The Limits of Self-Government

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

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

it may be the case that the Rule of Law as currently understood in Canada is not applicable to Indigenous peoples and their systems of government. In other words, we may require an approach which recognizes distinctive Indigenous self-government, as a constitutional matter. 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Horrocks: What Happens to Agraira?

One of the more nerdy judicial review questions is the standard of review applicable from an appellate court to a lower court in judicial review cases. That is, how do appellate courts deal with lower court decisions that, either through a right of appeal or by application for judicial review, review administrative decisions?

The current orthodox position is outlined in Agraira. There, the Supreme Court held that when an appellate court reviews a lower court decision disposing of a judicial review application, the appellate court “steps into the shoes” of the lower court (Agraira, at para 46). In effect, as Stratas JA points out in Sharif, at para 5 this turns out to be pure de novo review: the appellate court reconducts the standard of review analysis, in both selection of the relevant standard of review and its application.

Post-Vavilov, Stratas JA questions how long Agraira-review will last (see pg 60 of his masterful work here). Luckily, we won’t have to wait too long for the answer to this question. The Supreme Court recently granted leave in Horrocks, a Manitoba case that raises this question directly. The Supreme Court, in describing the main question in the case, says the following: “What is appropriate standard of appellate review, as between levels of court sitting in review of decision of administrative tribunal?”

This is an open question. In this post, I assess some of the options for dealing with this issue. I first describe the holding of the Manitoba Court of Appeal in Horrocks, then I outline the potential options that are in front of the Court in assessing this question. I ultimately conclude that, on balance, there are good reasons to favour the application of the Housen v Nikolaisen standard of review across the board when an appellate court reviews a lower court’s review of an administrative decision. Put differently, we should rid ourselves of Agraira.

**

Horrocks involves, in addition to the standard of review issue, a tricky issue of “jurisdictional lines” between two or more tribunals. While I do not address this issue in this post, some description of the basic conundrum is necessary for context.

Horrocks was a health care aide at a personal care home operated by the Northern Regional Health Authority in Manitoba (NRHA). NRHA is a party to a collective agreement with CUPE. Horrocks, during work hours, was observed as intoxicated. After refusing to sign a document that would have forced Horrocks to abstain from alcohol completely, her employment was terminated. CUPE grieved under the collective agreement. Prior to a scheduled arbitration, another document was negotiated between the parties, which again asked Horrocks to abstain from alcohol, and contained other revisions, including that any breach of the document would constituted just cause for termination, and that Horrocks could challenge any employment decision by NRHA under the collective agreement’s grievance and arbitration procedures.

Horrocks was, again, found to be intoxicated outside work. NRHA again terminated her employment. Horrocks then filed a discrimination claim with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission (MHRC). The core question was whether the MHRC had jurisdiction over the dispute, or whether the collective bargaining/arbitration provisions governed. At the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench, the court found that the MHRC lacked jurisdiction. The Manitoba Court of Appeal allowed the appeal, concluding, interalia, that there was a “modest” place for human rights adjudication; and so the lower court judged erred in overturning the MHRC decision that there was jurisdiction.

In analyzing the issue, the MBCA also commented on standard of review. The Court held that “both the identification and the application of the appropriate standard of review by a superior court judge conducting a judicial review is a question of law under the standard of review framework as set out in Housen [v Nikolaisen]” (Horrocks, MBCA at para 47). Therefore, the Court purported to apply the framework set out in Housen for appellate review (see Horrocks MBCA at para 38), meaning correctness review on any extricable legal questions. However, the Court, relying on Stewart, also said that the basic question on judicial review was whether “there is a principled reason to afforded deference here…” (Stewart, at para 19; Horrocks MBCA at para 49). The Court concluded that there was no such reason, because:

If one returns to the basic question discussed in Stewart (see para 19) as to whether there is a principled reason to afford deference here, I am satisfied that there is not. The record before the reviewing judge was the same that was before the Chief Adjudicator. He was not required to make any original findings of fact or exercises of discretion. Additionally, there are no limitations on the Commission’s right of appeal of the reviewing judge’s decision pursuant to section 89 of The Court of Queen’s Bench Act, CCSM c C280, such as a requirement that the decision being appealed must have wider significance beyond the parties such that leave to appeal must first be obtained. Taken together, these circumstances make it difficult to justify, on a principled basis, that a margin of appreciation should be afforded to the reviewing judge’s decision when he was not required by Dunsmuir (at
para 61) to afford deference to the decision of the Chief Adjudicator on the same issue (Horrocks MBCA at para 49).

