Happy Canada Day!

The anniversary of an imperfect constitution drafted by imperfect men is well worth celebrating

Canada Day, like most other days it seems, comes at a bad time this year. A time when symbols of the history ― be they flags, monuments, names of buildings ― are objects of suspicion at best, and not infrequently unqualified vitriol, seems ill-suited to a celebration of what is now more than a sesquicentennial constitution. A constitution that is stubbornly monarchical in form, politically incorrect in wording, and dependent for its existence, livelihood, and amendment on old-fashioned procedures of parliamentary democracy rather than on heady revolutionary movements.

But we do not get to choose anniversaries, and perhaps this is a useful reminder that we do not get to choose everything, that there can be no such thing as a tabula rasa, and that demands for one can only be the products of ignorance or bad faith. This is not an apology for conservatism. As I have said before, I am no no conservative. Much in the world, and in Canada, should change. But the idea that everything can change, and that everything can be just as we ― whoever “we” are ― wish it to be, is unserious; indeed it is perhaps the nec plus ultra of solipsism.

The framers of our constitution understood this, and the constitution’s existence is proof of this, as of their wisdom and humility more generally. They were no doubt flawed in various ways, as men always were, still are, and ever will be. And in some ways we can, legitimately I hope, say that we are better than they. But we are certainly no better, on the whole, if we do not practice the virtues that were theirs: humility, as I have already said, and openness to compromise; magnanimity and willingness to live and let live; above all, perhaps, determination to hope for the future more than to dwell on the past.

Let George Brown’s words, spoken on February 8, 1865, during the Confederation debates, be our inspiration in this time of acute awareness of the imperfections of our institutions and the world around us:

No constitution ever framed was without defect; no act of human wisdom was ever free from imperfection; no amount of talent and wisdom and integrity combined in preparing such a scheme could have placed it beyond the reach of criticism. And the framers of this scheme had immense special difficulties to overcome. We had the prejudices of race and language and religion to deal with; and we had to encounter all the rivalries of trade and commerce, and all the jealousies of diversified local interests. To assert, then, that our scheme is without fault, would be folly.

It was necessarily the work of concession; not one of the thirty-three framers but had, on some points, to yield his opinions; and, for myself, I freely admit that I struggled earnestly, for days together, to have portions of the scheme amended. But, Mr. Speaker, admitting all this—admitting all the difficulties that beset us—admitting frankly that defects in the measure exist …  I believe it will accomplish all, and more than all, that we, … ever hoped to see accomplished. 

Canada itself stands as the greatest monument to these framers, and they could wish for no better. We are lucky to have it as their bequest. We can and must improve it, but today, of all days, we can and must simply be grateful for it. Happy Canada Day!

Through Which Glass, Darkly?

Introducing a new article on the Rule of Law in two decisions of the supreme courts of Canada and the United Kingdom

I followed the challenge to the “hearing fees” that British Columbia imposed on litigants who wanted to have their day in court ― or at least their days, since an initial period was free of charge ― from its beginning as Vilardell v Dunham, 2012 BCSC 748 and to its resolution by the Supreme Court of Canada as Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, [2014] 3 SCR 31, writing almost a dozen posts in the process. And then the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom decided a case that was remarkably similar to Trial Lawyers, R (Unison) v Lord Chancellor, [2017] UKSC 51, [2017] 4 All ER 903, which involved a challenge to fees charged for access to employment law tribunals. I blogged about that decision too.

The two supreme courts came to similar conclusions: the fees were invalidated in both cases, out of a concern that they prevented ordinary litigants who could not afford them from accessing the forum where their rights would be ascertained. In Trial Lawyers this was said to be a violation of section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867; in Unison, of a common law right of access to court. Yet there was a striking contrast between the two decisions, and specifically between the ways in which they treated the Rule of Law. Trial Lawyers discusses this constitutional principle, but as something of an embarrassment, in the face of a scathing dissent by Justice Rothstein, who argues that it should not have discussed the Rule of Law at all. (He still does ― in his keynote address at this year’s Runnymede Conference, for example.) Unison‘s discussion of the Rule of Law, as a foundation of the right of access to court, is much more forthright, and sophisticated too.

