Shouting into the Constitutional Void

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

By Kerri A. Froc*

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

Can an agency choose not to enforce Bill 21?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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