What Really Matters

Whether Québec’s anti-religious bill is racist or Islamophobic is beside the point. What matters is its illiberalism

In the debate about Bill 21, Québec’s proposed legislation to make “laicity”, whatever exactly that is, the province’s official religious doctrine, and to impose a correspondingly faith-based dress code on its teachers, lawyers, and police officers, much attention is being devoted to the question of whether the endeavour reflects racism, Islamophobia, or other forms of discrimination. The proposal’s critics often say that it does. Its defenders, and indeed some critics, profess offence at the suggestion, and insist that the aggressive form of secularism the Québec seeks to enforce is a principled political vision. It seems to me that this all quite beside the point. Whether or not Bill 21 is the product of discrimination or of high principle does not matter. It is equally despicable either way.

Now, I should say that I personally have little doubt that xenophobia makes a more-than-deminimis contribution to such political support as there is for Bill 21. Without an irrational fear of “invaders”, of foreigners (actual or presumed) who “impose their customs” on the established populations (which outnumber them by 30- or 50- if not 100-to-1), the ambitions of dogmatic secularists to impose their creed on Québec would in all likelihood have remained perfectly theoretical. This is, after all, what they had been for decades, before this fear started being inflated in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Multani v Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys, 2006 SCC 6, [2006] 1 SCR 256, a.k.a. the kirpan case. For all that we are asked to remember Québec’s uniquely fraught relationship with (Catholic) religion, there was nothing like the current degree of support for virulent secularism at a time when the memories of this relationship were fresher than they are now. Still, whatever may be the case in general, we should probably be reluctant to make accusations of xenophobia against individuals ― unless, of course, we have specific reasons to do so in their particular case.

Let us focus, then, on the supposed principled justifications for Bill 21. Let us presume, for the sake of argument, that its supporters really believe that, as Christian Rioux put it in Le Devoir, “the diversity of modern societies makes state secularism an increasingly unavoidable requirement. The pluralist societies are, more citizens demand that the state’s religious neutrality be beyond reproach” (translation mine here and below). Let us ignore the delightful irony of a man named Christian preaching secularism. Let us even avert our eyes from the sleight-of-hand involved in the equation of “state neutrality”, which as the Supreme Court explained in Mouvement laïque québécois v Saguenay (City), 2015 SCC 16, [2015] 2 SCR 3, “is required of institutions and the state, not individuals”, [74] with the “neutrality” of men and women who work for the state. Let us concede, or imagine, that the supporters of Bill 21 believe in good faith that their vision of secularism is morally justified.

Why are they wrong? Simply because this form of secularism involves gross violations of individual liberty. It means that the state gets to tell people how, or how not, to practise their faith ― whether they will be allowed to pursue their fundamental commitments. Mr. Rioux denies that Bill 21 does any such thing, since it only affects “the right to publicize [one’s religion] during working hours” ― as if one could have a part-time faith. This is laughable. If Mr. Rioux were asked to wear a kippah, but only during working hours, would that be all right by him? (This is why the frequent attempts to analogize the policy of Bill 21 to bans on political self-identification do not work: political commitments are indeed part-time things, even for hardened partisans, and can be set aside and then resumed, in a way that religious commitments cannot.)

Needless to say, the state may limit or even take away a person’s liberty to avoid it being used to interfere the life, liberty, or property of others; and, perhaps, to avoid it being used to deny others’ equal membership in the community. But public officials or employees who refuse to convert to part-time religion or to commit apostasy do no such thing. They do not take anyone’s property; they do not deprive anyone of their ability to do anything; they do not impose their beliefs on anyone. Sure, they are visibly, manifestly, identifiable as having a religious affiliations; but most of us are visibly, manifestly identifiable as members of particular genders and racial groups, not to mention as being of a certain age. A Muslim teacher wearing a hijab no more makes her students Muslim than a white male teacher makes his students white men. (Of course it is possible that a religious teacher or public servant will engage in proselytism, or unduly favour co-religionists. These things should be punished, just as propaganda or favouritism based on other commitments or aspects of one’s identity should be punished.)

The secularist obsessives supporting Bill 21, however, have a much more expansive view of the reasons for which the state can deny people’s liberty. Mr. Rioux writes that, “faced with a multiculturalism that seeks to impose its single-minded thinking everywhere, the premier [of Québec] was right to assert … that ‘this is how we live here'”, because “Quebeckers have much more than a language in common”. Never mind, again, the irony of denouncing single-minded thinking while insisting that a state may deprive citizens of liberty in the name of “how we live here” and of what they purportedly “have in common”. Were Mr. Rioux not a hypocrite, the idea that state-sanctioned ways of doing things ― said to be widely or even universally shared despite, and indeed precisely because of, glaring evidence of the fact that they are not ― can be imposed by force on those who do not share them would be no less wrong-headed, and no less pernicious. This idea purports to authorize those in power to dictate their beliefs and their ways of living to everyone, for no other reason than that they are in power. It is incompatible with any liberty that deserves the name.

Of course this illiberal view is widely held. It is not confined to any particular racial or religious group, or any nationality. Mr. Rioux appeals, against the charge of Islamophobia, to the fact that a large majority of French Muslims apparently support restrictions similar to those that would be imposed by Bill 21. They can’t be Islamophobes, can they? This sounds like a good argument, so far as it goes, except that it doesn’t go anywhere that matters. A French Muslim can be as illiberal as a French Canadian lapsed Catholic. For that matter, the judicial darlings of Canada’s bien-pensant multiculturalist intelligentsia have proven themselves quite capable of this sort of illiberalism when then invoked mythical “shared values” to authorize an arm of the state to deny an accreditation to a religious dissenting institution, in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32.

