The Return of Correctness in Judicial Review

A rebellion against deference is taking place is Alberta, but how just is its cause?

Shaun Fluker, University of Calgary

My initial reaction to Dunsmuir was Much Ado About Nothing. Grand statements by the Supreme Court that the decision would recalibrate substantive judicial review had many scurrying to decipher its ramifications for administrative law, but I could not figure out what all the fuss was about. For me, Dunsmuir (or at least the majority judgment) was little more than an acknowledgement by the Court of shifts that were already well underway in the jurisprudence by 2008 and thus it was hardly a landmark decision in Canadian administrative law. A decade of Dunsmuir has shown that I underestimated the Court’s recalibration intentions, but I remain convinced that Dunsmuir does not belong alongside the heavyweights of Roncarelli v Duplessis, [1959] SCR 121, Nicholson v Haldimand-Norfolk Regional Police Commissioners, [1979] 1 SCR 311, and Baker v Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), [1999] 2 SCR 817. These landmarks engage with the separation of powers and grapple with how the principle of legality informs executive and administrative decision-making. Dunsmuir falls well short of this mark.

Dunsmuir stands today as authority for a presumption of judicial deference to statutory decision-makers. This presumption was most forcefully articulated in Dunsmuir by Justice Binnie in his concurring opinion (at para 146). The presumption subsequently gained more traction with the Court in Alberta (Information and Privacy Commissioner) v Alberta Teachers’ Association2011 SCC 61, where Justice Rothstein wrote that the principle of judicial deference reinforced with Dunsmuir had evolved into a presumption that the standard of review is the deferential reasonableness where a statutory tribunal applies and interprets its home statute (at para 39). The Court more recently endorsed the strength of this presumption in Edmonton (City) v Edmonton East (Capilano) Shopping Centres Ltd2016 SCC 47. The obvious problem with this presumption is its potential reach: Just about every statutory decision in some way applies or interprets a home statute.

Context matters in administrative law, and is not so easily dismissed. The bare assertion of a presumption of deference risks overlooking the context or subtle wrinkles that arise in the exercise of statutory power. Even at the current height of its reign, the presumption of deference still faces regular challenges from those seeking a return to a more contextual review of statutory authority. Madam Justice Deschamps wrote a series of concurring opinions in Dunsmuir (at paras 158-173) Alberta Teachers’ Association (at paras 78-89) and  Smith v Alliance Pipeline2011 SCC 7 (at paras 78-111) taking issue with the bare assertion of deference because it pays too little attention to nuances such as the precise nature of the question or the demonstrated expertise of the statutory decision-maker to determine a legal question. More recently in their Capilano dissent, Justices Côté and Brown cautioned that grounding tribunal expertise merely in its institutional setting risks making the presumption of deference irrefutable (at para 85): “Courts must not infer from the mere creation of an administrative tribunal that it necessarily possesses greater relative expertise in all matters it decides, especially on questions of law.”

Correctness is making a comeback, and the rebellion seems to have started in the rogue Province of Alberta. The Alberta Court of Appeal began its reasoning in Capilano, 2015 ABCA 85 with a shot across the bow (at para 11): “The day may come when it is possible to write a judgment like this without a lengthy discussion of the standard of review. Today is not that day.” The Court of Appeal made short work of deference in its 2015 Capilano decision and surprisingly pointed to the presence of a statutory right of appeal to the courts as a new exception to the presumption of deference (at para 24), all of which led me to ask “Where are we going on standard of review in Alberta?” The Alberta Court of Appeal has since not been shy about its mission to curb the presumption. In Stewart v Elk Valley Coal Corporation, 2015 ABCA 225 the Court of Appeal drew upon the legal realism of Oliver Wendell Holmes (at para 48) and played its Constitution card (at para 54) to trump the legislative branch and assert correctness review over the interpretation by a human rights tribunal of a provision in its home legislation. More recently in Garneau Community League v Edmonton (City), 2017 ABCA 374 the Alberta Court of Appeal doubled down on correctness review for a statutory tribunal interpreting its home statute where the legislature provides for a right of appeal to the Court on questions of law and, even after being reversed by the Supreme Court in the Capilano proceedings, boldly asserts the concept of deference has been reduced to mere rhetoric (at paras 93, 94).

