Cooperative, or competitive?

The critics of the Supreme Court’s decision in the long-gun registry case, Quebec (Attorney General) v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 14,  have lamented the majority’s failure to make good on what seemed like the promise of cooperative federalism in the Court’s recent jurisprudence. In La Presse + today, Jean Leclair argues that the judges in the majority “most certainly weaken the principle of cooperative federalism, which they had so extolled” (translation mine). Striking a more optimistic note over at I-CONnect, Paul Day hopes the dissent will “become the point of departure for Canadian courts and commentators interested in exploring ‘cooperative federalism’.” There certainly has been much talk about cooperative federalism in connection with this case, and more broadly in recent years. But what if the phrase were not an apt description for the Supreme Court’s actual concerns? I am, very tentatively, inclining to the idea that it would have been more accurate to speak not of cooperative, but of competitive federalism.

Now, the “competitive” part of competitive federalism usually refers to “horizontal” competition between the components in a federation (e.g. the States in the United States or the provinces in Canada). The idea is that these components will compete with each other by enacting different policies on the same subject. Individuals and businesses will “purchase” these different policies by moving from one jurisdiction to another one, whose policies they prefer and, similarly to what happens in the marketplace, this competition will show whose policy is the most attractive one, or allow a differentiation between the regulators allowing the preferences of persons with different tastes to be satisfied.

Applying this idea to the “vertical” context of competition between the federation and the components is not straightforward, because in the vertical context, the central legislature will normally hold a trumping power (e.g. through the Supremacy Clause under the U.S. Constitution or the paramountcy doctrine in Canadian constitutional law). The competition is not entirely fair, since one of the competitors can pretty much declare himself the winner. And that’s when the competition can take place at all. Because the two levels of legislatures have different legislative powers, there are many areas over which they cannot compete.

But, in the Canadian context at least, vertical competitive federalism is not impossible. Indeed, under the guise of encouraging “cooperative federalism,” the Supreme Court has actively promoted it. As prof. Daly notes, the Court

has employed cooperative federalism as an interpretive principle to reshape constitutional law: most notably, the doctrine of interjurisdictional immunity–premised on the existence of exclusive zones of federal and provincial authority in the areas of competence set out in the Constitution Act, 1867–has been reduced to virtually nothing.

While I do not think that “virtually nothing” is quite correct, because interjurisdictional immunity still applies, at least, in “situations already covered by precedent” (Canadian Western Bank v. Alberta, [2007] 2 S.C.R. 3, 2007 SCC 22, at par. 77), the Court’s unwillingness to expand its application is indeed the most significant consequence of what it describes as its embrace of the cooperative federalism principle. But it seems to me that the limitation of interjurisdictional immunity is conducive to competition rather than cooperation. So, too, are the Court’s insistence on interpreting the notion of conflict between federal and provincial law narrowly, so as to limit the scope of potential application of the paramountcy doctrine, and the application of the “double aspect” doctrine, which allows concurrent jurisdiction over “matters” deemed to be at once federal in one “aspect” and provincial in another. Together, these principles in the Supreme Court’s federalism jurisprudence counteract, in part, the two factors that make vertical competition in a federation difficult. Limiting the scope of interjurisdictional immunity expands the areas over which Parliament and the provincial legislatures have concurrent jurisdiction and which both can regulate, while limiting the application of the paramountcy doctrine results in fewer occasions on which Parliament’s regulation prevails simply by virtue of being Parliament’s.

Of course, the vertical competition for which the Court thus makes room isn’t quite the same as horizontal federal competition. The option of moving away from a set of policies one doesn’t like is off the table, because Parliament’s policies are applicable throughout the country. But voters still have the option of rewarding the government that enacts the policies they support, and punishing the one that doesn’t. The competition between the two levels of government is thus not for citizens and businesses who can move from one jurisdiction to the next, but for the political benefits that result from enacting policies that citizens want to see enacted.

This brings me back to the gun registry issue. Québec presented the registry as the product of federal-provincial cooperation; the dissenting judges at the Supreme Court, as well as their academic supporters such as profs. Leclair and Daly accepted that characterization. But isn’t it at least as plausible to regard the federal registry as the product of competition between Parliament and the legislatures for the political benefits of satisfying the citizenry’s preferences in the area of gun control? Parliament created the registry because it, or its masters in the executive, thought that this would have political benefits for them. Now, however, a differently constituted Parliament, catering to a different electoral coalition, thinks that it will benefit from enacting a different policy.

Seen from this perspective, the issue for the Supreme Court was not whether a partner in a cooperative venture had acted disloyally, but whether one competitor had to assist the other in implementing a policy it chose to discard. Imposing a requirement to do so would have restricted the freedom of the market for policies and might conceivably have deterred entrants, contrary to the Court’s apparent policy of encouraging vertical regulatory competition within the Canadian federation.

Now it is still arguable that competition in a federal context must be loyal, and that Parliament had failed to respect that requirement, or indeed that competition has no place in this context. Either way, you can endorse my re-interpretation of the case, as an analytical matter, and still believe that its outcome was a mistake. But I would suggest that the majority’s decision is at least more consistent with the Court’s previous cooperative competitive federalism jurisprudence than its critics allow, and that, conversely, the dissent’s position involves a greater departure from the previously accepted principles than defenders claim.

How to Be Good Neighbours

Sometimes, the soundness of a position only becomes apparent by comparison with the alternative. So it has been, for me, in the gun registry litigation, which has finally concluded this morning with the Supreme Court’s decision in Quebec (Attorney General) v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 14. The majority finds that contrary to Québec’s claims, the federal government was entitled to destroy the long gun registration data it had accumulated while registering such guns was mandatory, regardless of provincial objections. The dissenters, for their part, would have held that the statutory provision requiring the destruction of the data is unconstitutional ― but that Québec is not constitutionally entitled to the data, whose fate must be settled by a political negotiation. The dissenters present their position as the more realistic one ― yet their proposed remedy is, in my view, so unpragmatic as to show that this position is unsound.