It might be odd to say so now, but the debate around Bill 21 shows as well as any other that equality, and its attendant -phobias and -isms, occupy too large a space is our thought and discourse. This is not to say that these things do not matter. But not everything that is wrong in our politics is wrong because it contravenes the value of equality. Nor is anything that does not contravene this value therefore permitted, or anything that supports this value therefore required. It is time we remembered that liberty is no less important ― or, better yet, that we realized that liberty is more important, but I am not asking for everything at once. It is time we remembered that living individuals, not intellectual dreamt-up abstractions or imagined communities, are what really matters. It is time we stopped fearing the way in which others might use their liberty if we do not preemptively coerce them. It is time we were free.

Judicial Supremacy, Again

Another attack on judicial supremacy misses the mark

Last week, the Québec government put forward a bill that will, under cover of the Canadian Charter’s “notwithstanding clause” and its provincial analogue, declare irreligion the province’s official creed and bar a multitude of office-holders and public employees from wearing religious symbols. Just a couple of days before, over at Policy Options, Brian Bird published the latest contribution to the judicial-supremacy-bad-legislatures-good genre that has been undergoing something of a revival in Canada of late. It is, alas, no more compelling than all the others.

Mr Bird beings by asking two questions: “Is leaving this responsibility [for upholding the constitution] solely in judicial hands the best way of upholding the supreme law of a liberal democracy such as Canada? Does our Constitution even call for judicial supremacy in constitutional matters?” The first question is misdirection. No one, to my knowledge, has suggested that, since the courts are able to enforce the constitution, the other branches of government should ignore it. The answer to the second question, as I have argued here, is a resounding “yes”.


Let me start with that second question. (A fuller statement of my views on it is in the post linked to in the previous paragraph.) Mr. Bird claims that section 52(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982, which provides that “[t]he Constitution of Canada is the supreme law of Canada, and any law that is inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution is, to the extent of the inconsistency, of no force or effect”, “does not identify courts as the sole or final arbiters of constitutionality. It identifies no particular branch of the state as uniquely responsible for these tasks.” That much is true: section 52(1) does not explicitly mention the courts. But that’s because it doesn’t have to.

As Mr. Bird himself helpfully explained elsewhere, section 52(1) was not an innovation in the Canadian constitutional system, but rather a replacement for the Colonial Laws Validity Act 1865, which required the courts to uphold the supremacy of imperial statutes, including what we now call the various Constitution Acts. If the framers of the Constitution Act, 1982 had wanted to deny the judiciary this authority, they would have given us some indication of the fact, instead of remaining cryptically silent. Far from doing so, the framers also sought to entrench the Supreme Court in the constitution ― or so the Supreme Court itself has told us. Why in the world would they have done that if they didn’t think that the court had a special responsibility for enforcing the constitution itself?

And there is more, as I pointed out in the post linked to above:

[T]he phrase “supreme law” (emphasis added) [in section 52(1) also suggests that, like any law, the Constitution of Canada is subject to interpretation and enforcement by the courts―not by legislatures. Granted, by 1982, the Supreme Court had conceded deference on the interpretation of some legal provisions to administrative adjudicators. But that concession was premised―wisely or not is beside the point here―on these adjudicators’ expertise, including legal expertise in their particular area of jurisdiction. I do not think that Parliament would have been understood to have such expertise.

Mr. Bird, for his part, suggests that “the Constitution’s status as the ‘supreme law’ … demands compliance with the Constitution, not a particular mechanism for enforcing compliance.” Yet the normal mechanism for enforcing compliance with law is adjudication, and even to the extent that enforcement can be delegated to non-judicial institutions (and, to repeat, these are supposedly expert institutions specialized in administering specific areas of the law) the courts retain a power of review over their work. If the 1982 framers contemplated some other mechanism for ensuring compliance with the law they were enacting, they would undoubtedly have said so. In short, in my view the original public meaning of section 52(1) ― in the context of its predecessor provision’s text and history ― clearly requires “judicial supremacy in constitutional matters”.


Coming back, then, to Mr. Bird’s first question, whether we would not be better off if all branches of government, and not just the courts, were engaged in upholding the constitution, one can only say, “of course we would”. Mr. Bird does not identify anyone who might disagree but, for the record, I support his view that “[l]egislatures should repeal unconstitutional laws”. I have misgivings about Mr. Bird’s suggestion that “the executive should not enforce” laws it deems unconstitutional, partly for positive law reasons co-blogger Mark Mancini raises in his latest post, and partly for philosophical reasons I refer to here. But the point is a difficult one, and Mr. Bird may well be right. And of course both legislatures and the executives, so far as the law allows, are free to, and should, do more to uphold the constitution than the courts will let them get away with.

The real question, however, is not whether it would be desirable for Canadian legislatures and executives to endeavour to enforce the constitution, but whether they are at all likely to do so. The answer, sadly, is that they are not. While it is true, Mr. Bird notes, that “[g]overnment lawyers frequently give opinions on the constitutionality of proposed legislation [and] [i]n some cases … have a statutory duty to do so”, the standard they apply for concluding that proposed legislation is constitutional is ridiculously low. (It is close, in effect, to a puke test, or to asking whether a colleague defending the statute would be laughed out of court.) And, as I have noted here, when politicians are required to make their own constitutional judgments (in areas that are not justiciable), they “take the constitution no more seriously than when they act under adult judicial supervision. Actually, they do not care about it at all.”