This got me thinking. The result is an article that has been accepted for publication in the Common Law World Review, and which I have already posted on SSRN: “Through Which Glass Darkly? Constitutional Principle in Legality and Constitutionality Review“. The main idea is that what explains the difference in the depth and confidence with which the two courts treated the Rule of Law is that constitutional review, despite its power, is bound to be precarious in the absence of an on-point text, while legality review, although seemingly weak in that its outcome can be overturned by statute, actually makes compelling discussion of unwritten principle possible. Here is the abstract:

This article seeks to draw lessons from a comparison between the ways in which the Rule of Law is discussed in cases decided by the supreme courts of Canada and the United Kingdom on the issue of allegedly excessive fees levied on litigants seeking to access adjudication. After reviewing the factually quite similar cases of Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v British Columbia (Attorney General) and R (Unison) v Lord-Chancellor and it detailing these decisions’ respective constitutional settings, the article argues that, in contrast to the cursory treatment of the Rule of Law by the Supreme Court of Canada, the UK Supreme Court’s discussion is sophisticated and instructive. This suggests that legality review based on common law rights, which is not focused, and does not try to establish a connection, however tenuous, to an entrench constitutional text, may well allow for a more forthright and enlightening discussion of the principles at stake. Thus it follows that, in constitutional systems that feature strong-form judicial review based on entrenched texts, when regulations and administrative decisions are at issue, legality review should not be neglected. In those systems where strong-form judicial review is not available, legality review should not be regarded as an anomalous ersatz.

While I have argued here that Canadian courts can legitimately base their constitutional decisions on unwritten principles, rather than explicit textual provisions, in some circumstances, I do think that legality review (which, of course, Justice Cromwell favoured in Trial Lawyers) should be considered more often. Our law would be the richer for it.

Ministers of Truth

A proposal to criminalize epidemic-related “misinformation” is dangerous

The CBC’s Elizabeth Thompson reports on a rather startling development: the federal government is, apparently, giving serious thought to introducing censorship to discussions of the present plague. More specifically, there is talk of “legislation to make it an offence to knowingly spread misinformation that could harm people”, based on a member of the UK House of Commons proposal “for laws to punish those responsible for spreading dangerous misinformation online about the COVID-19 pandemic”. At least some of the opposition seem keen, Ms. Thompson quoting an NDP Member of Parliament as claiming that “Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures and it is about protecting the public”, and reassuring us, I suppose, that “[t]his is not a question of freedom of speech”.

Actually, it is very much a question of freedom of speech. The Supreme Court invalidated an earlier prohibition on the speading of “false” news in R v Zundel, [1992] 2 SCR 731, and for good reason. Such prohibitions mean that government telling us what we are and what we are not allowed to say. Say something the government deems, in the words of the same honourable gentleman, to “interfere with the efforts of our frontline medical workers”, and suffer punishment. This is a limitation of the freedom of speech on any plausible definition of that concept, and for a Member of Parliament to pretend otherwise is not only an illustration of the politicians’ habitual mendacity but, more specifically, a rather ironic way of getting the public used to the idea of meting out punishment for statements that fail to live up to a standard of truth.

It is far from clear just what these restrictions are meant to accomplish. The CBC report quotes a spokesperson from the Communications Security Establishment, an intelligence agency, as warning about “cybercriminals and fraudsters” who “encourage victims to visit fake web sites, open email attachments and click on text message links” that purport to provide health information. But fraud, for example, is already a crime; there is no need for “extraordinary measures” to prohibit it, or for broadly defined bans on “misinformation”. The report also says that “Health Canada … is sending compliance letters to companies it finds making false or questionable claims about COVID-19”. It is not quite clear what sort of compliance is in question here, but presumably ― or at least hopefully ― it’s compliance with existing laws, perhaps ones having to do with advertising, or specifically advertising of health products. If so, then why is more legislation necessary?

For his part, the NDP MP tells, darkly, of “troll bot farms, state operators or … conspiracy theorist cranks who seem to get their kicks out of creating havoc”. State actors with troll bot farms at their disposal are unlikely to be deterred by Canadian legislation. At most, then, it will be targeting conspiracy theorists… and giving them more ammunition for believing the government is hiding things. Is there any evidence at all, actually, that “conspiracy theorist cranks” ― especially ones within the reach of Canadian laws, and not the one domiciled at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, DC ― are having a real effect on Canada’s response to the plague?