* * *

The majority, in terse reasons by Justices Cromwell and Karakatsanis, with whom the Chief Justice and Justices Rothstein and Moldaver agree, mostly relies on the principles of federalism ― understood, primarily, as a clear division of legislative powers ― and parliamentary sovereignty. The principle of co-operative federalism, which Québec invoked, can it the majority’s view serve

to provide flexibility in separation of powers doctrines, such as federal paramountcy and interjurisdictional immunity. It is used to facilitate interlocking federal and provincial legislative schemes and to avoid unnecessary constraints on provincial legislative action. [17]

But it neither amounts to a self-standing constraint on the exercise of legislative powers by either the federal Parliament or the provincial legislatures, nor “impose[s] a positive obligation to facilitate cooperation where the constitutional division of powers authorizes unilateral action.” [20] Furthermore, the province cannot invoke its reliance on or expectation of the continued existence of the gun registry. Parliament must remain free to abolish what it had previously created. The majority also concludes that provincial participation in the operation of the registry was limited and merely a part of the framework established by federal law.

The majority holds that the provision of the legislation abolishing the long gun registry which requires the destruction of the data was within Parliament’s legislative competence. As the creation of the registry was valid legislation in relation to criminal law, so must be its abolition, and so also must be provision settling the question of what is to happen to the now-unneeded data. The reasons that motivated Parliament to settle that question in the particular way it did rather than otherwise are irrelevant. Nor does a desire to make life more complicated, at a practical level, for the other level of government translate into a constitutionally cognizable harm:

[a]n intention on the part of one level of government to prevent another from realizing a policy objective it disagrees with does not, on its own, lead to the conclusion that there is an encroachment on the other level of government’s sphere of exclusive jurisdiction. [38]

Since Québec could not “validly enact legislation that deals with what will happen with the data of the repealed scheme,” [40] Parliament’s enactment of such legislation does not impede the exercise of any provincial powers.

* * *

In contrast to the majority’s, the dissenting reasons, jointly written by Justices Lebel, Wagner, and Gascon, with the agreement of Justice Abella, try to convey the impression of careful attention to the real-life background of the dispute. The dissent starts with a history of gun control in Canada, and includes repeated reference to the Polytechnique Massacre and the importance of gun control to Québec. It emphasizes the statements of various federal politicians (including the future prime minister Stephen Harper) and officials regarding the collaborative nature of the Canadian gun control regime. It also delves deeply into the mechanics of that regime’s operation, and details the ways in which provincial officials contribute information to and rely on its linchpin, the Canadian Firearms Information System database, highlighting the fact that, although legislation suggests that provincially- and federally-collected data ought to be distinct, they are, in reality, very much intertwined.

This leads the dissent to the conclusion that the long gun registry, as part of the broader gun control regime, is the fruit of a “partnership” between the federal government and Québec. This partnership “is consistent with the spirit of co‑operative federalism,” having

enabled the federal and provincial governments to work together, rather than in isolation, to achieve both federal (criminal law) and provincial (public safety and administration of justice) purposes. [149]

Upholding the principle of (co-operative federalism) thus requires “protect[ing]” such partnerships

both when they are implemented and when they are dismantled. It would hardly make sense to encourage co‑operation and find that schemes established in the context of a partnership are valid while at the same time refusing to take this particular context into account when those schemes are terminated. [152]

A legislature that wants to dismantle a partnership must “tak[e] into account the reasonably foreseeable consequences of the decision to do so for the other partner” [153] ― and so must the courts, when they consider the constitutionality of the resulting legislation.

The dissent’s final approach to the issue in the case still takes the form of a traditional division of powers analysis. It concludes that the “true purpose” of the provision requiring the destruction of the gun registry data without offering it to the provinces “is to ensure that the information on long guns can no longer be used for any provincial purposes.” [176] But because registration falls, fundamentally, under the provincial power over property and civil rights, this provision does too, and is thus, in “pith and substance,” not valid federal legislation in relation to criminal law. Nor can it be justified as ancillary to the broader, valid, exercise of the criminal law power resulting in the abolition of the registry. For one thing, it is not necessary, in order to abolish the federal registry, to refuse to hand over the data to the provinces; for another, in the context of the Canada-Québec “partnership,” the encroachment on the provincial powers is too serious to be justified as ancillary.

The dissent accordingly concludes that the provision at issue is unconstitutional, being beyond Parliament’s legislative powers. However, it also finds that Québec “has not established a legal basis for its claim to the data.” It is not the courts’ role to order the federal government to hand over the gun registry data. Rather, as the data are the “fruit” of a partnership, it is for the partners themselves to decide, as a political matter, how to dispose of them. The province, no more than the federal government, cannot make that decision unilaterally. Since they failed to make that decision at the moment of creating the partnership, they must do so now, by means of a negotiation.

* * *

As I mentioned at the outset, I believe that the majority has the better of the argument here. I find its argument that, since the province could not itself decide what is to happen to the data, the data’s destruction cannot be frustrating the exercise of a provincial legislative power compelling. By contrast, the dissent’s claim that Parliament is “encroaching” on provincial jurisdiction strikes me as unpersuasive. All that Parliament does is to make an eventual exercise of the provincial legislative power more costly (financially and, perhaps, though unlikely in this case, politically). The province is still free to act, so long as it is willing to pay the price. That might not be nice of Parliament but, as I will presently explain, I don’t think that Parliament is under a duty to be nice here.

Before doing so, I want to return to my point about the dissent’s proposed remedy. As I wrote after the oral argument, where Justice Wagner had floated his and his colleagues’ eventual proposed solution,

[d]eclaring a duty to negotiate might have worked (hypothetically of course) in the secession context, where the end point of a successful negotiation would be clear (i.e. a peaceful separation), although the details would need to be worked out. Here, the parties have an irreconcilable disagreement over what the end state would be (data handover or data destruction). What can they negotiate about?

