An Empty Vessel

Thoughts on the Justice Kasirer appointment process

A few weeks back, Prime Minister Trudeau’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Nicolas Kasirer, subjected himself to questions from parliamentarians. By all accounts, Justice Kasirer is a qualified nominee for the Court, having spent a decade on the Quebec Court of Appeal. But one must separate the nominee from the process through which he was appointed. While the Government’s independent search process is probably, in theory, a step in the right direction, it is still plagued by one meaningful problem: parliamentarians have virtually no power to shed any meaningful light on the Prime Minister’s nominee.

Of course, unlike the United States, Parliament and its committees have no constitutional duty or mandate to give “advice and consent” on nominations made by the Prime Minister to the Supreme Court. Yet the fact that the Constitution does not require something does not mean that systems of government should not aspire to be better. This was the logic behind the Prime Minister’s independent appointments process, which is also not at all required by the Constitution.

But the process adopted by the government when it comes to public consultation, while not inconsistent with the Constitution, falls well short of other standards of public transparency. The judicial nomination “hearing,” if one could even call it that, was limited by a number of overriding principles. For example, Justice Kasirer could not talk about any past decisions he rendered as a judge of the Quebec Court of Appeal; politicians could not ask him about any judgments he would render as a judge of the Supreme Court;  politicians could not “cross-examine” the nominee; nor ask him to take a position on “controversial” issues; and finally, the nominee could not comment on existing Supreme Court decisions, and whether he supported those decisions or not.

Some of these restrictions are understandable. Asking a nominee to pre-judge an issue presents a real judicial independence problem. But some of the restrictions, I think, end up short-circuiting legitimate questions about the role of the judge in the modern era. Particularly, asking a judge to comment on her past rulings or to comment generally about her philosophy does not present the same judicial independence concern as pre-judging a case on the merits. Indeed, there are other countervailing values that make these questions apt for answering, in the name of public transparency, and in light of the judicial role in the modern era.

The idea is this: no one denies—not even proponents of strong-form judicial review—that the Supreme Court deals with issues of great national importance. This is in part represented in the Supreme Court’s leave requirements; but it is also manifested in the cases the Supreme Court decides, and how it decides them. In the last number of years, the Court has decided cases of broad public controversy, including reading a right to assisted dying into the Constitution, doing the same for the right to strike, and similarly interpreting an existing constitutional provision to encompass a right to Wagner-style collective bargaining. All of these issues—issues over which reasonable people can disagree in the political realm—have been removed from the public sphere of debate by the Supreme Court’s constitutional rulings. While the Court has often replied that it is the people through their representatives that thrust this role upon them when enacting the Charter (see BC Motor Vehicles, at para 16), this argument does not change the basic fact that courts have taken on this role, often liberated by emancipating doctrines like a “living tree approach” and a lax standard for the admission of all sorts of social science evidence. When it comes to Charter decision-making, the judicial role takes on the character of policy, under which decisions are made by courts that at one point might have been made by legislatures.

Putting aside whether this is normatively desirable, and if this is the case, why shouldn’t the public have a window past the veil of judicial decision-making in a substantive way that sheds light on the things a judge values in the decision-making process? In other words, while there is no formal process for “advice and consent” (and perhaps there shouldn’t be) shouldn’t the public’s representatives have a right to query the judge’s overarching judicial philosophy, including how it would apply to past Supreme Court cases? The role of the Supreme Court in the modern era, if it is going to be expansive, is deserving of some sunlight.

I am alive to the criticisms. One might argue that this imports an American style advice and consent function into Canada, potentially creating the conditions for the sort of circus we see in the United States. But the function I have in mind is suited to Canadian circumstances. In reality, my prescription would amount to allowing a few more substantive questions to be asked in a hearing. Anyone who watched the Kasirer hearing was probably left sorely disappointed; the nominee’s reliance on the restrictions of the entire process was somewhat frustrating given the stakes of a Supreme Court appointment. But if the process was somewhat more substantive, with the scope of questioning somewhat expanded, perhaps there might be more interest in the entire endeavour, with Parliament taking on a real public monitoring function. On my account, the questions that could be asked could account for general judicial philosophy considerations, an account of the judge’s past decisions, and perhaps general comments about existing Supreme Court cases, always on guard for the potential for questions to go into “gotcha” territory.

Another concern is judicial independence, as I alluded to above. We do not want prospective Supreme Court judges pre-judging cases. But setting out a general philosophy—including generally reflecting on Supreme Court cases or to reflect on one’s own judicial tenure—is hardly pre-judging particular cases on the merits. Indeed, one can criticize a past Supreme Court decision and still resolve to apply it because it is the law—this would be the ultimate in honest and transparency. The truth is that every judge has some system or guiding star for deciding cases that the public deserves to know. Judicial independence should not be a prophylactic reason to prevent all questioning of judges, especially in a system where the Court carries so much power.

The goal of the entire nomination process should be to balance the selection of qualified jurists with the protection of their independence and the public’s legitimate interest in knowing who is nominated. A Kabuki theatre nomination hearing, like the Kasirer one, fails to create the conditions for the public to actually know a judge. This is far from ideal in a situation where the Supreme Court, as Justice Abella once said, is the apparent arbiter of Canadian moral values. If the Court arrogates this role to itself, its members should at least be accountable through some mechanism.

Keeping It Complicated

The Supreme Court issues its most originalist decision in years, but pretends it applies a different methodology

Military justice is a somewhat exotic topic; I don’t think my professors mentioned it even once in my time in law school, for instance. The Supreme Court’s decision in R v Stillman, 2019 SCC 40, delivered last week, is concerned with the functioning and limits on the jurisdiction of this parallel justice system. However, it should not only be of interest to the aficionados of this area of the law. Stillman was a relatively rare case where constitutional interpretation is front and centre, and it provides good illustrations of a number of problems with the way we do things on this front.

The issue before the Court was the meaning of the exception to the right to trial by jury guaranteed by section 11(f) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms “in the case of an offence under military law tried before a military tribunal”, and specifically of the phrase “military law”. There is no question that specifically military offences created by the Code of Service Discipline that is part of the National Defence Act are “military law”; but what about the ordinary civilian offences (notably those created by the Criminal Code), which are incorporated by reference by section 130(1)(a) of the Act? The majority, in an opinion by Justices Moldaver and Brown (with the agreement of Chief Justice Wagner and Justices Abella and Côté) find that these too are “offence[s] under military law”. Justices Karakatsanis and Rowe disagree and dissent.

Both the majority and the dissenting opinion present themselves as applying a purposive approach to the interpretation of section 11(f) of the Charter. However, they do not just differ in the outcomes that they reach. The majority’s professed purposivism shades into public meaning originalism. The dissent’s has more than a whiff of I have been calling “constitutionalism from the cave”, the substitution by judicial fiat of the constitution that we perhaps ought to have for the one we actually have.


The majority begins by saying, with reference to a well-known passage in R v Big M Drug Mart, [1985] 1 SCR 295, that the provisions of the Charter ― both rights and, it insists, exceptions ―

are to be read purposively, rather than in a technical or legalistic fashion. And, just as courts must take care not to “overshoot” the purpose of a Charter right by giving it an unduly generous interpretation, so too must they be careful not to “undershoot” the purpose of a Charter exception by giving it an unduly narrow interpretation. [22]

The purpose of the right to trial by jury is to protect the accused against the state and also to involve the public in the administration of justice. That of the exception is to preserve the longstanding, separate system of military justice, which serves to maintain discipline and morale in the armed forces. The majority reviews the history, remit, and functioning of this system at considerable length.