And on the other side of the scales, there will be real costs to this proposed legislation. Even if it includes the mens rea requirements of knowledge, wilfulness, and malice ― which, if applied, would result in good faith conspiracist cranks being off the hook ― the law is likely to produce chilling effects. Worse, attempts to enforce it, even if they do not ultimately lead to convictions, will target the politically unpopular, or simply those who happen for one reason or another, to incur the displeasure of police services and prosecutors. As concerning as recent stories of overzealous enforcement of “social distancing” regulations are, the problem is much more longstanding one. Readers may remember me blogging about a makeup artist prosecuted for gory videos involving no actual gore or violence whatsoever and Québec blogger who ― stupidly, to be sure ― mused about a mass shooting in the legislature, about the man who had to go all the way to the Ontario Court of Appeal to quash a municipality’s attempt to prosecute him for a solitary, non-violent protest in the town square, and about the author and publisher of a novel prosecuted for a brief and not remotely titillating description of the rape of a child. And the provisions invoked in these cases are all well-known, and not directed at dealing with a crisis. There is every chance that an emergency anti-disinformation law will result in harsh and arbitrary prosecutions. Even if the accused are ultimately acquitted, they will have undergone considerable stress and expense in the meantime. And, again ― for what?

Even in the short term, the harm of a law against plague-related “disinformation” is likely to outweigh what little good it might do. But the real damage it will do will occur in the medium and long term, as it becomes a template for widespread criminalization of statements deemed to be contrary to this or that state policy. The British MP whose ideas are inspiring the Canadian proposals is apparently drawing his own inspiration from “Germany’s laws governing online hate speech or France’s legislation countering disinformation during election campaigns”. And the report itself notes that the federal

government set up an elaborate system to watch out for attempts to disrupt last year’s federal election through disinformation, including a committee that brought together several departments and a special group chaired by the clerk of the Privy Council to sound the alarm.

Once the plague is over, it will be all too tempting to declare something else the next great public emergency, and to repurpose, instead of abolishing, the censorship mechanisms that allow government to silence those who question or undermine its response ― even if stupidly.

If there is there one thing we’ve learned from events of barely a year ago, it’s that clerks of the Privy Council are not always imbued with a great respect for constitutional propriety, or immune to the temptation to shill for their political masters. I would not trust one of them with the job of a Minister of Truth. Nor would I trust the public health authorities, which themselves at times seem quite confused about what the truth is. Indeed, this confusion only serves to underlie the fact that a government that is entitled to impose the truth on its subjects ― who can no longer be counted as citizens ― is also a government that is empowered to lie to them. No one, after, is allowed, and at length able, to tell the difference. The Canadian government needs to reverse course before it becomes a government of this sort.

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.

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!

A Matter of Unwritten Principle

Unwritten constitutional principles have an important, and rightful, place in Canadian constitutional law

The most striking thing, to me anyway, about the symposium on dissents from Supreme Court judgments that this blog hosted over the holidays was the popularity of Justice LaForest’s dissent in the Provincial Judges Reference, [1997] 3 SCR 3. No fewer than five of our contributors mentioned it as one of their top three: Dwight Newman, Emmett Macfarlane, Jonathan Maryniuk, Howard Kislowicz (although he cautions that he might not actually agree with Justice LaForest), and Bruce Ryder. They have all praise Justice LaForest for emphasizing the importance of constitutional text, as opposed to the unwritten, extra-textual “underlying principles” on which the majority relied. Agreeing with them, albeit relying on a different dissent, that of Justice Rothstein in Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, [2014] 3 SCR 31 was Asher Honickman.

This degree of agreement among an ideologically and professionally diverse group sets off my contrarian instincts. So in this post I want to take issue with one aspect of Justice LaForest’s dissent, and with the esteemed scholars who are extolling it. I want to argue that unwritten principles have an important place in Canadian constitutional law, both as a descriptive and as a normative matter. To be clear, it’s not that I have come to like, or even regard as defensible, the majority opinion in the Provincial Judges Reference. Indeed, I stand by my assessment of it as one of the Supreme Court’s worst decisions! But my beef with it was, and is, not simply that it relied on unwritten principles, but that in doing so it disregarded clear, on-point constitutional text, and further that I do not think “it plausible that complex institutional arrangements”―such as independent commissions to determine judicial pay―”are constitutionally required if the constitution says nothing about them”. In other circumstances, reliance on unwritten principles can be much more justifiable.


