Unconstitutional and Unconstitutional

Why delegating plenary taxing powers to the executive is wrong as a matter of constitutional principle and constitutional law

The government’s fortunately short-lived proposal to arrogate to itself the power to make regulations “that have the effect of repealing or imposing a tax, decreasing or increasing a rate or an amount of tax or otherwise changing the incidence of tax” generated a flurry of discussion about aspects of the constitution that are both fundamental and obscure. The most impressive contribution to this conversation is that of co-blogger Mark Mancini. Mark argues that, while a sweeping delegation of the power to tax to the executive is bad policy, it is not unconstitutional. Specifically, he addresses two arguments about it constitutionality: one based on section 53 of the Constitution Act, 1867, and one based on the unwritten principle of democracy.

For my part, I am not convinced by what Mark says about section 53, and I think that the principle of democracy is not the most important one to think about here. In my view, the Supreme Court’s interpretation of section 53 does not support ― and indeed give reason to challenge ― a delegation as sweeping as that which was apparently contemplated. The principle of responsible government ― not just democracy writ large ― also calls it into question. Before getting to these arguments about constitutional law, though, I think it’s important to emphasize that a plenary delegation of taxing powers is unconstitutional in a somewhat different sense.


Government action can be meaningfully said to be unconstitutional even if it contradicts no rule of binding constitutional law that could be enforced by the courts. This is most obviously so in the case of a breach of constitutional convention (assuming, that is, that the orthodox distinction between convention and law still holds), but arguably even in the absence of a violation of a precise rule, if government acts contrary to fundamental principle. It is in this sense that the governments (and Parliaments) of the United Kingdom and of New Zealand can be said to act unconstitutionally. The constitutions of these polities are not entrenched and judicially enforceable, but they are no less real, and susceptible of being contravened in a way that calls for denunciation in constitutional terms.

One of the fundamental principles of the Westminster constitutions since at least 1688 is that of Parliamentary control over taxation. Mark refers to the post-Glorious Revolution constitutional settlement by saying that “if the Bill of Rights of 1688 meant anything, it meant that Parliament came into its own as the controller of the executive; it became a sovereign body” ― but that’s not quite right. The references to Parliamentary control of the executive in the Bill of Rights are more precise than a general assertion of sovereignty. They do not focus on Parliament’s power to make laws ― that was a given, and the Crown’s inability to make new law was recognized in the Case of Proclamations 80 years earlier. Nor do they involve a general control of the executive ― that would only come with responsible government, which developed over a long period of time starting decades after the Glorious Revolution and not taking a final form until the 1830s.

What the Bill of Rights 1688 did do was to impose firm prohibitions on the Crown “suspending laws”, “dispensing with laws”, and “levying money for or to the use of the Crown by pretence of prerogative, without grant of Parliament, for longer time, or in other manner than the same is or shall be granted”. Now, “consent of Parliament” overrides these restrictions, as it obviously does that on the Crown’s law-making power. Acting “by and with the advice and consent” of Parliament, the Crown can make and change law, and it can impose and abolish taxes. The question, though, is whether this consent can be given prospectively, in advance, and in the form in effect of a blank cheque. After all, granting the Crown, acting on the advice of its Privy Council (and, in practice, of the cabinet) rather than of Parliament, the power of “repealing or imposing a tax, decreasing or increasing a rate or an amount of tax” amounts to nothing else.

In my view, the principle behind article 4 of the Bill of Rights ― the one dealing with “levying money without grant of Parliament” ― requires specific authorization on an ongoing basis. Parliament sought, and succeeded in gaining the ability, to actually keep tabs on the executive’s finances. It did not do so to simply let the executive run itself as if 1688 hadn’t happened. “The Crown can imposes whatever taxes and imposts it pleaseth, for ever and ever” would not be consistent with the purpose of article 4, and the contrary idea wouldn’t have occurred to anyone until the development of responsible government, and indeed well after. But even now, it is not a sound idea. Parliamentary scrutiny of taxation must be constant to be effective. It cannot just happen once in a blue moon, and the vagaries of question time are not a sufficient substitute for accountability mechanisms focused on taxation and spending.

The proposed delegation of taxing power to the executive was not, of course, for ever and ever. But it would have lasted almost half the duration of a normal Parliament, and longer than hung Parliaments typically survive in Canada. And it was, of course, quite uncabined ― the executive really would have been able to do anything it pleased. In my view, it is absolutely contrary to the principle and spirit of article 4 of the Bill of rights 1688, and so not merely stupid, but actually unconstitutional, at least in the sense of being inconsistent with the constitution’s underlying commitments. Whether the courts would have been able to do anything about this is a separate question, and a moot one at this point.


Despite its mootness, I turn now to the question of the constitutional legality of the government’s proposal. As noted above, the key constitutional provision here is section 53 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which provides that “Bills for appropriating any Part of the Public Revenue, or for imposing any Tax or Impost, shall originate in the House of Commons”. The question is whether taxes imposed pursuant to delegation, and one as broad as the one described above, meet this requirement.

It may be worth pointing out that the exact status of section 53 is somewhat mysterious. The Supreme Court has long held, as Justice Iacobucci put it in Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Assn v Ontario (Attorney General), 2001 SCC 15, [2001] 1 SCR 470, that “[s]ections 53 and 54″ ― of which more shortly ― can be amended by Parliament”. [68] Yet Justice Iacobucci went on to say that “there is a constitutional guarantee of ‘no taxation without representation'” ― for which section 53 is (rightly) taken to stand ― “in Canada”. [70] I’m not sure how these two statements are to be reconciled. In any event, the position seems to be that, at least so long as section 53 has not in fact been amended, failure to comply with it will result in the invalidity of non-compliant legislation, rather than being taken as (pro tanto) implied repeal. 

So would the proposed delegation comport with section 53? In OECTA, Justice Iacobucci offered the following general principle for assessing delegations of the power to tax:

The delegation of the imposition of a tax is constitutional if express and unambiguous language is used in making the delegation. The animating principle is that only the legislature can impose a new tax ab initio. But if the legislature expressly and clearly authorizes the imposition of a tax by a delegated body or individual, then the requirements of the principle of “no taxation without representation” will be met. In such a situation, the delegated authority is not being used to impose a completely new tax, but only to impose a tax that has been approved by the legislature. [74]

Justice Iacobucci then went on to explain why the delegation at issue ― a grant of power to a Minister to set the rates of a school tax ― was acceptable:

The [impugned statute] … expressly authorizes the Minister of Finance to prescribe the tax rates for school purposes.  When the Minister sets the applicable rates, a tax is not imposed ab initio, but is imposed pursuant to a specific legislative grant of authority.  Furthermore, the delegation of the setting of the rate takes place within a detailed statutory framework, setting out the structure of the tax, the tax base, and the principles for its imposition. [75]

There is, then, a crucial distinction between the imposition of taxes ab initio and the imposition of “a tax that has been approved by the legislature”. Justice Iacobucci’s discussion of the case before him at least strongly suggests that, to count as “approved by the legislature”, the tax ― at least its purpose, but probably also (some of?) its “structure”, “tax base”, and “principles for its imposition” ― has to be described with some specificity.