Seemingly on the basis of Stewart, the Court therefore concluded that the administrative decision must be reviewed on a correctness standard, in both application and selection of the standard of review.

**

The question: what should the Court do with Agraira in Horrocks?

One option might be the reliance on Stewart as a comprehensive statement of the relationship between appellate courts and lower courts on judicial review. But I do not read Stewart as the MBCA does. That is, I do not see Stewart standing for a broad-based approach to the relationship between appellate courts and lower courts. But on principle, a standard phrased like the one in Stewart is too broad to be of much use on a comprehensive basis. It raises the prospect of standard-less doctrine that does not help reviewing judges to know the proper basis of intervention.

More seriously, there are two other basic approaches that are operating in tandem, to my mind. The first, the Agraira approach, views both the selection and application of the standard of review as questions of law. A lower court choosing and applying a standard of review, then, is owed no deference by an appellate court, even on questions of mixed fact and law or fact. Again, as noted above, this approach results in basically de novo review, a “re-do” on the merits by the appellate court, with the focus on the administrative decision.

This approach has its benefits and drawbacks. In principle, it is aligned with the focus of judicial review: the administrative decision. It ensures that administrative decisions (and errors) are not sheltered by deference doctrine applied by the appellate court. But there is a price to pay for fidelity to principle: as Stratas JA notes in Sharif, at para 5, it is an open question whether this “re-do” is consistent with principles of judicial economy and access to justice, heralded by cases like Hryniak v Maulden.

The second approach is to adopt Housen v Nikolaisen. That is, the lower court decision would be viewed as a pure appeal, notwithstanding the fact that it reviews an administrative decision. This means that, while selecting the relevant standard of review will be a question of law, there will be room for some deference on a palpable and overriding error standard on the application of the standard of review, and the law, to the facts (see, for nuance on this point, John Evans, “The Role of Appellate Courts in Administrative Law” (2007) 20 Can J Admin L & Prac”). A good example of this approach is contained in Hupacasath. There, Stratas JA noted that while he was applying the Agraira standard, that approach does not allow for the substitution of factual (or mixed fact and law) findings made by a lower court (Hupacasath, at para 75). Stratas JA goes on to say:

In my view, as is the case in all areas of appellate review, absent some extricable legal principle, we are to defer to findings that are heavily suffused by the first instance court’s appreciation of the evidence, not second-guess them. Only palpable and overriding error can vitiate such findings. In the context of the existence of Aboriginal title, the Supreme Court held to similar effect in Tsilhqot’in Nation, supra at paragraph 52 (Hupacasath, at para 76; see also Long Plain First Nation, at para 86.

This approach, of course, solves some of the problem of “re-doing” the standard of review analysis that characterizes the other approach. And, at least nominally, it ensures that the selection of the relevant standard of review remains a question of law that is reviewable on a correctness standard under Housen. But it leaves the door open to deference on findings “heavily suffused by the first instance court’s appreciation of the evidence.”

The main difference between approaches, then, is in the application stage, where Housen would not counsel a pure de novo review. People will different priors will favour one approach over another, but a complicating factor in the choice is the decision in Vavilov. While there is much in Vavilov that bears on this question, the main distinction that affects the choice between approaches is the strong distinction now drawn between cases going up to a higher court on a statutory right of appeal and cases proceeding by an application for judicial review. This distinction is driven, in the Vavilov Court’s mind, by an expression of Parliament: “…legislative intent can only be given effect in this framework if statutory appeal mechanisms, as clear signals of legislative intent with respect to the applicable standard of review, are given effect through the application of appellate standards by reviewing courts” (Vavilov, at para 49). So, on this account, there is a distinct difference when Parliament legislates a right of appeal—in effect, it legislates the appellate standards of review (see Vavilov, at para 36).