It is striking that, at the conclusion of an opinion that presents itself as attuned to the political realities, a pragmatic rebuttal to a rather dogmatic majority judgment the dissenters propose a remedy that would utterly fail to solve the dispute before it and result in protracted, acrimonious, and ultimately futile negotiations. This is not pragmatism, but either naïveté or a rather cynical bet that, as the negotiations drag on and on, the current federal government will be replaced by one more favourable to Québec’s claims later this year. More importantly though, in my view, the dissent’s proposed remedy amounts to an acknowledgement that Québec’s claim was ultimately political, not legal. “Co-operative federalism” was an attempt to bridge the gap between the two, but even for the dissent, it was not enough.

Still, doesn’t the idea have some value? Shouldn’t there be, in a federation, a sense of good-neighbourliness preventing the two orders of government from exercising their powers in a manner which, though superficially legitimate, imposes serious costs ― something like the neighbourhood disturbances or nuisances of private law ― on each other? Well, perhaps. But there is an important requirement of good-neighbourliness that the majority opinion actually serves much better than the dissent. The majority’s reasoning means that both the federal government and the provinces are clear about their own, and the other’s, entitlements when they embark on a joint venture. If they go ahead, they know the risks. The dissent’s reasoning would only have served to generate confusion about who may do what, and under what circumstances. It is good fences that make good neighbours.

Beavertail Western

Suppose you are the sheriff of a remote town in the Wild West. John, the man who used to run the town’s saloon ― the only saloon within a hundred-mile radius as it happens ― passed away, and left the saloon to a son of his, name of Steve. However, unlike John, who was never fewer than two sheets in the wind himself, Steve is a teetotaller, and abhors the bottle. So he decides to close down the establishment ― not to sell it, but to close it down altogether, and smash the bottles to smithereens. And he told everybody who’ll listen without shooting him (which isn’t a great many people, but they talk, so word spread and you heard all about it) that the point is to make sure nobody will open another saloon anytime soon, so as to get the townsfolk to stop drinking already, repent their sins, and start living like decent, law-abiding citizens.

Now, just as Steve is about to embark on the bottle-smashing fun, a guy rides in and demands that he hand over some of the alcohol, so that he can open a saloon of his own. Not that he has a building, or personnel, or much of anything ready, but never mind that. And as Steve refuses, the stranger barges in and demands that you call up the posse and put the fear of God into that obnoxious moralizer.

Steve is telling you it’s his booze, and he’s entitled to do whatever he wants with it. The guy is telling you that by doing that, he’s preventing him from doing something that he is perfectly entitled to do ― opening up a saloon that is ― and that since he has no use for the stuff anyway, it’s just mean and in bad faith. So what do you do? Never mind the law. You are the law, and there’s no other to be had. You’re going on first principles here. If you think that Steve ought to hand over the booze this guy is demanding, you’ll tell Steve that he’s got to do it ― or else. Will you?

As you’re thinking about it, and maybe have even come to a decision, the guy reveals that he is Steve’s estranged brother Phil. You hadn’t recognized him, because he’d been away for a while, but now that he’s told you, you know it’s true. A brother. Family and all that. So, does that change your answer? And then Phil tells you that he’d actually helped John collect those bottles. Would ride around all day to buy the finest moonshine in the state and bring it to pops. Steve retorts that not only is Phil exaggerating the extent of his involvement, but John also paid him for what little work he did put in, and he’s got the books to prove it. Do you think it matters? Are you going to investigate just what Phil did and didn’t do, and whether he was compensated for it?

Over to you, Sheriff.

The Elephant in the Room : l’inexplicable constitutionnalité de l’intégralité des traités modernes

À l’occasion de ma série de billets sur l’arrêt Tsilhqot’in, j’avais affirmé que, si elle devait être tenue pour cruciale, la question de la portée précise de la compétence fédérale exclusive sur les autochtones et des conditions auxquelles les provinces peuvent constitutionnellement intervenir en ce domaine qu’est le droit des autochtones n’avait pourtant toujours pas trouvé de réponse satisfaisante. Cette réponse serait nécessaire à l’explication des conditions de validité des traités dits “modernes” qui portent règlement d’une revendication de droits ancestraux territoriaux ainsi que des dispositions législatives, fédérales comme provinciales, relatives à leur mise en œuvre.

Je ne prétends évidemment pas répondre définitivement à cette question dans les paragraphes qui suivent. J’aimerais plutôt me servir de la tribune qui m’est ici généreusement offerte pour mettre à l’épreuve les résultats préliminaires d’une analyse qu’il reste à approfondir. Je dois admettre d’entrée que je suis un peu choqué par les conclusions que, provisoirement du moins, je me suis résigné à tirer. L’intérêt virtuel des développements qui suivent est de s’attaquer de front à un problème juridique sans doute complexe. Mais ce problème est peut-être au contraire un “éléphant dans la pièce”, c’est-à-dire un de ceux dont il est convenu qu’il vaut mieux ne pas le soulever.