This is not a uniquely Canadian affliction, of course. In New Zealand, successive Attorneys-General have applied a higher standard than their Canadian colleagues to concluding that a proposed enactment would infringe the Bill of Rights Act 1990, but their not infrequent reports to this effect have largely been ignored by Parliament. And even when the courts have pointed out inconsistencies between ordinary legislation and the Bill of Rights Act, contrary to Mr. Bird optimistic prediction, these indications have not “influence[d] the deliberations of governments and … foster[ed] dialogue between branches of the state on constitutional issues”. Legislation flatly contrary to the Bill of Rights Act remains on the books unaltered.


The attack on judicial supremacy and attempts to discredit the judiciary as constitutional enforcer tend, ultimately, to be based on unwarranted optimism about the interest of the “political branches” for the constitution. In my view, there is little cause for such hopefulness. It is true that jurisdictions with judicially enforceable constitutions, such as New Zealand, may remain fairly free ― though it is also true that New Zealand is vulnerable to illiberal policy shifts against some of which a supreme constitution might offer a modicum of protection. But there is nothing to be gained, and likely something to be lost, by giving up on judicial enforcement of supreme constitutional law.

The revival of arguments in favour of this option, coinciding as it does with a shameless political trampling on constitutional constraints and rights illustrated by Québec’s anti-religious legislation, is puzzling and counter-productive. The courts, of course, are very far from perfect in their capacity as constitutional enforcers. But we should be insisting that they become better at this job, not suggesting that they might as give it up.

Can an agency choose not to enforce Bill 21?

Last week, the English Montreal School Board [EMSB] announced that it is refusing to to implement Bill 21, introduced by the Quebec government. The law would ban workers in the public sphere in positions of authority from wearing “religious symbols” while at work. The government, apparently cognizant of the challenges this could raise under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, signalled its intention to invoke the notwithstanding clause to immunize its law from constitutional scrutiny by the judiciary.

In pre-emptively declining to implement the law, the EMSB invoked constitutional objections under the Charter against the ban:

Vice-Chair Joe Ortona, who drafted the resolution, said that the EMSB believes this proposed legislation would be contrary to paragraph 2 (a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees everyone’s right to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion and contrary to paragraph 2 (b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees everyone’s right to freedom thought, belief, opinion and expression.

Furthermore Mr. Ortona said that the EMSB believes this proposed legislation would be contrary to subsection 15 (1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees that everyone is equal before and under the law and guarantees the right to equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on religion and contrary to section 3 of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms which guarantees freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of opinion, and freedom of expression.

Quite aside from the merits of the issue, there is a legitimate question of administrative law, here: can an administrative agency like a school board, empowered by statute, simply decline to enforce a law that it believes is unconstitutional? More specifically, can the agency decline to enforce the law if the law invokes the notwithstanding clause? Whatever the answer is, should agencies be able to come to their own determinations of constitutional law?

The place to start is probably the Martin and Conway line of cases. The core issues in those cases were the conditions under which an administrative agency can choose not to apply statutory provisions in its enabling statute that it considers to be unconstitutional—and if so, whether there is a power to issue personal remedies under the Charter. So these cases go, if an agency has the express or implied power to decide questions of law under the challenged provision (see Martin, at para 37), then it presumptively has the power to determine questions of constitutional law. The implied inquiry looks to a number of considerations (see Martin at para 41):

Relevant factors will include the statutory mandate of the tribunal in issue and whether deciding questions of law is necessary to fulfilling this mandate effectively; the interaction of the tribunal in question with other elements of the administrative system; whether the tribunal is adjudicative in nature; and practical considerations, including the tribunal’s capacity to consider questions of law. Practical considerations, however, cannot override a clear implication from the statute itself, particularly when depriving the tribunal of the power to decide questions of law would impair its capacity to fulfill its intended mandate. As is the case for explicit jurisdiction, if the tribunal is found to have implied jurisdiction to decide questions of law arising under a legislative provision, this power will be presumed to include jurisdiction to determine the constitutional validity of that provision.

The presumption can be rebutted by the party seeking to dislodge the Charter jurisdictional presumption, by pointing to an express or implied withdrawal of authority to decide constitutional questions: the concern is discerning whether there is an intention to “exclude the Charter, or more broadly, a category of questions of law encompassing the Charter, from the scope of the questions of law to be addressed by the tribunal (Martin, at para 42).

So the question at the outset for the EMSB is whether it has been conferred the ability to decide questions of law, either explicitly or impliedly. The enabling statute for the EMSB is the Education Act. Under s.111 of that statute, the province of Quebec is divided into “two groups of territories,” with one group constituting English school boards, like the EMSB. The EMSB, under the statute, is “a legal person established in the public interest” (s.113). There is at least some reason (even if weak) to believe under the Education Act the EMSB has the power to decide questions of law, but only a limited one pertaining to its particular mission under the Education Act. For example, under the statute, the EMSB has the power to “ensure that the basic school regulation established by the Government is implemented” (s.222) and can exempt students from that basic regulation “[f]or humanitarian reasons or to avoid serious harm to a student” (s.222). Assume for now that these rather vague and limited provisions confer a general power to decide questions of law: that general power, interpreted in light of the text, context, and purpose of the Education Act as it relates to school boards, would probably only relate to the organization of quality educational services (s.207.1), although one could argue that the same concern could apply to the context of Bill 21.

Even if this could be seen as an implicit signal of constitutional jurisdiction under the Education Act, it is a bit orthogonal to the core interpretive question. Martin, the key case on point, says that the real question is whether the EMSB has power to decide questions of law under the challenged provision in its enabling statute (see paras 27-28, 35). But here, there is not only no challenged provision yet, but it is not the EMSB’s enabling statute. This presents two further problems: can agencies issue prophylactic constitutional rulings? And even if they can, can they do so by choosing not to apply a statute that is not their enabling statute?