Unfortunately for the rebellion, it has chosen a very unprincipled foundation upon which to confront the Supreme Court and construct its case for the return of correctness in judicial review. The terrain of statutory right of appeal provisions is largely devoid of principle, both in terms of why a legislature chooses to provide for a statutory right of appeal or how the courts exercise their discretion to grant leave to appeal under these provisions. The same type of tribunal in various provinces can be subject to a right of appeal in one jurisdiction but not another; sometimes an appeal lies only with leave of the court and sometimes not. Alberta courts, in particular, are also all over the map in how they determine whether a question of law emanating from a statutory decision is of sufficient importance to warrant appellate review under a statutory right of appeal. See Seeking leave to appeal a statutory tribunal decision: What principles apply? and A closer look at leave to appeal requirements under the Municipal Government Act (Alberta).

However, there is a new hope lurking about the jurisprudence: One which could bring peace to substantive judicial review. It requires a return to a more robust contextual approach, but also calls for a meaningful restatement of the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches of modern government. A coherent framework for substantive judicial review must also be constructed from an intelligible and transparent methodology for identifying those questions of law which are of real significance to a community or society as a whole – not just to the legal system – and for which superior courts get the last word. The decision which embarks down this path will mark the return of correctness in judicial review.

Follow Instructions

School prayer is unconstitutional ― even in Alberta and Saskatchewan

A couple of months ago, Benjamin Oliphant wrote, on the Policy Options blog, about a controversy over school prayer in Alberta: some schools still start their days with the Lord’s Prayer, which some parents oppose. Constitutionally, Mr. Oliphant pointed out, the matter is somewhat complicated. A Twitter discussion ensued, but I don’t think that anyone ever took the time to write a follow-up blog post. Now, according to a report in the National Post, the same issue arises in Saskatchewan, giving me an excuse for doing so, however belatedly. (I should note that the parent who is contesting the school prayer seems not to be making a constitutional case, but rather “believes the recital of the prayer may be harmful and has started a petition asking for amendments to” relevant legislation. I express no views on the prayer’s harm, and only consider its constitutionality.)

As Mr. Oliphant explained, on the one hand, courts have held, starting in Zylberberg v. Sudbury Board of Education, 65 OR (2d) 641 (On CA), that school prayer ― even if individual students are not obliged to attend it ― is contrary to the religious freedom guarantee of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. On the other, the constitutionally entrenched legislation that created the province of Alberta ― and Saskatchewan as well ― protected “any right or privilege with respect to separate schools which any class of persons have at the date of the passing of [that legislation] … or with respect to religious instruction in any public or separate school.” That provision (section 17 in both the Alberta Act and the Saskatchewan Act) referred to The School Ordinance of the North-West Territories, which specifically provided that, despite a general ban on religious instruction in public schools except in the last half hour of a school day, it would “be permissible for the board of any district to direct that the school be opened by the recitation of the Lord’s prayer.” (Subs. 137(2)) Hence Mr. Oliphant’s question: does the long-standing principle that one part of the constitution (such as the Charter) cannot abrogate another (such as the Alberta Act or the Saskatchewan Act) immunize the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in those provinces’ schools? )

The answer, in my view, turns on the meaning of the phrase “religious instruction” in section 17 of the Alberta Act and the Saskatchewan Act. If “religious instruction” includes the recitation of the Lord’s prayer, then section 17 presumably protects the right of the local school authorities “to direct” the recitation of the prayer, as part of the general protection of rights “with respect to religious instruction at any public school.” If, however, the prayer is not a form of “religious instruction,” then its recitation falls outside the scope of the protection granted by section 17.

Is, then, the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer “religious instruction”? A prayer is, as the Supreme Court recently had occasion to confirm ― against Québec Court of Appeal’s opinion to the contrary ― undoubtedly a religious exercise. But is it “instruction”? Note that, if a court called upon to decide the constitutional question adopted the originalist approach to constitutional interpretation which, I have argued, the Supreme Court’s majority recently took when discussing legislative bilingualism in Alberta in Caron v. Alberta, 2015 SCC 56, it would need to consider the meaning of “instruction” in 1905, when the Alberta Act and the Saskatchewan Act were enacted. Perhaps the meaning of the phrase has changed in the last century. But I rather doubt it in this case.