À deux reprises, l’Accord définitif Nisga’a (1998), un traité moderne constitutif d’un gouvernement autochtone, a vu sa constitutionnalité être contestée en justice, et ce, notamment sur la base de la répartition fédérative des compétences, au motif que celle-ci ne permettrait pas une telle institution d’un « troisième ordre de gouvernement ». Dans l’affaire Campbell, la cour supérieure de la Colombie-Britannique a rejeté cette thèse au motif que la répartition fédérative des compétences qui est prévue à notre loi suprême ne serait pas « exhaustive », de sorte que s’y déroberait la compétence correspondant au droit à l’autonomie gouvernementale que comprendrait le titre aborigène « in its full form ». Dans l’affaire Sga’nism Sim’augit, la cour d’appel de la Colombie-Britannique fut unanimement d’avis qu’il ne lui était pas nécessaire de se prononcer sur le bien-fondé de cette thèse judiciaire (par.45). À mon sens, cette thèse est nulle. D’abord, c’est à la Cour suprême du Canada qu’il revient, le cas échéant, de renverser le principe de l’arrêt qu’elle a rendu dans l’affaire Pamajewon. Ensuite, jamais la jurisprudence de la plus haute cour au pays n’a encore dérobé les droits ancestraux et issus de traités à la répartition fédérative des compétences, cette jurisprudence faisant plutôt – non sans poser problème, j’en conviens – ressortir les droits garantis par l’art. 35 de la LC 1982 à compétence fédérale exclusive prévue au par. 91(24) de la LC 1982. Sur ce plan, tout ce qu’est venu faire l’arrêt Tsilhqot’in est de retrancher les droits constitutionnels des peuples autochtones du « cœur » de cette compétence fédérale, au sens où l’entend la théorie jurisprudentielle de la protection des compétences exclusives. Enfin, la thèse selon laquelle la répartition fédérative des compétences n’est pas « exhaustive » tient de la contradiction dans les termes. De dire que les droits ancestraux et issus de traités ne sont pas l’objet d’une compétence législative est une chose. De dire que, en tout ou partie, ils coïncident avec une compétence qui échappe au partage fédératif en est une autre. Dans toute fédération, c’est l’ensemble de la compétence législative qui est partagée entre les sphères fédérale et fédérées de pouvoir. C’est pourquoi toute loi constitutionnelle fédérative prévoit normalement l’attribution d’une compétence résiduelle. Certes, la fédération canadienne a représenté une exception, mais cela seulement durant sa période coloniale, qui s’arrête en 1926. De 1867 à 1926, l’empire s’était réservé la compétence sur les relations intercoloniales, coloniales-impériales et internationales, la répartition originelle de 1867 en les sphères de pouvoir fédérale et fédérée de la nouvelle colonie s’étant limitée aux compétences jusqu’alors déjà reconnues aux colonies d’Amérique du Nord britannique. Avec l’accession du Canada au statut d’État souverain au sens du droit international public, les compétences réservées du législateur impérial se sont transférées au législateur fédéral canadien. C’est ce que suggère entre autres l’arrêt Croft v. Dunphy, [1933] A.C. 156.

L’argument avec lequel il a été principalement disposé de l’affaire Sga’nism Sim’augit par la cour d’appel de la Colombie-Britannique était que, relativement à l’institution d’un gouvernement autochtone, le traité de 1999 avec les Nisga’a et ses lois de mise œuvre correspondaient à une forme de délégation de pouvoir législatif inconstitutionnelle parce que définitive. La réponse de la cour d’appel à cette objection est faible. Elle consiste à dire que la délégation en question n’est pas définitive, parce que les législateurs fédéral et provinciaux peuvent, en matière de droits issus de traités, recourir au test de l’arrêt Sparrow, test pourtant relatif à seule restriction des droits constitutionnels que l’art. 35 de la LC 1982 garantit aux peuples autochtones. En réalité, la seule délégation qui est clairement interdite à un législateur est la délégation « horizontale », c’est-à-dire celle qui serait faite en faveur du législateur de l’autre des deux sphères (fédérale et fédérée) de pouvoir, et ce, même si, en raison du principe établi selon lequel le parlement actuel ne peut pas lier un parlement à venir, une telle délégation ne saurait être définitive. La ou (plus exactement) les délégations en cause dans cette affaire n’étaient pas horizontales. Par contre, la tension entre, d’une part, la protection constitutionnelle des compétences d’un « gouvernement autochtone » par le biais de celle des droits issus de traités et, d’autre part, le principe selon lequel le législateur ordinaire actuel (fédéral ou provincial) ne peut lier ses successeurs était bien réelle. Cette question aurait mérité un meilleur traitement.

Si la jurisprudence avait situé les droits constitutionnels des peuples autochtones sur le même plan que les droits et libertés garantis par la Charte canadienne – c’est-à-dire dans la constitution des droits par opposition à celle des pouvoirs – alors ces droits auraient échappé au partage fédératif des compétences, et il aurait été possible de voir dans les dispositions de l’art. 35 de la LC 1982 relatives aux droits issus de traités l’aménagement d’une forme de pouvoir constituant, qui serait ainsi venue s’ajouter à la partie V de ce même loi constitutionnelle. Suivant un tel scénario, la mise en œuvre, par le Parlement fédéral et la législature provinciale, d’un traité conclu avec des autochtones aurait pu être tenue pour relever de l’exercice de ce pouvoir constituant plutôt de l’acte de législateurs ordinaires séparés. De cette façon les principes relatifs à la délégation législative et aux rapports entre législateurs actuels et futurs auraient-ils été facilement écartés. Or il n’en est rien, la jurisprudence prévoyant plutôt que, du moins à titre principal, les droits issus de traités des peuples autochtones relèvent de la compétence sur les autochtones que le par. 91(24) de la LC 1867 attribue en propre au législateur fédéral. En d’autres termes, en plus de voir sa dimension porteuse de droits en faveur de la partie autochtone être protégée constitutionnellement par l’article 35 de la LC 1982, le contenu d’un traité relève toujours ou, en d’autres termes, doit toujours relever principalement de la compétence fédérale sur les autochtones. Il ne pourrait qu’accessoirement relever de compétences autres, que celles-ci soient fédérales exclusives, provinciales exclusives ou concurrentes. Dans tous les cas, il relève entièrement de la répartition fédérative des compétences. Formellement, la loi de mise en œuvre d’un traité tient donc de la loi ordinaire. Dès lors qu’il est question de la mise en œuvre de droits-compétences issus de traités, force est donc de conclure à une forme de délégation législative. Comme nous l’avons vu, celle-ci n’est pas « horizontalement » inconstitutionnelle. En ce qui concerne son caractère définitif maintenant, la seule manière de soutenir la thèse de sa constitutionnalité est d’affirmer qu’ici l’interdiction normalement faite au législateur actuel de lier ses successeurs est spécialement levée par l’article 35 de la LC 1982.