It would seem odd, in light of the Supreme Court’s cases, to suggest that an administrative agency can prophylactically choose not to apply a law that otherwise applies to it. Administrative agencies are creatures of statute, and so are subject to the statutory conditions that the legislature imposes on them. Under Bill 21, the terms of the statute clearly apply to school boards (see Schedule I, (7)). Short of some dispute arising within the confines of the statutory regime created by the Education Act, there does not seem warrant for the EMSB to go out on a limb and refuse to apply a statute that has yet to have created any particular problems within its statutory jurisdiction. This seems to be what Abella J suggested in Conway, where she concluded that tribunals could “have the authority to resolve constitutional questions that are linked to matters properly before them” (Conway, at para 78).

More important than this issue, though, is the idea that the EMSB can choose not to apply a statute that is not its enabling statute. The main Supreme Court cases dealing with this issue, even the ones that predate Martin, involve the enabling statute of the decision-maker under consideration (Conway, at para 49: “These cases dealt with whether administrative tribunals could decide the constitutionality of the provisions of their own statutory schemes.” Consider the cases on this point: in Cuddy Chicks, the issue was whether the Ontario Labour Relations Board could determine the constitutionality of a provision in the Labour Relations Act. In Martin, the question was whether the Nova Scotia Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal could decide a s.15 Charter claim under the Workers’ Compensation Act and associated regulations. All of these cases involved claims tied to the regime under which the decision-maker was established, with cases “properly before them.” And this makes sense: it would be odd for Parliament to delegate power to an administrative agency, confined by a statutory scheme, to pass on the constitutionality of other statutory provisions that may only tangentially be related to the part of the Education Act (for example) that the EMSB must apply.

Even if none of this were true, the notwithstanding clause effectively limits any independent choice an agency could have about the constitutionality of the statute under which it is invoked. For one, even if one could impute an intention to the legislature that presumptively allows the EMSB to make constitutional determinations, the notwithstanding clause is a good reason to say that the legislature has rebutted that presumption with respect to the particular category of question at issue here: this is the upshot of Martin and Conway. More fundamentally, a use of the notwithstanding clause cannot be legally questioned by any actor in the system, including the judiciary. The EMSB cannot legally second-guess the choice of the provincial government (its master) to insulate legislation from constitutional scrutiny. The invocation of the notwithstanding clause flows down the entire machinery of the state, and whether we like it or not, its use is legally justifiable by the fiat of the legislature.

To my mind, the use of the notwithstanding clause also renders null any arguments that one could make that the EMSB is justified in its prophylactic ruling because of an abstract notion of “Charter values.” Despite the fact that the spectre of Charter values is increasingly being called into question, and the precedential force of cases like Trinity Western should be questioned because of the lack of reasoning on the point (see, embarrassingly for the TWU majority, para 59), the notwithstanding clause is a legislative command that compels executive actors to ignore the Charter when implementing the law in question. There would be no point in invoking the notwithstanding clause if administrative actors could choose to “independently” opine on the constitutionality of laws in the face of it. The lightning rod for a consideration of Charter values is discretion, and the notwithstanding clause neutralizes any discretion at all on the constitutional question.

To my mind, there is little warrant for the EMSB to prophylactically say it will not enforce Bill 21, given its limited statutory domain and the use of the notwithstanding clause. And this is likely how it should be. It is one thing for an administrative agency, when implementing a statute in the context of a concrete dispute, to have to pass on the constitutionality of a statutory provision—in its own statute—in order to resolve the dispute. In that case, there are at least colourable reasons why the agency should have the power to do this: if one believes in the idea that agencies have expertise on matters arising within the confines of their statute, one could say that they could also have expertise on Charter matters arising in relation to that same statute. One could also say that the legislature delegated to the agency the power to make Charter determinations, even through the imperfect proxy of a general power to decide questions of law. These same justifications lose their force when considering statutory provisions outside the enabling statute. While Bill 21 certainly does affect the realm of the EMSB, the EMSB is not conferred a general power to make constitutional determinations arising under other statutes.

Is Québec’s Dress Code Unconstitutional?

There is a serious argument to be made that Québec’s ban on religious symbols infringes the federal division of powers

Back when a previous Québec government sought to impose a dress-code on the province’s employees, I suggested here and here that, should the province seek to insulate its legislation from review based on its manifest violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Québec’s own Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms by invoking these Charters’ respective “notwithstanding clauses”, the question of constitutionality could still be raised. That is because such legislation may well infringe not only the constitutional guarantees of religious liberty, but also the federal division of powers, to which the “notwithstanding clauses” do not apply. 

The idea of a dress code for (some) public employees is back, in the shape of a bizarrely named Bill 21, An Act respecting the laicity of the State. (Pro tip for the legislative draughtsman: “laicity” is not a synonym of “secularism”.) And as Bill 21 invokes the “notwithstanding clauses”, the issue of its consistency with the federal division of powers must be addressed.


Fortunately, Maxime St-Hilaire has posted a thorough review (en français) of the relevant case law over at À qui de droit. With his kind permission, a (very slightly shortened and re-formatted) translation follows:

Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in no way allows Parliament or a legislature to suspend the federal division of legislative powers. Only the federal emergency power makes it possible to do this, temporarily.

Recall that, in 1852, before Confederation, the legislature of the United Province of Canada enacted a Freedom of Worship Act. In 1867, the protection of religious freedom was not, as such, assigned to either Parliament or the legislatures. The Freedom of Worship Act remains purportedly valid as a law of Québec.