This suggests that there might be a reason to favour one standard of review framework over another, depending on the context. However, in my view, there are reasons internal and external to Vavilov to favour the Housen standard of review as a comprehensive standard for appellate review.

1) The appellate standard can no longer be Agraira because of reasons internal to Vavilov. This is because of Vavilov‘s holding on statutory rights of appeal. Now, an administrative decision taken to a court via a statutory right of appeal invites the application of the Housen standard of review (Vavilov, at paras 36 et seq). This, in other words, is a legislative signal that courts should treat the lower administrative decision as a decision from which to be appealed. There is no principled reason to differ the approach when the lower court decision is subsequently reviewed. The relationship between the appeal court and the lower court is similarly governed by statute; and the fact that the first instance decision-maker is an administrative decision-maker does not change the statutory relationship going “all the way up” to the appeal court. Agraira, then, is inconsistent with Vavilov on this score.

2) When the case involves an application for judicial review, the question is trickier. Vavilov does not speak directly to the issue. We now have the choice between Agraira and Housen presented directly. Based on reasons external to Vavilov, in my view, there is good reason to ditch Agraira and move to Housen for these cases, whether they involve a reasonableness or correctness standard on pure questions of law. That is because, when viewing the decision of a lower court that deals with an administrative decision, the appellate court’s role is not to directly review the administrative decision. In the hierarchy of courts, the appellate court role is to correct errors of lower courts; it is not to re-review the merits of administrative action. That is, primarily, the task of the superior courts and courts of first instance with judicial review jurisdiction. Based on this overriding first principle, the Agraira rule had three main flaws:

a) In principle, it corrupted the relationship between appellate courts, superior courts, and administrative decision-makers. Appellate courts do not review administrative decisions at first instance; they review decisions of lower courts as a matter of appeal. The appellate standards should, therefore, apply.

b) Whether the relevant standard is reasonableness or correctness, Agraira saps any deference to a lower court’s appreciation of the facts and evidence from the analysis. While the selection of the standard of review is a question of law to be decided by the court (see Monsanto, at para 6), its application to the facts may involve mixed questions of fact and law or assessment of evidence. There are good functional reasons to favour a first instance court’s appreciation of these issues. Agraira, for no good reason, did not account for this issue of first instance courts.

c) As Peter Hogg noted, there is no good reason to favour review of any kind, given that review necessarily involves some duplication of effort. Sometimes, review is a legal necessity, and we bite the bullet on duplication (ie) judicial review in the first instance is a constitutional necessity, and a legal good. But there is no principled reason to favour duplication of effort by an appellate court that did not get a first-hand glimpse of the record. There is no constitutional or legal good served by this sort of review that would vitiate these concerns.

A comprehensive standard for appellate review, then, emerges: it is the Housen v Nikolaisen standard. Adopting that standard in all instances of appellate review of a judicial review decision has two added benefits. First, it creates a comprehensive standard across judicial review contexts for appellate review. Whether the case involves a statutory right of appeal or an application for judicial review, an appellate court’s posture remains the same. While there are different reasons to favour the Housen standard in rights of appeal versus judicial reviews, the bottom line is the same: the posture of the appellate court is focused on reviewing potential errors in a lower court decision. The appellate court, at a basic level, is not a court of original judicial review jurisdiction, and was always a mistake to transform appellate review into first-instance judicial review.

But secondly, on a practical level, appellate courts are familiar and comfortable with Housen review. We now have extensive guidance on how to apply Housen review, including on the tricky issue of what constitutes “palpable and overriding error” (see South Yukon per Stratas JA, at para 46; Mahjoub per Stratas JA at para 61 et seq). There is a practical benefit that supports the in-principle reasons for favouring Housen review on these matters.