À l’exception des Traités de Williams de 1923 à la négociation desquels prit part le gouvernement ontarien, tous les traités conclus avec des autochtones après la fédération de 1867 ne l’ont été que par les autorités fédérales. Quant à eux, les traités modernes sont aussi conclus avec le gouvernement provincial, le cas échéant. Il serait faux d’affirmer que l’état actuel de notre droit (ou même celui de notre doctrine) indique clairement si une telle participation du gouvernement provincial est juridiquement nécessaire. Une telle approche laisse entendre que certains aspects des traités modernes (et bien sûr de leur mise en œuvre) peuvent relever de la compétence des provinces. Si un « traité autochtone » se définit en fonction d’un contenu obligationnel relatif aux droits fondamentaux d’une communauté autochtone en tant que telle, alors, en vertu des principes généraux relatifs à la compétence fédérale exclusive sur les autochtones, on pourrait vouloir conclure que seul le gouvernement fédéral peut y être partie. En revanche, la forme la plus élémentaire de compréhension du fédéralisme comme forme d’organisation d’un État s’entend du principe selon lequel, dans toute fédération, chacune des attributions de compétence doit avoir des limites matérielles ; aucune attribution ne saurait être matériellement illimitée. Partant, la compétence fédérale exclusive sur les autochtones, y compris celle relative aux traités conclus avec des collectifs autochtones, ne peut pas être sans bornes.

Dans l’arrêt Howard (p. 308), la Cour suprême a suggéré, en négatif, que les provinces seraient compétentes pour conclure seules des traités autochtones portant autre chose qu’une cession de territoire. Rappelons au passage que certaines « conventions complémentaires » de la CBJNQ, dont la Convention complémentaire no 24, n’ont pas été signées par les autorités fédérales. Voilà qui pourtant paraît difficilement compatible avec les arrêts Simon (p. 411) et Morris (par. 43 et 91), suivant lesquels les droits autochtones issus de traités relèvent de la compétence fédérale sur les « Indiens » et les terres qui leur sont « réservées ». Une manière de concilier les deux thèses serait de soutenir que, si la participation du gouvernement fédéral est nécessaire à la validité de tout traité conclu avec des autochtones (de sorte que le gouvernement d’une province ne saurait conclure seul un tel traité avec), en revanche il peut arriver, en fonction de la portée de son contenu, qu’un traité donné avec des autochtones ne puisse être conclu par le seul gouvernement fédéral, qui doit plutôt s’assurer de la participation du gouvernement provincial concerné. Dans l’arrêt Grassy Narrows, la juge en chef McLachlin a affirmé que, nonobstant les dispositions d’un traité, « [l]e paragraphe 91(24) [de la LC 1867] ne confère pas au Canada le droit de prendre des terres provinciales à des fins exclusivement provinciales » (par. 37). Cela suggère à mon sens que de grands pans du contenu matériel des traités modernes conclus et à venir ressortissent en réalité à la compétence exclusive des provinces, même si celles-ci ne pourraient sans doute pas seules conclure un traité avec un groupe autochtone. Si cette toute dernière hypothèse devait se révéler fausse (et donc que les provinces pouvaient signer seules certains traités), en revanche il faudrait se rappeler qu’il n’a jamais été mis en doute que seul le gouvernement fédéral peut recevoir une cession de droits ancestraux.

L’interprétation qui me semble être la plus rigoureuse est que, la compétence fédérale exclusive sur les autochtones ne pouvant pas être illimitée et celle de conclure des traités avec les autochtones en faisant partie, rien ne garantit que chacune des dispositions des traités modernes présente au minimum un double aspect, de sorte qu’il est vraisemblable que certaines de ces dispositions ne fassent, en réalité, pas validement partie d’un tel traité, ne soient porteuses d’aucun droit issu de traité au sens de l’article 35 de la LC 1982 et n’aient force de loi qu’à la faveur de la loi ordinaire qui les met en œuvre.

D’autre part, même à concéder, aux seules fins de la discussion, que certaines dispositions des traités modernes, outre la compétence fédérale exclusive sur les autochtones, peuvent, en présentant un double aspect, ressortir aussi, en en tant que telles, à la compétence exclusive des provinces – de sorte que les provinces auraient une (pourtant improbable) compétence partielle de conclure des traités avec les autochtones –, il n’en demeure pas moins que, dans les faits, nombre de dispositions de certaines lois provinciales de mise en œuvre de tels traités se rapportent plutôt à des stipulations dont le « rattachement » dominant est plutôt avec cette compétence fédérale exclusive sur les autochtones. Ces lois à contenir des dispositions d’une constitutionnalité plus que douteuse sont notamment lois provinciales suivantes de mise en œuvre de la CBJNQ et de la CNEQ : Loi sur les autochtones Cris, Inuits et Naskapis, LRQ, c. A-33.1 ; Loi sur le régime des terres dans les territoires de la Baie-James et du Nouveau-Québec, LRQ, c. R-13.1 ; Loi sur les villages cris et le village naskapi, LRQ, c. V-5.1 ; Loi sur les villages nordiques et l’Administration régionale Kativik, LRQ, c. V-6.1.

The Shootout

This morning the Supreme Court heard the oral argument regarding Québec’s demand for the long-gun registry data which the federal government wants to destroy, pursuant to the legislation which abolished the registry two years ago. I have uploaded a very rough (and probably somewhat incomplete) transcript of the argument here. In this post, I will summarize it and offer some more or less random thoughts.