As a matter of ordinary meaning of the word in this context, it seems to me that a prayer is not instruction because it does not teach the students who hear it anything about religion. It is telling, I think, though not dispositive, that section 182(3) of the Saskatchewan’s Education Act, which authorizes the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of school day, specifies that it is to be recited “without comment or explanation.” That’s not how one would normally go about “instructing” the students in religion generally, or in the meaning or significance of the Lord’s Prayer specifically.

The legislative context in which the phrase “religious instruction” is used in The School Ordinance also suggests that it does not encompass the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. The general provision on religious instruction is section 137 (or what would now be numbered as subsection 137(1)), which has the heading “religious instruction.” The exception for prayer is provided for separately, in subsection 137(2), under the heading “Time for the Lord’s Prayer.” For its part, the following section, under the (admittedly ambiguous) heading “Attendance not compulsory during religious exercise,” provides that “[a]ny child shall have the privilege of leaving the school room at the time at which religious instruction is commenced as provided for in the next preceding section … if the parents or guardians do desire.” I think it is reasonably clear that that the idea is that the student is free to go home once the half-hour reserved for religious teaching at the end of a school day begins ― rather than leave the school as it is being “opened” by the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, and then return.

As a result, I don’t think that the constitutional protection for “religious instruction” in the schools of Alberta and Saskatchewan extends to the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Unlike the actual teaching of religion, it is thus not immunized against review under the Charter. And it is quite clear what the outcome of such a review would be. The educational authorities in the Prairies ought to follow the same constitutional instructions that apply to their counterparts in Ontario and elsewhere, and get rid of the Lord’s Prayer.

How to do Originalism

In my last post, I summarized the Supreme Court’s recent decision in  Caron v. Alberta, 2015 SCC 56, which held that Alberta is not under a constitutional obligation to enact legislation in French as well as English. There was, you will recall, a majority opinion by Justices Cromwell and Karakatsanis, who were joined by four of their colleagues, and a dissent by Justices Wagner and Côté, joined by Justice Abella. In this post, I would like to venture some comments on the disagreement between them. This disagreement was quite sharp. The dissenters insist that the majority’s reasoning both results from and perpetuates an injustice, although they never explicitly accuse the majority of being unjust. I suppose that dissenting judges often think that ― but it seems to me that the thought is rarely expressed. And yet, in a sense, the disagreement between the two opinions is very narrow, almost abstruse.

Both the majority opinion are originalist, in the sense that they accept that the meaning of the relevant constitutional provision is to be determined by reference to the ideas of the time of the provision’s enactment. The provision at issue in Caron is a passage from an Address by the Canadian Parliament to the Queen, adopted in 1867 pursuant to section 146 of the Constitution Act, 1867 to ask for the incorporation of what was then Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory (to which I will collectively refer as “the North-West”) into Canada, and incorporate into the constitution as a schedule to the Imperial government’s Order that annexed most of these lands (except the portion that became the province of Manitoba) to Canada. The Address and the Order resulted from a complex series of events and interactions between the Canadian government and Parliament, the Hudson’s Bay Company (which owned and administered the North-West), the British government, and the inhabitants of the North-West and their government and delegates who negotiated their entry into Canada. The two opinions make extensive reference to these events and interactions, and to the thoughts of the people involved. Repeated out-of-hand rejections of originalism notwithstanding, it is alive and kicking in Canadian constitutional law, as Benjamin Oliphant and yours truly have been pointing out for a while now.

