On the Rule of Law, Blockades, and Indigenous Self-Government

Recently, Canadians have been captivated by a set of protests occurring both in British Columbia and Ontario in relation to the Coastal GasLink pipeline. The pipeline is a $6B dollar, 670 km project which runs across Northern British Columbia. In British Columbia, the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en lead blockades across the pipeline path, even in the face of injunctions issued against the blockades. On the other side of the country, in Ontario, a blockade led by members of the Mohawk First Nation has brought trains and other travel to a standstill, causing supply shortages in some areas. New protests and blockades pop up almost daily across the country. An injunction was also issued in respect of a blockade in the Toronto/Vaughn area, which was immediately burned by protestors in the area.

In all of this, many have called on police to enforce the various injunctions, because of the principle of the Rule of Law. The Rule of Law, so goes this argument, requires an injunction duly issued to be enforced. Still others rebuke the reliance on the Rule of Law, positing that (1) the Canadian Rule of Law, as presently understood, encompasses claims of Indigenous rights and title and (2) the Canadian Rule of Law does not speak to Indigenous systems of law, separate and apart from colonial law. As a result, in the debates, it is sometimes unclear whose Rule of Law we are talking about, and whether one particular application of a particular rule of law would lead to different results.

While it does matter in what sense we are using the term “the Rule of Law,” I write today to draw attention to two aspects of this dispute that I believe can exist in a complementary way. First, it is clear that on any understanding of the Rule of Law, a system of laws requires courts whose orders are respected. This is true even if one does not view the Rule of Law as the rule of courts. But additionally, what is required, as Dicey said, is a “spirit of legality” which should characterize the relationship between individuals and courts. On this account, the blockades in both Ontario and BC should be shut down, because they fail to respect valid court orders that are contributing to a public order. Canada’s Rule of Law as it is can support no other result.

But second, that cannot, and should not, be the end of the matter. Indeed, the blockades are showing why the current framework of Aboriginal rights vis-à-vis the Canadian state is so lacking. The Rule of Law is not only a fundamental postulate of our law, but it is also an aspirational ideal. There may be ways in which our constitutional order can move towards the ideal of the Rule of Law. On this front, it may be the case that the Rule of Law as currently understood in Canada is not applicable to Indigenous peoples and their systems of government. In other words, we may require an approach which recognizes distinctive Indigenous self-government, as a constitutional matter.  I have made this argument before, but wish to renew it here: Canada’s Constitution can and should recognize distinctive Indigenous self-government.

I write this with the full knowledge that I am not an Indigenous person. And also, I know nothing of the particular Indigenous law that applies in this situation. I am merely intervening in the debate to provide some clarity around what the “rule of law” might mean in this context.

***

There are different ways we can understand the Rule of Law. Each of these three understandings set out above are being used interchangeably in the debate over whether the blockades are proper, on one hand, or legal on another hand.

The first understanding of the Rule of Law, the “thin” understanding, largely associates the Rule of Law with the rule of courts. That is, on this account, a court injunction duly issued should be respected. And in this case, there have been injunctions. The British Columbia Supreme Court issued an injunction in late 2018, which was later expanded in 2019 to include emerging blockades.  Further, under this heading of the Rule of Law, a court in Ontario issued a valid injunction against blockades in Ontario on Saturday, February 15.

It goes without saying that the Rule of Law might not exhaustively mean the rule of courts, but that courts are still required in a system of the Rule of Law. This is because there must be some tribunal that can handle competing claims, especially in the context of property. Even if one accepts that Indigenous peoples have their own system of law operating within Canada, courts will be required to handle conflict of laws or jurisdictional contests. The ordinary courts, as Dicey called them, are central to an ordered society in which people can plan their affairs. If that is the case, the law should be respected, as interpreted by courts.

The Supreme Court of Canada has largely accepted this notion of order as central to a society governed by law. In the Quebec Secession Reference, the Supreme Court noted that the “rule of law vouchsafes to the citizens and residents of the country a stable, predictable and ordered society in which to conduct their affairs” (Quebec Secession Reference, at para 70). What is required is an “actual order of positive laws which preserves and embodies the more general principle of normative order” (Manitoba Language Reference, at 749). As an analogue to this general principle of normative order, there needs to be arbiters of the law in order to ensure that state action is not arbitrary in nature, itself an aspect of the Rule of Law (see Quebec Secession Reference, at para 70). Courts are the typical arbiters—the regulators, so to speak—of the relationship between individual and state. In order for the normative order to be upheld, then, a respect for courts are required.

This is true even if one takes a more substantive or “thick” conception of the Rule of Law. If one accepts, as some do, that the Rule of Law can encompass substantive policy aims like the promotion of human rights, one still requires the ordinary courts to recognize these rights as a matter of judicial interpretation.  As such, the thick conception of the Rule of Law is parasitic on the thin conception. And all require that the judiciary be respected, and that court orders be followed. This does not bode well for the propriety of the blockades.

But one might take the argument based on the Rule of Law further, by arguing that the Canadian Rule of Law includes Indigenous rights recognized under law. One might make the argument that the Wet’suwet’en have existing Indigenous title to the land on which the Coastal GasLink pipeline will be built. Indeed, in Delgamuukw, the Wet’suwet’en were at the centre of the controversy. There, the Supreme Court outlined its approach to handling claims based on Indigenous title. What it made clear was that Indigenous title was a sui generis sort of right, arising before the assertion of British sovereignty (Delgamuukw, at para 114). However, because of a technicality in the pleadings, the Wet’suwet’en were unable to receive a declaration that they held Indigenous title in the land (Delgamuukw, at para 76) . As such, while the Wet’suwet’en may have a valid claim, it has yet to be proven, and can only be accommodated within the context of the duty to consult, a sort of antecedent framework that preserves Indigenous claims that have yet to be proven (see Tsilqho’tin, at para 2).

While there are some questions in this case about who the proper “consultees” were, the bottom line is that Wet’suewet’en title has never been proven over the lands in question. And in the context of a Canadian Rule of Law argument based on Aboriginal title, proof is the centrepiece (see the test for demonstrating Indigenous title, in Delgamuukw at para 143). A blockade relying on these rights must respect their fundamentally judicial nature, in terms of Canadian law: they are recognized by courts, even if they predate the assertion of British sovereignty. One using an argument based on Aboriginal rights recognized under Canadian law, then, cannot justify the blockades on this ground.

***

Thus far, I have reviewed the Canadian-centric way of understanding the Rule of Law. Under these two conceptions, the blockades should come down. But to my mind, this point is insufficient and incomplete.  That is because the Canadian version of the Rule of Law may not be cognizable to Indigenous peoples. Indeed, the blockades reveal that there is a problem of much bigger proportions: the true compatibility of Indigenous systems of law in relation to Canadian constitutional law.  That is the real issue on which the blockades shed light.

I am not an expert on the Wet’suwet’en system of law, but Indigenous peoples may make the claim that Canadian court orders do not apply to them, because they are a sovereign nation. It is true that the Supreme Court of Canada has recognized, in the context of Canadian-Aboriginal law, that Indigenous peoples have pre-existing systems of law and governance that predated conquest. And it has been widely recognized, as Chief Justice McLachlin once said, that settlers committed “cultural genocide” against Indigenous peoples. All of this provides necessary context to the acts of the blockaders.