The proposed delegation of a blanket authority to impose new taxes and to “chang[e] the incidence of tax” is too vague to meet these requirements. It contemplates that taxes might be created, but does not explain to what end they must be levied or on what principles. It amounts to an authorization for the executive to create taxes ab initio ― but OECTA suggests that such an authorization cannot be given, at least, without repealing section 53 of the Constitution Act 1867, and perhaps at all.

Mark writes that, historically, the Supreme Court “has permitted extremely broad delegations of power—especially in crisis situations—so long as the executive remains responsible to Parliament for the exercise of these extraordinary powers”. He recognizes that the leading cases on this, In re Gray, (1918) 57 SCR 150, and Re: Chemicals, [1943] SCR 1 were not decided in the context of taxation, but argues that the principle they stand for, which is that (to quote Mark) “so long as Parliament retains control over the delegated power—so long as it does not ‘abdicate’ its power (Gray, at 157) there is no legal concern”, is applicable.

I’m not so sure. Taxation really is different from other types of legislation. This is where section 54 of the Constitution Act, 1867 comes in. It provides that

It shall not be lawful for the House of Commons to adopt or pass any Vote, Resolution, Address, or Bill for the Appropriation of any Part of the Public Revenue, or of any Tax or Impost, to any Purpose that has not been first recommended to that House by Message of the Governor General in the Session in which such Vote, Resolution, Address, or Bill is proposed.

I feel on shaky ground here, and would welcome correction, but I wonder if the consequence of this provision is not that unlike with normal legislation, where ― in theory, since in practice the executive is actually driving the legislative agenda ― Parliament is indeed free to resume control, when it comes to tax matters, delegation to the executive is a one way street. Once the executive gets its hands on a broad delegated authority to tax, it need not to “recommend” any legislation undercutting this authority by levying taxes not created by regulation to the House of Commons, and Parliament is then handcuffed for as long as the delegation runs. (This also makes delegation of taxing authority to the executive very different from delegation to, municipalities ― municipalities aren’t able to control the enactment of new tax laws by provincial legislatures.)

Let me finally address the other point Mark makes, about unwritten constitutional principles. As explained here not long ago, I am much less skeptical about the use of such principles in judicial decisions than many of my fellow scholars, including Mark. That said, I agree that the principle of democracy is vague ― democracy can take any number of different forms, and we must be careful to implement the specific form of democracy provided for by the Canadian constitution, and not some idealized version of what that principle might mean.

Yet here the relevant principle is not democracy generally, but the particular form of democracy that is at the heart of the Canadian constitutional order: responsible government. In turn, money votes, of which votes on tax bills are one (but not the only) sort are at the heart of responsible government. Winning such votes is how a ministry demonstrates the continued confidence of the House of Commons. Delegation of taxation powers to the executive allows it to avoid these votes, and so arguably undermines, although admittedly it does not completely subvert, this fundamental principle.

What, if anything, the courts might do about this is not an easy question. Courts are sometimes ― although not always, as I have argued in the post linked to above ― reluctant to enforce constitutional principles against legislation. But two precedents are worth thinking about. First, there is Justice Beetz’s warning, in Ontario (Attorney General) v OPSEU, [1987] 2 SCR 2, that there may be limits to a provincial legislature’s ― or Parliament’s ― ability to “do anything it pleases with the principle of responsible government itself”. (46) Justice Beetz is evasive as to the extent and source of these limits, but he does suggest that the legislatures (and Parliament) may lack “power to bring about a profound constitutional upheaval by the introduction of political institutions foreign to and incompatible with the Canadian system”. (47) And second, there is the much more recent Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32, [2014] 1 SCR 704, where the Supreme Court found that an entrenched “constitutional architecture” limited the ability of Parliament to bring about constitutional change by ordinary legislation. If I am right that this architecture consists of constitutional conventions, it may well protect the principle of responsible government against fundamental interference, as Justice Beetz suggested.


In short, the delegation of plenary taxing authority to the executive is doubly unconstitutional. It is unconstitutional, first, in the British sense of the word ― as contrary to the constitution’s logic and fundamental commitments. It is unconstitutional, second, in the Canadian sense of the word, as contrary to an express provision of the constitution, and arguably also to its legal underlying principles.

It was not merely stupid, or a bad policy. It was an attempt at a serious breach of the basic rules of our political order. As Keith Whittington has recently written over at the Volokh conspiracy, “[t]he normal logic of political rent-seeking and incompetence does not magically disappear in a crisis, though we might have to be more tolerant of such political failings in order to deal with a fast-moving situation”. The now-defunct proposal was not merely rent-seeking, but a power-grab, perhaps an unprecedented one. The present moment may mean that punishment for it must be delayed, but it ought to count against its perpetrators.

Stupid. But Constitutional.

The Globe and Mail reports that the government is seeking to introduce wideranging methods to permit the Cabinet to raise revenue. However, this report has now evolved, and the proposed measures have been walked back. But the original Globe article said:

One section of the bill grants cabinet the power to change taxation levels through regulation, rather than through legislation approved by Parliament. It states that cabinet will have this power during the period “before 2022.”

“For greater certainty, a regulation made under this section may contain provisions that have the effect of repealing or imposing a tax, decreasing or increasing a rate or an amount of tax or otherwise changing the incidence of tax,” the bill would have stated.

Let’s assume that this reporting was accurate. Let’s also assume that there are more provisions in the bill that set out some more detail on the tax (based on the words “[f]or greater certainty”). In my view, and despite opposing arguments from unwritten principles, I think this Bill would have likely been constitutional. I first address my argument that s.53 of the Constitution Act, 1867 would likely not have been abridged; and second, that the presence of unwritten principles does not change this conclusion.

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While this Bill has now been walked back (and probably for very good reason), the old proposal would have been constitutional, because (at least at face value) it clearly delegated taxing power.

Let’s start with the basic point. Section 53, as noted in the seminal Eurig Estate case, encodes the principle of “no taxation without representation, by requiring any bill that imposes a tax to originate with the legislature” (Eurig, at para 30). The restriction here is simple: s.53 prohibits the executive from imposing new taxes ab initio “without the authorization of the legislature” (Eurig, at para 31).