Overall, while this issue might appear to be a niche issue for administrative law lawyers, it is actually a fundamental issue. It goes to the relationship between the judiciary and the administrative state, an issue that should captivate all public lawyers. Hopefully, Horrocks helps to clear up some of the confusion that characterizes the current status of Agraira, on this front.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vavilov and the “Culture of Justification”

(Alyn) James Johnson

In Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v. Vavilov (2019 SCC 65), the Supreme Court of Canada strongly endorses a “culture of justification” (at paras. 2, 14).  This concept, which has rarely been mentioned let alone employed by a Canadian court in the past (a CanLII search reveals only the concurring judgment of Justices LeBel and Deschamps in Toronto (City) v. C.U.P.E., Local 79, 2003 SCC 63), contains two main propositions.  The first proposition is that all exercises of public power must be justified by written reasons.  The second proposition looks to the effects that a reasons-giving requirement can have on institutional configurations and posits that judicial control over interpretations of the law should be loosened in favour of a more decentred and democratized approach.

These propositions, and the concept of the culture of justification itself, are closely associated with the work of David Dyzenhaus (see, for example, “The Politics of Deference: Judicial Review and Democracy”; and “Constituting the Rule of Law: Fundamental Values in Administrative Law”).  The culture of justification has also been stressed extra-judicially by the former Chief Justice of Canada, Beverley McLachlin.  In a 1998 paper, Justice McLachlin (as she then was) states that “justification [is] a precondition to the legitimate exercise of public power,” and citing Dyzenhaus, she proclaims that a culture of justification is “the definitive marker of a mature Rule of Law” (“The Roles of Administrative Tribunals and Courts in Maintaining the Rule of Law” (1998), 12 C.J.A.L.P. 171 at 174).  The institutional contours of this “mature Rule of Law” are “pluralist,” and are outlined by Justice McLachlin as follows:

The effect of a culture of justification extends far beyond the proposition that institutions must justify the decisions they make in terms of rationality and fairness.  Indeed, once a culture of justification is recognized, it affects the relationships among institutions of the state almost as much as it affects the relationship between those institutions and the citizens living under their rules.  I will develop this idea more as I continue my remarks but, briefly, I believe that one of the most intriguing aspects of the new Rule of Law is that it makes it possible for institutions other than courts to play key roles in maintaining it.  It opens the door to the idea that courts do not necessarily have a monopoly on the values of reason or fairness.  Other social institutions may indeed be capable of justifying their powers to citizens and, in fact, citizens may well see these exercises of authority as legitimate [emphasis in original] (at 174-175, 185).

In Vavilov, this vision of a democratized and decentred approach to the Rule of Law is directly echoed by Justices Abella and Karakatsanis in their concurring reasons:

The rule of law is not the rule of courts.  A pluralist conception of the rule of law recognizes that courts are not the exclusive guardians of law, and that others in the justice arena have shared responsibility for its development, including administrative decision-makers.  Dunsmuir embraced this more inclusive view of the rule of law by acknowledging that the “court-centric conception of the rule of law” had to be “reined in by acknowledging that the courts do not have a monopoly on deciding all questions of law” (at para. 241).

What is somewhat odd, however, is that while the concurring Justices endorse the institutional configurations of a culture of justification, they expressly reject the primary move made by the seven-member majority of the Court towards requiring that exercises of public power be justified through written reasons.  The majority Justices announce that reasons are “the primary mechanism by which administrative decision makers show that their decisions are reasonable” (at para. 81), and they go on to state that

Where reasons for a decision are required, the decision must also be justified, by way of those reasons, by the decision maker to those to whom the decision applies.  While some outcomes may be so at odds with the legal and factual context that they could never be supported by intelligible and rational reasoning, an otherwise reasonable outcome also cannot stand if it was reached on an improper basis (at para. 86).