Justices Moldaver and Brown then come to the interpretation of the phrase “military law” itself. With reference to Parliamentary debates at the time of the enactment in 1950 of the version of the National Defence Act in force in 1982, they point out that “‘military law’ was understood as ‘the law which governs the members of the army and regulates the conduct of officers and soldiers as such, in peace and war, at home and abroad'” and included “a provision transforming ordinary civil offences into service offences”. [74] They note, further, that the Criminal Code “at the time of the Charter’s enactment defined (and still defines) “‘military law’ as including ‘all laws, regulations or orders relating to the Canadian Forces'”, [75] and point to the Court’s decision in MacKay v The Queen, [1980] 2 SCR 370, where the majority opinion spoke of civilian offences incorporated by reference by the National Defence Act as being part of “military law”. Justices Moldaver and Brown concluded that it is “far more likely that the purpose of the military exception was to recognize and preserve the status quo” than to “reverse[] this longstanding state of affairs”. [78]

Justices Moldaver and Brown go on to reject the argument of the accused persons that the phrase “military law” only refers to purely military offences rather than the civilian ones incorporated by reference in the National Defence Act. To accept this, they say, would be contrary to MacKay and to the text of section 11(f).

They also reject the dissenters’ suggestion that to fall within the purview of “military law” within the meaning of section 11(f) an offence must be sufficiently connected to military service. The majority opinion in MacKay accepted that no special connection was required to make the incorporation by reference of civilian offences a valid exercise of Parliament’s power in section 91(7) of the Constitution Act, 1867, over “Militia, Military and Naval Service, and Defence”. Meanwhile, in R v Moriarity, 2015 SCC 55, [2015] 3 SCR 485, the Court upheld this incorporation against a challenge based on section 7 of the Charter, holding that the subjection of general criminal offences to the military justice system was rationally connected to that system’s purposes. While these cases raised different issues, “there must be coherence among the division of powers analysis, the overbreadth analysis, and the meaning of ‘an offence under military law’ in s. 11(f) of the Charter”. [97] To be sure, tying the scope of the exception in section 11(f) to Parliament’s power in section 91(7) means that Parliament can to some extent determine when the exception applies, but this no different from Parliament enacting criminal law and thereby triggering the application of various rights granted the accused. Besides, the requirement of a sufficient connection to military service is vague, and would cause difficulties in application.


Justices Karakatsanis and Rowe see things very differently. Previous decisions are not dispositive, and the requirement of a connection between the offence and military service is essential to avoid unduly limiting the right to trial by jury and giving Parliament and military prosecutors the ability to shape the contours of this right. Constitutional authority (in terms of division of powers) to enact an offence is not, in itself, a guarantee that the enactment will also comply with the Charter; nor is compliance with one right synonymous with compliance with others. Nor can the exercise of discretion by prosecutors, to bring charges in military court only when appropriate, be a substitute for the judicial enforcement of constitutional rights.

The dissenters appeal to the same passage from Big M setting out the principle of purposive interpretation as the majority, although they warn that exceptions to Charter rights should be approached with caution. The purpose of section 11(f), in their view, is to uphold “the interests of the accused and of society in holding a jury trial when prosecuting serious criminal offences”. [141] These interests must not be undermined allowing trials not sufficiently connected with military service to be held in the military, rather than the civilian, justice system.

Turning to history, Justices Karakatsanis and Rowe point out that the jurisdiction of military courts long remained narrow and was seen as a supplement to that of the civilian courts, only to be resorted to when civilian courts were unavailable. They also refer to MacKay, but to Justice McIntyre’s concurring opinion rather than the majority’s; this concurrence stressed the need for a military connection to bring an offence within the jurisdiction of military courts. This requirement was “adopted by the Court Martial Appeal Court … one year after the Charter, and has been applied with some regularity over the past thirty years”. [164] Justices Karakatsanis and Rowe conclude that “[t]his historical overview … highlights when military courts should have jurisdiction” ― namely “where quick and efficient justice was necessary to uphold discipline”, [166] and not otherwise.

As a result, the possibility that offences committed by persons subject to military justice but which are not sufficiently connected to their military service is an infringement of section 11(f) of the Charter. Justices Karakatsanis and Rowe conclude that this infringement is not justified in a free and democratic society. They go on to find that reading the requirement of connection to the military into section section 130(1)(a) of the National Defence Act in the best remedy in the circumstances.


The majority is right, although its reasoning is unnecessarily complex. The purported purposivism of both opinions obscures what is really going on. As suggested above, the reasons of Justices Moldaver and Brown are, at heart, originalist. The key passage in their opinion is that which discusses the way in which the phrase “military law” had been used by officials, by the Criminal Code, and by the Supreme Court itself, in the decades prior to 1982. Although they do not say so in so many words, Justices Moldaver and Brown thus go a long way towards establishing the public meaning of that phrase at the time of the Charter‘s enactment. Ideally, they would have stopped right there.

The references to the purpose of section 11(f) as a whole or of the military justice exception are superfluous. Purposive analysis may well be a helpful way to undertake constitutional construction ― that is, the development of legal doctrine in areas where constitutional text does not offer sufficient guidance to resolve concrete disputes (for example because the text is vague, or employs terms that appeal to moral or practical reasoning) ― as Randy Barnett and Evan Bernick have suggested. (I summarized and commented on their article here.) But, as Stillman shows, purposivism does not meaningfully contribute to constitutional interpretation ― that is, the activity of ascertaining the meaning of the constitutional text itself. When, as in this case, it is possible to find out what the text means, and to resolve the dispute based on that meaning alone, the speculation that the text was presumably intended to say what it said rather than something else adds nothing to the analysis.

It may be, of course, that the pretense of purposivism is necessary to make originalism palatable to (some of) the current members of the Supreme Court. If so, it might be a reasonable price to pay; but then again, it might not. When Stillman is cited in the future for its unanimous embrace of purposivism, will it be in support of the majority’s empty ― and harmless ― version of the methodology, or of the dissent’s, which consists of emphasizing purposes at the expense of the original meaning of the text?

The dissent starts with a view of how the constitution ought to treat the relationship between civilian and military justice, and insists that this view must become law. It pays little heed to the meaning of the phrase “military law”, reading into it a limitation that is, in its view, desirable, but has no obvious foundation in the constitutional text. While Justices Karakatsanis and Rowe appeal to history, they cherry-pick the record and ignore the crucial period: that immediately preceding the enactment of the Charter. The practice of the previous centuries may be interesting, but it cannot be dispositive given that matters stood very differently by the time the Charter came into being. Still less can the jurisprudence of Canadian military courts in the decades that followed, and its embrace of Justice McIntyre’s concurrence in MacKay, have any bearing of the Charter‘s meaning. The dissent’s use of history appears to be more result-oriented more than a genuine attempt to ascertain “the historical origins of the concepts enshrined” in section 11(f), to borrow Big M‘s language. If this is what purposivism is, then we should run, not walk, away from it.


The reasoning of the Stillman majority is perhaps the most originalist, and specifically public-meaning originalist, in a constitutional case since that of the majority in Caron v Alberta, 2015 SCC 56, [2015] 3 SCR 511. In the meantime, of course, there has been the thoroughly unoriginalist decision in R v Comeau, 2018 SCC 15, [2018] 1 SCR 342. As Benjamin Oliphant and I have written, it would be wrong to pretend that the Supreme Court is consistently originalist; but it would also be wrong to deny originalism’s place in Canadian constitutional law. Even seemingly decisive setbacks, like Comeau, are only ever provisional.

And it is not just the Court as a whole that is inconsistent; so are individual judges. Every member of the Stillman majority signed onto the Comeau judgment. Justice Wagner, as he then was, and Justices Côté and Abella were the dissenters in Caron, favouring an approach that privileged the supposed intentions of the framers of the provision at issue over its original public meaning. This time they join a majority opinion where original meaning does the heavy lifting. Justice Karakatsanis, by contrast, had co-authored the majority opinion in Caron, but now dissents.