The majority and the dissent disagree, however, about the sort of originalism that ought to govern their interpretation of the 1867 Address. The majority’s approach is something like “original public meaning originalism,” which, as Lawrence Solum explains, “emphasizes the meaning that [constitutional provisions] would have had to the relevant audience at the time of its adoption[].” Much of the majority opinion is devoted to showing that the phrase “legal rights” used in the Address would not have been understood, in 1867 or 1870, as referring to linguistic rights. The majority’s summary of the reasons for its conclusion as to the interpretation of the phrase legal rights notes that

(i) Never in Canada’s constitutional history have the words “legal rights” been taken to confer linguistic rights;

(iii) The contemporary discussions show that neither Canada nor the representatives of the territories ever considered that the promise to respect “legal rights” in the 1867 Address referred to linguistic rights;

(iv) The contemporary evidence also shows that the territorial representatives themselves considered that their linguistic rights had been assured through the Manitoba Act, 1870, not the 1867 Address or the 1870 Order;

(v) Federal legislation and debates surrounding it in relation to the new North-West Territories in 1875 and 1877 show that no one involved thought that there had been any guarantee of legislative bilingualism in 1870. [4; emphases removed and added]

In other words, the majority’s focus is on the public meaning of the term “legal rights,” and more specifically its meaning to Canadians or Canadian lawyers generally (i, v), the Canadian government (iii, v), and the representatives of the North-West (iii, iv, v).

The dissent, by contrast, favours “original intent originalism,” which focuses on the intentions of the authors of the relevant constitutional provisions. Its review of the historical evidence focuses not so much on how the words “legal rights” would have been understood ― indeed, the analysis of these words takes up a very short portion of the dissenting opinion ― but on what the parties, and especially the inhabitants of the North-West, sought to accomplish. Their wishes, the importance they attached to legislative bilingualism are the dominant considerations for the dissenters. The dissent insists that “our reading of constitutional documents must be informed by the intentions and perspectives of all the parties, as revealed by the historical evidence.” [235; emphasis added] These documents are “a statement of the will of the people” [235] ― and one gets the impression that, for the dissent, the will to which is seeks to give effect is rather more important than the statement itself.

For my part, I prefer the majority’s approach. Prof. Solum’s brief introduction to originalism, to which I link above, points to some problems with the “original intent” version of that theory, which the dissent in Caron illustrates. One issue is the difficulty of ascertaining a collective “intent,” especially among a large and diverse group of constitutional framers or, as in Caron, in a situation where there were different parties with divergent interests involved. Indeed, although the dissent asserts, generally, that “[t]he Constitution of Canada emerged from negotiations and compromises … achieved when parties to the negotiations make concessions in pursuit of a mutual agreement and reach a meeting of the minds,” [235] the 1867 Address, which is, after all, the operative constitutional provision, was not the result of a negotiation at all. It was a unilateral statement by the Parliament of Canada, and it is therefore not obvious that the intentions or aspirations of the people of the North-West are actually relevant to its interpretation.

Another problem with “original intent” originalism, in Prof. Solum’s words, is that “[t]he intentions of the framers of a given constitutional provision can be formulated as abstract and general principles or as particular expectations” as to how the provision will be applied. Assuming the relevant actors in 1867-70 had a unified intent, was it that legislative bilingualism in the North-West would in fact be continued and respected ― as indeed it was for decades ― or that it would also be constitutionally entrenched? Actually, this questions points to a broader difficulty, which affects the majority opinion as much as the dissent, and of which more shortly.

Both of these issues to point to a third one, which is simply that the intent of the framers of a constitutional provision is difficult to ascertain, and that the legitimacy of an intention not codified in the constitutional text itself as a source of constitutional law is very questionable. As I wrote here in connection with Québec’s arguments in l’Affaire Mainville, there is a danger of litigants ― or, I would now add, judges ―

simply taking advantage of the fact that the intent of the framers cannot be known … and using it as a banner under which to carry its own interpretive theory that doesn’t have much to do with the only sign the framers left of their intent ― the text itself.

Be that as it may, I want to reiterate a point that I might have made here before. Denying the significance of originalism to Canadian constitutional law, as both judges and scholars are wont to do, does not actually make it go away. Canadian courts still make originalist decisions, such as Caron, and litigants still make originalist arguments. But, importantly, this all happens in an intellectual vacuum. Because we are only interested in the question whether to do originalism, and have a ready-made negative answer for it, the debates over how to do it, such as those prof. Solum describes in the post linked to above and here, have not happened this side of the border, and the American debates have been ignored. As a result, questionable approaches to constitutional interpretation can endure unchallenged ― even if, as in Caron and in l’Affaire Mainville, they do not prevail when the votes are counted.