While the Court stops short of imposing an across the board reasons requirement as a matter of substantive review here (I return to this point below), the statement that deficient reasons can themselves provide a basis to quash a decision is of the highest importance to a culture of justification.  A reasoned basis for a decision, it would appear, is just as important as an outcome.  On this point, Vavilov can be said to institutionalize Delta Air Lines Inc. v. Lukács (2018 SCC 2), in which six members of the Court remitted an agency’s decision for reconsideration on the basis of a flawed process of reasoning.  Delta is cited six times in Vavilov, and all of the members of the Delta majority are part of the Vavilov majority, with the exception of Chief Justice McLachlin, who retired in the interim.  In both decisions, the Court steps away from the prior governing authority of Newfoundland and Labrador Nurses’ Union v. Newfoundland and Labrador (Treasury Board) (2011 SCC 62), which provided that “the ‘adequacy’ of reasons is [not] a stand-alone basis for quashing a decision” (at para. 14). 

Justices Abella and Karakatsanis dissented in Delta, and in their strongly worded concurring reasons in Vavilov they express a continuing commitment to the Newfoundland Nurses position that deficient reasons cannot be used on their own to quash a decision (at para. 304).  Yet while they claim that their “approach puts substance over form in situations where the basis for a decision by a specialized administrative actor is evident on the record, but not clearly expressed in written reasons,” the concurring Justices do not appear to acknowledge adequately that in a culture of justification reasons are by definition a matter of “substance,” and not a simple “form” carrying an outcome.  As noted by the majority in Vavilov, reasons play a critical role in justifying a decision, particularly to a party on the losing end, and furthermore, the “discipline of reasons” is itself integral to achieving acceptable outcomes (at paras. 79-80).    

The concurring Justices’ endorsement of a “pluralist conception of the rule of law” is ultimately undermined by their refusal to the accept the bedrock culture of justification proposition that outcomes should be supported by coherent reasons.  The project of democratizing and decentering the interpretation of law, enjoined by advocates of the administrative state, requires that the “discipline of reasons” be broadly instituted.  One could say that a cogent reasons requirement is the price of admission to an institutionally pluralist administrative state.  The position mapped out by Justices Abella and Karakatsanis is troubling in that it overloads power onto executive decision-makers and does not exact enough in return in the form of reasoned justification. 

While the Vavilov majority does not expressly endorse a “pluralist” approach to the Rule of Law in the same terms as the concurring Justices, the Court’s institutionalization of a “reasons first” methodology of reasonableness analysis arguably goes a long way towards democratizing decision-making:

A principled approach to reasonableness review is one which puts those reasons first.  A reviewing court must begin its inquiry into the reasonableness of a decision by examining the reasons provided with “respectful attention” and seeking to understand the reasoning process followed by the decision maker to arrive at its conclusion (at para. 84).

A “reasons first” methodology is of course consistent with the legislature’s decision to delegate power to a body other than a court, but it is also an acknowledgment by a reviewing court that a decision-maker that has submitted itself to the “discipline of reasons” should be accorded deference and respect. 

A “reasons first” methodology and the DeltaVavilov requirement that reasons themselves are reviewable for their cogency together establish a truly “pluralist” approach to the Rule of Law in a culture of justification.  Affected citizens are entitled to a carefully justified explanation of why an executive official made a particular decision.  Executive decision-makers, receiving their lawful authority from statute, are entitled to a space in which they can justify their conclusions.  Reviewing courts, finally, are entitled to assert the power to remedy any shortcomings in reasoned justification by quashing a decision.

A final point.  The question of exactly “Where reasons for a decision are required” needs more attention.  An across the board reasons stipulation may not be feasible given the enormous variety of decisions made by executive officials.  At present, however, it appears that a procedural fairness analysis will be needed to determine if reasons are required for the purposes of substantive review (unless reasons are mandated by statute).  Revisiting and possibly tightening up the existing procedural fairness test, and clarifying its interrelation with substantive review, would be desirable. 

Johnson on Vavilov

Announcing a guest post on the “culture of justification” in the Supreme Court’s decision in Vavilov

This is a quick announcement that James M. Johnson will soon be publishing a guest post discussing the notion of a “culture of justification” in administrative law as it is treated in the Supreme Court’s decision in Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65. Dr. Johnson holds a PhD from Queen’s University, having written a thesis on nondelegation. He is currently the Principal of Public Law Solutions, a research firm in Toronto. I am looking forward to his post.