One rather suspects that the judges simply do not give much thought to constitutional interpretation, at least beyond what they see as the needs of individual cases. If this is so, then there is little reason to expect that occasional ― but erratic and not especially well-reasoned ― resort to originalism by the Supreme Court will not continue. As Mr. Oliphant and I argued, however, it would be highly desirable if more thought were given to constitutional interpretation, and if the Court went about this task in a more consistent and principled manner.

Lastly, I would be remiss not to add that I am inclined to think that, at the level of policy, the concerns raised by Justices Karakatsanis and Rowe deserve serious consideration. In my comment on Moriarity, I wrote that

there is … a broader question to be asked about the extent to which an institution to which a person belongs ought to be able to discipline that person for behaviour occurring outside the institutional context, for the sake of maintaining “morale,” or harmony, or respect, etc.

I still think so. To be sure, the armed forces are a rather unique sort of institution. Perhaps there is good reason to give them the sort of broad jurisdiction over the actions of their members that, as Stillman holds, the Charter allows. But perhaps not. Yet this is a matter for Parliament to consider. The constitution, on this point, does not constrain it.

More Charter Values Nonsense

When will this end?

Doré, that bedeviling case that held that administrators must take into account “Charter values” when exercising discretion, continues to trouble lower courts. This is not only true on a theoretical level—I still have yet to hear a convincing explanation of what a Charter value actually is—but on the level of applicability. Courts are struggling with the following question: should Charter values apply in the administrative law context whenever a decision-maker interprets a statute, even if there is no ambiguity or discretion? For reasons that I will explain, this distinction between statutory interpretation and discretion is more of an illusion. In administrative law, discretion exists when statutes are ambiguous. Therefore, if one must have regard to Charter values, it should only be in the context of a pure exercise of discretion, where an administrator has first concluded that a statute is truly ambiguous and therefore an administrator has room to maneuver. Where legislation is clear, decision-makers must apply it, unless there is a direct constitutional challenge to the legislation before the decision-maker, and the decision-maker has the power to consider the challenge under the Martin line of cases. If there is any law to apply—ie if the statute is clear after a review of the canons of interpretation—then Charter values have no place in the analysis.

Let’s start with the basics. The hornbook law answer to the problem says that courts—and by logical extension, inferior tribunals—can only take into account Charter values in cases of genuine statutory ambiguity, where this is discretion at play (see Bell ExpressVu, at para 28). Where legislation is clear, administrators should apply that legislation absent a direct constitutional argument raised by an applicant where the decision-maker has power to decide constitutional questions (Singh, at paras 62-63). And yet, the Supreme Court and other courts have sometimes said otherwise, relying on the line in Doré that decision-makers must always exercise their authority in accordance with Charter values (Doré, at para 35), even in absence of ambiguity. Take R v Clarke, where the Court seemed to suggest that administrative interpretations of law are always subject to a consideration of Charter values, even in absence of ambiguity:

Only in the administrative law context is ambiguity not the divining rod that attracts Charter values. Instead, administrative law decision-makers “must act consistently with the values underlying the grant of discretion, including Charter values” (Doré, at para. 24). The issue in the administrative context therefore, is not whether the statutory language is so ambiguous as to engage Charter values, it is whether the exercise of discretion by the administrative decision-maker unreasonably limits the Charter protections in light of the legislative objective of the statutory scheme.

This approach was followed by the Court of Appeal for Ontario in Taylor-Baptiste, and most recently by the Ontario Superior Court in Ontario Nurses Association. There, the court chastised a tribunal for failing to consider Charter values, even when the Tribunal found that the statute at hand was not ambiguous and where the court did not impugn this legal finding

So we have two lines of cases. One line of cases presents the defensible, hornbook law version of the hierarchy of laws, under which laws apply to all—including administrative decision-makers. The other line of cases permits decision-makers to use Charter values before determining whether the statute is ambiguous using the ordinary tools of interpretation, potentially changing what the legislature meant to say on an ordinary meaning of the text in service to some abstract consistency with a Charter “value.”

The distinction between administrative law discretion and statutory interpretation is really just two different points on a continuum. In the context of administrative law, saying that there is “discretion” and that the statute is “ambiguous” are slightly different ways of getting at the same concept. That concept is the idea that the statute cabins the interpretive movements of the administrator. Sometimes statutes will be written in ambiguous or broad terms, permitting discretion. There, Charter values should be fair game. But otherwise, if there is any law to apply at all, Charter values have no role to play.

It should therefore be obvious that this second line of cases is grossly—and dangerously—mistaken. These cases permit Charter values to enter the fray where the statute is not ambiguous (ie) at the first-order interpretive question stage of the analysis. The basic problem can be divided into two categories: (1) the effect of an administrative decision invoking Charter values on the hierarchy of laws and (2) the pernicious consequences of permitting decision-makers to use Charter values in the context of statutory interpretation.

Consider the first problem. The hierarchy of laws might be regarded as a quaint subtlety in today’s world of law, but it remains the bedrock to the Rule of Law. The idea is simple: absent constitutional objection, legislation binds (for a discussion of the continued relevance of this simple maxim, see Justice Stratas’ opinion in Hillier). A statute that is clear creates no discretion; upon first impression, an administrator interpreting a statute must simply apply the statute after determining its meaning using all the permissible tools of textual interpretation. This is because the legislature is the authoritative writer of laws, and those operating under the statutes the legislature promulgates must apply those statutes.

When there is ambiguity, discretion enters the fray. This is because the legislature has delegated to the decision-maker but has not said with specificity what law the decision-maker must apply. Such a finding of ambiguity should only happen after a consideration of all the normal tools of interpretation. At that point, BellExpressVu is a logical way to view the problem: decision-makers and courts can take account of Charter values, so that statutes in ambiguity are interpreted in pari materia with the Charter. This itself is an important canon of interpretation. Laws should be interpreted as a consistent whole, especially where the legislature has not specified what law to apply.

How would this work in the context of a concrete case? In Singh, for example, the problem was whether there was discretion for the Refugee Appeal Division (RAD) in interpreting whether to admit new evidence under s.110(4) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. Section 110(4) contains explicit conditions for the admissibility of evidence. But an intervener made the argument that “the values protected by s.7 of the Charter must enter the interpretation and application of s.110(4) of the IRPA and even lead to the admissibility of new evidence that does not meet the explicit requirements of this provision” (see para 58). The Court rejected this argument because “an administrative decision-maker’s obligation to enforce Charter values arises only if it is exercising statutory discretion” (Doré, at para 55; Singh, at para 62). Since s.110(4) was not written in an “ambiguous manner,” Charter values could not enter the fray. And this is because of the hierarchy of laws: “[i]t is up to Parliament to amend legislation that has been declared unconstitutional so as to ensure compliance with the fundamental law of the land” (Singh, at para 62).

Doré itself involved a much more discretion-laden case, where the question was whether a lawyer’s conduct violated the sparse terms of a rule of professional conduct which simply required lawyers to act with “objectivity, moderation, and dignity.” Here, there is some ambiguity. This is not a statutory recipe, as s.110(4) is. Rather, it permits some discretion in the administrative decision-maker to decide whether particular conduct violates the rule. As such, Doré is a case where there arguably is ambiguity, in contrast to Singh. That said, were I on the Supreme Court, I would have ultimately held that the statutory text could be interpreted in absence of Charter values.

Other cases will be closer to the line. But what should not be permitted is the use of Charter values in absence of ambiguity, like in the Ontario Nurses Association case. By forcing this sort of analysis, courts enable decision-makers to change the clear meaning of statutes in order to accord with abstract Charter values, even when those values are not clear and the legislation was not written in this manner. The answer in such a case is for someone to raise a direct constitutional challenge to the legislation, either before the decision-maker or before a court. Otherwise, administrative decision-makers have no power to rewrite statutes to conform with Charter values—not necessarily coextensive with the Charter’s text—because to do so permits the decision-maker to co-opt the legislative role.