I come back to the broader issue I have with both the majority and the dissent to which I referred above. Both opinions assume that, if the “legal rights” which Canada undertook to uphold in the the 1867 Address include linguistic rights, then they are constitutionally entrenched. But it is not clear to me that this must be so. After all, nobody thinks that the (other) “legal rights” that all agree were part of this undertaking, those of property and contract, were similarly entrenched beyond modification by ordinary legislation, whether federal or, eventually, territorial and provincial. Canada had to respect the rights that existed at the time the North-West was annexed, but that did not mean that Parliament or the legislatures created in the territories could not subsequently legislate to modify or even derogate from these rights. Why exactly are linguistic rights different? Neither opinion explains this.

The comparison with ordinary “legal rights” also casts doubt on the dissent’s assertion that legislative bilingualism or language rights more broadly are “not a political issue that can be left up to the government.” [243] Leaving rights to “government” ― or, more accurately, to legislatures ― need not mean that these rights will not be protected at all. To be sure, it may well be a good idea to entrench (some) rights beyond the reach of ordinary legislation. I have myself argued that the framers of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms erred in not doing so with property rights. But there is no need, it seems to me, to seek to infer the decision to entrench a right from tenuous evidence of intent, or from the desires of those whom this right would benefit. Contrary to what the dissent in Caron suggests, it is not at all clear that injustice results from a failure to do so.

The Caron majority thus arrived at what I believe is the right result, but even its reasoning might be questionable. Moreover, while its approach to originalist constitutional interpretation is better than the dissent’s, it is just as little explained and defended. Still, I hope that this case might give us the impetus to abandon the pretense that originalism has no place in our jurisprudence, and to start thinking more seriously about when, and how, as well as whether, it ought to be employed.

What Did They Mean?

Must the laws of Alberta ― like those of Manitoba (as well as Québec, New Brunswick, and of course Parliament itself) be enacted and published in both French and English? The answer to this question, which the Supreme Court addressed in Caron v. Alberta, 2015 SCC 56, decided on Friday, turns on the meaning of a short phrase in a document soon to be 150 years old.

The Court’s majority, in an opinion by Justices Cromwell and Karakatsanis, found that Parliament’s promise to protect the “legal rights” of the inhabitants of the then-Rupert Land and North-Western Territory did not encompass a guarantee of legislative bilingualism. The dissenters, justices Wagner and Côté (whose opinion Justice Abella joined), begged to differ, repeatedly accusing the majority of committing an injustice. I will summarize the two opinions in this post, and venture some thoughts in a separate one.

* * *

To understand this case, a rather lengthy historical explanation is in order. In 1867, the territories that have since become Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, as well the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, the Nunavut, and parts of Québec and Ontario, belonged to and were administered by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). Section 146 of the Constitution Act, 1867, provided for the “admission” into Canada by the Imperial government, on address of the Canadian Parliament, “on such Terms and Conditions in each Case as are in the Addresses expressed and as the Queen thinks fit to approve, subject to the Provisions of this Act.” Parliament approved the first such address in 1867, and another one in 1869. The 1867 address stated that Canada would uphold “the legal rights of any corporation, company, or individual” in the North-West ― the phrase on which the issue before the Supreme Court turned.

However, the Canadian annexation plans provoked a rebellion in the Red River Settlement, the main population centre in the North-West, in what would eventually become Manitoba. The rebels formulated a number of conditions on which they would accept Canadian sovereignty. Among them were demands for legislative as well as judicial bilingualism. They also demanded the creation, out of the territories, of a single province of Assiniboia, and made financial demands. 

The Canadian authorities responded, first, by issuing a Royal Proclamation promising among other things that “all your civil and religious rights and privileges will be respected” upon entry into Canada. Under pressure from the Imperial government, they negotiated with delegates from the North-West and eventually accepted that part of the new territories would enter Canada as a new province, Manitoba. The rest would become a federally administered Territory, whose creation was provided for by an Order of the Imperial government, to which the 1867 and 1869 addresses of the Canadian Parliament were annexed. That Order is part of the Constitution of Canada described in and entrenched by section 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982.