Making a Monster

A report on the future regulation of the internet proposes giving the CRTC overwhelming and unaccountable powers

The final report of the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel, grandly entitled Canada’s Communications Future: Time to Act (the “BTLR Report”) has already attracted its share of commentary, much of it, but by no means all, sharply critical. As Michael Geist has explained, the report articulates

a vision of a highly regulated Internet in which an expanded CRTC … would aggressively assert its jurisdictional power over Internet sites and services worldwide with the power to levy massive penalties for failure to comply with its regulatory edicts. 

The discussion has mostly focused on the wisdom of the BTLR Report’s 97 recommendations for regulating the way in which Canadians engage with the online world, and also on their impact on freedom of expression. But one aspect of the report ― indeed, not merely an aspect but a fundamental element of the report’s underlying philosophy ― has, I think, received less attention, although Professor Geist alludes to it with his reference to “an expanded CRTC”: the report’s commitment to administrative power. This is, perhaps, a less obvious issue, but we should not underestimate its significance. If followed, the report’s recommendations would not merely expand the CRTC, but make into a bureaucratic behemoth. We must not let this happen.


The BTLR Report recommends multiple amendments to the legislation governing electronic communications in Canada that would tend to produce the “highly regulated internet” to which Professor Geist refers. Yet the striking thing is that most of the proposed changes do not describe the regulations that they call for with any precision. Instead, they say that the CRTC should be given vast powers to bring into being the report’s imagined brave new world.

The CRTC would be givens new powers to make rules of general application. Most ominously, it would be given the ability to regulate “media content undertakings” ― that is, all manner of entities creating their own content, whether written, sound-based, or visual, as well as those providing platforms for the content created by others, everything from a humble podcast to giants like Netflix, Facebook, and YouTube. These “undertakings” would be required to register with the CRTC, which would be

enable[d] … to establish classes of registrants, to amend registrations, and impose requirements — whether through conditions of registration or through regulations — on registrants (Recommendation 57)

These requirements could, in particular, include “codes of conduct, including provisions with respect to resolution mechanisms, transparency, privacy, and accessibility”. (Recommendation 74) At the same time, the CRTC would be given

the power to exempt any media content undertaking or classes of media content undertakings from registration in instances in which — by virtue of its specialized content or format, revenues, or otherwise — regulation is neither necessary nor appropriate to achieve media content policy objectives. (Recommendation 58)

In other words, the CRTC would decide ― with virtually no guidance from legislation ― both what the rules for “media content undertakings” would be an who would in fact have to comply with them at all. In particular it would be to

impose discoverability obligations on all audio or audiovisual entertainment media content undertakings, as it deems appropriate, including …  prominence obligations [and] the obligation to offer Canadian media content choices(Recommendation 62). 

The CRTC could impose similar requirements on “on media aggregation and media sharing undertakings” ― again “as appropriate” (Recommendation 73). The CRTC would also be directed to “intervene, if necessary … in order to respond quickly to changes in the communications services, improve transparency, and promote trust” in the face of technologies that “combine algorithms and artificial intelligence with Big Data” (Recommendation 93).

The CRTC would also be empowered, and indeed required, to regulate behaviour of individual market actors. It would be given the remit “to ensure that rates are just and reasonable” in “key electronic communications markets” (Recommendation 29). Indeed, in a rare instance of seeking to restrain rather than expand the CRTC’s discretion, the BTLR Report suggests that the ability of the CRTC to “forbear” from regulating the justness of rates should be eliminated (Recommendation 30). The CRTC would also be given the power to “regulate economic relationships between media content undertakings and content producers, including terms of trade” (Recommendation 61). In relation to CBC/Radio-Canada, the CRTC would be tasked with “overseeing all its content-related activities” (Recommendation 83).