This leads into the second problem. The use of Charter values in statutory interpretation could lead to mass unpredictability in the application of law. First, this is because Charter values remain undefined. No one can tell whether a Charter value is co-extensive with the text of the Charter or not. No one can tell if there are Charter values that exist in addition to Charter rights. No one can tell the level of abstraction at which Charter values must be stated. While I have previously noted that Charter values are simply being deployed as if they were co-extensive with existing Charter rights, this need not be the case, given the ambiguity in how the Supreme Court has defined Charter values.

And this is the problem. Charter values are potentially so abstract that they provide a wishing-well of material for inexpert administrative decision-makers to mould clear statutory text in favour of their preferred policy outcomes. This is positively dangerous, and the mere possibility of it should be avoided by courts. What’s more, the invocation of Charter values in this way could lead to different findings of “inconsistency” with Charter values across the mass of administrative decision-makers, raising the prospect of palm-tree justice. In other words, it might simply depend on the decision-maker you draw as to whether a statute will be interpreted in accordance with “Charter values”; what such an interpretation would mean for your case; and what “value” would even be invoked in the first place.

Much of constitutional interpretation should exist to prevent such outcomes. Doctrinal rules should be developed to limit the discretion of judges and decision-makers to depart from the hierarchy of laws; or at the very least, rules should mandate that reasoned explanations be given for such departures. This is even more true in the context of the administrative state, where the mass of decision-makers exercising authority is so divergent that it is difficult to control as a matter of law. But the Charter values framework consists of no rules to control these decision-makers. It is simply unprincipled balancing under the guise of law. It is the realm of philosophers rather than lawyers and courts.

All or Nothing At All?: Restricting the Growth of the Administrative State

Non-delegation limits do not spell the end of administrative government.

The Supreme Court of United States (SCOTUS), in the recent Gundy decision, once again rejected a challenge to a delegation of legislative power based on the so-called non-delegation doctrine. The non-delegation doctrine, in theory, holds that all legislative power rests in Congress, and so by necessary implication, Congress cannot delegate that power away to agencies without an “intelligible principle” to guide the delegation. In practice, the SCOTUS has only ever sustained a non-delegation challenge in a handful of cases in the New Deal era, instead endorsing wide delegations of authority to any number of administrative bodies for over 70 years. One might say that the Court’s reluctance to invoke the non-delegation doctrine is due to the important fuel that delegation provides to the administrative state. Indeed, one might argue that such widespread delegation is necessary for the project of “modern governance.”

But this is not necessarily true. Much of the discussion of limitations on the administrative state speaks in large generalities, and Gundy is no exception. The spectre of the destruction of the modern government that Americans (and Canadians) have come to know is always invoked by those who seek to preserve its power. But, if the non-delegation doctrine is constitutionally justifiable, its invocation in any of its instantiations will not end up destroying modern government. This is because non-delegation limits do not speak in absolute prohibitions, but rather limits in degree and emphasis; shifting the onus back to Congress to legislate within the confines of the Constitution. Canadians should take note and remain wary of arguments advanced by those who reject constitutional limits on administrative power based on functional scares.

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Gundy involved a delegation of power from Congress to the Attorney General, under the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA). Under SORNA, it is up to the Attorney General to decide whether the statute’s requirements for registration of sex offenders convicted before the enactment of the statute apply.

Nonetheless, based on existing doctrine, Kagan J for the plurality said that the delegation in SORNA “easily passed constitutional muster.” This is because, to Kagan J, the SCOTUS in a previous case had already cabined the Attorney General’s discretion in this regard by requiring that SORNA apply to all pre-Act offenders “as soon as feasible.” Taken in light of the context, text, and purpose of the statute, the Court found that the delegating language was sufficiently cabined in order to provide an intelligible principle, because the Attorney General’s discretion is limited to deciding when it is feasible to apply the statute. The Court, then, interpreted the statute to avoid the non-delegation problem, as it had done years previously in the Benzene Case.

This conclusion appeared driven not only by the law, but by the consequences of permitting a non-delegation challenge to succeed. Kagan J frighteningly noted that “…if SORNA’s delegation is unconstitutional, then most of Government is unconstitutional—dependent as Congress is on the need to give discretion to executive officials to implement its programs.” Alito J concurred in the result, but noted that should a majority of the Court wish to revisit the non-delegation doctrine, he would.

Justice Gorsuch penned an important dissent. In it, he criticized the plurality’s apparent waving-away of the delegation problem. In the litigation, the Department of Justice did not concede that the Attorney General was required to apply the statute to pre-Act offenders “as soon as feasible.” More to the point, the Attorney General has wide discretion to select the offenders, if any, that should be subject to the statute. For Gorsuch J, “[t]hese unbounded policy choices have profound consequences for the people they affect,” including criminal defendants. In light of Gorsuch J’s problem with the SORNA delegation, he proposed a new test. That test would permit Congress to delegate the power to “fill up the details” of a statute—so delegation would not be prohibited outright. And, the delegation of power may make the “application of that rule depend on executive fact-finding.” But for Gorsuch J, the intelligible principle doctrine “has no basis in the original meaning of the Constitution, [or] in history” and should be replaced by a basic requirement that Congress make the necessary policy judgments.

In response to the problem that some have raised that Gorsuch J’s test would spell doom for the administrative state, he responded as such:

The separation of powers does not prohibit any particular policy outcome, let alone dictate any conclusion about the proper size and scope of government. Instead, it is a procedural guarantee that requires Congress to assemble a social consensus before choosing our nation’s course on policy questions….Congress is hardly bereft of options to accomplish all it might wish to achieve.

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I think Gundy contains within it a number of important implications for the delegation of legislative power that apply in both Canada and the United States. The first question is whether it is really true, as Kagan J notes, that non-delegation would render most of government unconstitutional; the second is the sort of limits that one could envision applying to delegations of power.

The Kagan J criticism is a classic functionalist proposition. So the argument goes, if the Court enforces a non-delegation norm of any sort, it would interfere with the practical ability of agencies to implement their enabling statutes, hobbling modern government. And to some observers, it wouldn’t take a full-fledged non-delegation doctrine: even some limitations on administrative government could have “pernicious consequences.” But this strikes me as a vast overstatement, and a self-defeating one at that. First, if Kagan J is right that most of government constitutes a delegation problem as the Constitution is interpreted, what does that say about modern government? It says that government as constituted is a sprawling beast that has far outpaced the Constitution. Some might respond: who cares? But for anyone who cares about the Rule of Law, and government by law, the Constitution reigns supreme over the fiat of administrators. And if one is a legal formalist—as I am—then the arrangement of an extra- constitutional government is itself a problem for both intrinsic and instrumental reasons.

But I do not think what Kagan J says is true, on the facts of Gundy or generally. First, Gundy involved a very particular type of delegation: the power to essentially decide how a statute applies, if at all. Some might say that these sorts of delegations exist all over the map, and they may be right. But one can draw a meaningful distinction between delegations that are meant to “fill in the details” of a statute, even in a legislative sense, and delegations designed to give power to an administrator to decide how, when, and to whom a statute applies, as in SORNA. Gymnastics around “feasibility” aside, SORNA delegates wide power for the Attorney General to decide the scope of application of a statute. This allows him to make law outside of the requirements of bicameralism and presentment. And for instrumentalist reasons, this is a problem: the Rule of Law requires predictability, and why should those deserving the presumption of innocence be subject to the whims of a chief prosecutor as to whether their conduct violates the law?