In the first years after 1870, the new North-Western Territory was governed as though it were part of Manitoba. The laws enacted (in both French and English) by that province’s legislature applied. Then, in 1875, Parliament enacted a statute setting up a separate territorial government. A requirement of legislative bilingualism was included in that law in 1877, as a result of an amendment moved by a Senator from Manitoba. Legislation enacted in 1891 made clear that the Territory’s legislature could decide which language to use. In 1905, the province of Alberta (as well as Saskatchewan) was created out of a part of the Territory, and eventually it legislated to enact future laws in English only.

If Canada’s undertaking to protect the “legal rights” of the North-West’s inhabitants included language rights, such as legislative bilingualism, then this chain of enactments was invalid. Canada could not allow the North-Western Territory, or its successors the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, to renounce legislative bilingualism, and the provinces had no authority to do so. This was the appellants’ main argument.

* * *

For the Supreme Court’s majority, the phrase “legal rights” does not encompass legislative bilingualism. While the constitution generally “should be interpreted in a large and liberal manner,” [35] and linguistic guarantees are particularly important, “[t]hese important principles … do not undermine the primacy of the written text of the Constitution.” [36] Moreover, it is not enough to

simply resort to the historical evidence of the desires and demands of those negotiating the entry of the territories, and presume that those demands were fully granted. It is obvious that they were not. The Court must generously interpret constitutional linguistic rights, not create them. [38]

Having set out these interpretive principles, the majority explains why in its view they lead to the conclusion that “legal rights” do not include legislative bilingualism. First, “[l]anguage rights were dealt with explicitly in s. 133 of the Constitution Act, 1867 and in the Manitoba Act, 1870 in very similar and very clear terms. The total absence of similar wording in the contemporaneous 1870 Order counts heavily against the appellants’ contention.” [40] Second, “political leaders in the territories themselves expressly provided for language rights when they were meant to be protected and those rights were differentiated from other, more general, rights.” [52] Third, “[t]he parliamentary debates related to the adoption of the 1867 Address show that language rights were not subsumed under the term ‘legal rights’ or ‘droits acquis‘ / ‘droits légaux‘ [which were used in various French versions of the Address].” [53] Rather, “legal rights” referred to property and economic rights. Fourth,

[t]he end result of the negotiations regarding legislative bilingualism was the enactment of the Manitoba Act, 1870. Conversely, it was never the objective of the 1870 Order to dictate that French and English must be used by the legislative body governing the newly established North-Western Territory. [58]

While the delegates from the North-West “sought to entrench bilingual rights, just as … they sought for the territories to enter Canada as a province,” [60] they only succeeded with respect to what became Manitoba ― which, however, is where most of the North-West’s people lived. Fifth, the 1867 Address cannot be taken to reflect an agreement between Canada and the people of the North-West that would not be reached until 1870.

The majority further argues that the events after 1870 confirm that the relevant actors did not understand legislative bilingualism in the North-Western Territory to be a matter of constitutional obligation. Although the amendment establishing bilingualism in the Territory’s government was not contentious, nothing shows that it was perceived as fulfilling a constitutional duty. If anything, the government at the time thought that the matter was best left to the Territory’s legislature ― as was eventually done.

Before concluding, the majority notes that if the appellants were to succeed, legislative bilingualism would be “constitutionally entrenched not only for Alberta, but also for all of the former HBC lands, which now form part of Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, Yukon, Nunavut and present-day Northwest Territories.” [102] Moreover, “[t]he logical extension of this reasoning would also lead inevitably to the conclusion that a variety of other demands made by the settlers have been constitutionalized by the words ‘legal rights,'” [102] including the to entrench the then-prevailing practice of appointing bilingual judges.

* * *

The dissent took a different approach to the issue before the Court. In its view, “[t]he answer to the question whether Alberta is constitutionally required to enact … all its laws in French as well as in English is written across the history of Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory” ― and not merely in the phrase “legal rights” in the 1867 Address. Ascertaining the meaning of that step is only the last step of its analysis.

Much of the dissenting opinion consists of an extensive review of the historical evidence. Its authors insist that “the content of the promises conveyed in the 1867 Address cannot be interpreted without reference to the context in which they were made.” [139] This review serves to stress, time and again, the importance of legislative bilingualism to the people of the North-West.