But the report would not only have the CRTC make the law for the online world. It would also be given a substantial autonomous power of the purse. It would be given the power to designate “from an expanded range of market participants — all providers of electronic communications services — … required contributors to funds to ensure access to advanced telecommunications”. (Recommendation 25) Among the requirements the CRTC would be able to impose on those required to register … would be “the payment of registration fees” (Recommendation 57). It could, further, “impose spending requirements or levies on all media content undertakings, except those” mainly providing written news (Recommendation 61), “some or all” of which it could use to fund “to the production of news content” through “an independent, arm’s length CRTC-approved fund for the production of news, including local news on all platforms” (Recommendation 71).

The CRTC would acquire additional adjudicative powers too. For example, Recommendation 38 suggests that it should resolve disputes over the location of telecommunication infrastructure. More significantly, it would be both prosecutor and judge when “imposing penalties for any failure to comply with the terms and conditions of registration” imposed on “media content undertakings” (Recommendation 57), with “resolv[ing] disputes” among which it would also be tasked (Recommendation 61). Not that this adjudication would necessarily look like that done in the courts, since the BTLR Report would empower the CRTC “to issue ex parte decisions where the circumstances of the case justify it”. (Recommendation 75)

The prophet of the administrative state in Canada, John Willis, described administrative agencies as “governments in miniature”. One hesitates to describe the law-making, trade-regulating, money-grabbing CRTC envisioned by the BTLR Report as in any sense miniature, but it sure looks like a government unto itself, albeit a rather undemocratic one. In addition to the Commissioners who would exercise legislative, executive, and judicial powers, it would have a sort of representative body, the Public Interest Committee, “composed of not more than 25 individuals with a wide range of backgrounds, skills, and experience representing the diversity of public, civic, consumer, and small business interests, and including Indigenous Peoples”. (Recommendation 15) It’s not quite clear who would be appointing these people, but it certainly does not seem that, despite their supposed mandate to represent the public, they would be elected. Not to worry though: there would also be funding, out of fees collected by the CRTC, for “public interest interventions” (Recommendations 12 and 13), in case, I suppose, the Public Interest Committee doesn’t sufficiently intervene to represent the public interest. And, in addition to the prosecutorial and judicial functions of the Commissioners, there would be

an independent, industry-funded, communications consumer complaints office with the authority to investigate and resolve complaints from individual and small business retail customers of services covered by the respective Acts,

whose “mandate and structure” the CRTC would “create and approve” (Recommendation 96).

Meanwhile, outside control over this machinery will be be reduced. The Commissioners, who are currently appointed to renewable five-year terms, would instead serve for seven years, with no possibility of renewal (Recommendation 4). A limited form of Parliamentary supervision, the laying of government “directions” to the CRTC before the Houses of Parliament would be abolished in the interests of swift regulation (Recommendation 6). And, of course, given the vagueness of the legislative guidance to the CRTC and the breadth of its mandate, it is unlikely that the courts would intervene much to police its regulatory activities.

To sum up, the CRTC would be put in control, with very few restraints, of Canadians’ interaction with the online world, and with one another. Who can speak online and on what conditions ― the CRTC would have control over that. How much they have to pay for the privilege, and where the money goes ― the CRTC would have control over that. How disputes among them, and between them and the CRTC itself, are to be resolved ― the CRTC would have control over that too. The only “checks” on it would come from handpicked representatives of the “public interest” as the CRTC itself conceives it ― not from Parliament or the courts.


The empowerment of the CRTC proposed by the BTLR Report is, of course, no accident. It proceeds from a specific philosophy of government, which the Report describes quite forthrightly. According to its authors,

The role of government is to establish broad policies. The role of regulators is to implement those policies through specific rules and in a transparent and predictable fashion. Legislation is the key instrument through which government establishes these policies. It should provide sufficient guidance to assist the CRTC in the discharge of its duties, but sufficient flexibility for it to operate independently in deciding how to implement sector policy. To achieve this, legislative statements of policy should set out broadly framed objectives and should not be overly prescriptive. (46-47)

In other words, government ― Parliament is left out of the equation entirely, as if it has nothing to do with legislation ― should mostly leave the CRTC alone. Indeed, it is important to preserve “proper balance between the government’s role in policymaking and the regulator’s role in implementing those policies independent of government influence”. (47) And, judging by the amount discretion ― to make law and dictate the behaviour of individual organizations, to levy fees and spend money, to identify, prosecute, and condemn alleged offenders and to adjudicate disputes ― the BTLR Report would vest in the CRTC, the “balance” is really all on the side of the regulator.