Now consider the consequences if a non-delegation limit is imposed on Congress. This would not render most of government unconstitutional, nor would it have “pernicious consequences.” Such arguments mistake the mere existence of a limitation for its extent. No one—not even Gorsuch J—is suggesting that delegation itself is unconstitutional. Such a finding would, indeed, render unconstitutional administrative government. But limiting delegation to simply require Congress to speak in more detail would only minimally increase the transaction costs of legislating while paying much more ex post in terms of predictability and consistency with the Constitution. It is unclear to me why the proponents of the administrative state fight even this requirement.

And this flows into the second question. Assuming the non-delegation doctrine is constitutionally justifiable, there are any number of limits that could be imposed on delegations, each of which would not hobble the ability of government to delegate. Courts could require Congress to speak using a clear-statement rule when it chooses to delegate legislative power. This would be on the theory that the delegation of power has the risk to be extra-constitutional, and should be treated with caution from a Rule of Law perspective. The SCOTUS already accepted this sort of requirement in the Benzene Case, when it interpreted the statute at issue to avoid the delegation problem in absence of any clear statement in the legislation. While clear statement rules of this sort could be attacked from the perspective that they allow courts to put their fingers on the scale in favour of certain interpretive outcomes, one might respond that the preferred outcome in this case is one protected by the Constitution in the form of a limit or restriction on delegation. It is apparent that requiring Congress to use a clear statement would likely do nothing to stop modern government.

Courts could also simply enforce the intelligible principle doctrine on its own terms. That is, courts should simply ask whether there is a “principle” that is “intelligible.” Intelligibility would impose some requirement on courts to actually interrogate the policy aims of a delegation to determine its internal consistency, and perhaps question whether it actually provides guidance to executive officials. A principle that is unintelligible will not provide guidance. One could meaningfully question whether courts have actually applied the existing doctrinal instantiation of the non-delegation doctrine on its own terms.

Finally, non-delegation limits might be imposed by the elected branches: this was the approach that was seemingly advocated by then Professor Antonin Scalia in a paper he wrote after the Benzene Case: (the questions raised by delegation “…are much more appropriate for a representative assembly than for a hermetically sealed committee of nine lawyers”). Congress could simply start to speak clearly. The incentive for Congress to do this might be political. As I have noted elsewhere, the delegation of power can be wielded in either direction. Gundy provides a great example. The delegation of power to the Attorney General to decide when, how, and to whom a law applies is a great deal of power. Right-wing legislators might predict that, when they are not in power, such a power might be used against political causes they support. In the US, Democrats are already seeing how powers can be abused by the Attorney General. Of course, the power of the executive can filter through executive agencies, as well. If Congress itself recognizes the ability for delegated power to be used for ends with which it may not be sympathetic, it may have an incentive to limit and control delegation within constitutional limits.

None of these limitations spell the end of administrative governance. Far from it. I fear that the death knell of administrative government is a rhetorical tool used by administrative law functionalists who wish to preserve the power of the administrative state. But as Gundy shows, the powers conferred on executives by Congress can be vast—and the delegation of vast power can be abused, contrary to constitutional limits. All actors in the system have the ability and the responsibility to prevent that abuse, as a corollary to the Rule of Law.

The upshot of all of this is that the administrative state is likely here to stay, but it does not have to remain in its current form to be successful or useful. It can move towards consistency with the Constitution at a small marginal cost to its supposed efficiency and effectiveness.

Shouting into the Constitutional Void

Section 28 of the Canadian Charter and Québec’s Bill 21

By Kerri A. Froc*

“And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil. Aphorism 146)

For several years now, I have been arguing that section 28 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is more than a symbolic flourish, more than just emphasis for section 15’s sex equality guarantee, and more than an interpretive provision.  In fact, it has its own independent work to do.  This includes blocking attempts by government to use section 33 to preserve gender inequality. 

I did not make up this interpretation of section 28.  Rather, it is part of section 28’s text and history and is uncontroversial amongst those who have studied the matter.  That is why I am not only perplexed, but annoyed, at section 28 seemingly being ignored in the debate over the constitutionality of Bill 21’s requirement that certain government employees (including school teachers, police, Crown prosecutors and judges) do not wear religious symbols at work (section 6).  It is in fact reminiscent of the way that women’s rights were ignored in 1981 constitutional negotiations, which galvanized women to insist upon section 28 in the first place.  Below, I discuss section 28’s interpretation vis a vis section 33, and then how it would be pled in a constitutional challenge to Bill 21.


Section 28 beginning phrase reads: “Notwithstanding anything in this Charter.”  This meant its guarantee of equal rights is not to be derogated by other provisions of the Charter. Provincial and federal bureaucrats attempted after the November 1981 “Kitchen Accord” to subject section 28 to section 33.  They drafted amendments to section 28 and section 33, notionally to “implement” the terms of the Accord (though first ministers never discussed section 28).  The opening words of Section 28 would have been revised to read, “Notwithstanding anything in this Charter except section 33,” and section 33 would have been amended to end with, “or section 28 of this Charter in its application to discrimination based on sex referred to in section 15.”  These proposed additions were scrubbed from the Charter’s final text through the hard work of feminist advocates, women MPs from all parties, and, to put it bluntly, a groundswell of pissed off women from across the country.  This history, however, merely confirms that “notwithstanding anything” means what it plainly says.

In their 1984 book, Canada Notwithstanding, Roy Romanow, John Whyte and Howard Leeson (all members of the November 1981 Saskatchewan constitutional delegation) confirmed that the removal of the application of section 33 from section 28 “in effect…meant that sexual equality in section 15 could not be overridden.”  Justice Carole Julien, in a 2004 Charter case involving pay equity, Syndicat de la fonction publique c. Procureur général du Québec,had occasion to discuss the legal effect of section 28.  She noted that the predominant scholarly opinion was that the override did not apply to section 28 “due to the historical context of its adoption and its objectives” (my translation).  It is unfortunate that this judgment was merely a passing footnote in the recent Supreme Court decision, Centrale des syndicats du Québec v. Quebec (Attorney General).


How would it potentially play out if litigants argued section 28 in relation to the Bill 21 constitutional challenge?  There are potentially two Charter claims that could be advanced by women who are adversely affected by section 6.  The first is that it discriminates against them on the basis of sex, contrary to section 15(1).  The second is that section 6 violates their freedom of religion disproportionately, so that women are unable to exercise this freedom on an equal basis with men.  Sex discrimination is contrary to Charter section 15(1) and 28; a gender-disproportionate violation of religious freedom would be contrary to sections 2(a) and 28.  Section 28 is involved in both claims as section 6 results in unequal rights afforded to men and women.   A section 28 violation cannot be preserved using section 33.

One could also use an alternative legal argument in relation to section 15.  Quebec could argue that a general sex equality violation, in and of itself, does not implicate section 28 (saying that section 28 does not really “add” anything to the section 15 determination).  However, if additional state action is taken to attempt to preserve a section 15 sex equality violation by invoking section 33, section 28 operates to block the effect of that invocation.  Taking action to preserve women’s section 15 rights violation results in unequal rights contrary to section 28.  This is quite applicable to Bill 21, in that section 30 contains a pre-emptive declaration that the Act operates notwithstanding sections 2 and 7-15 of the Charter. 

Regardless of which argument(s) you accept, the validity of section 6 cannot be maintained by the section 33 override because doing would mean section 28 is made subject to the legal effect of section 33.


A question I am sometimes asked is: where is the gender inequality in Bill 21?  Many media sources have indicates that the group most affected are Muslim women wearing the head scarf (hijab), but do not indicate the sources they rely upon for that fact.  I’ve done some of my own data crunching to provide initial support for that point. 