However, in Saumur v City of Quebec, [1953] 2 SCR 299, which involved a by-law subjecting the distribution of any literature in the city’s streets to the approval of the chief of police, four of the nine judges took the position that religious freedom was outside the scope of provincial jurisdiction, and within that of Parliament. In somewhat different ways, the four took the position that, being a restriction on freedom of religion, the by-law could not be justified as an exercise of the provincial power over “Property and Civil Rights in the Province” provided by section 92(13) of the Constitution Act, 1867, or that over “Municipal Institutions in the Province”, or any other provincial power, including that over “Matters of a merely local or private Nature in the Province”, provided by section 92(16). Rather, religious freedom was a matter within the scope either of the federal criminal law power (section 91(27)), or of the section 91 residual federal power over “Peace, Order, and Good Government of Canada”. Two other judges were content to raise this argument without either endorsing or rejecting it: “It may well be that Parliament alone has power to make laws in relation to the subject of religion as such”. (387; per Cartwright J). Only three of the nine judges took the position that freedom of religion fell within the scope of the provincial power over “Property and Civil Rights” or, perhaps, “Matters of a merely local or private Nature”.

Saumur was ultimately decided on the basis of the by-law’s interpretation, rather than its validity. Two years later, in Henry Birks & Sons (Montreal) Ltd v City of Montreal, [1955] SCR 799, the Supreme Court unanimously held that a Québec statute specifically allowing municipalities to prohibit the opening of shops on designated Catholic holidays was ultra vires the province, because in pith and substance it was colourable criminal law. Justice Kellock (with the agreement of Justice Locke), went so far as to suggest that 

[e]ven if it could be said that legislation of the character here in question is not properly “criminal law” within the meaning of s. 91(27), it would, in my opinion, still be beyond the jurisdiction of a provincial legislature as being legislation with respect to freedom of religion dealt with by the [Freedom of Worship Act]. (823)

This was also the view of Justice Rand, for whom “legislation in relation to religion the provision is beyond provincial authority to enact”. (814)

In Dupond v City of Montreal, [1978] 2 SCR 770, Justice Beetz, for the majority, argues that the freedom of religion belongs partly to the federal criminal law power, so far as the imposition of religious observance is concerned, and partly a matter of provincial competence over purely local matters (similarly to the “freedoms of speech [and] of the press”). (796-97)

This was confirmed in R v Big M Drug Mart, [1985] 1 SCR 295, where Justice Dickson, for the majority, held that

Parliament’s legislative competence to enact the Lord’s Day Act depends on the identification of the purpose of the Act as compel­ling observance of Sunday by virtue of its religious significance. Were its purpose not religious but rather the secular goal of enforcing a uniform day of rest from labour, the Act would come under s. 92(13), property and civil rights in the province and, hence, fall under provincial rather than federal competence. (354)

Since the freedom of religion includes the freedom of conscience, and thus the freedom not to believe, it is tempting to argue that any law that imposes either a form of religious belief or non-belief falls under Parliament’s exclusive power over criminal law. However, as explained in Reference re Assisted Human Reproduction Act2010 SCC 61, [2010] 3 SCR 457, to belong to the realm of criminal law, a law must “suppress an evil, … establish a prohibition, and … accompany that prohibition with a penalty”. [233]

However, it seems settled that both Parliament and the legislatures are able to protect or to justifiably limit, within the meaning of section 1 of the Charter, the freedom of conscience and religion, through the use of their ancillary powers. The power over religion is thus a shared one within the federal division of powers. The Supreme Court has confirmed this, for example in R v Edwards Books and Art Ltd, [1986] 2 SCR 713. Justice Dickson, uncontradicted on this point, expressed the following view:

[T]here exist religious matters which must similarly fall within provincial competence. … It would seem, therefore, that the Constitution does not contemplate religion as a discrete constitutional “matter” falling exclusively within either a federal or provincial class of subjects. Legislation concerning religion or religious freedom ought to be characterized, I believe, in light of its context, according to the particular religious matter upon which the legislation is focussed. … 

Applying the above principles to the appeals at bar, it is, in my opinion, open to a provincial legislature to attempt to neutralize or minimize the adverse effects of otherwise valid provincial legislation on human rights such as freedom of religion. (750-51)

There is nothing impossible about a Québec statute on secularism enacted notwithstanding the Charter being held invalid as a violation of the federal division of powers. The outcome will depend largely on the evidence and arguments related to the (real) purpose of the law. If those challenging the law were able to persuade the court that the purpose of (and not only the means taken by) the statute is religious in the legal, that is to say broad, sense of the term, and restrictive, the court could strike it down in whole or in part, notwithstanding its use of the notwithstanding clause.


I would only add a few comments. To begin with, following up on Professor St-Hilaire’s conclusion, it is important to note (as I already did in my original posts) that what might, to some, feel like a runaround to avoid the effects of the invocation of section 33 of the Canadian Charter is nothing of the sort. Some runarounds have been proposed in the last couple of days, for example by Louis-Philippe Lampron and Pierre Bosset, who suggest that unwritten constitutional principles can be invoked to impose limits on the legislature’s ability to invoke section 33. This is just not plausible. In British Columbia v Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd2005 SCC 49, [2005] 2 SCR 473, the Supreme Court made it clear unwritten principles cannot be used to make up perceived shortcomings in the scope of the Charter’s protections. This logic must apply to the “notwithstanding clause” as much as to the gaps in the Charter‘s substantive rights. By contrast, however, the limits on a provincial legislature’s legislative power that pre-existed the Charter remain intact and enforceable. Section 31 of the Charter itself tells us as much. It provides that “[n]othing in this Charter extends the legislative powers of any body or authority.” 