Notably, however, this does not mean that the executive cannot raise taxes. Merely, the executive’s ability to do so is parasitic on clearly-delegated legislative authority. As John Mark Keyes notes in his work Executive Legislation, “[s]ection 53 does not set up an absolute bar to the delegation of taxation powers” (at 122). If it is clear that Parliament has delegated taxing authority to some executive actor, there is no reason to impugn the delegation, constitutionally. This means that executive legislation raising revenue will be constitutionally proper if it does two things: (1) the legislation is enacted pursuant to a delegated power; (2) it is clear that the delegation is a delegation of taxing authority.

Most of the conceptual work is done at the stage of determining whether the delegation is clear. And on that note, the Supreme Court has spoken: consider its opinion in the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Assn case, at para 74:

The delegation of the imposition of a tax is constitutional if express and unambiguous language is used in making the delegation. The animating principle is that only the legislature can impose a new tax ab initio. But if the legislature expressly and clearly authorizes the imposition of a tax by a delegated body or individual, then the requirements of the principle of “no taxation without representation” will be met. In such a situation, the delegated authority is not being used to impose a completely new tax, but only to impose a tax that has been approved by the legislature. The democratic principle is thereby preserved in two ways. First, the legislation expressly delegating the imposition of a tax must be approved by the legislature. Second, the government enacting the delegating legislation remains ultimately accountable to the electorate at the next general election.

The point of the clarity principle, then, is to ensure that the executive is actually acting pursuant to lawfully delegated authority. So long as the delegating provision is clear, there is no constitutional basis to assail it.

Additionally, and as noted above, I am making an assumption that this is not the only operative delegating provision. In other words, it may be a requirement that a bare delegation of taxing authority must be couched in language that sets out the tax’s “structure, base and principles of imposition” (see Keyes, at 124; see also Ontario English Teachers Association, at para 75). I am assuming that this is the case here. But if my assumption is wrong, this becomes a closer case. If the delegation says it is delegating a tax, is that enough on the Supreme Court’s terms? Or is a framework a requirement?

If only the word “tax” is required, or if the taxing power is cabined by other provisions (as it appears to be in this case), then the case for constitutionality is strong. As such, this statute seems to clearly delegate power to the executive to take any number of actions with respect to taxes. Since that authority is lawfully delegated, it likely cannot be impeached in a constitutional sense. And so long as the executive remains responsible for these powers, there is no sense in which it could be said that the executive is evading parliamentary scrutiny.

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More broadly, the Supreme Court’s comments on delegation also support the constitutionality of this measure. Though these comments do not relate to taxation, they do underscore the broader context of how the Court has historically viewed delegated power. In short, the Court has permitted extremely broad delegations of power—especially in crisis situations—so long as the executive remains responsible to Parliament for the exercise of these extraordinary powers. The same goes in this situation.

I highlight two cases to this end. In Re Gray, the context was WWI. Under the War Measures Act, Parliament granted power to the executive under a so-called Henry VIII clause; the power to amend or repeal laws, delegated to the executive. The Court upheld this delegation. It said, even though the delegation was extensive, Parliament has not abandoned control over the executive carrying out these powers, and the Ministry remained “responsible directly to Parliament and dependent upon the will of Parliament for the continuance of its official existence” (Gray, at 171). Therefore, so long as Parliament retains control over the delegated power—so long as it does not “abdicate” its power (Gray, at 157) there is no legal concern.

Similarly, in the Chemicals Reference, another broad delegation was at issue. The delegated power permitted the Ministry, in service of WWII efforts, to make rules allowing censorship, control of transportation, forfeiture and disposition of property, and arrest and detention. Again, the Court upheld the delegation :

Parliament retains its power intact and can, whenever it pleases, take the matter directly into its own hands. How far it shall seek the aid of subordinate agencies and how long it shall continue them in existence, are matters for. Parliament and not for courts of law to decide. Parliament has not abdicated its general legislative powers. It has not effaced itself, as has been suggested. It has indicated no intention of abandoning control and has made no abandonment of control, in fact. The subordinate instrumentality, which it has created for exercising the powers, remains responsible directly to Parliament and depends upon the will of Parliament for the continuance of its official exist­ence (Chemicals Reference, at 18).

While these cases might not be directly applicable in the taxation context, they do shed light on the underlying theory that was also present in the Ontario English Catholic Assn case. That is, so long as Parliament controls the delegation and the executive is responsible for the exercise of delegated powers, there is no way to impeach the delegation of power.

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I do want to address one potential argument, that is primarily made by Alyn (James) Johnson, in his delegation piece in the UBC L Rev. That argument is based on unwritten constitutional principles (and perhaps constitutional architecture) set out in cases like the Secession Reference and the Senate Reference. One might make the argument that constitutional architecture—the structure and separation of the legislature and the executive—should serve here to prohibit the legislature from delegating its power away in this fashion to the executive. Additionally, Johnson makes the argument primarily based on the principle of democracy: he contends that a “marginalized legislature delegating un-cabined power to willing executive instrumentalities is incoherent and unprincipled.” (Johnson, at 823). More specifically, legislatures are a place for discussion and deliberation; they are fora for democratic contention; but if delegation is widespread, the political/democratic process is lost, and people lose “authorship” over laws (Johnson, at 879-880). Moreover, one could make an argument from the separation of powers: it fundamentally transforms the functions of each of the branches for widespread delegation of this sort to be permitted.

My initial impetus is to be skeptical of unwritten principles and arguments from constitutional structure. For one, the role of unwritten principles is somewhat limited: they may have “normative force” (Quebec Secession Reference, at para 54) they also cannot be used to attack the content of legislation (or so the Court held with respect to the Rule of Law: see Imperial Tobacco, at para 59). In whole, while it could be true that unwritten principles could strike the content of statutes, their role appears to be limited; they cannot, for example, “dispense with the written text of the Constitution” (see Quebec Secesstion Reference at para 53; see also literature questioning the extent of use of unwritten principles: Jean Leclair, “Canada’s Unfathomable Unwritten Constitutional Principles” 2002 27 Queen’s LJ 389 at 400).

Moreover, unwritten principles arguments lack the coherence and structure of traditional doctrinal arguments, and in my view, can be used to support whatever outcome a person wishes. For example, in my view, the principle of “democracy” for example, endorsed by the Supreme Court, might just as well support a Parliament taking an expansive view of its ability to delegate, and delegating widespread authority to the executive. After all, the Court has said that “regulations are the lifeblood of the administrative state” (see Hutterian Brethren, at para 40), and if the Bill of Rights of 1688 meant anything, it meant that Parliament came into its own as the controller of the executive; it became a sovereign body: “each successive delegation of legislative power has been a fresh recognition of that sovereignty” each delegation “a victory at the expense of the Crown” in which the Crown gives up pretensions to legislate by itself (see C.T. Carr, “Delegated Legislation: Three Lectures” at 48-52; see also A.V. Dicey, at Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution, at 6 ). What we are talking about is a sovereign Parliament, and as the Supreme Court has recognized, “parliamentary sovereignty remains foundational to the structure of the Canadian state: aside from constitutional limits, the legislative branch of government remains supreme over the judiciary and the executive” (Pan-Canadian Securities Reference, at para 49). If that is the case, Parliament can just as well delegate its power away if it is sovereign.