Of the groups mentioned, Muslims are in vastly greater numbers in Québec than both Jews and Sikhs (men from these two other groups have been mentioned as being the others affected by the law).  For the last year in which we have data (2011), there were nearly two and a half times as many Muslims in Quebec as Jews and Sikhs together. Approximately 53%, of Muslim women in Canada wear the hijab.  Quebec’s public service is still massively dominated by white francophones; however, nearly half of its workers are female (amongst school teachers, one of the largest groups affected by Bill 21, that percentage is much higher). It stands to reason given these statistics that most of those affected are Muslim women.  While some judges may not consider these statistics more than a “web of instinct”, this data could be supplemented by access to information requests and litigation disclosure to obtain numbers of affected employees.  Further, one could argue that the state demanding women remove clothing has a more threatening import and communicates a sex-specific devaluation, given the way women’ attire has been regulated and judged by law throughout history.  Thus one could argue that the qualitative impact constitutes a sex-based distinction in itself. 

Even apart from disparate impact, if the purpose of a law is discriminatory or is to privilege certain religious beliefs, then that would be a violation of section 15(1) and section 2(a) respectively.  A good case could be made that Bill 21 targets Muslim women based, for instance, on the Quebec Minister for the Status of Women’s comments.  Concerning the privileging of religious beliefs, it is worth noting that symbols of Quebec’s “religious cultural heritage” (read: Christianity/Catholicism) are specifically exempted from all of Bill 21’s provisions by section 16. 

Of course, there are potentially other elements in relation to a Charter analysis that would have to be successfully argued, such as showing “disadvantage” for section 15(1) and more than atrivial infringement of religious freedom, for section 2(a).  However, I do not regard those as posing much of an impediment. 


Why should we care if civil liberties associations, lawyers, and courts ignore section 28 in the upcoming constitutional battle over Bill 21?  To paraphrase Nietzsche, if we gaze into the Constitution and see only an abyss when it comes to section 28, we should not be surprised if the abyss gazes back in the form of more constitutional provisions courts feel secure in being able to ignore into desuetude.  Simply put, entrenched constitutional text should and does count more than implied bills of rights, unwritten principles, constitutional architecture and the like.  If not section 28 in this case, then when?


* Kerri A. Froc is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Law, University of New Brunswick. Follow her on Twitter!

Do Not Pass Section 1: Go Directly to Invalidity

Some infringements on rights are never acceptable in a free and democratic society, including requirements to state facts one doesn’t believe in

In my last post, I argued that Ontario’s recently-enacted and not-yet-in-force Federal Carbon Tax Transparency Act, 2019, which requires gas stations to display stickers purporting to inform their clients of the cost of the federal carbon tax, is likely unconstitutional, as well as morally wrong. The requirement obviously compels the owners of gas stations to engage in speech from which they would otherwise have abstained, and so limits their right to freedom of expression protected by section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In my last post, I followed the orthodox approach to ascertaining whether this limitation was justified and therefore constitutional, which consists in applying a proportionality analysis along the lines first set out in R v Oakes, [1986] 1 SCR 103. But, as I indicated there, I actually think that this approach is not right for this case. Here, I explain why.


Pursuant to section 1 of the Charter, the rights the Charter protects can be “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”. Proportionality analysis is not an end in itself or an explicit requirement of the constitutional text. It is only a means to the end of ascertaining whether a given limitation on rights is “demonstrably justified”. (Indeed, one may well argue that the proportionality analysis is a bad means to that end; one would not be wrong; but it is much easier to poke holes in proportionality analysis than to come up with a convincing all-purpose alternative.) Proportionality analysis is inherently case-by-case. It focuses a court’s attention on the reasons for and the effects of particular statutory provisions or administrative decisions, applied to the particular circumstances detailed by the persons whose rights are allegedly infringed.

But it should be possible to say that certain limitations of rights are such as to be categorically impermissible in a free and democratic society, regardless of particular circumstances. With limitations of this sort, proportionality analysis is unnecessary; indeed, it only serves to obfuscate their inherent unacceptability. I can see no bar in the text of section 1 of the Charter to taking this position. In his article on the history of section 1, Adam Dodek notes that a number of groups that took part in the proceedings of the Special Joint Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons on the Constitution pushed for some rights (equality rights were a popular candidate, but not the only one) to be excluded from the scope of the application of section 1 altogether. Obviously, this was not done, but I don’t think that this rejection entails that of a more fine-grained approach. In other words, while the history may suggest that no provision of the Charter is absolutely immune from limitation, at least as a textual matter, it does not follow that any and all limitations conceivable are, potentially, justifiable in a free and democratic society.

Indeed, I think that it does not follow that a categorical bar on justifying limitations of certain rights, introduced in the process of constitutional construction, is foreclosed by section 1, even in light of the history described by Dean Dodek. The idea that section 1 had to apply to every right guaranteed by the Charter was put to the Supreme Court in Attorney General) v Quebec Association of Protestant School Boards, [1984] 2 SCR 66, but the Court accepted it “for the sake of discussion only and without deciding the point”. In any case, this is an issue for another day.

And there are precedents, in early Charter cases, for applying the approach that I am considering. Protestant School Boards is one. There, the Supreme Court observed that limits on rights, within the meaning of section 1 of the Charter,

cannot be exceptions to the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Charter nor amount to amendments of the Charter. An Act of Parliament or of a legislature which, for example, purported to impose the beliefs of a State religion would be in direct conflict with s. 2(a) of the Charter, which guarantees freedom of conscience and religion, and would have to be ruled of no force or effect without the necessity of even considering whether such legislation could be legitimized by s. 1. (88)

But the best known precedent is R v Big M Drug Mart Ltd, [1985] 1 SCR 295. There, Justice Dickson (as he then was), wrote that

it should be noted that not every government interest or policy objective is entitled to s. 1 consideration. Principles will have to be developed for recognizing which government objectives are of sufficient importance to warrant overriding a constitutionally protected right or freedom. Once a sufficiently significant government interest is recognized then it must be decided if the means chosen to achieve this interest are reasonable―a form of proportionality test. (352)

Justice Dickson went on to reject the government’s attempt to justify the Lord’s Day Act, which imposed the Christian holy day as a mandatory day of rest for most Canadian workers. He found that

[t]he characterization of the purpose of the Act as one which compels religious observance renders it unnecessary to decide the question of whether s. 1 could validate such legislation whose purpose was otherwise or whether the evidence would be sufficient to discharge the onus upon the appellant to demonstrate the justification advanced. (353)

However, the proportionality analysis foreshadowed in Big M and sketched out by now-Chief Justice Dickson in Oakes quickly took over Charter cases, and the possibility that some limitations of Charter rights could never be justified, regardless of the circumstances and the evidence the government brings in their support has been a road not taken by Canadian constitutional law in the last 35 years.


I think that this unfortunate. The Oakes-based proportionality analysis, at least as it has developed, focuses on one part of section 1: the “demonstrably justified” requirement. But it has little to say about other parts of section 1: the “democratic society” qualifier, and the notion of “limits” on, as opposed to exceptions to or denials of rights. Perhaps it didn’t have to be this way. In Oakes itself, Chief Justice Dickson wrote referred to this phrase as “the final standard of justification for limits on rights and freedoms” (136) and offered an explanation of what they referred to:

the values and principles essential to a free and democratic society …  I believe embody, to name but a few, respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, commitment to social justice and equality, accommodation of a wide variety of beliefs, respect for cultural and group identity, and faith in social and political institutions which enhance the participation of individuals and groups in society. (136)

One might quarrel with this list, of course ― I am not a fan “social justice” as an inherent component of democracy, for instance ― or, at least, expect it to be refined as cases develop. More fundamentally, one might quarrel with the way Chief Justice Dickson proffers this catalogue of values, as the product of his own meditation on freedom and democracy. An originalist, for example, might want to ask what the words “free and democratic society” meant to the public at the time of the Charter‘s enactment, and not simply how a judge ― even a thoughtful and distinguished judge writing mere years after the Charter came into force ― understood them. But, however that may be, the idea that limitations of rights must be justifiable not just in the abstract, but in a particular kind of society, namely a free and democratic one, was there in Oakes ― and has (like certain other aspects of that decision) fallen by the wayside since.