***

Québec argued that the gun registry had always been a joint venture between the federal government and the provinces. That’s how it was “sold” by the federal government when it was set up, and that’s how all the parties involved, including for example the RCMP, had always seen it. Federal and provincial firearms regulations are inextricably linked. Thus the Chief Firearms Officer in Québec, although appointed pursuant to federal law to execute tasks set out in federal law, is a high-ranking provincial police officer, and also executes tasks under provincial legislation.

Accordingly, the principle of co-operative federalism required that even if the federal government was no longer interested its own objectives through that venture, it allow Québec to pursue its own. The federal government, Québec pointed out, doesn’t dispute that the province could set up a gun registry of its own, to pursue purposes related to health and safety, crime prevention, and the administration of justice. It should not be able to frustrate the realization of these purposes by destroying the gun registry data.

And in response to the federal government’s claim that the destruction of the data is necessary to protect gun-owners’ personal data, Québec argued that not only was the data that would actually be destroyed ― the guns’ serial numbers ― not very significant, but its own data-protection regime was as good as the federal one, and indeed better. (Québec’s lawyer pointed out, with a bit of snark, that the provision requiring the destruction of the gun registry data precluded the application of some of the federatol data-protection legislation.)

The federal government’s main argument was that it was Parliament that had created the gun registry, and Parliament was free to change its mind as to the registry’s effectiveness and usefulness. Having changed its mind, it was free to abolish the registry ― which meant destroying it ― and did not have to consult the provinces. Imposing a duty to consult the provinces before enacting legislation that affects them would not be an application of the principle of co-operative federalism, which is limited to making it possible for federal and provincial law to operate simultaneously in the same area ― it would transform the structure of Canadian federalism. It would also run counter to the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty, which makes a legislature free to overturn any agreement entered into by the executive, even if implemented in legislation enacted by a previous legislature. And, having chosen to abolish the registry, Parliament logically had to destroy the data. Even the former Privacy Commissioner confirmed that the principles of privacy law require the destruction of any personal data one no longer has use for.

The federal government tried hard to counteract the impression that the gun registry was anything like a joint venture between it and the provinces. It contended that even though its operation involves a provincial employee acting as a Chief Firearms Officer, that person executes tasks set out in federal legislation and regulations, and the province is fully compensated for the time she spends doing so. In any event, it is the federal Registrar of Firearms who controls the gun-registry data.

The federal government also made a point of questioning Québec’s need for the data it wants to destroy. It pointed to the recent decision in Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic v. Canada, 2014 ONSC 5140 (about which I blogged here), where the Superior Court found that the efficacy of the registry in preventing domestic violence had not been established, and that even police officers disagreed about the effectiveness of the registry. It also pointed out that, unlike for handguns, the registry did not indicate where a long gun was stored, so that the police could not rely on it alone to find out whether a person was likely to have a gun in a particular place or not.

The bottom line, for the federal government, is that if Québec wants to create its own registry, it must do so on its own, without federal help. Parliament was committed to the conclusion that the registry had been an unwarranted and unnecessary intrusion upon the privacy of law-abiding citizens everywhere ― including in Québec. It did not wish to go back on that commitment. If Québec wants to set up a registry for its own ends, it should assume the political and financial costs of doing so.

***

It is difficult to know what the Court will do with this, if only because so many the judges were silent during the argument. Not a single one of the non-Québec judges asked a question of Québec’s lawyer, and, among them, only the Chief Justice and, once or twice Justice Abella, questioned the federal government’s lawyer. The Québec judges, who did thus almost all of the questioning, seemed somewhat sympathetic to the province’s position, and skeptical of the federal government’s claim that it could act unilaterally. Such skepticism would, indeed, be in keeping with the Supreme Court’s usual preference for requiring agreement between the different levels of government. But the federal government’s arguments based on Parliamentary sovereignty were quite powerful, and they may have had some effect.

It may all come down to the Court’s comprehension of how the registry operated. Will it, like Québec’s Superior Court, agree with the province that it really was a joint venture, so that one of the partners is entitled entitled not only to keep it going despite the other losing interest, but also to receive the other partner’s help for doing so? Or will it agree with the federal government’s characterization of the provincial role in the operation of the registry as very limited and thus insufficient to support any duties once the decision to discontinue the registry has been made, as the Québec Court of Appeal concluded? Even among the judges who spoke this morning, it is very difficult to say who thought what on this point.

But the Court may also look for a way out of the dilemma. Early on in Québec’s argument, Justice Wagner asked whether the Court might simply declare that the parties had a duty to negotiate. Québec’s lawyer seemed skeptical, although he eventually said that if the declaration had enough force to make the federal government hand over the data, he would be happy with it. Yet I find it difficult to see how that would work. Declaring a duty to negotiate might have worked (hypothetically of course) in the secession context, where the end point of a successful negotiation would be clear (i.e. a peaceful separation), although the details would need to be worked out. Here, the parties have an irreconcilable disagreement over what the end state would be (data handover or data destruction). What can they negotiate about?

It seems to me that the court cannot fudge ― either Québec is entitled to the registry data, or the federal government can destroy it. As in a hockey shootout, there can be only one winner here.

More Dead than Ever

While the Supreme Court is getting ready for the oral argument in Québec’s challenge to the abolition of the long-gun registry by the federal government (set for October 8), a different challenge to the constitutionality of the Ending the Long-Gun Registry Act was dismissed by Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice earlier this month in Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic v. Canada, 2014 ONSC 5140. Justice Morgan held that, contrary to the Clinic’s claims, the abolition of the gun registry did not infringe the right of women either to the security of the person or to equality, and thus did not contravene sections 7 or 15 of the Charter.