But, because of the failure of the Charlottetown Accord, Indigenous peoples do not have inherent jurisdiction recognized in the Canadian Constitution. That Accord would have recognized the inherent nature of Indigenous self-government, and made it so that the right to self-government is not contingent on negotiations. Indeed, the right to self-government would have included the right to “develop and maintain and strengthen their relationship with their lands, waters and environment.” This is a fundamental difference from the status quo. Currently, Indigenous rights  must be proven in court to be recognized. The judicial system is thus the locus of Indigenous rights, under s.35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. But inherent jurisdiction, recognized as a constitutional matter, would mean that Indigenous peoples have always had a constitutional basis or jurisdiction to act over matters within their remit. This turns the matter into one of jurisdiction. Inherent jurisdiction may mean that Canadian courts have jurisdiction to issue court orders, but the analysis would be different; instead of proving a “right”, Indigenous peoples would have a recognition of their jurisdiction, and the analysis would be akin to a federalism analysis. As a matter of constitutional amendment, this would put Indigenous systems of law on the same playing field as Canadian law, turning disputes over rights into disputes over jurisdiction. We should encourage our political actors to solve the disputes between the Canadian government and Indigenous groups through constitutional and political means, not only to provide clarity to these sorts of disputes, but to recognize the legal fact of existing Indigenous systems of government.

Questions regarding proof of Indigenous rights and title are currently difficult to resolve under the status quo of s.35 litigation. This is because courts are ill-suited to deal with the essentially political and jurisdictional task of recognizing distincitve orders of government and the lands on which they sit. Questions of proof are subject to years of litigation in court, putting dire pressures on Indigenous groups and government resources. One only need look at the Tsil’qhotin litigation for proof-positive of this point.

Additionally, this solution is not anathema to the Rule of Law. As the Court noted in the Quebec Secession Reference, constitutionalism and the Rule of Law are closely related principles. Once the Constitution recognizes distinctive Indigenous self-government, it becomes a matter of constitutional law, similar to the jurisdiction of the provinces represented in s.92 of the Constitution Act, 1867.

Some people may view this solution as a pipe dream. It is only so because our politicians lack moral courage. But in terms of the legal analysis, Canadian courts have the tools to manage conflicts of law and jurisdictional wrangling. Our federalism has been built on such wrangling for over 150 years, with provinces and federal government vying for power based on their constitutionally-delegated powers. Courts have developed the tools to manage jurisdictional disputes. Those same tools could be applied in this context as well. And of course, there are nuances to be worked out with this solution, as well. While Constitutions can set frameworks for government and provide rules for interjurisdictional disputes, land and resources will continue to be hot button issues subject to negotiations againt the backdrop of constitutional guarantees.

But, for the present moment, courts will need to exist and be respected. An existing system of Indigenous law, without more, cannot justify the disobeying of a court order simply by virtue of its existence. For now, so long as Indigenous peoples fall under the jurisdiction of Canadian courts, the blockades cannot stand as a matter of the Rule of Law. But this does not mean that Canadians, and Canadian leaders, should not bear the onus to complicate our idea of the Rule of Law. We should be looking to recognize inherent Indigenous jurisdiction over matters as an analogue of our own Rule of Law, just as we do in the context of federalism.

The bottom line: the blockades, under any conception of the Rule of Law, cannot stand in the face of a court order. But the blockades do illustrate a larger issue. As I have written before, Canadian understandings of the Rule of Law have to evolve to take account of Indigenous law. Surely, given our federal structure, this is a possibility.

What Does Vavilov Stand For?

This post is co-written with Leonid Sirota.

As we previously noted in a joint post on Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65, that decision leaves open the question whether reasonableness review, as explained in the majority reasons, tends toward deference or vigilance, and so whether it will be more rigorous than pre-Vavilov reasonableness. After all, Vavilov begins by saying that its application of the reasonableness standard is based on a principle of judicial restraint, one which “demonstrates a respect for the distinct role of administrative decision-makers” (Vavilov, at para 13). Yet in the same breath the majority insists that reasonableness “remains a robust form of review” (Vavilov, at para 13). It then adds that the reasonableness standard is strong enough to guard against threats to the Rule of Law—yet not so strong as to revert to a form of jurisdictional review (Vavilov, at para 67).

Because of these statements, it is not surprising that some suggest that Vavilov is more robust than restrained, while others view it as “inherently deferential”. At first blush, these different takes on Vavilov could be argued to reflect confusion at the heart of the decision. And Vavilov’s rhetoric is indeed confusing. But an optimistic interpretation of the majority’s reasons might be that they speak to the great variety of cases to which they apply. In some, review will be more constrained; in others, it will be more rigorous. It will be the task of lower courts to parse the Vavilov judgment to determine which circumstances call for which application. But it is not clear that Vavilov prescribes an approach to judicial review that is uniformly more or less restrained.

While it is too early to draw any trend lines, the lower courts have had a chance to weigh in on this question, and they too are divided. But taking the cases together, they might support the conclusion that Vavilov is more contextual than categorical. On one hand, some cases have put forward more interventionist readings of Vavilov. One of us wrote here about Canadian National Railway Company v Richardson International Limited, 2020 FCA 20. There Nadon JA applied the appellate correctness standard, but he added that had he applied reasonableness review, he would have found the decision unreasonable. Nadon JA faulted the Canadian Transportation Agency for failing to take account of statutory context by focusing too much on the text of the relevant statutory provision—and said this would have been just as much of a problem on reasonableness review. Similarly, in Farrier c Canada (Procureur général), 2020 CAF 25, Gauthier JA explained that while she might have found a decision of the Appeal Division of the Parole Board of Canada reasonable under Dunsmuir and its progeny, under Vavilov, the story was different (Farrier, at paras 12, 19). The failure of the administrative decision-maker to provide reasons on some key legal elements of the decision was fatal.

By their own admission, these cases take a harder look at the administrative decisions under review than one would have expected prior to Vavilov, especially in how they scrutinize the administrative decision-makers’ reasons. This seems fully consistent with Vavilov’s “reasons first” approach to judicial review (Vavilov, at para 84) and its clear rejection of the practice of judicial supplementation of reasons (Vavilov, at paras 96-97). Coupled with these changes, Vavilov introduces what one might call a “legal hard look review”. There is now an expectation that administrators will reason with reference to their enabling statutes and take account these statutes’ text, context, and purpose (Vavilov, at para 120). Their omissions in this regard can only be tolerated if they are minor (Vavilov, at para 122). But, as Richardson holds, a failure to justify a decision in relation to the statute at all will be fatal.

By contrast, some decisions in Ontario’s Divisional Court fail to see a meaningful difference between Vavilov and the previous judicial review regime. In Radzevicius v Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal, 2020 ONSC 319 , for example, Swinton J asserts that “Vavilov does not constitute a significant change in the law of judicial review with respect to the review of the reasons of administrative tribunals” (Radzevicius at para 57). She holds that, because there was no “fundamental flaw or gap in the Tribunal’s analysis”, the decision was reasonable (Radzevicius, at para 59). And in Correa v Ontario Civilian Police Commission, 2020 ONSC 133, Swinton J (writing for a differently composed panel) was similarly disposed, insisting that Vavilov did not impose a “more robust reasonableness review” (Correa, at para 54).

These cases divide on a basic question: is Vavilov reasonableness review more robust than what preceded it? The temptation is to fall on one or another side of this question, but the truth might be a bit more nuanced. The decisions we have just discussed suggest that, while Vavilov may impose more robust review in some circumstances, it is also possible that, in other cases, Vavilov will, indeed, not change the degree of deference.

In Richardson and Farrier, at issue were questions of legal interpretation: questions that required the decision-maker to engage with the enabling statute to determine the meaning, in context, of relevant provisions. A failure to engage with key elements of the statute, insofar as such a lack of consideration may change the result, is not reasonable, according to Vavilov (Vavilov, at para 122). It is probably fair to say that, at least when it comes to pure questions of statutory interpretation, reasonableness review may now take on a more interventionist flavour, particularly where decision-makers are not simply applying a statutory provision to facts but are actually attempting to determine the meaning of particular provisions. When decision-makers are interpreting a statute, Vavilov demands more of them than the cases it supersedes.