To repeat, I would like to recover this idea and, more specifically, to argue that there are some limits on rights that are never acceptable in free and democratic societies. Protestant School Boards offers and Big M applies one example: it is not acceptable, in free and democratic society, to impose a state religion. One might imagine a specious proportionality-based defence of the Lord’s Day Act: it serves the objective of social cohesion and public affirmation of a national religion, in a way that could not be achieved by less restrictive means, and after all it is but a small imposition ― dissentients are not forcibly dragged to divine service ― in comparison with purported benefits. A sufficiently deferential court might even, conceivably, swallow this. But we don’t need ask whether it would. The alleged benefits of the Lord’s Day Act are not something a government is entitled to pursue in a free and democratic society.

I tentatively think that a similar argument can be made with respect to many speech compulsions. In particular, I think that a free and democratic society is necessarily one in which there is no official ideology prescribed by the state that citizens are required to parrot. I suspect that the idea would have been familiar at the time of the Charter‘s framing, during the Cold War. Thus the rejection of official ideologies may well be part of the original meaning of the phrase “free and democratic society”, although I don’t know enough to be confident. But even if it cannot be read into section 1 as a matter of interpretation, I think that it has to be as a matter of construction ― the process of elaboration of legal doctrine implementing constitutional text. Just like a free and democratic society has no state religion, as the Supreme Court confirmed in Big M, it must have no set of secular beliefs mandatory for citizens. Perhaps having an official ideology would be convenient or useful; perhaps it would foster equality, or social cohesion, or prosperity. This doesn’t matter. Free and democratic societies don’t do official ideology ― just like they don’t do official history, official economic theory or, I would add, official science. (Official, of course, in the sense of mandatory for citizens; the state itself can, and indeed must to some extent, commit to specific views on many of these issues.)

Now, some cases of compelled speech cannot rightly be described as or assimilated to attempts to impose a state ideology. This is, in particular, the case of mandatory disclosure of information that is in the possession of the person subject to the compulsion ― whether in the shape of nutritional information that is required to be printed on food packing or that of data about trust accounts or self-study hours that lawyers are made to provide on their annual reports. Mandatory requirements to use a particular language for certain communications are in this category too. For these, and perhaps other, cases of compelled speech, the proportionality framework, with its case-by-case scrutiny of the tailoring of means to ends and weighing of costs and benefits is appropriate (assuming, that is, that it is appropriate for anything).

At the other extreme are cases like the Law Society of Ontario’s requirement that lawyers “promote equality, diversity, or inclusion”. This is a clear case where the government ― through the entity to which it has delegate coercive regulatory powers over the legal profession ― attempts to force people to embrace a particular set of values or beliefs and express their having done so. One can argue ― along with Dwight Newman ― that this is also an infringement of the freedom of thought (protected by the same provision of the Charter as freedom of expression, section 2(b)). One can also argue, as I have done here, that this is an infringement of the freedom of conscience. But of course this is also (and neither Professor Newman nor I deny this) a limitation of the freedom of expression ― and, I think, a limitation of a sort that cannot be justified in a free and democratic society, no matter how well-intentioned (which it is) or effective (which it isn’t).

The ant-carbon-tax stickers are something of an intermediate case. They ostensibly communicate information, and at least make no pretense about this information coming from the person coerced into transmitting it rather than the government. To that extent, they are less offensive, and less like an official ideology, than the Law Society of Ontario’s demands. However, it is arguable that stickers present incomplete information, and do so tendentiously. Not everyone, to say the least, would regard the message conveyed by the stickers as something that they could, in good faith, transmit. This is more than just a matter of preference. Perhaps the sellers of junk food would rather not tell people the number of calories their product contains; but their integrity is not threatened when they are made to do so. By contrast, when a person is made to communicate something that he or she does not, in good faith, believe, the stakes are higher, and the analogy to official ideology much closer. At the risk of being a bit dramatic, making Winston Smith love Big Brother was only the end point. The start was making him say that 2+2=5.

As Justice Beetz insisted in his dissenting opinion in Slaight Communications Inc v Davidson, [1989] 1 SCR 1038, to accept that it is permissible to order a person to tell the truth “beg[s] the essential question: what is the truth?” (1060) Some authority may think that it has established the facts, but one “cannot be forced to acknowledge and state them as the truth apart from his belief in their veracity. If he states these facts … as ordered, but does not believe them to be true, he does not tell the truth, he tells a lie.” (1061) Justice Beetz went on to add that

to order the affirmation of facts, apart from belief in their veracity by the person who is ordered to affirm them, constitutes a … serious violation of the freedoms of opinion and expression … [S]uch a violation is totalitarian in nature and can never be justified under s. 1 of the Charter. It does not differ, essentially, from the command given to Galileo by the Inquisition to abjure the cosmology of Copernicus. (1061)

Of course, Justice Beetz’s opinion was a dissenting one. All I can say is that I see nothing in Chief Justice Dickson’s majority opinion that addresses his colleague’s cogent arguments. Given the extent to which the Supreme Court has been willing to revisit its prior cases ― and to do so with much less justification than there would be to revisit Slaight on this point ― I feel no particular compunction in urging that Justice Beetz’s opinion should be followed, and that compelled statements of facts that the person required to make them believes, in good faith, to false or simply misleading should be treated like compelled statements of opinion and compelled professions of value. They are categorically unjustifiable in a free and democratic society.


The Charter‘s reference to “a free and democratic society” is not a mere description. As the Supreme Court held early on, it is the “final standard” against which purported limitations on the rights the Charter secures must be measured. It is true that rights must sometimes be limited, even in a free and democratic society. But the Charter exists because of a recognition by its framers ― and by their constituents ― that legislative majorities are apt to disregard rights, and to seek to limit them for the sake of convenience, or out of ignorance or even spite or hatred. Some limitations may appear defensible in principle but, on closer examination, are not supported by evidence, go too far, or do more harm than good. But others are incompatible with free and democratic societies as a matter of principle. It is unnecessary to scrutinize their tailoring to their purpose, or weigh up their effects. The Charter bars them categorically.

The imposition of official beliefs, or the requirement to express beliefs, is the sort of thing that simply must not happen in a free and democratic society; it is incompatible with freedom and democracy. This includes religious beliefs, as the Supreme Court has held. But political beliefs, or even beliefs about truth, should not be treated any differently. Canadian governments have no right to impose them, and the courts should peremptorily reject them.

Sticking It to the Feds

Why Ontario’s anti-carbon-tax stickers are likely unconstitutional, and certainly immoral

It is time, finally, for me to get back to the carbon-tax stickers. Last month, I was distracted from writing this post by my horror at the abusive, indecent way Ontario’s Federal Carbon Tax Transparency Act, 2019, was set to become law. It has now been enacted (though not yet come into force) and, though my disgust at the process of its enactment is unabated, I turn to its substance. The Act is, I believe, unconstitutional. It is also, quite apart from constitutional issues, morally objectionable in its own right, and doubly so coming from a government that ― cynically ― positioned itself as a champion of free speech.

The Act is simple enough. Its only substantive provision requires every “person who is licensed … to operate a retail outlet at which gasoline is sold at a gasoline pump and put into the fuel tanks of motor vehicles” to

obtain from the Minister [of Energy, Northern Development and Mines] copies of the prescribed notice with respect to the price of gasoline sold in Ontario; and … ensure the notice … is affixed to each gasoline pump at the retail outlet in such manner as may be prescribed.

There are also provisions for inspections and fines. The “prescribed notice” is, of course, the notorious sticker.