Justice Morgan began his s. 7 analysis by discussing the “state action problem” with the Clinic’s argument. The Clinic claimed that the abolition of the gun registry infringed s. 7 because it increased the risk that women would suffer gun violence, in particular from their domestic partners. In its view, its argument was similar to those that prevailed in Canada (Attorney General) v PHS Community Services Society, 2011 SCC 44, [2011] 3 SCR 134 (the Insite case) and in Canada (Attorney General) v Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 SCR 1101, where the Supreme Court found, respectively, that a denial of an exemption from drug laws to a safe-injection clinic and the prostitution-related provisions of the Criminal Code infringed s. 7 by increasing the risks to which the clinic’s users and sex workers were subject. But the fact a government policy fails to reduce a risk to which a person is exposed as much as possible is not enough, Justice Morgan found:

[c]ontemporary society is permeated by risk, including the risk of violent crime and injurious use of firearms, but unless that risk is a creation of state intervention it is not within government’s constitutional responsibilities. (Par. 25; emphasis mine.)

There is, furthermore, a crucial difference between the alleged increase of risk as a result of the abolition of the long-gun registry and the facts of the Insite case and Bedford, in that in those cases the government had prevented people from taking steps, on their own, to minimize the risks they were subject to, whereas the gun registry is a government-created risk mitigation scheme (if indeed it is that). The upshot of the Insite case and Bedford is that the government cannot prevent people from reducing the risks they run, not that it has a duty to do it by itself. Indeed, Justice Morgan pointed out,

[t]he Supreme Court indicated in Bedford, at para 88, that while the state cannot make prostitution even riskier than it is, the claimants [in that case] were “not asking the government to put into place measures making prostitution safe” (par. 34).

When Parliament itself creates a risk-reduction scheme, it can expand or limit it as it in its wisdom sees fit. So long as it doesn’t interfere with people’s autonomous risk-reduction endeavours, it does not act unconstitutionally.

The Clinic’s position also suffered, according to Justice Morgan, from a “baseline problem.” As he saw it, the Clinic

use[d] the 1995 Firearms Act [which had created the long-gun registry] as a baseline against which to measure the [new] licensing and registration system … , and finds the latter lacking. In the Applicant’s characterization, while the regulatory regime that existed from 1995 until … 2012 “provided an essential element in the effective protection for the s. 7 rights of women”, the “[Ending the Long Gun Registry] Act’s purpose appears to relate primarily to political aims”. (Par. 41)

But a statutory scheme cannot be made into a constitutional standard in this way. The gun registry’s creation was no more “politically neutral” than its abolition (par. 45). It was a choice of policy and politics, and it can be reversed or revised.

Justice Morgan then turned to the evidence which the Clinic adduced in support of its s. 7 claim, and found it insufficient. That evidence seems mainly to have consisted of statistics showing that gun violence declined in Canada while the long-gun registry was in operation. But, Justice Morgan said, gun violence had been declining before the registry was set up, and the early indications are that gun violence against women has not increased after it was abolished. In fact, as the government argued, there is a long-term trend towards the reduction of violent crime, so that what the Clinic showed was correlation, but not causation. Furthermore, police officers ― including those who served as the Clinic’s expert witnesses ― suggest that the effectiveness of gun registration (as opposed to licensing and background checks, which the abolition of the registry does not affect) is debated and, at best, limited. Thus even if an increase of risk resulting from the abolition of the long-gun registry were a constitutionally cognizable harm, the Clinic, in Justice Morgan’s view, had not demonstrated that the abolition had that effect.

Justice Morgan found that similar evidentiary problems undermined the Clinic’s claim that the abolition of the long-gun registry infringed the Charter’s equality guarantee becaused it would disproportionately affect women would be the victims of domestic gun violence. Again, there is evidence that gun both violence and domestic violence are decreasing. But given the multiplicity of causes likely to be involved, it is very difficult to isolate the gun registry’s role, if any, in these processes. The point, Justice Morgan said, is “not that there is no place for statistical data, but rather that statistical data can rarely, if ever, do the work of proof on its own” (par. 100). Nor was there anything to show that whatever effects the abolition of the gun registry might have on women were discriminatory in the sense of stereotyping or perpetuating past disadvantage. The overall statutory scheme for regulating firearms still tries to reduce gun violence, including in particular gun violence against women. Changing the mix of criminal and regulatory elements in that scheme was not, Justice Morgan said, discrimination.

I think this is the right decision. Justice Morgan’s point about the “state action problem” and the “baseline problem” are well taken, and his concerns about the insufficiency of the evidence to show that the gun registry’s abolition would have the disastrous consequences its supporters expect are justified.

I don’t know whether the Clinic intends to appeal his decision, but its chances of success would be very low indeed, given the Supreme Court’s insistence, in Bedford, that a trial judge’s assessment of social science evidence in constitutional cases is entitled to as much deference on appeal as any other form of fact-finding. Even if Justice Morgan were wrong in has approach to the issue of state action (and I don’t think that he is), his conclusions regarding the evidence would still stand.

For better or worse, this is the brave new world of Charter litigation ― a world in which cases live and die depending on the lawyers’ ability to assemble an evidentiary record and to convince a trial judge of this record of that record’s persuasiveness. And as I wrote here in discussing the potential dangers of this approach, “[t]he government, as the best funded and most powerful interest group of them all, is more likely to have the resources to put together a solid record than those who challenge it.” So here the government was able to show that the general trends in crime reduction, and its other (purportedly) crime-preventing policies meant that it was not possible to establish the effects of the gun registry’s abolition or continued existence with any degree of certainty.

This is not to say that I regret the outcome of this particular case, though others will find it regrettable. I will, however, note the irony of the government’s reliance on statistics showing a long-term general decrease in crime to defend this one element of its criminal-law legislative programme while implementing other, “tough-on-crime,” policies with a total disregard for these statistics. I hope that the courts which will consider the constitutionality of these measures will take good note. The gun registry is more dead than ever ― though the Supreme Court might still resurrect it in Québec. But in killing it, the government might just have inflicted some collateral damage on its other policies. No regrets from me there, either.