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In conclusion, I am not trying to say that this law is a good idea. Indeed, there are abstract worries we might think about: what about the separation of powers? What about the institutional functions of each of the branches of government? There are also significant policy reasons to dislike the old proposal. Are these powers proportionate and strictly tailored to their purpose, for example?

Nonetheless, I believe the legal case for a statute of this sort was at least facially strong.

UAlberta Pro-Life: Another Nail in the Doré Coffin?

On the Ontario Bar Association website, Teagan Markin describes and analyzes the recent UAlberta Pro-Life Case, 2020 ABCA 1. I had meant to blog on this decision when it came out, but life intervened, so I thank Markin for reminding me of the case. In the case, Watson JA employs a creative use of the Doré test, similar to how the Ontario Court of Appeal’s approach in Ferrier (which I blogged about here). Both Ferrier and UAlberta Pro-Life “bifurcate” the standard of review, so that the definition or scope of the Charter right at issue is reviewed on a correctness standard, while the right’s application in a proportionality analysis is reviewed on a reasonableness standard.

While I understand the impetus to clarify what the Court calls the “unelaborated language” of Doré (UAlberta Pro-Life, at para 166), I see bifurcation as only a medium-term solution because there are more fundamental issues between Doré and Vavilov. I actually see bifurcation as introducing more problems than it solves. It raises tricky issues about what the scope of a Charter right is versus its application; it is plainly inconsistent with Doré ; and if one takes Vavilov seriously, bifurcation arguably does not go far enough. If constitutional questions are so connected to the Rule of Law that they require consistent answers from the courts, bifurcating the standard of review is at best an intermediate solution to a more serious problem: Doré is simply inconsistent with Vavilov, on its own terms.

In this post, I explore this argument.

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The UAlberta Pro-Life Case involved two appeals. The first appeal concerned a 2015 demonstration by the UAlberta Pro-Life group. The Pro-Life group complained to the University that counter-protests erected in response to the pro-life protest “breached the University Code of Student Behaviour” [4]. This first issue, while interesting, is not in my cross-hairs for this post.

The second issue relates to a request by the Pro-Life group for permission to hold another demonstration in early 2016. The University determined that the group would be permitted to hold the event, so long as the group agreed to defray the costs associated with security for the event, estimated to be around $17 500. The Pro-Life group “said the cost was prohibitive and amount to denial of their exercise of freedom of expression” [5].

On judicial review, the chambers judge, relying on Doré , concluded that the University decision fell within “the range of possible acceptable outcomes” [156] because even though the costs of security impacted Pro-Life’s freedom of expression, “[t]hat impact had to be balanced against other interests” [156].

For the Court of Appeal, a number of issues presented themselves, including the thorny issue of whether the Charter applies to universities [148-149]. However, for our purposes, the relevant part of the decision dealing with the standard of review and the articulation of the Doré test are most important. The Court, early in the decision, says the following:

The standard of review as to the definitional scope of a Charter right or the definitional scope of s.32 of the Charter must be correctness. These are transcendent questions of law not resting within the enabling legislation of any specific decision-maker…By comparison, for issues of fact or discretion, the reviewing court is to “tread lightly”[30].

The Court, later in the decision, went on to explain that since the chambers judge’s error in applying the Doré test (which I will address below) “was erroneous on a Constitutional legal test, it is reviewed for correctness and it is reviewable as incorrect” [169].

Why is the articulation of a constitutional test a matter for correctness review? The Court couched the answer to this question in Vavilov:

In this respect, the Supreme Court in Vavilov recently referred briefly to Doré and appeared to distinguish review of the “effect” of a judicially reviewable administrative ruling from a specific finding of unconstitutionality of a statute on the basis of Charter inconsistency. The Supreme Court said “correctness” applied to the latter. The Court, however, did not state the standard of review for “effect” cases, and did not erase the above passages from TWU 1 and TWU 2. Significantly, the Court also reinforced at para 53 and elsewhere in their reasons, that correctness review applies to any determination of law linked to respect for the rule of law name ly “questions: constitutional questions, general questions of law of central importance to the legal system as a whole and questions regarding the jurisdictional boundaries between two or more administrative bodies.” I read, therefore, Vavilov as being consistent with the approach taken here [170].

With the standard of review set out, the Court also looked at the chambers judge’s application of the Doré test. There were two problems with this test, in the Court’s eyes: first, the chambers judge failed to articulate the proper s.1 limit, and second, she failed to properly allocate the proper burden of proof. On the first issue, the Court concluded that “the limitation must, in my view, be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. Although that expression about demonstrable justification does not figure prominently in the cases from Doré onward, it is not erased from the Charter as linguistic frill” [161]. Since the chambers judge failed to ground her analysis in the language of s.1, she “applied a utilitarian approach” that failed to “apply the correct criteria” [159].

On the second issue of onus, the Court concluded that even under the Doré administrative law approach, “the onus on proving the ‘section 1 limit’ on expression freedom…should be on the state agent” [161]. This suggestion is reminiscent of both McLachlin CJC’s and Rowe J’s opinions in Trinity Western, where they suggested friendly amendments to the Doré framework. But Doré was quite unclear on this point, as a matter of first principle.

Overall, the Court chastised the Doré framework, concluding that “[w]ith respect, Doré was expressed in elastic terms after which incorrect readings of Doré exposed Charter rights and freedoms to an inadequate level of protection” [166].

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Bifurcation is not necessarily a new way to deal with issues of Charter rights. As Professor Daly points out, it is an approach that appears in the Supreme Court’s duty to consult jurisprudence (particularly, look at Rio Tinto and Moldaver J’s opinion in Ktunaxa). Ferrier, as I’ve written about before, is also an example of this approach. One understands the impetus for the Court of Appeal’s reasoning in UAlberta Pro-Life, from both a first-principles perspective and from a Vavilov perspective. From first principles, Doré , to many, has turned out to be a way to disempower Charter rights by reference to untethered “values,” and to let the government off scot-free, escaping the traditional justification it must bear under s.1. Indeed, as noted above, this was the impetus behind McLachlin CJC’s and Rowe J’s opinions in Trinity Western. For the then-Chief Justice, bifurcation seemed on the cards, because “the scope of the guarantee of a Charter right must be given a consistent interpretation regardless of the state actor, and it is the task of courts on judicial review of a decision to ensure this” (Trinity Western, at para 116). For Rowe J, the focus on values could lead to “unpredictable reasoning” (Trinity Western, at para 171) that, one can imagine could lead to under-powered Charter rights.