Radzevicius and Correa, by contrast, presented issues of mixed fact and law. Decision-makers having applied legal standards to particular facts and evidence; they did not fail to take account of relevant legal provisions or fundamentally misunderstand them. Vavilov says that while the evidence acts as a constraint on the decision-maker, courts must refrain from reweighing evidence or holding decision-makers to a high evidentiary standard (Vavilov, at para 125). This injunction is consistent with Vavilov’s judicial restraint theme. When evidence is more central to the disposition of the case, we might expect review to be more deferential. Whatever else it did, Vavilov did not—for better or for worse—bring back the concept of jurisdictional fact.

This division finds some theoretical support in the literature, specifically Jeffrey Pojanowski’s recent paper advocating for a “neoclassical” approach to administrative law (which one of us reviewed here). Under the neoclassical approach, courts take a harder look at agency legal interpretations while respecting agency space to maneuver on policy or evidentiary matters (883). Neoclassicism pays attention to what both a particular decision-maker’s enabling statute and general legislation, such as the American Administrative Procedure Act indicate about the intensity of the review to which the decision-maker is subject. This approach is to be contrasted with, among others, “administrative supremacy”, which advocates across-the-board deference on all questions of law, reducing the rule of law to a “thin residue” around the margins of delegated power (869).

Vavilov, on the understanding expounded in this post, lends itself to a neoclassical interpretation. On one hand, it asks decision-makers to specifically reason in relation to the limitations on their power, most notably their enabling statute (Vavilov, at paras 108-110, 120). It introduces new requirements to engage with the text, context, and purpose of the statute (Vavilov at para 118 et seq). All of these requirements are rooted in the centrality of the enabling statute, and the role of courts to interpret that statute to decide on the intensity of review. But on the other hand, Vavilov largely incorporates existing law in asking courts to stay their hand when it comes to the evidence before a decision-maker, and the way it might have been assessed (see Khosa, at para 61). In part, this can be justified as a dutiful reflection by the courts that the decision-maker was (1) the initial merits decider and (2) Parliament’s chosen delegate, established to be the merits decider. This division is therefore rooted in a plausible understanding of the respective roles of courts and delegated decision-makers.

Some caveats are in order. First, the distinction between questions of law and questions of evidence will not necessarily be perfectly neat. Indeed, it is true that sometimes, on legal questions, a decision-maker will have a wide margin in which to operate because of the words of a statutory grant of authority (Vavilov, at para 110). As a result, the distinction we draw here might not be helpful in every case. Our point is simply that it may help explain how courts have thus far treated Vavilov. And second, we do not know whether this distinction is really what drove the courts’ reasoning in these cases. Or was their reasoning, instead, primarily a function of individual or institutional views on judicial review, which are bound to influence judges as they work to make sense of equivocal guidance from the Supreme Court? It will be interesting to see, for example, how the Federal Court of Appeal treats more fact-bound cases and, conversely, how the Divisional Court will approach those where statutory interpretation is at the forefront.

That said, if there is one thing that is clear about Vavilov, it is that the various constraints that operate to limit the space within which a decision-maker can maneuver are supposed to be sensitive to context. As the relevant facts and applicable law vary, so different constraints come to the fore. The constraints that apply in a given case lead to more or less interventionist review. One of us suggested, in a contribution to the symposium on the tenth anniversary of Dunsmuir, that the administrative law framework that should replace the one that built on Dunsmuir (or on its ruins) ought to “abandon the pursuit, or the pretense, of across-the-board deference” in favour of greater sensitivity “to the circumstances of particular cases … As these circumstances vary, so must the applicable rules.” Ostensibly, Vavilov instead doubles down a one-size-fits-most reasonableness standard of review. But it may be that, in practice, it makes sufficient room for a more nuanced approach.

In the short term, this might lead to more confusion. In the long run, however, it may prove a more fruitful way of developing the Canadian law of judicial review. For now, it is for the lower courts to work out the precise circumstances in which more or less deference is due to administrative decision-makers. As a result, confident broad judgments about Vavilov’s true import are probably premature.

Richardson: Rigorous Vavilov Review

In one of the Federal Court of Appeal’s post-Vavilov cases, CNR v Richardson, the Court (per Nadon JA) demonstrates that Vavilov review, on substantive questions of law, will not be inattentive or subordinate to administrative discretion. Indeed, while some suggest that Vavilovian review is “inherently deferential,” I see the matter quite differently:  Richardson shows how Vavilov review puts the court in the proper position to rigorously enforce the statutory boundaries of administrative decision-making, particularly where decision-makers fail to engage with elements of the statute at all.

Richardson is an agri-food business that owns and operates 54 grain elevators [3]. CN and CP serve a number of Richardson’s elevators [3].  Meanwhile, the Canadian National Railway Company (CN) and the Canadian Pacific Railway Company (CP) connect railway networks at Scotford, Alberta [5], though the mainlines of each do not connect at Scotford. Around this connection (about 30km) lays Richardson’s Lamont elevator, located on CN’s main line [6].

Richardson filed an application before the Canada Transportation Agency, asking that the Scotford site be deemed an “interchange” and that Richardson traffic be transferred for “interswitching” between Scotford and Lamont elevator. Under the relevant statute (the Canada Transportation Act), an interchange “means a place where the line of one railway company connects with the line of another railway company and where loaded or empty cars may be stored until delivered or received by the other railway company” (s.111). Meanwhile, “interswitch” “means to transfer traffic from the lines of one railway company to the lines of another railway company” (s.111). The goal of interswitching is to ensure that shippers with only one choice of railway have “fair and reasonable access to the rail system at a reasonable rate.” Obviously, this would benefit Richardson.

The Agency first concluded that CN and CP operated an interchange, under the statute, at Scotford. While the Agency noted CN’s argument that its main line did not connect with CP’s main line at Scotford, it ultimately held that s.111 of the statute did not make a distinction between the type of railway line required to make the connection [11]. Rather, under the statute, a railway line is defined broadly [11]. Further, s.140 of the statute outlines exemptions for what a “railway line” does not include. To the Agency, if Parliament wanted to limit interchanges to areas where main lines connected, it could have include a similar exclusion in s.111 of the statute [11].

On judicial review, CN argued that the Agency erred in interpreting the definition of “interchange.” The first question for Nadon JA was the standard of review. He concluded that while, pre-Vavilov, the standard was reasonableness, the case came before the Court on a statutory right of appeal, which meant that the standard of correctness applied [42-44]. But Nadon JA went on to conclude in obiter that even though the standard of review was correctness, “[u]nder the previous standard of reasonableness, I would have had no hesitation concluding that the Agency’s interpretation was unreasonable because it failed to consider both context and the legislative scheme as a whole” [46]. Moreover, the Agency misapplied a principle of statutory interpretation—the so-called “implied exclusion rule” adopted by the Agency was inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent  (see Green, at para 37). As such, Justice Nadon remitted to the Agency to receive its view about the interpretive matter, especially in light of the new correctness standard.