Next, I would argue that the purpose of Bill 21 is quite clearly religious, or rather anti-religious. These two things, as Professor St-Hilaire points out, are equivalent for constitutional purposes. The bill’s preamble proclaims that “it is incumbent on the Parliament of Québec to determine the principles according to which and manner in which relations between the State and religions are to be governed in Québec” and that “it is important that the paramountcy of State laicity be enshrined in Québec’s legal order”. Clause 1 provides that “The State of Québec is a lay State”. (Pro tip for the legislative draughtsman: “lay” is not a synonym of “secular”; this is another calque, just like “laicity”.) Clause 2 sets out “principles” on which “[t]he laicity [sic] of the State is based”, including “the separation of State and religions” and, supposedly, “the religious neutrality of the State”. (This is a rather transparent lie, since the bill would exclude religious individuals from a variety of functions within the purportedly neutral state.) And Bill 21’s centrepiece is, of course, Clause 6, which provides that various public employees and some contractors “are prohibited from wearing religious symbols in the exercise of their functions”. Only “religious symbols” ― not political ones, or those that have to do with any other aspect of people’s identities ― are targeted. This is a regulation of religion, and nothing else.

Consider, then, the arguments that the Québec government might make in defence of its legislation. The authority for it, if it exists at all, presumably comes from section 45 of the Constitution Act, 1982, or section 92(4) of the Constitution Act, 1867. The former provides that, subject to limitations that are not relevant here, “the legislature of each province may exclusively make laws amending the constitution of the province”. The latter grants the provinces power over “The Establishment and Tenure of Provincial Offices and the Appointment and Payment of Provincial Officers”. The scope of section 45’s predecessor provision, section 92(1) of the Constitution Act, 1867, was explained by Justice Beetz in his majority reasons in Ontario (Attorney General) v OPSEU, [1987] 2 SCR 2. To determine whether an enactment qualifies as an amendment to the constitution of the province, one must first ask:

is the enactment in question, by its object, relative to a branch of the government of Ontario … ? Does it for instance determine the composition, powers, authority, privileges and duties of the legislative or of the executive branches or their members? Does it regulate the interrelationship between two or more branches? Or does it set out some principle of government? (39)

However, even if the answer to this first question (or set of questions) is in the affirmative, one must keep in mind the restrictions on the provinces’ legislative authority imposed by the federal division of powers, and other limits imposed by the constitution of Canada as a whole. One can certainly argue that Bill 21 imposes duties on members of the three branches of Québec’s government, and sets out a “principle of government”. But if its true purpose is not so much to regulate the functioning of the provincial government as to compel religious non-observance, then it is still not valid legislation amending the provincial constitution. And I would add that, although the government might claim that it is not trying to prevent anyone from being religious outside of their working hours, religiosity is not something that can be switched off from 9AM to 5PM and then back on again. 

Indeed, Justice Beetz’s comments in OPSEU on section 92(4) are suggestive here. Justice Beetz wrote that limitations on civil servants’ political activity at both the federal and the provincial level “constitute a term or condition of tenure of provincial office, enforced by compulsory resignation or dismissal. Their object is to ensure in this respect, not partial virtue, but global political independence for provincial officers.” (48) One can certainly say that Bill 21’s limitations on religious expression are a term or condition of tenure of provincial office. But if the government argues that their object is to ensure not partial, but global irreligion on the part of its employees, then the proposition that Bill 21 is not aimed at banning religious observance should be a tough sell.


Quite apart from constitutional issues, Bill 21 is a disaster from the standpoint of political morality. It is a massive violation of religious liberty of those who already are, or might in the future like to become, employed by the Québec government or hold provincial office. While less discriminatory on its face than Québec’s previous attempts at a dress code, in that it purports to ban all religious symbols and not just “ostentatious” ones (i.e. the hijab, the kippah, and the turban, but not the cross worn by Catholics, lapsed or otherwise, who constitute the majority of Québec’s population), it still transparently invites discrimination. It seems unlikely, to say the least, that anyone will be looking for crosses under civil servants’ shirts. Hijabs, kippahs, and turbans, on the other hand… But the constitution, despite the Québec government’s attempt to shove it aside, might yet stand in the way of this iniquity.

Lessening Us: The Supreme Court and SNC-Lavalin

The SNC-Lavalin episode gets worse, if that is possible.

In an apparent effort to distract from the SNC-Lavalin affair, a leak on Monday claimed that the rift between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould began far before the term “deferred prosecution agreement” entered the public lexicon. Apparently, it all started when Wilson-Raybould recommended Manitoba Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal to the Supreme Court of Canada. For those unaware, Chief Justice Joyal has, over the years, advanced a welcome antidote for the Charterphile Canadian legal community. His views are not extreme or inappropriate; rather, they are intelligent appreciations of the cultural and institutional changes that the Charter introduced. The fact that he was rejected out of hand for a Supreme Court appointment—and the fact the circumstances of his appointment have been leaked—are indictments of both Canada’s legal and political system.

The most important part of all of this is the morally repugnant way in which Chief Justice Joyal’s application for the bench was released by some unknown party. Originally, it was reported that Trudeau scuttled Wilson-Raybould’s recommendation because of his disagreement with Chief Justice Joyal’s views. Then, it was reported that Chief Justice Joyal actually withdrew his application, because his wife was suffering from metastatic breast cancer. The fact that this was leaked, and that Chief Justice Joyal’s personal life was implicated in the process, is a low for Canadian politics. No one should have to endure public scrutiny on a matter as personal–and tragic–as a cancer diagnosis.