As the then-Chief Justice seems to understand, reasonableness does not help the situation. It means that the initial scope of a right might be given inconsistent (but reasonable) interpretations by different decision-makers. These inconsistent interpretations could be given even more power by sloppy “values-based” reasoning that divorces Charter analysis from the actual text of Charter rights. Bifurcation solves this problem. It forces courts to give a consistent interpretation, through correctness review, on issues of the scope of Charter rights. Conceivably, such decisions transcend the scope of particular statutory objectives and contexts, and go to the force of Charter rights in the abstract. Correctness review, then, adequately guards the consistent application of the scope of particular Charter rights in different statutory contexts.

But Vavilov, as I have written before, could also support this sort of bifurcation based on the principle of consistency. Recall that while Vavilov did not squarely address the Doré framework (see Vavilov, at para 57), it did expand on what the Rule of Law requires in the context of selecting the relevant standard of review. Sometimes, to the Court, “respect for the rule of law requires courts to apply the standard of correctness for certain types of legal questions…” (Vavilov, at para 53). This is particularly so with 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).

The scope of Charter rights, as the then-Chief Justice noted in Trinity Western, requires consistency. Correctness review on the scope/definition of Charter rights would accomplish that goal, at least in theory.

But bifurcation presents two problems: both from the Doré perspective and from the perspective of Vavilov. Like it or not (and I don’t) Doré is a binding precedent of the Supreme Court. As Markin argues in her post, Doré —and most recently, Trinity Western—were largely silent on this sort of bifurcation of the standard of review. While it has been recognized that the Doré test requires two distinct steps (1) “whether the administrative decision engages the Charter by limiting Charter protections” and (2) proportionate balancing (see Trinity Western, at para 58), the Court in both Doré and Trinity Western only said that the standard of reasonableness applies to decisions taken by decision-makers that impact Charter rights (see Trinity Western at paras 56-57; Doré , at para 56-57). It did not mention bifurcation as a proper approach. Indeed, Doré was an attempt to comprehensively address this standard of review issue—indeed, it arose, because of the Court’s appraisal of a “completely revised” relationship between the Charter and administrative law (Doré , at para 30). One would have expected such a comprehensive approach to mention bifurcation if it indeed was a doctrinal solution that the Court could endorse.

This, of course, does not mean that Doré is on solid ground. Indeed, much of Vavilov can be read as a way to undermine Doré , as I wrote about here. And on this front, one could make a convincing argument that bifurcation simply does not go far enough in light of Vavilov. Vavilov says that issues involving the Constitution should be reviewed on a correctness standard. Again, it is because these questions require consistency from the courts, as courts are in the unique position of being guardians of the Constitution (see Hunter v Southam, at 155: “ Ell v Alberta, at para 23; United States v ; Kourtessis v MNR, at 90). Based on this idea, one could convincingly argue that the proportionality analysis—not just the issue of the scope of Charter rights—should also be reviewed on a correctness standard.

This is true for a few reasons. First, Doré was premised on a functional idea of expertise as a reason for deference. The idea was that, in the context of statutes under which administrative decision-makers receive power, administrative decision-makers are best suited to be able to balance the Charter values at play in light of the statutory objectives (see Doré , at paras 35, 46). Vavilov resiles from expertise as a reason for applying the reasonableness standard reflexively (Vavilov, at para 31). Now, expertise is a reason for deference, but only after reasonableness has been selected for other reasons going to legislative intent (Vavilov, at para 31). There is no warrant to impose a different standard when it comes to constitutional questions, even those that arise in statutory contexts with which decision-makers may be familiar. That is, if we do not presume expertise on run-of-the-mill, humdrum legal questions, then why should we presume it in the context of constitutional questions? My uneducated guess is that most decision-makers do not have expertise on constitutional matters, even if they arise in the context of familiar statutes. And if expertise is no longer a reason for reflexive deference, then the rug is pulled out from Doré as a matter of first-principles. Now, courts should not lessen the robustness of review based on questions of expertise. Vavilov, then, lowers the importance of functional reasons for deference.

Second, proportionality still counts as a “constitutional question” that should be subject to Vavilov’s comments about the Rule of Law. One might argue that there is a difference in kind between the scope of Charter rights and their application/balancing in the proportionality context. For one, the scope of a Charter right is a pure question of law, and application considerations are probably questions of mixed fact and law, to which we might owe deference. But there is no reason to think this strict division will hold all the time. In the first place, I am skeptical of the ability of courts to reliably decide what is an issue of “scope” and what is an issue of “application.” Indeed, constitutional challenges as against statutes largely depend on their facts—this is borne out if one looks at cases like Bedford and Carter. And yet, in statuory contexts, we apply a correctness standard (see Vavilov, at para 57). We might lessen the force of a correctness standard in respect of particular facts—ie the margin of appreciation—but that margin is not always applicable. Neither it should be in the Doré context.

All of this to say, the UAlberta Pro-Life Case is a good illustration of the ways in which courts are trying to navigate Doré post-Vavilov. As noted above, I understand the impetus behind bifurcation as a medium-term way to bridge the gap between Doré and Vavilov. But I still see fundamental strains between Doré and Vavilov that bifurcation cannot solve.

The Limits of Self-Government

Indigenous self-government cannot dispense with the Rule of Law and with democracy

In his post “On the Rule of Law, Blockades, and Indigenous Self-Government“, co-blogger Mark Mancini pondered the relationship between Indigenous legal orders and self-government on the one hand, and the Canadian constitution, including the Rule of Law principle that (along with certain others) underpins it, on the other. Mark wrote that

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. 

These comments are, as always, thought-provoking but, in my view, one should be wary of claiming that the Rule of Law is not relevant to Indigenous peoples. One should also be realistic about the difficulties involved in translating the ideal of Indigenous self-government into law, and about the limits of this enterprise.

I hasten to make clear that, as Asher Honickman and I have said in a National Post op-ed also dealing with the Rule of Law and its relationship to the ongoing protests, I regard the aspiration to Indigenous self-government as fully justified. It is, we wrote, “possible and highly desirable … for the perfectly legitimate aspirations of Indigenous Canadians to self-government to be recognized and given effect within the Canadian legal system”. On this, I agree with Mark. Indeed, our disagreement may be more a matter of emphasis and wording than of substance, but I thought it important to make it clear where I stand.


I am, of course, not Indigenous myself, and claim no expertise at all in any particular Indigenous legal system. However, I do endeavour to engage with Indigenous legal systems when I teach legal philosophy. More specifically, my legal philosophy course is entirely devoted to idea of the Rule of Law (sorry, Hart and Dworkin aficionados!), and one of the classes deals with indigenous customary systems ― notably tikanga Māori, but also the legal systems of Indigenous peoples in Canada, as presented in Jeremy Webber’s very interesting article on “The Grammar of Customary Law“. To repeat, this doesn’t make me an expert ― sadly, one cannot be an expert on everything one teaches ― but I do have some thoughts on the relevance of the Rule of Law to indigenous legal systems.