This population, the dissent notes, was composed of both French- and English-speakers; their legislature and their courts used both languages, as did the administrators appointed by the HBC; departures from these practices were met with discontent and resistance. Bilingualism extended throughout the North-West ― it was not limited to what became the province of Manitoba, and as the delegates who negotiated the annexation with the Canadian government represented the people of all the North-West, not only of the Red River Settlement, it would have been been inconceivable for them to limit their demands for legislative bilingualism to that province. Indeed, the Canadian government did not oppose these demands, nor was it in a position to do so, being pressed to conclude an agreement by the Imperial authorities.

For the dissent, the events after 1870 support the existence of a constitutional promise of legislative bilingualism to the people of the North-West. Little changed there in the aftermath of the annexation to Canada, since the bilingual administration of Manitoba exercised power. And once the territorial government was established, it was bilingual in practice, even before bilingualism was required by federal law.

This historical review takes up more than 100 paragraphs in the dissenting opinion. The “Application of the Principles of Constitutional Interpretation to the 1867 Address,” which follows it, fewer than 30. The principles in question “are that the Constitution must be interpreted contextually, that its provisions must be given a broad and purposive reading, and that its nature — as an expression of the will of the people governed by it — is relevant.” [216]

Applying these principles, the dissent concludes that the “historic” “compromise between the Canadian government and the territories’ inhabitants” [222] included a promise of legislative bilingualism. Referring to the French version of the 1867 Address, which spoke of the “droits acquis” ― the vested rights ― of the people of the North-West, the dissent states that “legislative bilingualism was one of these vested rights.” [226] It was also implicitly referred to by the Royal Proclamation, with its promise to uphold “civil and religious rights” ― which thus “recognized the cultural needs of the Métis” [229] of the North-West. That the protection of linguistic rights was not explicit as in other constitutional provisions is not determinative. To hold otherwise would be unjust and incompatible “with the broad and generous approach to constitutional interpretation that this Court has repeatedly taken,” [231] and with the “large and expansive meaning” which the authors of the 1867 Address “attributed … to the[] rights” it contained. [234] Finally, the dissent asserts that, like Confederation itself,

[t]he annexation of the territories … resulted from negotiations between a dominant English-speaking party and a party with a strong interest in protecting the French language. Like the French-speaking minority in the negotiations that resulted in Confederation, the inhabitants sought to have the protection of their linguistic rights entrenched in the Constitution, and this was granted to them. [239]

To give effect to “the will of the people” who enacted it, the interpretation of the Constitution must take their demands into account.

* * *

So much for the opinions. I will try to have some thoughts on them shortly.

Questionable Limits

Jim Prentice, the leader of Alberta’s Progressive Conservative Party (and would-be Premier), has proposed limiting the time provincial politicians can serve in office. Members of the legislature would be limited to three terms; the premier to (an additional?) three. The wisdom of this proposal has been much criticized. (Aaron Wherry, of Maclean’s, a critic himself, has links in this article.) Its constitutionality is also questionable.

As the thoughtful MP Brent Rathgeber points out in a blog post, section 3 of the Charter protects every citizen’s right to stand for election to a legislature; and “[n]otice,” he adds, “it says ‘every citizen of Canada’ not every citizen ‘who has not already completed three terms in the legislative assembly.'” The unconstitutionality of legislative term limits might not be so free from doubt as Mr. Rathgeber makes it out to be, since an infringement of s. 3 of the Charter can, in theory, still be justified under s. 1. (Eric Adams argues  that this one could not be, but without much of an explanation.) I might come back to this in a later post.

For now, however, I want to focus on another point Mr. Rathgeber makes, which is that

[p]roposed term limits for serving as the premier, however, are trickier, at least constitutionally. Section 3 provides only constitutional protection for seeking a seat in the assembly, not for being asked to serve in the executive. As our premier is chosen by the Lieutenant Governor to serve, provided he has the confidence of the elected assembly, I suspect term limits for premiers, similar to those imposed on US Presidents and some Governors, may very well survive a Charter challenge.

That may indeed be so, although again the matter is not so clear, because the voters’ s. 3 right to “effective political participation” might have to be considered in a Charter analysis of executive term limits. (On the other hand, formally at least, it is not the voters who choose members of the executive, so it’s not clear that this argument can go very far.) But be that as it may, there is another argument against the constitutionality of executive terms, which may not involve the Charter at all.

