up peeling off others, forming a new majority. Be that as it may, it is perhaps useful to start with Justice Abella’s reasons, since the majority responds to them more than the other way around.

Justice Abella describes her interpretive approach as “contextual” and “purposive”. The text has no special role to play in determining the Charter’s import: “examining the text of the Charter is only the beginning of the interpretive exercise, an exercise which is fundamentally different from interpreting a statute”, [71] and “elevating the plain text” of the Charter’s provisions “to a factor of special significance” is a mistake. [72] Due to its often “vague, open-ended language … [t]he text of those provisions may … be of comparatively limited assistance in interpreting their scope”. [74] Indeed, attaching too much importance to constitutional text

could unduly constrain the scope of those rights, or even yield two irreconcilable conclusions leading, for example, to the interpretive triumph of the presence of a comma in expanding gun-owners’ rights under the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution in District of Columbia v Heller, 554 US 570 (2008) [75]

Insisting on the primacy of the plain text of Charter rights” also undermines the constitution’s ability of to develop and “creates a risk that, over time, those rights will cease to represent the fundamental values of Canadian society and the purposes they were meant to uphold”. [76] Finally, “[a] textualist approach would also make Canadian constitutional law more insular”, [78] by which Justice Abella means both less inclined to consider foreign authority and less attractive as a reference point to foreign jurists.

Rather, purpose has to be inferred from a variety of contextual indicia, there being no “rigid hierarchy among these interpretative guides”, [80] although elsewhere Justice Abella suggests that “the principles and values underlying the enactment of the Charter provision are the primary interpretive tools”. [70] Justice Abella refers to dictionary definitions of the word “cruel”, the textual context of section 12 (notably the fact that almost no other “legal rights” protected by the Charter have been held to extend to corporations), and the historical context of its enactment (with respect to which Justice Abella briefly refers to the Bill of Rights 1688, the comments of some judges in  Furman v Georgia, 408 US 238 (1972), and the Canadian Bill of Rights).

Justice Abella also refers, copiously, to contemporary interpretations of section 12’s equivalents in foreign and international instruments. This is justified, she argues, by the fact that “Canada’s rights protections emerged from the same chrysalis of outrage” about Nazi crimes “as other countries around the world”. [98] It also ensures that Canada maintains a “leading voice internationally in constitutional adjudication”. [106] Unlike the majority, she wants to avoid creating a “hierarchical sliding scale of persuasiveness” [104] among these sources and “thereby transform[] the Court’s usual panoramic search for global wisdom into a series of compartmentalized barriers”. [61] Textual differences among these sources do not matter, because “a common meaning can be ascribed to their various formulations”. [108] These sources include international treaties, both those to which Canada is a and those to which it is not (like the American Convention on Human Rights), as well as the interpretations of these treaties by the relevant adjudicative bodies, as well as the jurisprudence of foreign domestic courts.

All these sources tend to the same conclusion:

In line with the global consensus, [section 12’s] purpose is to prevent the state from inflicting physical or mental pain and suffering through degrading and dehumanizing treatment or punishment. It is meant to protect human dignity and respect the inherent worth of individuals. … Since it cannot be said that corporations have an interest that falls within the purpose of the guarantee, they do not fall within s. 12’s scope. [135-36]

The majority, as already noted, strongly disagrees with Justice Abella’s approach. Like Justice Abella, Justices Brown and Rowe purport to interpret the Charter in a purposive manner. However, they accuse Justice Abella of “minimizing the primordial significance assigned by this Court’s jurisprudence to constitutional text in undertaking purposive interpretation”. [4] They insist that

within the purposive approach, the analysis must begin by considering the text of the provision … because constitutional interpretation, being the interpretation of the text of the Constitution, must first and foremost have reference to, and be constrained by, that text”. [8-9; emphasis in the original]

They add that “[g]iving primacy to the text” [10] is also the way to avoid framing the purpose of a provision too narrowly or too broadly.