In a nutshell, it seems to me that, for all the very important differences between these systems and those based on the common law or the civil law, many concerns with which we engage under the heading of the Rule of Law are relevant to indigenous legal orders. Notably, through public re-enactment and stroy-telling at meetings involving entire communities, Indigenous legal systems ensured that their laws would be publicly known and understood, and that they would be relatively certain and predictable, to guide community members. Moreover, these laws, no less than those enacted in Western legal systems, tend to be more or less coherent, and to impose obligations that are possible to perform; if anything, one suspects that customary law refined over the generations does better at meetings these Rule of Law requirements than deliberately, and often stupidly, enacted law. And, in their own ways, Indigenous legal systems provided opportunities for those subject to them to be heard and to make their views on the law known to the rest of the community. (Indeed, Professor Webber writes that “[a]mong many North American indigenous peoples … [t]here is great reluctance to impose a particular interpretation of the law either on any member … or on someone of high rank”. (607))

I do not mean to take this too far. Of course, the way the Rule of Law ideals are implemented in communities that number a few hundred people engaged in hunting, gathering, and perhaps subsistence agriculture cannot be the same as in larger populations made wealthier by division of labour. Writing and the existence of people who specialize in knowing and applying laws make a huge difference ― not least by requiring a more explicit articulation and conscious implementation of Rule of Law requirements that can remain implicit in Indigenous societies. Some standard Rule of Law concerns, such as the one with retroactivity, crucial in a system where law is believed to be deliberately made, is meaningless in one where law is transmitted ― not unchanging to be sure, but endlessly adapted ― from time immemorial.) On the procedural side, they methods Indigenous legal orders employ for the resolution of disputes and the determination of individual or group rights and obligations do not necessarily look like the formalized proceedings of common law or civilian courts (any more than substantive rights and obligations they concern offer exact parallels with those recognized by the common or civil law).

But the points of commonality are real too. Needless to say, that’s not because Indigenous Canadians or Māori read Lon Fuller’s The Morality of Law or Jeremy Waldron’s “The Rule of Law and the Importance of Procedure”. The people who, over the centuries, developed European legal systems hadn’t read them either. But the human values that have long helped shape legal systems and partly mold them in accordance with what, in 19th century Britain, came to be called the Rule of Law, are relevant on Turtle Island and in Aotearoa as much as at Westminster and in Paris. When Albert Camus wrote, in The Fall, that “there is no worse torment for a human being than to be judged without law”, he was speaking a universal truth, or something close to it ― not just stating a culturally contingent fact about mid-20th-century Parisians hanging out in Amsterdam bars.

All that to say, so far as I can tell, the Rule of Law is not at all a principle alien to Indigenous legal traditions. While they probably did not reflect on it as explicitly as the Western legal tradition eventually did, they implemented it ― in ways that were appropriate to their own circumstances. But the circumstances in which Indigenous law would operate in the 21st century, even under self-government, would not be the same as they were before contact with Europeans; in some ways, things have changed irrevocably. More deliberate attention to the requirements of the Rule of Law will probably be in order ― not only, or perhaps even primarily, in order to satisfy some externally imposed requirement, but to give effect to the values implicit in the Indigenous legal traditions themselves.


This brings me, however, to another point that is missing from too many discussions of Indigenous self-government at the moment, including Mark’s. Indigenous self-government (which, to repeat, I would support) ought to respect some fundamental constitutional principles, whether they can be traced to Indigenous legal traditions ― as the Rule of Law can, I think, at least to some extent ― or not. I am thinking, in particular, of the principle of democracy, but also of the protection of minority rights.

In the conflict that arose out of the court injunctions in favour of the Coastal GasLink pipeline, some hereditary Chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en have claimed special authority. To my mind, for any such authority to be enshrined in or authorized by the arrangements of Indigenous self-government, whatever their exact legal status, would be simply inconsistent with the Canadian constitutional order. Of course, Canada is a monarchy. But it is a constitutional monarchy in which, as the old catchphrase has it, the Queen reigns but does not rule. Almost all of the Crown’s powers are effectively held by the Houses of Parliament (primarily the elected House of Commons) or provincial legislative assemblies, or by ministers responsible to the House of Commons or legislative assemblies. The exercise of the Crown’s remaining “reserve” powers is constrained by constitutional conventions.

Any other arrangement would be intolerable. As the Supreme Court observed in Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 SCR 217, “the democracy principle can best be understood as a sort of baseline against which the framers of our Constitution, and subsequently, our elected representatives under it, have always operated”, [62] and “a sovereign people exercises its right to self-government through the democratic process”. [64] The Court further explained that it “interpreted democracy to mean the process of representative and responsible government and the right of citizens to participate in the political process as voters”. [65]  This is, of course, consistent with Canada’s commitments under international law, for example under Article 21(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provides that

The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

I fail to see how Indigenous self-government can be constituted on any other basis. Perhaps this conception of democracy is not part of the tradition of all, or indeed of any, Indigenous nations. After all, its history in anywhere in the world is very short indeed. This simply does not matter ― for any polity in the 21st century. One could call the application of this principle to Indigenous peoples colonialism if one liked, but one ought to acknowledge that, in doing so, one would be defending values that are contrary both to Canada’s constitution and to its international obligations.

It is worth noting that the provisions of the Charlottetown Accord on self-government made at least some oblique reference to the structure and limits of the governments they would have put in place. What would have become section 35.1(3) of the Constitution Act, 1982 would have provided

The exercise of the right [of self-government] includes the authority of duly constituted legislative bodies of the Aboriginal peoples, each within its own jurisdiction,

(a) to safeguard and develop their languages, cultures,
economies, identities, institutions and traditions, and

(b) to develop, maintain and strenghten their relationship
with their lands, waters and environment,

so as to determine and control their development as peoples
according to their own values and priorities and to ensure the
integrity of their societies. (Emphasis mine)

This is, perhaps, not as clear as one might wish, but the reference to “the authority of duly constituted legislative bodies” in section 35.1(3) suggests that Indigenous self-government was to be democratic self-government. Giving effect to indigenous “values” and “ensur[ing] the integrity of their societies” must be done within that institutional framework.


To repeat once more, I hope that Indigenous self-government in Canada becomes a reality. But it would be naïve and dangerous to assume that it can do so on the basis of Indigenous legal traditions alone, without the infusion of principles modified or even imposed by the non-Indigenous world. Indigenous communities are part of a wider world ― not only of the Canadian legal system, but of the world beyond its borders too ― which means that both the form and the substance of their law will have to adjust to the way this world operates and to its requirements.