Nadon JA’s analysis is tightly connected to Vavilov, and demonstrates how courts should apply Vavilov in light of defective statutory reasoning. As Vavilov notes, at para 108, the governing statute is the most “salient” aspect of the context bearing on a decision-maker. As such, this most salient aspect must be rigorously enforced against the decision-maker. But a court cannot do so in absence of reasons from the decision-maker engaging with the statute.  Indeed, the reasons must demonstrate some engagement with this and other constraints (Vavilov, at para 120). It is for this reason that decision-makers are required to interpret the law in concert with its text, context, and purpose (see Vavilov, at paras 118, and 120). While the Agency is not required to engage in a “formalistic analysis” (Vavilov, at para 119), and not all errors will be material (Vavilov, at para 122), a failure to engage with purpose at all as in Richardson must be considered fatal, if the governing statutory scheme is a real constraint on administrative decision-making. More specifically, purpose and the overall context must always be considered in run-of-the-mill statutory interpretation cases, and a failure to do so is fatal in that context (see ATCO Gas & Pipelines, 2006 SCC 4 at para 48), as Vavilov says it can be in the administrative context. And what’s more, a failure to use the proper principles of interpretation is a failure of reasoning that Vavilov says is impermissible, because a decision-maker’s interpretation of a statutory provision must be consistent with the text, context, and purpose of a provision, and because “the usual principles of statutory interpretation apply equally when an administrative decision maker interprets a provision” (Vavilov, at para 120).

Richardson, then, is on solid ground. The Agency’s failure to consider the overall statutory context means that it was not “alive” to an essential element of interpretation (Vavilov, at para 120). A failure to engage with the statute at all cannot, on any understanding of the term, be reasonable. And the Agency’s use of the implied exclusion rule, without considering the broader context and purpose, clearly runs counter to the Supreme Court’s comments in Green about the implied exclusion rule. The failure to properly engage with the statute in its entirety, without using the proper tools of interpretation, is a Vavilovian error.

There is a broader point of principle here. As Vavilov implicitly holds, it is not formalistic to expect decision-makers, who share in the enterprise of law-making, to actually do the task properly. Indeed, proponents of deference cannot say two things at once: they cannot insist that decision-makers are contributors to law-making, but then grant decision-makers the ability to engage in reasoning that does not engage with the most obvious and natural limitation on administrative decision-making (Vavilov, at para 109). Either decision-makers are shared partners in law-making or they are not.

It is true that reasons are the focus of Vavilov, and so it is methodologically deferential to look at those reasons first. But this does not lessen the rigorousness of Vavilovian review, at least as exemplified by Nadon JA in Richardson. Indeed, the reasons are merely the window into the application of the constraints on the decision-maker. They are not an invitation for courts to sit back—reasons require responsive engagement by the Court, in relation to the application of the principles of interpretation.

While Nadon JA’s remarks in Richardson are obiter, they are a good example of the promise of Vavilov: rigorous reasonableness review that is focused on the statute and in ensuring that administrative decision-makers engage with the statute.

 

CBC v Ferrier, 2019 ONCA 1025: Considering Consideration of the Charter

Part II of a two-part series on Doré.

 

Yesterday, I wrote about why Doré was under stress in the aftermath of Vavilov. Today, I write about a new case out of the Court of Appeal for Ontario (per Sharpe JA) that demonstrates why Vavilov means that Doré is sitting in a tense situation. While Ferrier should not be taken as the death knell for Doré—or even an indication of such—it is an indication of the tension that Vavilov arguably introduced into the world of Doré.

In Canadian Broadcasting Corp v Ferrier, the question involved “the openness of police board hearings” [1]. Under the Police Services Act, s.35(4), subject to certain exceptions, “police services board hearings are presumptively open to the public” [3]. In other words, section 35(4) sets out the test for whether a hearing should be closed.  In this case, the relevant decision-maker decided that the hearing should be closed. The CBC and others argued that the decision-maker “failed to pay adequate attention to the s.2(b) Charter right to freedom of expression by failing to require an open hearing” [4]. Specifically, the applicants argued that the so-called Dagenais/Mentuck test applied to the case: “[t]his test applies to discretionary decisions limiting freedom of the press in relation to court proceedings” [15]. The decision-maker, though, rejected the application of this test because (1) Dagenais/Mentuck apparently only applies to situations in the courtroom and (2) the relevant statute (s.35(4)) prescribed the proper test for determining whether to hold a closed hearing, and that statutory test ousted the consideration of Dagenais/Mentuck.

In addressing the standard of review, the Court was in an awkward position, because “[t]his appeal had been argued and a complete draft of these reasons had been written before the Supreme Court released its decision in [Vavilov]” [29]. Nonetheless, the Court went on to assess the standard of review under the Vavilov framework.

The main question in determining the standard of review was the proper decision under review, and the authority under which the decision was made. Sharpe JA concluded that the relevant decision was whether the Dagenais/Mentuck standard applied [32-33]. In other words, the relevant decision under review was the decision-maker’s refusal to apply the Dagenais/Mentuck test in view of the s.35(4) statutory test. To Sharpe JA, this was a decision reviewable on a correctness standard [33]. In drawing this conclusion, Sharpe JA drew a distinction (on standard of review) between cases where a Charter right was considered by a decision-maker and cases (as here) where the Charter right was expressly not considered:

[34] If the Charter rights are considered by the administrative decision maker, the standard of reasonableness will ordinarily apply.

[35] On the other hand, the refusal or failure to consider an applicable Charter right should, in my opinion, attract a correctness standard of review. As the Supreme Court explained in Dunsmuir, at para. 60, citing Toronto (City) v. C.U.P.E., Local 79, 2003 SCC 63, [2003] 3 S.C.R. 77, at para. 62: “where the question at issue is one of general law ‘that is both of central importance to the legal system as a whole and outside the adjudicator’s specialized area of expertise’ … uniform and consistent” answers are required. See also Alberta (Information and Privacy Commissioner) v. University of Calgary, 2016 SCC 53, [2016] 2 S.C.R. 555, at paras. 20-21. This is confirmed by Vavilov, at para. 17: “[T]he presumption of reasonableness review will be rebutted…where the rule of law requires that the standard of correctness be applied. This will be the case for certain categories of questions, namely constitutional questions, general questions of law of central importance to the legal system as a whole and questions related to the jurisdictional boundaries between two or more administrative bodies”.

[36]       The s. 2(b) Charter right to freedom of expression and freedom of the press relied upon by the appellants is both a matter of central importance to the legal system and a constitutional question.

In other words, Sharpe JA’s reasoning is that decisions whether to consider Charter rights at all are reviewable on a correctness standard, because such decisions are both constitutional questions and questions of central importance to the legal system, under the Vavilov framework. But once an administrator has considered Charter rights, the consideration of those rights are subject to a reasonableness standard.

Two things are notable about this distinction, taking into account pre-Vavilov precedent. First, prior to Vavilov, the decision of whether Charter rights had to be considered on the facts was not prescribed a specific standard of review by the Supreme Court, and otherwise was subject to a reasonableness standard in the Federal Courts. In Singh, for example, the Federal Court of Appeal was asked to determine whether s.110(4) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act [IRPA], which prescribes the conditions under which new evidence can be admitted in an appeal to the Refugee Appeal Division [RAD] exhaustively prescribed the conditions under which evidence could be admitted. An intervenor argued, for example, that “the RAD had to go beyond the requirements set out in s.110(4) and was obligated to proceed with a [Doré analysis].” [56]. However, the Court concluded (1) that s.110(4) exhaustively set out the conditions under which new evidence could be admitted, vitiating the need for a Doré analysis [62] and (2) even taking account of the fact that this argument was made, the Court ultimately concluded that the interpretation of a provision such as s.110(4) is reviewable on a standard of reasonableness [29]. This is because, among other things, the question was “not a question of law of central importance to the legal system as a whole…[23].