Justices Brown and Rowe reject the charge that they are favouring a narrowly textualist approach. What Aharon Barak’s described, in his Harvard Law Review Supreme Court Term Foreword, “A Judge on Judging”, as “new textualism”, a “‘system [which] holds that the Constitution and every statute should be understood according to the reading of a reasonable reader at the time of enactment’ and in which ‘[r]eference to the history of the text’s creation . . . is not allowed’” [12], is “not remotely consistent with [the approach] which we apply and which our law demands”. [12]

Analyzing section 12, Justices Brown and Rowe first note that “the words ‘cruel and unusual treatment or punishment’ refer to human pain and suffering, both physical and mental”. [14; emphasis in the original] They mostly endorse Justice Abella’s historical analysis, although they “add that an examination of s. 12’s historical origins shows that the Charter took a different path from its predecessors”, [16] going back to Magna Carta, because “the right not to be denied reasonable bail without just cause was carved off from the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, and placed in s. 11(e) of the Charter”, while “[e]ven more significantly, the protection against ‘excessive fines’ was not retained at all”. [16] All “this is highly significant, if not determinative: excessive fines (which a corporation can sustain), without more, are not unconstitutional”. [17]

Readers may have seen these arguments before: in part, of course, in Justice Chamberland’s dissent at the Court of Appeal, but the reference to both Magna Carta and to section 11(e) of the Charter first appeared right here, in my comment on the Court of Appeal’s decision. Here’s what I wrote:

The Charter does things somewhat differently from its forbears. The right “not to be denied reasonable bail without just cause” is placed in a separate provision (section 11(e)) from the protection against cruel and unusual punishment (section 12). The proscription of “excessive fines”, meanwhile, has not been retained. These drafting choices ought to matter. In particular, the Charter’s text means that excessive fines are not, without more, unconstitutional. (Paragraph break removed, emphasis added)

I’ll let the reader judge how likely the similarity ― not only of ideas, of course, but of the way in which they are presented and even of the words used, especially the passage quoted above from paragraph 17 and the italicized sentence from my post ― is to be coincidental.

Justices Brown and Rowe then move on to discussing the use of international materials. This discussion, though, is still relevant to a more general consideration of constitutional interpretation. It begin with an assertion that “[a]s a constitutional document that was ‘made in Canada’ … the Charter and its provisions are primarily interpreted with regards to Canadian law and history”. [20] International and foreign materials can “support or confirm an interpretation arrived at through the Big M Drug Mart approach”, but not “to define the scope of Charter rights”. [28] Different types of instruments should also be treated differently: those that are binding on Canada are entitled to a presumption that the Charter is consistent with them; others are not. The date on which the international instruments came into being matters too:

International instruments that pre‑date the Charter can clearly form part of the historical context of a Charter right and illuminate the way it was framed. Here, whether Canada is or is not a party to such instruments is less important … As for instruments that post‑date the Charter, … [i]t can readily be seen that an instrument that post‑dates the Charter and that does not bind Canada carries much less interpretive weight than one that binds Canada and/or contributed to the development of the Charter. [41-42]

Foreign judicial decisions, meanwhile, must be invoked with “[p]articular caution” [43] and subject to an explanation as to the “way they are instructive, how they are being used, or why the particular sources are being relied on”. [44]


I am happy to see such extensive debate of constitutional interpretation taking place at the Supreme Court, though like Justice Kasirer I am a bit mystified by the reasons why it took place in this case. As co-blogger Mark Mancini and I argued just recently, Canadian law will benefit from more and better conversations about constitutional interpretation. A discussion of the use of international and comparative materials is also welcome, though again I wonder if this was the case in which it had to happen.

At the same time, by way of a preview of my next post, I will say that the treatment of constitutional interpretation in this case is not altogether satisfactory. To be sure, the majority opinion is a step in the right direction, as the contrast with Justice Abella’s concurrence makes clear. Yet although a substantive improvement on the alternative, this opinion engages in some misdirection and perpetuates the confusion that all too often characterize discussions of constitutional interpretation in Canada.

Activism v Constitution

The federal court rightly holds that the judiciary cannot control Canada’s climate policy

In a number of jurisdictions, environmental activists have turned to the courts in an ostensible attempt to force the implementation of policies they deem necessary to deal with climate change. Some of these lawsuits have succeeded to great fanfare, others not. Such litigation challenges not only constantly evolving public policy, but also longstanding principles of separation of powers. In the Federal Court’s decision in La Rose v Canada, 2020 FC 1008, the activists lose ― and separation of powers wins.