This is a requirement that all those (individuals or corporations) engaged in a particular trade communicate a message prescribed by the government. In simpler terms, an instance of compelled speech. Under a sane freedom of expression jurisprudence, this must, of course, be regarded as a limitation on the freedom of expression. Whether Ontario currently enjoys the blessings of a sane freedom of expression jurisprudence is open to some doubt, given the holding of the province’s Court of Appeal in McAteer v Canada (Attorney General), 2014 ONCA 578 that the requirement that applicants for Canadian citizenship swear a prescribed oath is not a limitation of the freedom of expression protected by section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, I think it is best to assume that, on this point at least, McAteer was an aberrant decision that can be disregarded. The carbon tax sticker requirement ought to be held to be a limitation on the section 2(b) right.

There are two paths that one can take from here. The orthodox one, which I shall take in this post, consists in asking whether this limitation is one that can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society, and so authorized by section 1 of the Charter. To be justified in a free and democratic society, a limitation on a right protected by the Charter must meet the following criteria, as recently summarized by the Court of Appeal in Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada v College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, 2019 ONCA 393:

the objective of the impugned measure must be of sufficient importance to warrant overriding a constitutionally protected right or freedom;

… the means chosen must be reasonable and demonstrably justified – this is a “form of proportionality test” which will vary in the circumstances, but requires a balancing of the interests of society with the interests of individuals and groups and has three components:

(i) the measure must be rationally connected to the objective – i.e., carefully designed to achieve the objective and not arbitrary, unfair or based on irrational considerations;

(ii) the means chosen should impair the Charter right or freedom as little as possible; and

(iii) there must be proportionality between the salutary and deleterious effects of the measure. [98]

In my next post, I will suggest that this approach is not appropriate for cases that involve certain types of compelled speech, including this one. More specifically, I will argue that the proportionality analysis can be bypassed in the case of many speech compulsions, which are never appropriate in a free and democratic society. That said, an attempt to follow the ordinary proportionality framework here does the Ontario government few favours.


It is difficult to see what the important objective that warrants the imposition of the stickers is. If one is in charitable mood, one might say that the legislature is really trying to provide transparency about the effects of a public policy that affects Ontario’s consumers. (Less charitably, and perhaps more plausibly, one might say that the the objective here is to score some political points off of the feds.) I don’t think that this an inherently bad thing for a government to do, as Patricia Hughes comes close to saying in a post at Slaw. (Dr. Hughes faults the stickers for “not advanc[ing] an alternative approach to fighting climate change” and, instead, “undermin[ing] an approach that has been widely accepted as a positive response to … greenhouse emissions”. I’m not sure why this would be constitutionally problematic. A bad choice of priorities, perhaps, but this is a debate that courts should probably stay out of.) But even if transparency of this sort is desirable, is it, as the Court of Appeal put it, “of sufficient importance to warrant overriding a constitutionally protected right or freedom”? In theory at least, it should be possible to conceive of objectives that, while desirable, are not worth abridging rights for, and I would argue that this is one of them. Perfectly transparent public policy might be a supererogatory good in a free and democratic society, but not one to be pursued at the expense of such a society’s fundamental commitments, which is what constitutional rights are supposed to be. To be sure, the courts generally tend to be very deferential to legislatures at this stage, but even this deference might, just, have its limits ― and if so, this would be pretty good case to discover them.

Now, assuming that the objective of fostering transparency about the effects of public policy does warrant limitation of rights ― a big assumption, as just explained ― I think it has to follow that the sticker requirement is rationally connected to the objective. The issue at this stage isn’t whether it is a particularly good way of achieving the legislature’s purpose, but whether it’s not an arbitrary one. This is a low bar to clear. Dr. Hughes writes that “[t]here is no rational connection between the message of the stickers … and opposition to the carbon tax because they fail to provide all the information”. Perhaps so, but I don’t think that failure to provide complete information is really a rationality issue, or that courts should be in the business of evaluating the content of a government message to assess its completeness.

What the courts can and should do, however, is to find that conscription of gas stations to communicate the government’s message about the effects of the carbon tax is not the least restrictive means of accomplishing whatever transparency-promoting aims the government might have. Being able to help itself to both the bully pulpit and the public purse to further its public-relations strategies, the government can do without conscripting private parties to carry its water. I am no fan of the Supreme Court’s decision in Canada (Attorney General) v JTI-Macdonald Corp, 2007 SCC 30, [2007] 2 SCR 610, which upheld, among other things, a requirement that tobacco manufacturers display government-mandated health warnings on 50% of their packaging, but it is surely arguable that the warnings regarding the health consequences of a particular product really do need to be displayed on that product, and not elsewhere, to be optimally effective. An argument along these lines is not so easy to make in support of Ontario’s carbon tax stickers. That said, a lot will depend on the level of deference the courts accord the legislature. One suspects, however that a legislature at odds with a carbon tax will be given less deference than one trying to discourage smoking. (This is, I am afraid, not to the Canadian courts’ credit.)

Finally, I think the courts can and should find that the benefits of the stickers, if there are any, are not worth the imposition on those who have no desire to display them. But here too, much depends on the level of scrutiny courts are willing to apply. In JTI-Macdonald, the sum total of Chief Justice McLachlin’s reasoning on this point was “proportionality of effects is established. The benefits flowing from the larger warnings are clear. The detriments to the manufacturers’ expressive interest in creative packaging are small.” [139] If a student could not come up with something more than this conclusory assertion, I would flunk her. But, quod licit Jovi, etc. In any case, here again, the courts’ biases are likely to be less favourable to the legislature, and chances are that the sticker mandate will, in fact be scrutinized as it ought to be.


Whatever doubt there might be about the legal side of the issue (and I don’t think there should be too much), the immorality of the carbon tax sticker requirement is clear. As noted above, the Ontario government has virtually unlimited resources to make its views of the federal carbon tax known. These views, at this point, aren’t exactly a secret, anyhow. But if the government wants to instruct its trained seals MPPs to end their speeches with anti-carbon-tax perorations in the style of Cato the Elder, it can. If it wants to put up giant anti-carbon-tax posters on every town square in the province, it can. If it wants to buy advertising slots from willing newspapers or radio and television stations, it can. Instead of doing the work of communicating its position itself ― and paying to do so, if necessary ―, the government conscripts unwilling private citizens and companies to serve as its bullhorn.

This is beyond its rightful powers, not only on a libertarian or classical liberal conception of the government’s proper powers but also, I think, on either a “progressive” or a conservative one. It is, indeed, little more than than naked abuse of power. The Ontario government makes people do things just because it thinks it can. I have argued here against the view the governments can in effect conscript private individuals to advance their constitutional agendas, or that the Law Society of Ontario can force lawyers to act as advocates on its behalf by “promot[ing] equality, diversity, and inclusion”. The same principles apply to a government’s attempt to communicate its views of public policy. This is something that the government can and must do on its own. If it can force citizens to do that, it can force them to do anything.

Notice, by the way, that this is not just an objection to government mandates to communicate misleading or incomplete information, or messages that undermine policy designed to deal with climate change or whatever other problem. The objection to government conscription of individuals to speak on its behalf is neutral and general. It applies to “progressive” causes, as well as to populist ones. Some means are wrong regardless of the rightness of the cause which they are supposed to pursue. This is one of them.


Ontario’s anti-carbon-tax-sticker legislation, enacted in a perversion of parliamentary democracy, is likely unconstitutional, and wrong in principle. The day when it is repealed on struck down by the courts cannot come too soon. It might seem like a small thing― it’s just stickers at gas stations, after all, and unlike with the various recent “statements of principles” and “attestations” nobody is required to believe, or even pretend to believe, what the government wants them to say. Nevertheless the impulse behind this legislation is not that much less authoritarian than that behind these other denials of the freedom of speech.

This is a reminder that liberty is under threat both from self-styled progressives and from self-anointed populists. Each camp will happily point to the other’s excesses and may even proclaim itself a defender of rights, freedoms, and the Charter; both are hypocrites. It is essential that firm, neutral principles of freedom be upheld against threats on either side.