It is true, as Professor Daly points out on Twitter, that Sharpe JA’s approach is substantially similar to the approach adopted by the Supreme Court with respect to the duty to consult, as noted in Rio Tinto. There, a distinction was drawn between cases where the decision-maker decides whether it must consider the duty to consult (reviewable on a correctness standard) and cases where the decision-maker has consulted and it is up to the court to assess the adequacy of the consultation (reviewed on a reasonableness standard). More broadly, the distinction here—similar to the one drawn by Sharpe JA—is based on a traditional sort of test for standard of review: questions of law (existence of legal duty) are reviewable on a correctness standard; questions of mixed fact and law are reviewable on a reasonableness standard.

But the analogy to duty to consult is not entirely convincing. For one, in some cases, a duty to consult may not need to be considered by an administrative decision-maker—since the enabling statute may not mandate it (see Rio Tinto, at para 67). But Doré speaks in far more reaching terms: “Rather, administrative decisions are always required to consider fundamental values” (Doré, at para 35, emphasis in original). Following this line of thinking, Doré and its progeny have not adopted the distinction between power to consider a fundamental right and the consideration of that right, for the purposes of the standard of review (though I note Moldaver J’s reasons in Ktunaxa as approaching this bifurcated analysis). As noted above, in Singh, whether a decision-maker must address the Charter is a matter of statutory interpretation, normally reviewable on the standard of reasonableness (see also Deri, at the Federal Court, on this note).

This distinction, then, in the Charter context is not common.  Indeed, Sharpe JA seems to imply that Vavilov broadened the categories of cases in which correctness review would apply. The distinction drawn by Sharpe JA seems to give broader effect to the Dunsmuir correctness categories of “central questions” and “constitutional issues.” Take the central questions category. Following Singh, the question of whether a statute ousts the need to consider judicially-constructed tests was not a “central question” of importance to the legal system. But now, given Vavilov’s comments on the Rule of Law and the need for determinate final answers on important issues of legal interpretation (Vavilov, at para 53), it appears that there is extra grist for the mill for judges to expand the scope of the category, despite the Vavilov majority’s warnings otherwise (see Vavilov, para 61).  Moreover, on the scope of constitutional questions, and on Doré’s own holding, a distinction was not drawn between cases where a Charter argument was considered versus cases where they were not considered but should have been. The Court has never explicitly endorsed this proposition with reference to Charter rights.  Doré, instead, simply says that a decision which balances the Charter value with the statutory objective is reasonable (Doré, at para 58). Ipso facto, a decision which does not will be unreasonable, and so a decision that fails to even take account of a Charter value will be unreasonable (for an example, see Abdi, at para 30 ). But this was not a question of correctness, at least on Doré’s standard. Sharpe JA takes a different approach, relying on Vavilov.

One could make a convincing argument, then, that Vavilov changes  the pre-Vavilov state of affairs as it applies to Doré and other categories of correctness review. In other words, Ferrier eats into Doré’s domain.

That is one point, in itself. But another is that, in my view, Sharpe JA does not take the point far enough, and in failing to do so, creates a distinction that is unworkable.  In truth, the distinction between cases where Charter rights were considered and those where they were not is not a strong one on which to rest a difference in the standard of review. This is because of what Vavilov says at paras 55, 57:

Questions regarding the division of powers between Parliament and the provinces, the relationship between the legislature and the other branches of the state, the scope of Aboriginal and treaty rights under s. 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, and other constitutional matters require a final and determinate answer from the courts. Therefore, the standard of correctness must continue to be applied in reviewing such questions: Dunsmuir, para. 58Westcoast Energy Inc. v. Canada (National Energy Board)1998 CanLII 813 (SCC), [1998] 1 S.C.R. 322.

[…]

The constitutional authority to act must have determinate, defined and consistent limits, which necessitates the application of the correctness standard.

In other words, “the constitutional authority to act”—whether Charter values are considered or not—necessitates the application of the correctness standard. More broadly, the application of the correctness standard in these circumstances “respects the unique role of the judiciary in interpreting the Constitution and ensures that courts are able to provide the last word on question for which the rule of law requires consistency and for which a final and determinate answer is necessary” (Vavilov, at para 53). In my view, this is true when a court analyzes whether a decision maker was required to consider Charter rights, and in cases where the decision-maker actually analyzed the Charter rights. In both cases, there is a substantial constitutional component to the analysis which implicates the need for the court to have the final say on the law: the court is required in both cases to assess the application and scope of constitutional rights. Even when considered in respect of facts or proportionality analysis, a court is still required to construe the scope of constitutional rights.

Some might argue with my position here. For example, as I mentioned in my previous post, Vavilov explicitly does not overturn Doré, and also does not explicitly mention questions of the “Charter” falling within the scope of its comments on “constitutional questions.” But it would be hard to distinguish between these cases. In other words, what is the compelling justification to treat Charter cases separately from all other questions of constitutional law, and going a step further, what is the justification for distinguishing cases where the Charter was considered versus where it was not? Whie one might say that the factual component changes things, in both cases, involving considering whether Charter values arise because of a relationship to a statute and cases where Charter values were considered, it is the court’s task to delineate the scope of constitutional rights. This is true in both the abstract and as applied to proportionality analysis. If this is true, the distinction, then, falls apart.

Ferrier, then, is an interesting case study in how Vavilov interacts with Doré. And at least on first blush, the interaction is tense.

After Vavilov, Doré is Under Stress

Part I of a two-part series on Doré

**This is Part I of a two part series on the interaction between Doré and Vavilov. Tomorrow, I will post a review of one of the first post-Vavilov cases, Ferrier at the ONCA. Ferrier raises issues about the standard of review on constitutional matters**

Vavilov ushhered in a new era in Canadian administrative law, particularly as it pertains to judicial review of administrative interpretations of law. That new era, as far as I can tell, is wholly inconsistent with the justifications underlying the Supreme Court’s decision in Doré in which the Court held that courts should defer to administrative decisions that engage the Charter; specifically, an administrator’s balancing of Charter values with statutory objectives. Doré is inconsistent with Vavilov in at least two ways: (1) Doré’s treatment of expertise is inconsistent with Vavilov’s treatment of the same subject; (2) Vavilov’s comments about the Rule of Law present no principled reason to distinguish between statutory constitutional questions and administrative constitutional questions (3) even if the Doré reasonableness standard is maintained, reasonableness will likely mean much more than it has in the Court’s cases subsequent to Doré . In total, what we are seeing is two cases represented by two completely different theories of administrative law. The tension is strong.

First, an admission: Vavilov hedged on Doré. This is what the Court had to say:

Although the amici questioned the approach to the standard of review set out in Doré v. Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 S.C.R. 395, a reconsideration of that approach is not germane to the issues in this appeal. However, it is important to draw a distinction between cases in which it is alleged that the effect of the administrative decision being reviewed is to unjustifiably limit rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (as was the case in Doré) and those in which the issue on review is whether a provision of the decision maker’s enabling statute violates the Charter (see, e.g., Nova Scotia (Workers’ Compensation Board) v. Martin, 2003 SCC 54, [2003] 2 S.C.R. 504, at para. 65). Our jurisprudence holds that an administrative decision maker’s interpretation of the latter issue should be reviewed for correctness, and that jurisprudence is not displaced by these reasons [57].

The Court was clearly right not to take the amici’s suggestion about Doré. There was no question of administrative interpretation engaging Charter rights or values on the facts of Vavilov (or the companion case of Bell/NFL), so it would be an unjustified expansion of the judicial role to deal with questions that were not before the court. But this does not mean that Doré sits easily with the new era of administrative law that Vavilov has ushered in.

Take, first, Vavilov’s comments on expertise. Vavilov concludes that expertise is not a legal reason for deference, as far as determining the standard of review [30-31]. Put differently, expertise cannot justify a presumption of deference because:

…if administrative decision makers are understood to possess specialized expertise on all questions that come before them, the concept of expertise ceases to assist a reviewing court in attempting to distinguish questions for which applying the reasonableness standard is appropriate from those for which it is not [28].