The activists challenged Canada’s public policy in relation to greenhouse gas emissions, notably insofar as it does not set sufficiently ambitious emission reduction targets, failed to meet the targets that were set, generally allowed emissions to rise, and “support[ed] the development, expansion and operation of industries and activities involving fossil fuels”. [8] All this, they said, “unjustifiably infringed their rights (and the rights of all children and youth in Canada, present and future, due to an asserted public interest standing) under sections 7 and 15 of the Charter” and amounted to a breach of the government’s “public trust obligations with respect to identified public resources”. [7] They sought a variety of declarations and orders, including “an order requiring the [government] to develop and implement an enforceable climate recovery plan that is consistent with Canada’s fair share of the global carbon budget plan”, [12] and asked that the court retain jurisdiction to supervise the implementation of this order.

The government sought to have the activists’ statement of claim struck on the basis that their demands were not justiciable or had no reasonable prospects of success. Justice Manson agrees. After, concluding that Charter claims, even novel ones, can be disposed of in the context of a motion to strike (an issue addressed in the most recent episode of the Runnymede Radio podcast, in which co-blogger Mark Mancini interviewed Gerard Kennedy), he holds that the Charter claims are not justiciable, while the “public trust” claim, although justiciable, has no reasonable prospect of success.

With respect to justiciability, “[t]he question to be decided is whether the Court has the institutional capacity and legitimacy to adjudicate the matter. Or, more generally, is the issue one that is appropriate for a Court to decide.” [29] The novelty of a claim, by itself, is not relevant, and the fact that a claim has a policy dimension is not a bar to justiciability. However, “[t]o engage the Court’s adjudicative functions, the question must be one that can be resolved by the application of law”. [34] The general direction of policy is a matter for governments and legislatures; “[p]olicy choices must be translated into law or state action in order to be amenable to Charter review and otherwise justiciable”. [38]

Justice Manson finds that the challenge here is impermissibly aimed at a general policy choices, “an overly broad and unquantifiable number of actions and inactions” by the government. [40] Indeed, nothing less than “the entirety of Canada’s policy response to climate change” is targeted, with the result that “assessments of Charter infringement cannot be connected to specific laws or state action”, breaking with the normal purpose of judicial review. [43] In effect, the activists seek to put the court in charge of Canada’s climate change policy. This is not the courts’ role, “no matter how critical climate change is and will be”. [48]

Justice Manson also criticizes the remedies sought by the activists. Declarations alone would amount to ineffective statements about the meaning of the Charter, or pronouncements about the effectiveness of public policy more appropriate to a commission of inquiry than a court. Meanwhile, judicial supervision of public policy is not appropriate, and would not, in any case, in itself redress the alleged breach of the plaintiffs’ Charter rights.

While this is not dispositive, Justice Manson also suggests that the Charter arguments would have no reasonable chance of success even if they were justiciable. In the case of the section 7 claim, this is because no one law or even specific set of laws is said to be rights-infringing. That said, in an obiter to the obiter, Justice Manson muses about the possibility of a positive-rights claim succeeding in a future case. As for the section 15 claim, “[i]t is unclear what impugned law creates the claimed distinction, whether on its face or in its impact”. [79] 

As for the “public trust” claim, according to which the government has an obligation, sourced either in the common law or in unwritten constitutional principle, “to preserve and protect the integrity of inherently public resources so that the public is not deprived of the benefits they provide to all”, [81] Justice Manson finds that it is justiciable, but has no reasonable prospect of success. The “public trust” doctrine is not recognized in Canadian law; it is “extensive and without definable limit” [88]; nor can it be supported as a principle essential to the Canadian constitutional order. There is no point in allowing this claim to proceed to trial.


This is the right outcome. As Justice Manson points out, it simply isn’t the role of the courts to dictate policy in areas where choices must be made among a multitude of variables and any number of competing considerations are to be balanced. It is one one thing for the courts to say that public funds must be expended on a specific matter prioritized by the constitution. They have done so in Doucet-Boudreau v Nova Scotia (Minister of Education), 2003 SCC 62, [2003] 3 SCR 3 (which dealt with the construction of schools to which a linguistic minority was entitled under section 23 of the Charter) and Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, [2014] 3 SCR 31 (where the Supreme Court invalidated a regulation imposing “hearing fees” on litigants who sought to have their day in court, in contravention, the majority said, of s 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867). Even that wasn’t uncontroversial, though I think these outcomes are defensible. But it would be something else entirely for a court to improvise itself the arbiter of policy touching on a matter as all-encompassing as climate change. Perhaps there are shades of grey in this area, matters where it is not quite clear whether the issue is too complex for the courts to intervene, as some critiques of Trial Lawyers suggest. But this isn’t one of them.