What makes it even more tragic is that, as Chief Justice Joyal noted, his personal situation seems to be used as an agenda for the broader SNC-Lavalin controversy. The implication of all of this is that someone in the Prime Minister’s Office leaked the information to the press in order to show just how misguided Wilson-Raybould was as Attorney General. If there was any doubt, the episode shows just how far some politicos will go to undermine not only norms surrounding judicial appointments but also the personal lives of those in the way.

And, all of this for views that are not at all controversial and are important counterpoints to the ongoing debates about the Charter and its institutional features. A good example of Chief Justice Joyal’s welcome assessment of the major counter-majoritarian difficulty introduced by the Charter is his 2017 speech to the Law and Freedom Conference. The main theme of the speech outlined the consequences of the “judicial potency” that the Charter introduced, a feature that “was not anticipated back in 1982.” These consequences are ones that are not often discussed, are certainly true. For example, consider a few of the consequences Chief Justice Joyal noted:

  • The constitutional requirements imposed by the Charter do not “mesh” well with the legislative process, making it more difficult to make laws.
  • The Charter has moved important debates outside of the realm of the legislature and into the realm of courts.
  • This movement outside of the legislative realm creates “a public discourse dominated by the concept of ‘rights’,” one that is defined by “judicial formulations and tests.”
  • The political culture introduced by the Charter conflates constitutionality with policy wisdom, when there is no need to necessarily merge the two concepts.

Agree or disagree, these are all important consequences of the system of judicial review introduced by the Charter, and the way in which Canadian lawyers have reacted to that power of review. There is no doubt that the Canadian legal community largely suffers from “Charteritis,” (not my term–check out David Mossop’s 1985 article entited “Charteritis and Other Legal Diseases”). And for that reason, Chief Justice Joyal’s remarks in 2017 were a welcome appreciation of the symptoms of that disease.

But in the leak published on Monday, the nuance and force of Chief Justice Joyal’s conclusions were completely lost. Apparently, when Wilson-Raybould recommended Chief Justice Joyal to the bench, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was concerned about the 2017 speech. Trudeau was apparently concerned that Joyal would be less willing to protect rights that have come from judicial interpretation of the Charter, including rights to abortion access and LGBTQ2 rights.

If this is true, this base understanding of Chief Justice Joyal’s legal views is completely wrong. There is nothing in his 2017 speech that would indicate a preference—one way or another—for any particular issue that would come before the Supreme Court, should he have been a judge. All of Chief Justice Joyal’s broader views are perfectly consistent with a respect for stare decisis and the cases that have entrenched rights, whether those cases were rightly or wrongly decided.

Chief Justice Joyal’s views have nothing to do with these issues, simply put. They merely stand for the idea that, in the age of the Charter, the legislatures have assumed a different role. This is simply an empirical fact. There are consequences to this. One is that, rather than dealing with issues through the cut-and-thrust of political debate, we have moved those debates into the courts, which are often ill-suited to deal with these sorts of problems. The issue of Aboriginal rights and title is a perfect example. Because of the recalcitrance of governments over generations, Aboriginal groups have, strategically, moved to the courts to vindicate their rights. But that does not mean that the judicial forum is a better place to do so. The Tsilqho’tin case is a good example of this—a case which took decades of time and untold resources to reach the Supreme Court. Even people who believe in the Charter, and in the judicial role that it introduced, should recognize that legislatures should still be important areas of public debate that should be equal constitutional actors in their own right, owed respect by the Supreme Court’s judges.

While it is perfectly appropriate for the Prime Minister to want to appoint people to the bench who reflect his view of the Constitution, those views should at least be informed and educated. Based on the media reporting so far, it appears that the Prime Minister was unwilling or unable to understand that one can have different approaches to Charter interpretation—or a less positive view of the broader implications of the Charter—and still have a respect for the document as a matter of constitutional law. Even if one thinks those views are wrong, this is no reason to misunderstand what Chief Justice Joyal’s views actually represent.

Taken together, this whole SNC-Lavalin episode continues to lessen us–our law and our politics.

The Empty Canard of the Living Tree “Doctrine”

In 1989, Justice Scalia gave a speech entitled “Assorted Canards of Contemporary Legal Analysis.” These “canards,” are “certain oft-repeated statements…” that, while having “little actual impact upon the decision of the case” are “part of its atmospherics, or of its overarching philosophy…” Justice Scalia gave the example of the old adage that “remedial statutes should be liberally construed,” a canard because it is difficult to determine what a “remedial statute” is, and then because it is not a judge’s role to pick and choose statutes to be interpreted liberally and strictly.

In the last few days, both the Stereo Decisis podcast and my co-blogger Leonid have focused on a case out of Quebec in which our own Canadian canard was put to work: the idea that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms should be interpreted as a “living tree.” In the context of the case at issue, Leonid received flack from the Stereo Decisis podcast hosts for suggesting a textualist approach to the interpretation of s.12 of the Charter, while the hosts were focused on determining the normative commitments that should influence constitutional interpretation, having concluded that the language of the Charter is written in open-ended and ambiguous language. Lurking in the background of this debate between textualism (properly understood) and the openness of language is the idea that the Constitution should evolve to encompass certain normative commitments, whether or not they are discernible in the text. This is the core of the living tree approach.

But no one has ever described—with real precision—how a living-tree “doctrine” would work in practice, and so it is simply unconvincing to state, without more, that the Charter should or could encompass evolving normative commitments not fairly implicated by the text. Until the proponents of the living tree suggest some way—any way—that the doctrine should actually operate, it should be resigned to the dustbin of history. My point here is not to point out the flaws of the living tree methodology; others have done that. Instead, I want to suggest that for the living tree doctrine to become an actual doctrine, it should answer a number of fundamental questions. None of these questions are new, but they come into stark relief, requiring urgent answers, if the living tree is going to remain even a part of the Canadian constitutional atmosphere.