Justice LaForest’s attack on judicial reliance on underlying principles starts from his understanding of what makes judicial review of legislation legitimate:

The ability to nullify the laws of democratically elected representatives derives its legitimacy from a super-legislative source: the text of the Constitution.  This foundational document (in Canada, a series of documents) expresses the desire of the people to limit the power of legislatures in certain specified ways.  [314]

In a democratic society, judicial review is tolerable so long, but only so long, as it amounts to nothing more than the enforcement of choices democratically made through the process of constitutional entrenchment and amendment. Its “legitimacy is imperiled … when courts attempt to limit the power of legislatures without recourse to express textual authority”. [316] “Textual authority” is be all, end all of judicial review:

The express provisions of the Constitution are not, as the Chief Justice contends, “elaborations of the underlying, unwritten, and organizing principles found in the preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867” [107].  On the contrary, they are the Constitution.  To assert otherwise is to subvert the democratic foundation of judicial review. [319; emphasis in the original]

This paean to democracy and to textualism as a means of giving effect to democracy is appealing. As many of the contributors to the dissents symposium pointed out, it seems to have carried the day in in British Columbia v Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd, 2005 SCC 49, [2005] 2 SCR 473, where Justice Major, writing for the unanimous court, proclaimed that

in a constitutional democracy such as ours, protection from legislation that some might view as unjust or unfair properly lies not in the amorphous underlying principles of our Constitution, but in its text and the ballot box. [66]

This was, I am afraid, a crassly cynical statement, considering that the invitation to resort to the protection of the ballot box against retroactive legislation was being extended to non-voters ― to corporations, and to (understandably) very unpopular corporations at that. But, like Justice LaForest’s, this argument has undeniable rhetorical appeal.


Yet it is, in my view, a mistake to claim that it has prevailed as a matter of positive law. Before getting to its current status, let me point out that the idea that underlying constitutional principles exist and constrain government goes back at least to Justice Martland and Ritchie’s powerful dissent on the legal question in the Patriation Reference, [1981] 1 SCR 753. (It is at least arguable that it actually goes back much further, to Roncarelli v Duplessis, [1959] SCR 121 and indeed Attorney General of Nova Scotia v Attorney General of Canada, [1951] SCR 31, even the Labour Conventions Reference, [1937] AC 326, [1937] 1 DLR 673, but I will ignore these cases here.)

The key passage in Justices Martland and Ritchie’s Patriation Reference dissent is the following:

It can fairly be said … that the dominant principle of Canadian constitutional law is federalism. The implications of that principle are clear. Each level of government should not be permitted to encroach on the other, either directly or indirectly. The political compromise achieved as a result of the Quebec and London Conferences preceding the passage of the B.N.A. Act would be dissolved unless there were substantive and effec­tive limits on unconstitutional action. (821)

From there, it was not such a large step to say that these limits on unconstitutional action could, and must be, enforced by the courts, even if they were not spelt out in the constitutional text.

A different unwritten principle, that of the Rule of Law, was also crucial in the Reference re Manitoba Language Rights, [1985] 1 SCR 721. This is well known. Equally well known is the Supreme Court’s reliance on underlying constitutional principles, four of them, in Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 SCR 217, to try to construct a legal ― although seemingly not an enforceable ― framework for dealing with separatism. (The Court referred to Justices Martland and Ritchie’s Patriation Reference dissent, although it did not acknowledge that it was, in fact, citing to a dissenting opinion!) Less famous, and not employing the rhetoric of unwritten principles, but relying on this idea in substance, are the cases of Amax Potash Ltd v Saskatchewan, [1977] 2 SCR 576, and Air Canada v British Columbia (Attorney-General), [1986] 2 SCR 539. In both of them, the Supreme Court held, without relying on any specific written constitutional provision, that provinces could not prevent litigants from arguing that provincial legislation was unconstitutional, because this would undermine the Canadian constitutional order as one in which government powers are constrained and limited.

Did the Imperial Tobacco case repudiate all this? I don’t think so. For one thing, the Supreme Court was less categorical there than the passage most often quoted, including above, would seem to suggest. Justice Major did not reject the argument based on the Rule of Law principle out of hand. He reviewed the previous cases where the principle had been invoked (though not Amax Potash and Air Canada), and concluded that it was a relatively narrow one and did not “speak directly to the terms of legislation”. [59] Yet “[t]his does not mean that the rule of law as described by this Court has no normative force”. [60] According to Justice Major, the Rule of Law mostly constrains the executive and the judiciary rather than legislatures but, at least as to them, it does have a real content.