What I wrote here after the Court of Appeal for Ontario struck a claim by a coalition of activists that Ontario’s and Canada’s housing policy violated sections 7 and 15 of the Charter in Tanudjaja v Canada (Attorney General), 2014 ONCA 852, 123 OR (3d) 161 (a case to which Justice Manson refers) remains relevant:

[T]here are good reasons for the courts to refuse to adjudicate, if not any and all social and economic rights claims, then at least … vast campaigns intended to reshape entire areas of government policy. There is the issue of competing priorities ― if not all claims on public support can be satisfied, which ones should be favoured? It’s not obvious, to say the least, that the answer to that question ought to be “those who got adjudicated first.” There is the issue of legitimacy of unelected judges having to order Parliament and legislatures to increase taxes. Charles I lost his head for trying to raise taxes without Parliamentary approval, and George III lost an empire for insisting that he had the right to tax without consent. It is, again, not obvious that judges would fare any better. There is the issue of federalism. … The federal government chooses to help the provinces discharge many of their constitutional responsibilities, and the provinces accept the money (and ask for more), but how a court could assign responsibilities between the two level of government ― something that takes sometimes difficult political negotiations ― is really beyond me.

There is, finally, the issue of the law’s inherent conservatism. If a court decides that social programme X is constitutionally required, then programme X cannot be got rid of even to be replaced by a more effective but differently organized programme. … At best, the government would have to turn to the courts and demonstrate  that its proposed programme would be enough to discharge its constitutional obligations. But it could not really demonstrate this ― it would have to speculate, and it’s not clear that a court ought to be convinced by such speculation. (Paragraph break added)

All these concerns weigh on the attempts to litigate climate change policy. At least some plausible measures to reduce greenhouse gas outputs are antithetical to the promotion of economic growth, and it a complex question, a matter of economics and morality, but certainly not law ― and hence not for the courts to decide ― how these priorities are to be balanced. Carbon taxes (or cap-and-trade systems that amount to indirect taxation) are a key policy tool aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and it is not the courts’ place to impose such taxes without an electoral mandate. Federalism is, if anything, even more of a concern here than it was in Tanudjaja, because provincial governments ― which have an important part of policy responsibility in relation to both the environment and to the economy ― were not even before the court. Finally, climate change policy must necessarily be adjusted to the evolution of both the available science and the existing technologies. (Climate policy in a world of cheap solar electricity or, perhaps, fusion power, probably looks quite different from that of today.) Freezing a particular policy response developed in, say, 2021 in constitutional law sounds like a profoundly bad idea, as well one that is inconsistent with the judicial role.

Just to be clear: I’m not saying that these policies are bad. (I’m also not saying that they’re good.) The point is that the courts neither can nor would be justified in passing on their wisdom or even necessity. As Justice Manson says, the function of judicial review of legislation is to assess specific laws or government decisions against the legal rules and standards set out in the constitution. The task of supervising ongoing policy choices that the plaintiffs here were expecting the Federal Court to undertake is radically different.


It is a relief, then, Justice Manson avoids the temptation to “do something” just because “something must be done”, and accepts that the resolution of an important social issue is outside the scope of his office. That’s not to say that courts should avoid resolving important social issues just because they are important social issues. But nor should they assume that they, and the constitution which they enforce, must have something to say on such matters.

As Dwight Newman has written in a related if slightly different context,

[w]hile climate change policy is an immensely important area for governments, that context does not change the Constitution. Some might wish that it did … But the very nature of a constitution is that it must endure across various policy challenges of the day and not be bent to particular policy choices.

And recall, of course, Lord Atkin’s admonition in the Labour Conventions Reference: “While the ship of state now sails on larger ventures and into foreign waters she still retains the water-tight compartments which are an essential part of her original structure.” (684) Professor Newman and Lord Atkin were both addressing the federal division of powers between the Dominion and the provinces, but their point is no less applicable to the separation of powers among the various branches of government ― here, between the Federal Court and Parliament. We probably do not think enough about separation of powers in Canada, and when we do we too often reduce it to judicial independence. But the separation between the judiciary and the “political branches” must be water-tight both ways. There are ways in which Parliament and the executive cannot interfere with the courts. But there are also ways in which the courts must not interfere with Parliament and the executive. This principle holds no less true in waters warmed up and troubled by climate change.