Specifically, then, expertise cannot assist a court in reviewing administrative interpretations of law, because it is not a good working assumption that decision-makers are expert on all matters that come before the court.

Now compare the tenor of these comments to what Doré had to say about expertise on constitutional matters. The Court in that case noted that a revised approach to the review of administrative decisions implicating the Charter involved “recognizing the expertise of these decision-makers” [35]. Specifically:

An administrative decision-maker exercising a discretionary power under his or her home statute, has, by virtue of expertise and specialization, particular familiarity with the competing considerations at play in weighing Charter values [48].

Putting Vavilov and Doré side by side like this illustrates the ill-fit: Doré’s underpinning concept is that of expertise, particularly the notion that administrators have expertise in legal matters as a presumptive rule. But if this is no longer assumed when it comes to selecting the standard of review in the Vavilov context, there is no reason to assume it in the constitutional context, where the case for expertise is—logically—weaker. In other words, constitutional law is not the same as routine legal matters with which administrators may have experience. Making the jump from these routine legal matters to constitutional matters was always the fatal flaw of Doré, and now that Vavilov does not even assume expertise when it comes to legal matters, there is no reason to make that same assumption on constitutional matters.

Next, consider what Vavilov had to say about the Rule of Law. The Rule of Law, according to the Supreme Court, will sometimes require “a singular, determinate and final answer” to the question before a particular court (Vavilov, at para 32). This makes sense: the Supreme Court has also said that the Rule of Law, among other things, “requires the creation and maintenance of an actual order of positive laws which preserves and embodies the more general principle of normative order” (Reference re Manitoba Language Rights, at 749). On certain questions, it would undermine this “general principle of normative order” for a court to take a “hands-off” approach to a certain decision, or to permit multiple “reasonable” interpretations of a particular issue to stand when it comes to the Constitution.

One of the categories of correctness review emphasized in Vavilov is constitutional questions, where “[t]he application of the correctness standard…respects the unique role of the judiciary in interpreting the Constitution and ensures that courts are able to provide the last word on questions for which the rule of law requires consistency and for which a final and determinate answer is necessary” (Vavilov, at para 53). Under this understanding, there is no principled reason that Vavilov’s comments about the Rule of Law and constitutional questions should necessitate a different response just because of the forum in which the constitutional argument arises. Just because, on judicial review, an applicant challenges a statute as opposed to an administrative decision should not change the task of the judiciary to be the final expositors of the Constitution. This, again, was a fatal flaw of Doré. It is, in my view, difficult for Doré to stand given Vavilov’s doubling-down on the traditional role of the courts in interpreting and applying the Constitution.

True, the concurring opinion in Vavilov (Abella and Karakatsanis JJ) was quick to point out that “[t]he majority’s approach to the rule of law, however, flows from a court-centric conception of the rule of law rooted in Dicey’s 19th century philosophy.” I’ve always been struck by the intellectual laziness of the charge of “Dicey” as a legal argument; but no matter, in the context of the Constitution, the Rule of Law is primarily the rule of courts, at least on the majority’s understanding in Vavilov. And, what’s more, the majority’s understanding is consistent with what the Supreme Court has said itself about the role of the judiciary in a constitutional democracy, in a variety of different contexts: Hunter v Southam, at 155: “The judiciary is the guardian of the constitution…”; Ell v Alberta, at para 23: “[a]ccordingly, the judiciary’s role as arbiter of disputes and guardian of the Constitution require that it be independent from all other bodies”; United States v Burns, at para 35: “…the Court is the guardian of the Constitution…”; Kourtessis v MNR, at 90: “The courts are the guardians of the Constitution and they must have the powers to forge the instruments necessary to maintain the integrity of the Constitution and to protect the rights it guarantees”; and in a judgment jointed by Abella and Karakatsanis JJ in the Nadon Reference, the Court endorsed the proposition that since the judiciary became the “guardian of the Constitution,” the Supreme Court itself became a “foundational premise of the Constitution” (at para 89). These comments can easily be taken to imply that courts, in comparison to administrators, have a unique role in interpreting the Constitution by systemic legal design, even if administrators, in the odd case, may have something of value to say about the Constitution. Particularly apt, on this score, is the comment in Ell regarding independence: courts are the only independent guardians of the Constitution.

Finally, there is something to say about reasons, even if correctness is not the applicable standard of review. Applying the reasonableness standard in the Doré context requires proportionality (see Doré , at para 56), but Doré does not explain explicitly what is required in terms of reasoning. That said, the Court has been reticent to adopt a formal reasons requirement for Doré -type decisions, consistent with the Court’s jurisprudence that reasonableness means different things in different contexts (see Catalyst, at para 18), and that the adequacy of reasons is not a standalone basis for review (see Newfoundland Nurses, at para 14), with courts being permitted to supplement reasons for decision (Newfoundland Nurses, at para 12). The classic example of this was in TWU, where the majority of the Court, relying on these authorities, concluded that simply because the Benchers were “alive” to the Charter issues, there was no issue of discretion fettering when the Law Society ordered a referendum on TWU (TWU, at para 56). In dissent in TWU, Brown and Côté JJ would have required more in the way of justification from the Law Society, especially given the Charter rights at play (TWU, at paras 295-296).

Vavilov says something different about what reasonableness requires, putting stress on Doré and its progeny. The Vavilov framework withdraws from the “supplementation” of reasons (Vavilov, at para 96), still permitting the reviewing court to look to the record, but not permitting courts to gin up its own reasons for decision. But reasons take on an expanded importance in Vavilov, specifically requiring a decision-maker to justify decision in relation to particular legal constraints on the decision-maker (Vavilov, at para 108) and in terms of the impact on the affected individual (Vavilov, at para 133), among other things. Interestingly, Vavilov does note that its reasons first methodology will be difficult where reasons are not provided (Vavilov, at para 137), explicitly citing TWU, and further notes that in the absence of reasons, courts must still apply the various constraints on the decision-maker, but that the analysis may focus more on outcome that on reasoning (Vavilov, at para 138).

Even with these comments in mind, the past precedent, TWU, and Vavilov do not stand easily together. Specifically, the most important legal constraint on any decision-maker is the Constitution. It is difficult to see how a decision-maker could fail to justify a decision under the Constitution and for a court to rule that that decision is reasonable—courts should not cooper up bad or non-existent reasoning in these cases. This is even more so given that one of the constraints on the decision-maker, the impact and importance to the affected individual, is particularly acute in situations involving constitutional rights. It might appear that in the constitutional context, more should be required if we retain a reasonableness standard on constitutional matters. Simply put, reading TWU and concluding that the decision-maker was “alive” to the Charter issues seems to be the wrong line of thinking, with Vavilov. In this sense, there are genuine signals pointing to Brown and Côté JJ’s dissent in TWU, where they would require more in term of reasoning. That said, this is an area of genuine ambiguity that I cannot resolve here, and there are also signals in Vavilov that cases like TWU are still good law.

I do not make these comments with the naïve understanding that the Court could not save Doré in light of Vavilov. Vavilov explicitly does not mention the Charter in the class of cases to which correctness should apply. And the Court’s approach could, admittedly, allow for Doré to stand. For example, courts could continue to apply the reasonableness standard to constitutional questions where expertise is demonstrated by an administrator in interpreting the Constitution. This finds some support in Vavilov, where expertise is “folded into the new starting point and, as explained below, expertise remains a relevant consideration in conducting reasonableness review” (Vavilov, at para 31). But this runs into a number of problems: first, it continues to apply a reasonableness standard even though expertise is no longer is a reason to apply that standard under Vavilov. Second, it would require courts, in each case, to measure expertise as an empirical matter on constitutional questions. While rules of thumb could be used to assist in this matter, it is unlikely to be an attractive option to the Court.