This is the philosophy the BTLR Report would impose on the 2020s and, perhaps, beyond. It ostensibly envisions “the CRTC’s shift toward a future-oriented, proactive, and data-driven style of regulation”. (44) But its ideology comes, not from the future, but from a distant and, as article on “The Depravity of the 1930s and the Modern Administrative State” by Steven G. Calabresi and Gary Lawson about which I blogged here shows, detestable past. As Professors Calabresi and Lawson explain, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s

administration and a compliant Congress created a vast array of new “expert” regulatory agencies, many of which followed the “independent” model by insulating the agency heads from at-will presidential removal, and many of which contained (and still contain) statutory authorizations to the agencies so vague as to be literally meaningless. … These agencies, controlled neither by the President nor by Congress, made life-altering decisions of both fact and law subject only to deferential judicial
review. (829)

This is the governance model proposed by the BTLR Report. Its original backers

fundamentally did not believe that all men are created equal and
should democratically govern themselves through representative institutions. They believed instead that there were “experts”—the modern descendants of Platonic philosopher kings, distinguished by their academic pedigrees rather than the metals in their souls—who should administer the administrative state as freely as possible from control by representative political institutions. (829)

(For more on the beliefs of 1930s pro-administrativists, see also this post by co-blogger Mark Mancini.) Judging by their proposals, the views of the authors of the BTLR Report are rooted in just this kind of thinking. They mistrust the free market as well as democratic institutions, and want fundamental decisions about what is, by their own account, an unbelievably important part of our lives to be made by officials deemed wiser than everyone else.

And if the philosophy behind the BTLR Report’s proposed future goes back a mere century, its institutional vision is considerably older still. In fact, at the risk of sounding a bit like Philip Hamburger (which, after all, isn’t a bad thing!) I would argue that it amounts to a counter-revolution against the 17th-century subjection of executive authority to law, and a reversal of the the post-1689 constitutional settlement. To be sure, everything the BTLR Report proposes to do would be covered by the fig leaf of ― deliberately vague and unconstraining ― legislative authority. But in substance, the proposals amount to executive law-making contrary to the Case of Proclamations, executive dispension from the law contrary to article 2 of the Bill of Rights 1688, executive adjudication contrary to the case of Prohibitions del Roy, and executive taxation contrary, this time, to article 4 of the Bill of Rights. James I and James II would be proud.


So when we hear that “this time it’s different” ― that the online world is like nothing we’ve seen before ― that its actors “pose a unique set of challenges for contemporary regulators”, as Paul Daly argues ― and that this justifies the sort of overwhelming regulatory response recommended by the BTLR Report, we need to be skeptical. For all that the issues raised by the modern world are ― now as a century ago! ― said to be quite unlike anything that came before, the solutions offered are the same old. More unfettered bureaucratic power is always said to do the trick. When all you have is a hammer…

More recently, a very different philosophy seemed, however briefly, to prevail in the online world. In the 1996 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace“, John Perry Barlow proclaimed:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

The Declaration isn’t much more remembered than the term “cyberspace” itself, nowadays, and the weary giants whom Barlow was taunting have come after the cyber-libertarians like Pushkin’s Stone Guest. If the authors of the BTLR Report get their way, the we would indeed be governed, to keep with the 17th century English political thought, by Leviathan himself.


NOTE: A petition to “the Government of Canada to Reject the recommendations regarding the legislation and regulation of free speech, free expression and the free press made by the” BTLR Report is open for signature at the House of Commons website. Please sign it!

What Does Vavilov Stand For?

This post is co-written with Leonid Sirota.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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