Missing Blueprints

Last week, in a series of decisions headlined by Bank of Montreal v. Marcotte, 2014 SCC 55, the Supreme Court confirmed the commitment to making provincial and federal laws operate side by side, in the name of co-operative federalism, which has been a staple of its federalism jurisprudence in recent years. When the Court had last addressed the issues of interjurisdictional immunity and federal paramountcy, in  Marine Services International Ltd. v. Ryan Estate, 2013 SCC 44, I wrote that, in something of a departure from Lord Atkin’s famous dictum in the Labour Conventions Reference, “the Supreme Court now believes that ‘watertight compartments’ are not enough. Their operation must be complemented by allowing water ballast to flow from one side of the hull to another to keep the ship [of Canadian federalism] aright.” Yet the Court, I said, provided little if any guidance on the way this structure operated. Marcotte is of no assistance in this respect, however important it may prove in other ways.

The federalism issue in Marcotte was whether Québec’s Consumer Protection Act (CPA) applied to banks and, specifically, to the their credit-card operations. The plaintiffs argued that the respondent banks had failed to disclose certain fees and charges in their credit card contracts as the Act required them to do; the banks countered by claiming, among other things, that they either enjoyed an interjurisdictional immunity from the obligations imposed by the CPA, or that the CPA was inoperative with respect to their credit-card operations, because they were regulated by inconsistent federal legislation. In a unanimous judgment by Justices Rothstein and Wagner, the Supreme Court rejected these arguments. (There were other issues too, which I will not consider here, concerning standing in class actions, as well as the interpretation and the effects of the CPA.)

Interjurisdictional immunity prevents provincial laws from “impairing” federal regulation of the “protected core” of a federal jurisdiction. Banking is a federal jurisdiction pursuant to s. 92(15) of the Constitution Act, 1867, so the banks contended that the CPA’s disclosure requirements and provisions sanctioning non-compliance with these requirements could not apply to their credit-card issuing activities. The Court, however, pointed out that

[a] broad application of the doctrine is in tension with the modern cooperative approach to federalism which favours, where possible, the application of statutes enacted by both levels of government. (Par. 63)

Outside the areas covered by precedents concluding that inter-jurisdictional immunity exists, courts must be wary of finding that it applies. Here, without deciding whether credit card activities fall within the “core” of the federal power over “banking,” the Court concludes that, even if they do, the CPA does not “impair” federal regulation:

it cannot plausibly be said that a disclosure requirement for certain charges ancillary to one type of consumer credit “impairs” or “significantly trammels” the manner in which Parliament’s legislative jurisdiction over bank lending can be exercised. (Par. 66)

The banks still retain the ability “to dictate the terms” (par. 66) of their relationship with their customers, and Parliament will not need to legislate to counter the effects of the provincial law.

For its part, the federal paramountcy renders an otherwise valid provincial law inoperative when and to the extent that it conflicts with a valid federal law ― either because it is impossible to comply with both laws or because the provincial law “frustrates” a “federal purpose.” Here, there is no question of impossibility of complying with both federal and provincial law. But the banks invoked two federal purposes which the CPA’s disclosure requirements and sanctions, in their view, frustrated: setting out uniform national standards, and “to ensure that bank contracts are not nullified even if a bank breaches its disclosure obligations” (par. 73). The Court finds that, even assuming these to be the purposes of the federal regulatory framework applicable to banks, neither is frustrated by the CPA. Disclosure requirements are not “standards” for banking products or services, “but rather articulate a contractual norm in Quebec” (par. 79), in the same way as do other general rules of contract law, which the banks accept are applicable to them. Indeed, “the federal scheme is dependent on fundamental provincial rules such as the basic rules of contract” (par. 79). As for the non-nullification purpose, the Court finds that since the plaintiffs are not asking to be released from their contracts with the banks, but only for a restitution of undisclosed fees and damages, it is not engaged. More broadly,

[t]here are many provincial laws providing for a variety of civil causes of action that can potentially be raised against banks.  The silence of the [federal] Bank Act on civil remedies cannot be taken to mean that civil remedies are inconsistent with the Bank Act. (Par. 84)

As I said above, this is very much in keeping with the Supreme Court’s federalism jurisprudence. Yet I cannot get rid of a feeling that that the Court’s decision-making remains very impressionistic, especially on the question of interjurisdictional immunity.

I’m inclined to agree with the court’s assertion that provincial disclosure requirements do not impair the exercise of federal jurisdiction ― but it still is an assertion, not a demonstration. Would a demonstration be possible? I’m not sure, but the Court hardly even tries. The only argument it musters is that Parliament would not need to legislate to oust provincial law, but I don’t think that’s right. Rather, it’s difficult to imagine Parliament wanting to legislate to remove disclosure requirements ― though even that is doubtful, since Parliament might, in theory anyway, replace the somewhat different provincial requirements by a uniform framework of its own. But if, for whatever reason, Parliament decides that provincial disclosure requirements are a problem, it seems to me that it will, in fact, have to legislate to solve it.

The Court is on more solid ground, I think, when it comes to paramountcy. In effect, it seems to suggest that complementary provincial requirements will not conflict with or frustrate the purpose of federal regulations, although parallel (and non-identical) provincial rules might do so. I think that this makes sense, and it is also a more easily applicable standard than what the Court has come up with on interjurisdictional immunity. Still, the Court doesn’t quite articulate this test. Its reasons do not openly go beyond the case before it. So even here, we can only infer the general rules.

Perhaps this is actually sound common law adjudication. We know the general values the law (as developed by the Supreme Court) serves in this area; we know ruling in specific cases; and it is up to us to figure out the general rules that mediate between general values and specific cases. But it’s not how the Court operates in other areas of constitutional law, so it cannot help but feel frustrating. We know what our constitutional structure looks like, but we’re missing the blueprints for it.

UPDATE: At the CBA National Magazine’s blog, Yves Faguy has compiled other posts on Marcotte.