At the very least, Doré now stands at odds with Vavilov, its underlying justifications under stress because of the new administrative law foundation introduced by the Supreme Court. In my view, the two cases represent two different visions of administrative law. On one hand, Vavilov is indeed a move towards Diceyanism (and I mean this in the best way possible), in the sense that the statute is the centrepiece of the analysis when it comes to selecting the standard of review and applying it. Doré is based on more functional concerns, notably, expertise. There is a fundamental mismatch here. How long Doré lasts, only time will tell. But there is at least some reason to think that Doré is under significant tension because of Vavilov.

Day 12: Mark Mancini

Here are my three favourite dissents at the Supreme Court of Canada. All of my dissents are united by a focus on the Rule of Law and constitutionalism, traditionally understood. In other words, they prioritize constitutional text over abstract values; and they focus particularly on the hierarchy of laws under which the Constitution>statutes>the common law. These might be considered “boring” themes on which to base my dissents, but to my mind, these structural arrangements are fundamental to law in Canada. These dissents focus on the majority’s subversion or misapplication of these fundamental structural constraints.

The TWU decision was one of the most anticipated Supreme Court decisions in 2018. My favourite aspect of this dissent, penned by Brown and Côté JJ, was the rigorous attack on Doré/Loyola as an organizing framework to analyze the constitutional claims in TWU. The dissent admirably showed why these cases are inconsistent with the Rule of Law and constitutionalism.

The Doré/Loyola approach to assessing the constitutionality of decisions engaging Charter rights asks decision-makers to balance Charter values engaged on particular facts with statutory objectives arising in a statutory framework. Courts are supposed to defer to the decision-maker’s balancing of values and objectives. But the slippery nature of Doré/Loyola has been subject to widespread criticism (see my particular criticisms here). Brown and Côté JJ also pointed out the widespread problems with the Doré/Loyola framework: see para 302. But the majority largely ignored these problems, and the suggestion by interveners that Doré/Loyola were unworkable. In a laughably weak paragraph, the majority simply stated that Doré and Loyola are binding precedents [59], without any attempt to justify the approach from first principles.

Brown and Côté JJ’s dissenting opinion admirably dealt with the problems with the Doré/Loyola framework head on. First, the dissent stated that there is no pressing justification for a separate analytical track when speaking of administrative decisions, particularly because the traditional Oakes test is “already context-specific” [302]. Second, the dissent noted that Doré and Loyola permit statutory objectives to trump Charter rights—but such a situation is completely unjustified from the perspective of the Rule of Law and constitutionalism, under which the Constitution trumps potentially unconstitutional statutory objectives, subject only to reasonable limits under s.1—not statutory objectives writ large [305]. Finally, the majority’s navel-gazing with regards to Charter values received the dissent’s ire: these values—as opposed to Charter rights—do not receive constitutional protection [307], and should not because they are not law. Since they are “unsourced,” they can be “entirely the product of the idiosyncrasies of the judicial mind that pronounces them to be so” [308].

Brown and Côté JJ’s dissenting reasons sound in the Rule of Law and constitutionalism. Under Doré, as Brown and Côté JJ note, the traditional hierarchy of laws is perverted. The use of statutory objectives to moor the analysis means that rights can be infringed insofar as a decision limiting those rights is consistent with an enabling statute. This reverses how we typically understand constitutionalism. Under a system based on the Constitution, once a decision is found to limit a constitutional right, that decision is void insofar as it infringes the Constitution—statutes cannot save a decision that infringe the Constitution [305]. True, infringements of Charter rights can be justified under the Oakes test. But it is not only every statutory objective and means that are worthy of the Oakes imprimatur. Yet under Doré, “Charter rights are guaranteed only so far as they are consistent with the objectives of the enabling statute” [305].

More seriously, the use of Charter values allows for potential judicial expansion of rights beyond the text of the Constitution—that which is enacted by the people through democratic processes. As Brown and Côté JJ persuasively note, “values” lack doctrinal rigour, permitting judges to define rights as they see fit. This perverts the relationship that courts should have to constitutional text. The relationship is that of an interpreter, not a creator. Constitutionalism is as much about control on elected representatives as it is on courts, who are supposed to faithfully elucidate the existing Constitution, not create a new one.

At issue in the SFL case was a prohibition on striking interfered with s.2(d) of the Charter, protecting the freedom of association. The majority (Abella J) concluded that s.2(d) incorporated a right to strike, despite the fact that the Court had previously held that the right to strike is not constitutionally entrenched in Canada. While there had been changes in the s.2(d) jurisprudence in the intervening years, those changes, in my view, fell far short of endorsing a free-standing right to strike.

Yet the majority did so, powered by the reasoning that “It seems to me to be the time to [the right to strike] constitutional benediction.” This reasoning—a weak, unsupported assertion of judicial power—was the target of Rothstein and Wagner JJ’s partial dissent.

The dissent in SFL focused on two problems with the majority’s acceptance of a right to strike. First, it noted that constitutionalizing a right to strike upsets the prerogatives of the legislature and the executive, the branches constitutionality assigned to “balance competing tensions in making policy decisions” [115]. As the dissent posits, “Governments, not courts, are charged with adapting legislation to changing circumstances in order to achieve a balance between the interests of employers, employees, and the public” [120]. But secondly, to the dissent, the majority’s approach was inconsistent with existing precedent of the Court, undermining certainty in the law [137, 139].

Rothstein and Wagner JJ’s dissent is so powerful because it resists the judicial usurpation (“benediction”) evident in the majority reasons. It asserts that the text of the Constitution, not judicial predilections or results-oriented reasoning, should be the starting point of constitutional analysis. It refers to the importance of precedent as the bedrock of the legal system; precedent which the majority overrules for no convincing reason. It asserts that the court cannot usurp the power of the legislature in an area traditionally assigned to political channels. These are reminders that courts should keep in mind in the era of Charter adjudication.

Dissents are sometimes valuable because they have the potential to tell the future. Sometimes it takes a long time for a dissent to find majority support. But in Edmonton East, at least part of Brown and Côté JJ’s dissent received majority support in the Supreme Court’s recent administrative law re-do, Vavilov.

The controversy in Edmonton East centred around the selection of the standard of review. The majority (Karakatsanis J) ultimately concluded that a presumption of reasonableness review should govern, based on existing precedent. That presumption was justified by (1) the legislative choice to delegate in the first place [22] and (2) expertise, which “inheres in a tribunal itself as an institution…” [33] and (3) access to justice [22]. But Karakatsanis J, in her reasons, actually ended up strengthening the presumption of reasonableness, by rejecting the idea that a contextual analysis should not often rebut the presumption of reasonableness [35], and the idea that statutory rights of appeal cannot rebut the presumption of reasonableness [28].

Brown and Côté JJ took significant issue with all of this. In their view, the existence of a statutory right of appeal on certain questions of law and jurisdiction led to the conclusion in this case that correctness was the applicable standard [78]. To Brown and Cote JJ, statutory rights of appeal could be a signal that the legislature intended more intrusive review [73]. And the dissent was also reticent about the majority’s broad claims of expertise [83].

Brown and Côté JJ’s dissent is justified in principle. The selection of the standard of review is a matter of determining what the legislature meant when it delegated power to a decision-maker. This is because administrative actors are vested with powers only so far as statute provides, and it is for the legislature to prescribe the degree of deference courts must afford decision-makers [85]. This means that courts must carefully parse the delegation of authority to decision-makers, and the statutory context, to determine the degree of deference owed: statutory rights of appeal play a role in this task, as they signal that legislatures intended courts to interfere with a lower administrative decision as it would in any normal appeal. And expertise is not a good justification for a broad-based presumption of expertise, because legislatures may sometimes delegate to a non-expert decision-maker, and a decision-maker might not be expert on all the questions that come before it [85].