Rather, the constitutional issue with executive term limits is that appointing a Premier is a power of “the office of … the Lieutenant Governor of a province,” which par. 41(a) of the Constitution Act, 1982 protects from amendment except by the unanimous consent of the provinces and Parliament. Appointing the Premier is one of the very few things, if not the only thing, that the Lieutenant-Governor does on his own, without taking anyone’s advice. Of course, convention dictates the way in which he exercises this power (he must appoint the person most likely to obtain the confidence of the legislature ― which usually, but not necessarily, means the leader of the largest party in the legislature). But the power is the Lieutenant-Governor’s all the same, and sometimes (notably, after the election of a legislature in which no party has a majority) he may have to use his own judgment in exercising it. A statute that provides that a person cannot serve as Premier is a limit on the Lieutenant-Governor’s ability to exercise this power, and thus, logically, a modification of his “office.”

It is useful to recall here something that Lord Sankey said in the famous “Persons Case,” Edwards v. Canada (Attorney General), [1930] A.C. 124. It is not true, says the great constitutional horticulturalist, that

their Lordships [are] deciding any question as to the rights of women but only a question as to their eligibility for a particular position. No one, either male or female, has a right to be summoned to the Senate. The real point at issue is whether the Governor General has a right to summon women to the Senate.

In the context of that case, it sounds implausible (I have myself said that “His Lordship, one is rather tempted to think, protests too much”) but, legally, that’s quite right. And, just as no one has a right to be summoned to the Senate, but the Governor General ― or, by convention, the Prime Minister ― has (so the Privy Council concluded in Edwards) the right to summon women to the Senate, so while no one has a (Charter) right to be asked by the Lieutenant-Governor to serve as a Premier, the Lieutenant-Governor has a right to ask the person of his choice to serve as Premier.

The legislation imposing term limits could, however, be designed to operate in a way that would attempt to circumvent this constitutional prohibition. Instead of directly prohibiting a person from serving as Premier for a third term, it would have to prohibit political parties from having a two-term Premier as a leader. One could then argue that the Lieutenant-Governor’s choice is not impaired by that statute, but rather by the convention that requires him to appoint a party leader as Premier. Whether this argument would be accepted by courts is not clear, however.

If they stick to an orthodox understanding of the law, which excludes constitutional conventions and thus acknowledges no limits on the Lieutenant-Governor’s powers, they might see such a law as an attempt to do indirectly what cannot be done directly, and invalidate it on that basis. If however, they take something like the approach Fabien Gélinas and I have suggested in our paper on Senate reform, on which the office of the Lieutenant-Governor (as well as any other term in the constitutional text) must be understood with reference to conventions, they should probably accept that this approach does not actually limit the Lieutenant-Governor’s powers, since conventions already limit them to choosing among the leaders of the parties in the legislature, and give him no say in who those leaders are. Unfortunately, despite having the opportunity to do so in Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32, the Supreme Court has not really made it clear which of these approaches is correct. Instead, it relied on an obscure notion of “constitutional architecture” which in my view may well include some, but perhaps not all, conventions. Do executive term limits interfere with the “constitutional architecture” as it relates to “the office of the Lieutenant-Governor”? Your guess is as good as mine.

However, even if a law imposing executive term limits by prohibiting parties from having long-term premiers as leaders could survive a challenge based on par. 41(a) of the Constitution Act, 1982, it would probably be an infringement with the parties’ rights under s. 3 of the Charter. An individual may have no constitutional right to serve in the executive, but a party is free to decide how many candidates to present (so the Supreme Court held in Figueroa v. Canada (Attorney-General), 2003 SCC 37, [2003] 1 SCR 912), it arguably also has the right to decide what candidates to present, and which of them to make its leader. Again, a s. 1 justification would theoretically be possible, but it would not be easy.

The constitutionality of executive term limits thus is, at best, highly questionable. But it would be better for all if it were never tested in court. As others have amply shown, term limits are a bad idea, and even if I am wrong and they constitutional, there is no point in trying to impose them. About that, there is no question at all in my mind.