The good news in this regard is that, in some ways, the adjustment should be less difficult that is sometimes supposed. When it comes to the requirements of the Rule of Law, Indigenous legal traditions may recognize many of them implicitly, and adapting to other such requirements may be a relatively seamless development for traditions that never were static or fixed. Other changes, however, in particular the recognition of democracy as the fundamental mode of governance, may be less straightforward. But such changes are no less imperative. The label of self-government should not be allowed, let alone used, to obscure this reality.

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.

Immuring Dicey’s Ghost

The Senate Reform Reference and constitutional conventions

In its opinion in Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32, [2014] 1 SCR 704, the Supreme Court notoriously relied on a metaphor that had previously popped up, but played no real role, in its jurisprudence: “constitutional architecture”. Notably, the court was of the view that moves towards an effectively elected Senate would modify the constitution’s architecture, and such modifications required formal amendment under Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982, just as much as changes to the explicit provisions of the constitution’s text. Yet the court’s explanations of just what this architecture was were short and cryptic, and haven’t been elaborated upon ― judicially ― in the intervening years.

To fill in this void, an academic cottage industry sprang up to speculate about the meaning of the architectural metaphor and about what other constitutional reforms it might block. For example, Kate Glover Berger suggested that “action taken to dismantle or undermine the administrative state could be deemed unconstitutional” because the administrative state is built into the architecture of the Canadian constitution. Lorne Neudorf invoked architecture in the service of an argument to the effect that courts can read down or indeed invalidate vague delegations of legislative power to the executive branch. Michael Pal speculated that the first-past-the-post electoral system might be entrenched as part of the constitutional architecture.

All this while, I have been working on my own contribution to this genre, called “Immuring Dicey’s Ghost: The Senate Reform Reference and Constitutional Conventions”, which is finally going to be published by the Ottawa Law Review later this year. In a nutshell, I argue that “architecture” is really just code for “conventions” ― those supposedly non-legal but fundamentally important constitutional rules, arising out of political practice and morality, which courts have long said they could not possibly enforce. And I argue, further, that the Supreme Court should have squarely addressed the fact that it was relying on conventions, instead of playing confusing rhetorical games.

A draft is now available, for your reading pleasure. Here is the abstract:

Although the metaphor of “constitutional architecture” had appeared in some previous opinions of the Supreme Court of Canada, it took on a new importance in Reference re Senate Reform, where the Court held that amendments to constitutional architecture had to comply with the requirements of Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982. However, the Court provided very little guidance as to the scope of this entrenched “architecture”. As a result, the metaphor’s meaning and implications have been the subject of considerable scholarly debate.

This article contributes to this debate by arguing that “constitutional architecture” incorporates (some) constitutional conventions. It further takes the position that, instead of relying on this confusing metaphor, the Court should have candidly admitted that conventions were central to its decision by acknowledging that the text of the Canadian constitution cannot be fully understood without reference to conventions.

Part I reviews, first, the Supreme Court’s opinions in which the notion of constitutional “architecture” has been mentioned, focusing on this concept’s place in the Senate Reform Reference, and then some of the scholarly commentary that has endeavoured to make sense of it. Part II sets out my own view that constitutional “architecture”, as this concept is used by the Supreme Court, is concerned primarily if not exclusively with constitutional conventions. Part III considers whether it is possible to determine precisely which conventions are encompassed by the notion of constitutional architecture, examining the conventions’ importance, and their relationship to the constitutional text as possible criteria, and concluding that neither allows precise determinations. Part IV sets out what would in my view have been a less confusing way of addressing the significance of conventions to the questions the Court was facing in the Senate Reform Reference: frankly recognizing that conventions were relevant to the interpretation of the applicable constitutional texts. Part V examines two objections to the incorporation of conventions (via “architecture” or through interpretation) into the realm of constitutional law, arguing that this incorporation is not illegitimate, and that it will not stultify the constitution’s development. Part VI concludes with an appeal for greater transparency on the part of the Supreme Court.

The last thing I mention here is that this paper begins the project of bringing together two subjects on which I had mostly been writing separately: constitutional conventions on the one hand, and originalism on the other. As explained here, Canadian originalism has to grapple with the fact that some of our most important constitutional rules are unwritten. This paper, although it doesn’t make a case for originalism, begins to outline what that an originalist approach to conventions will look like.

A Matter of Unwritten Principle

Unwritten constitutional principles have an important, and rightful, place in Canadian constitutional law

The most striking thing, to me anyway, about the symposium on dissents from Supreme Court judgments that this blog hosted over the holidays was the popularity of Justice LaForest’s dissent in the Provincial Judges Reference, [1997] 3 SCR 3. No fewer than five of our contributors mentioned it as one of their top three: Dwight Newman, Emmett Macfarlane, Jonathan Maryniuk, Howard Kislowicz (although he cautions that he might not actually agree with Justice LaForest), and Bruce Ryder. They have all praise Justice LaForest for emphasizing the importance of constitutional text, as opposed to the unwritten, extra-textual “underlying principles” on which the majority relied. Agreeing with them, albeit relying on a different dissent, that of Justice Rothstein in Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, [2014] 3 SCR 31 was Asher Honickman.

This degree of agreement among an ideologically and professionally diverse group sets off my contrarian instincts. So in this post I want to take issue with one aspect of Justice LaForest’s dissent, and with the esteemed scholars who are extolling it. I want to argue that unwritten principles have an important place in Canadian constitutional law, both as a descriptive and as a normative matter. To be clear, it’s not that I have come to like, or even regard as defensible, the majority opinion in the Provincial Judges Reference. Indeed, I stand by my assessment of it as one of the Supreme Court’s worst decisions! But my beef with it was, and is, not simply that it relied on unwritten principles, but that in doing so it disregarded clear, on-point constitutional text, and further that I do not think “it plausible that complex institutional arrangements”―such as independent commissions to determine judicial pay―”are constitutionally required if the constitution says nothing about them”. In other circumstances, reliance on unwritten principles can be much more justifiable.


Justice LaForest’s attack on judicial reliance on underlying principles starts from his understanding of what makes judicial review of legislation legitimate:

The ability to nullify the laws of democratically elected representatives derives its legitimacy from a super-legislative source: the text of the Constitution.  This foundational document (in Canada, a series of documents) expresses the desire of the people to limit the power of legislatures in certain specified ways.  [314]

In a democratic society, judicial review is tolerable so long, but only so long, as it amounts to nothing more than the enforcement of choices democratically made through the process of constitutional entrenchment and amendment. Its “legitimacy is imperiled … when courts attempt to limit the power of legislatures without recourse to express textual authority”. [316] “Textual authority” is be all, end all of judicial review:

The express provisions of the Constitution are not, as the Chief Justice contends, “elaborations of the underlying, unwritten, and organizing principles found in the preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867” [107].  On the contrary, they are the Constitution.  To assert otherwise is to subvert the democratic foundation of judicial review. [319; emphasis in the original]

This paean to democracy and to textualism as a means of giving effect to democracy is appealing. As many of the contributors to the dissents symposium pointed out, it seems to have carried the day in in British Columbia v Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd, 2005 SCC 49, [2005] 2 SCR 473, where Justice Major, writing for the unanimous court, proclaimed that

in a constitutional democracy such as ours, protection from legislation that some might view as unjust or unfair properly lies not in the amorphous underlying principles of our Constitution, but in its text and the ballot box. [66]

This was, I am afraid, a crassly cynical statement, considering that the invitation to resort to the protection of the ballot box against retroactive legislation was being extended to non-voters ― to corporations, and to (understandably) very unpopular corporations at that. But, like Justice LaForest’s, this argument has undeniable rhetorical appeal.