All of this, as noted above, was recognized by the Court’s recent opinion in Vavilov. Statutory rights of appeal now serve as valid legislative signals that correctness applies, on questions of law. Expertise is no longer a valid consideration in determining the standard of review. Brown and Côté JJ foretold the future, then, in their Edmonton East dissent.

Day Seven: Howard Kislowicz

The Disagreement is the Law

Howie Kislowicz

On the surface, dissenting judgments paint alternative visions of the law in a particular case. More deeply, they demonstrate that disagreement is a fundamental feature of the way law is made in our legal tradition. I did not choose the three dissenting views highlighted here because I think they “got the law right” (though I agree with some elements of them). I chose them because, each in their own way, they question an orthodoxy  and address the contingencies of Canadian constitutional law. 

McLachlin J in Adler 

In Adler, two groups of parents who sent their children to private religious schools sought a constitutional remedy on the basis of their religious freedom and equality rights. They were aggrieved because, though the Ontario government funded Catholic schools pursuant to its constitutional obligations under the s. 93 of the Constitution Act 1867, it did not fund any other religious schools. Adler is most often discussed in relation to the question of what courts do when one part of the Constitution appears to conflict with another. The answer, that one part of the constitution cannot invalidate another, had previously been given.(FN 1: Or, as I prefer, the legal equivalent of the theological question: could an omnipotent god create a brisket so big that even they couldn’t eat it?)

My focus here, however, is on Justice McLachlin’s (as she then was) Charter analysis. The majority held that s. 93 created a comprehensive code with respect to education, and this included the provision of both public and Catholic or Protestant schools. As such, the majority reasoned, no aspect of this system could be subject to Charter review.

Justice McLachlin, however, held that the constitutional obligations imposed by s 93 were for “Ontario to fund schools for the Roman Catholic minority in Ontario.” In other words, only the support of Catholic schools, not of public schools, was shielded from Charter scrutiny. This opened the door to Charter analysis.

Justice McLachlin held that the absence of funding for non-Catholic religious schools was not a religious freedom problem: no one was prohibited from sending their children to such schools. 

She went on, however, to consider the position of non-Catholic religious schools in contrast with that of secular public schools. I would wager that for many such an analogy might seem of no assistance. The religious parents in Adler could, after all, send their children to the funded public schools. From one perspective, such access represents equality, it does not violate it. The reason Justice McLachlin’s judgment stands out is because it engages directly with the perspective of the religious parents. “To these children,” Justice McLachlin held, “public education is as inaccessible as a job on the construction site was to [a turban-wearing Sikh person].” While Justice McLachlin ultimately held that the infringement of equality rights was justified, she showed a remarkable capacity to understand a perspective that might easily have been dismissed. She was also careful to specifically reject the argument that any disadvantage experienced by the religious families was due to their choice of religion: “If a charge of religious discrimination could be rebutted by the allegation that the person discriminated against chose the religion and hence must accept the adverse consequences of its dictates, there would be no such thing as [religious] discrimination.”

Abella J in NS 

A second dissent that has stayed with me is Justice Abella’s in R v NS. The case addressed whether the complainant in a sexual assault prosecution could testify while wearing a niqab, a veil worn by some Muslim women that covers the whole face except the eyes. The two accused argued that this would compromise their fair trial rights by depriving court and counsel of access to her demeanour. 

The majority created a test designed to balance the fair trial rights of the accused and the religious freedom rights of the complainant. While the test speaks in terms of reconciling competing interests, I think Faisal Bhabha was right when he wrote that the impact of the test is likely that niqabi sexual assault complainants will have to choose between testifying without their niqab or not testifying (see also para 96 of the dissent). Sexual assault prosecutions typically require testimony from the complainant to lead to a conviction, and the test is structured to make such important testimony subject to a no-niqab rule (see also Natasha Bakht’s work). 

One of the challenges in the case is that it hinges on the assumption that a witness’s demeanour is a valuable indicator of their credibility. The social science on this question tends in the opposite direction, suggesting that ordinary people do no better than chance at detecting deception (see here and here). Though some of this social science was put to the court, this was not done through an expert witness who was able to stand for cross-examination. Accordingly, the majority of the court would not change the common law’s widespread assumption that watching a witness testify provides reliable information about their credibility. 

Justice Abella’s dissent is compelling because this did not end the analysis for her. Instead of going down the path of the social science, Justice Abella used the common law’s tradition of analogical reasoning to question the position that a witness must testify with their face showing. Perhaps most persuasive is the analogy she draws to those with “physical or medical limitations that affect a judge’s or lawyer’s ability to assess demeanour. A stroke may interfere with facial expressions; an illness may affect body movements; and a speech impairment may affect the manner of speaking… yet none has ever been held to disqualify the witness from giving his or her evidence.” This passage is remarkable because it challenges a deep assumption of our legal processes and, like Justice McLachlin’s dissent in Adler, it refuses to treat religion differently than disability on the grounds that religion is “chosen.”

La Forest J in Provincial Judges’ Reference

The last dissent I highlight relates to the unwritten aspects of our Constitution. The Provincial Judges Reference addressed whether the principle of judicial independence constrained legislatures’ powers to limit the salaries of provincial judges. The disagreement between the majority and the dissent reveals a fundamental divergence in the conception of what Canada’s Constitution is and how courts should understand it. 

For the majority, the text of the Constitution only incompletely lays out the principle of judicial independence: “[t]he only way to explain the interpretation of ss. 96 and 100… is by reference to a deeper set of unwritten understandings which are not found on the face of the document itself”. The majority referred to the preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867, which expresses the desire to form a country “with a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.” This, the Court held, points us to seek the Constitution’s “organizing principles” in “the legal and institutional structure” of the United Kingdom. 

This way of reading the constitution, by reference to underlying or organizing principles that are not explicit in the text, has become familiar. But Justice La Forest presented a way of engaging with the Constitution more firmly anchored in its text. He accepted that the Constitution “embraces unwritten rules,” but emphasized that “these rules really find their origin in specific provisions of the Constitution viewed in light of our constitutional heritage”. To the extent that judicial independence was entrenched in the Constitution, this was “accomplished… by ss. 99100 of the Constitution Act, 1867, not the preamble”.

Here is the crux of the disagreement. For La Forest J, the written provisions of the Constitution are not incomplete expressions of the underlying principles that animate the Constitution. The express provisions “are the Constitution. To assert otherwise is to subvert the democratic foundation of judicial review”. Why? Because “[j]udicial review… is politically legitimate only insofar as it involves the interpretation of an authoritative constitutional instrument” (emphasis added). 

Justice La Forest’s dissent represents a contrary view on the primacy of the text over unwritten principles. It understands the documents to be the Constitution, whereas the majority seems to understand them to be an imperfect expression of the Constitution’s principles. These are very different ways of understanding the nature of our political community and its fundamental commitments. I don’t think I share Justice La Forest’s view, but it provides a reminder that our Constitutional documents do not come with clear instructions on how they are to be read and what unwritten principles they might include. In this way, La Forest J’s dissent accomplishes, I think, the goals of writing a dissenting view: it challenges its readers to scrutinize their interpretive commitments, which often go unstated.

My students sometimes lament that dissenting views are on the syllabus. But the law is more than a set of normative propositions. The records of legal disagreements give us glimpses at alternate possibilities; they model how a society characterized by deep divisions can rely in part on law to build a life in common.