Why, for example, has the Supreme Court rarely applied the doctrine in any substantial way, despite it being a favourite among legal academics? One would be hard pressed to think of a case where the living tree was a decisive factor in favour of one party or another, or where it was applied to some distinct substantive end. In fact, in Comeau, the interprovincial beer case, while the Court mentioned the living tree doctrine, it was quick to point out that the metaphor is not an open invitation to constitutionalize modern policy outcomes [83]. So much for a leading interpretive theory of constitutional interpretation, especially when it appears that, on least some occasions, the Court has endorsed the opposite of a living tree approach.

Even if the living tree stood tall in the pantheon of constitutional interpretation, no one can answer how the doctrine should actually operate. In the United States, some attempts have been made by leading scholars to cloak living constitutionalism in the credentials of an actual interpretive theory. David Strauss, for example, links living constitutionalism to a sort of common law constitutionalism. To my knowledge, few if any in Canada have attempted to “steel-man” the living tree doctrine to turn it into something resembling an interpretive doctrine. The lack of effort is telling in the unanswered questions: should the living tree apply to expand the actual scope of rights, or should it just apply to new applications unknown to the framers? If the latter, how is this distinguishable from originalism, properly applied? After all, the dominant school of originalism is public meaning originalism, not original expected applications originalism. If this is all the living tree approach denotes, then it is a duplicative piece of atmospherics that is better left to the pages of poets rather than the law books.

Most strikingly—and this was laid bare in the Stereo Decisis podcast episode—how should a living tree “doctrine” mediate between different normative considerations? If the text gives us no answers, how we are to determine which values should be granted the imprimatur of constitutional protection? How do we determine whether society has evolved, such that a certain value is now constitutionally cognizable? How do we define “society?” These questions have never been answered in Canada.

Even if they could be answered, as Leonid points out in his post on the matter, there is nothing to suggest that courts are institutionally or normatively capable of getting to even defensible answers on these questions. These are not questions that are based on evidence, facts, or even legal norms. They are philosophical, involving inquiries into the mind of the cultural zeitgeist. Are we certain—or even confident—that judges can answer these questions?

If the proponents of the living tree want it to be a serious doctrine of constitutional law, these are all questions that should be answered. Until then, the status quo position should be that the living tree is a turn of phrase, taken out of context, that has no real substantive quality.

N.B. A reader has commented that Wil Waluchow has written about a sort of common law constitutionalism in Canada. I cannot speak with confidence as to whether Waluchow’s work is similar to the Straussian view, but at first blush it appears relevant. Whether it answers the legal questions posed in this post is another question.

Bad Taste

Overzealous prosecutors in Québec charge the author and publisher of a novel with child pornography for describing a rape

Québec has a bit of a history when it comes to ludicrous prosecutions of people for their exercise of their freedom of expression. And I’m not talking about Maurice Duplessis’s time here. What I have in mind are the cases of Rémy Couture, a make-up artist who was put on trial for having produced some (admittedly gruesome) pictures and videos, and Matthieu Bonin, charged with hate speech (!) for an online rant apparently suggesting that a shooting at the National Assembly would be a good idea, though these charges were eventually dropped. Both of these took place earlier this decade. And now, they have been joined by the prosecution, on child pornography charges, of Yvan Godbout and Nicolas Doucet, respectively the author and publisher of a horror novel that depicts, on one of its 270 pages, the rape of a child.

Now, I haven’t read the novel (which doesn’t exactly sound like the sort of novel I’d read, anyhow). Since the publishing house is now busy tracking down all existing copies to hand them over to the provincial police, and worrying whether anyone who’s bought one already might be charged, there is no chance that I, or anyone, will. But La Presse quotes both a representative of the publisher and another writer as saying that the scene that forms the basis of the prosecution serves to expose the rapist as a “monster”, and that he is eventually “harshly punished”. It is very difficult to believe that a fair-minded reading of such a scene ― again, one scene in a novel ― would fit under the Criminal Code‘s definition of child pornography as “written material … that advocates or counsels sexual activity with a person under the age of eighteen years that would be an offence” or “written material whose dominant characteristic is the description, for a sexual purpose, of sexual activity with a person under the age of eighteen years that would be an offence”.

Moreover, the Criminal Code provides a defence to any person who “has a legitimate purpose related to … art; and … does not pose an undue risk of harm to persons under the age of eighteen years”. The Supreme Court has explained, in R v Katigbak, 2011 SCC 48, [2011] 3 SCR 326, that this requires “an objective connection between the accused’s actions and his or her purpose, and … an objective relationship between his or her purpose and one of the protected activities”, [60] in this case art. Relying on what is said in the La Presse report, there seems to be little question that these requirements will be satisfied here. Besides, the Supreme Court added that “this objective assessment does not involve the court in any assessment of the value of the particular … artistic activity in question”. [61] Whether Mr. Godbout wrote and Mr. Doucet published a book that is great art, or even in good taste, is irrelevant. What matters is that the book in question is art, whether good or bad.

As the Supreme Court rightly noted, the courts ― and, it might have added, prosecutors ― are not well placed to be artistic critics. Their role is not to be the censors who will purify society’s morals and elevate its tastes. Lawyers and judges are not qualified for this job, and should not want to take it up even if they were. The risks of arbitrary enforcement, as well as the certainty of chilling effect on artistic freedom, would not be acceptable in a free society. A lawyer ― and any citizen who values his or her and others’ freedom ― can, however, confidently say that the Québec prosecutors’ tendency to go after unconventional artists is in very bad taste indeed.

H/t Maxime St-Hilaire and Patrick Taillon