Yet it is, in my view, a mistake to claim that it has prevailed as a matter of positive law. Before getting to its current status, let me point out that the idea that underlying constitutional principles exist and constrain government goes back at least to Justice Martland and Ritchie’s powerful dissent on the legal question in the Patriation Reference, [1981] 1 SCR 753. (It is at least arguable that it actually goes back much further, to Roncarelli v Duplessis, [1959] SCR 121 and indeed Attorney General of Nova Scotia v Attorney General of Canada, [1951] SCR 31, even the Labour Conventions Reference, [1937] AC 326, [1937] 1 DLR 673, but I will ignore these cases here.)

The key passage in Justices Martland and Ritchie’s Patriation Reference dissent is the following:

It can fairly be said … that the dominant principle of Canadian constitutional law is federalism. The implications of that principle are clear. Each level of government should not be permitted to encroach on the other, either directly or indirectly. The political compromise achieved as a result of the Quebec and London Conferences preceding the passage of the B.N.A. Act would be dissolved unless there were substantive and effec­tive limits on unconstitutional action. (821)

From there, it was not such a large step to say that these limits on unconstitutional action could, and must be, enforced by the courts, even if they were not spelt out in the constitutional text.

A different unwritten principle, that of the Rule of Law, was also crucial in the Reference re Manitoba Language Rights, [1985] 1 SCR 721. This is well known. Equally well known is the Supreme Court’s reliance on underlying constitutional principles, four of them, in Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 SCR 217, to try to construct a legal ― although seemingly not an enforceable ― framework for dealing with separatism. (The Court referred to Justices Martland and Ritchie’s Patriation Reference dissent, although it did not acknowledge that it was, in fact, citing to a dissenting opinion!) Less famous, and not employing the rhetoric of unwritten principles, but relying on this idea in substance, are the cases of Amax Potash Ltd v Saskatchewan, [1977] 2 SCR 576, and Air Canada v British Columbia (Attorney-General), [1986] 2 SCR 539. In both of them, the Supreme Court held, without relying on any specific written constitutional provision, that provinces could not prevent litigants from arguing that provincial legislation was unconstitutional, because this would undermine the Canadian constitutional order as one in which government powers are constrained and limited.

Did the Imperial Tobacco case repudiate all this? I don’t think so. For one thing, the Supreme Court was less categorical there than the passage most often quoted, including above, would seem to suggest. Justice Major did not reject the argument based on the Rule of Law principle out of hand. He reviewed the previous cases where the principle had been invoked (though not Amax Potash and Air Canada), and concluded that it was a relatively narrow one and did not “speak directly to the terms of legislation”. [59] Yet “[t]his does not mean that the rule of law as described by this Court has no normative force”. [60] According to Justice Major, the Rule of Law mostly constrains the executive and the judiciary rather than legislatures but, at least as to them, it does have a real content.

The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65, however, embraces the Rule of Law principle even more clearly and, crucially, as a constraint on the legislative power. According to the Vavilov majority,

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

The majority goes on to specify that “[t]he starting point for the analysis is a presumption that the legislature intended the standard of review to be reasonableness”, [23] but “respect for the rule of law requires courts to apply the standard of correctness for certain types of legal questions”, [53] legislative intent notwithstanding. With Vavilov, unwritten principles, especially the Rule of Law, are back as a fully operative, and crucially important, source of our constitutional law, if indeed they had ever been displaced from that position. While Vavilov does not invoke them to explicitly invalidate legislation, it makes quite clear that legislation that conflicts with them will not be given effect.


Is this something to be regretted though? Was Justice LaForest right that judicial review in a democracy must only ever be textualist judicial review? I don’t think so. As Stephen Sachs explains in an important essay (which I discussed here), “[n]ot all law is written law, and not every society needs to rely on it in the same way”. (164) Some societies ― including democratic societies ― may well make the choice to have unwritten law as part of their binding constitutional constraints. They might write down some constitutional rules without thereby excluding others, and then a single-minded focus on constitutional text as exhaustive of constitutional law would means that “we could be reading the text correctly while utterly misunderstanding the legal role it was to play”. (165) The question is whether Canada is that kind of society or the one envisioned by Justice LaForest.

Actually, here is another question, which might help answer the previous one: are there any societies of the kind described by Justice LaForest, where the constitution, in the sense of the supreme law, is nothing more and nothing less than the sum of written textual provisions? In the United States, for example, constitutional law includes unwritten principles (though they are not labelled in exactly this way), especially separation of powers, but also federalism. The Australian constitution has been held to incorporate implied freedoms. There might be examples to support Justice LaForest’s views, of course, but, to say the least, these views aren’t a self-evidently correct description of the concept of constitutionalism in a democratic society (which is, I think, how Justice LaForest means them). Nor are they an obviously correct interpretation of constitutionalism in Canada, given the numerous cases referred to above.

To repeat, this is not to defend the majority decision in the Provincial Judges Reference, or even to say that the outcome of Imperial Tobacco was wrong (though Justice Major’s disdainful characterisation of unwritten principles was). What arguably makes these cases different from the likes of Amax Potash, the Patriation and Secession Reference, and Vavilov, is that they involved invocations of principles to run around fairly specific textual choices. Judicial independence is protected to a greater extent, and retroactive legislation proscribed, in the context of criminal law, but not in the civil law. Right or wrong, this is the sort of “political compromise” to which Justices Martland and Ritchie referred, and courts must be careful not to “dissolve” it.

But, by the same token, they must not allow the political compromises that made Canada into a federal state, bound by a supreme constitution, and one where public authority is constrained by the Rule of Law, to be dissolved either. No doubt it is possible to take arguments based on constitutional principles too far, just as it is possible to misread or twist the meaning of constitutional text. But this is not a reason for peremptorily rejecting these arguments, let alone claiming that they are illegitimate in our constitutional order. Justice LaForest was wrong to suggest otherwise in the Provincial Judges Reference, and so, respectfully, are those who extol his dissent today.