The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65, however, embraces the Rule of Law principle even more clearly and, crucially, as a constraint on the legislative power. According to the Vavilov majority,

Where a court reviews the merits of an administrative decision … the standard of review it applies must reflect the legislature’s intent with respect to the role of the reviewing court, except where giving effect to that intent is precluded by the rule of law. [23; emphasis added]

The majority goes on to specify that “[t]he starting point for the analysis is a presumption that the legislature intended the standard of review to be reasonableness”, [23] but “respect for the rule of law requires courts to apply the standard of correctness for certain types of legal questions”, [53] legislative intent notwithstanding. With Vavilov, unwritten principles, especially the Rule of Law, are back as a fully operative, and crucially important, source of our constitutional law, if indeed they had ever been displaced from that position. While Vavilov does not invoke them to explicitly invalidate legislation, it makes quite clear that legislation that conflicts with them will not be given effect.


Is this something to be regretted though? Was Justice LaForest right that judicial review in a democracy must only ever be textualist judicial review? I don’t think so. As Stephen Sachs explains in an important essay (which I discussed here), “[n]ot all law is written law, and not every society needs to rely on it in the same way”. (164) Some societies ― including democratic societies ― may well make the choice to have unwritten law as part of their binding constitutional constraints. They might write down some constitutional rules without thereby excluding others, and then a single-minded focus on constitutional text as exhaustive of constitutional law would means that “we could be reading the text correctly while utterly misunderstanding the legal role it was to play”. (165) The question is whether Canada is that kind of society or the one envisioned by Justice LaForest.

Actually, here is another question, which might help answer the previous one: are there any societies of the kind described by Justice LaForest, where the constitution, in the sense of the supreme law, is nothing more and nothing less than the sum of written textual provisions? In the United States, for example, constitutional law includes unwritten principles (though they are not labelled in exactly this way), especially separation of powers, but also federalism. The Australian constitution has been held to incorporate implied freedoms. There might be examples to support Justice LaForest’s views, of course, but, to say the least, these views aren’t a self-evidently correct description of the concept of constitutionalism in a democratic society (which is, I think, how Justice LaForest means them). Nor are they an obviously correct interpretation of constitutionalism in Canada, given the numerous cases referred to above.

To repeat, this is not to defend the majority decision in the Provincial Judges Reference, or even to say that the outcome of Imperial Tobacco was wrong (though Justice Major’s disdainful characterisation of unwritten principles was). What arguably makes these cases different from the likes of Amax Potash, the Patriation and Secession Reference, and Vavilov, is that they involved invocations of principles to run around fairly specific textual choices. Judicial independence is protected to a greater extent, and retroactive legislation proscribed, in the context of criminal law, but not in the civil law. Right or wrong, this is the sort of “political compromise” to which Justices Martland and Ritchie referred, and courts must be careful not to “dissolve” it.

But, by the same token, they must not allow the political compromises that made Canada into a federal state, bound by a supreme constitution, and one where public authority is constrained by the Rule of Law, to be dissolved either. No doubt it is possible to take arguments based on constitutional principles too far, just as it is possible to misread or twist the meaning of constitutional text. But this is not a reason for peremptorily rejecting these arguments, let alone claiming that they are illegitimate in our constitutional order. Justice LaForest was wrong to suggest otherwise in the Provincial Judges Reference, and so, respectfully, are those who extol his dissent today.

A Tale of Two Scandals

Partisanship is undermining political accountability and constitutional checks and balances

This post is co-written with Mark Mancini

Here some harsh—yet entirely justified—words about unconstitutional actions of the executive branch of government:

[N]ot only were there no clear means of constitutional restraint, there was obvious intent to accomplish the scheme well outside the public eye. The scheme was blocked by the unlikely combination of whistleblowing and informal political pressure. Even worse, a defiant [executive] refuses to admit to any wrongdoing at all—even calling the key piece of evidence … a “perfect” call. It was essentially our good fortune (through the courage of the whistleblower) that the [voters] have access to partial information about the scandal so they can factor it into their electoral calculus. What’s the constitutional check for misconduct of that kind? Citizens can’t run to court to block this particular abuse of … power. We can’t even count on public knowledge for public accountability. The [executive] is still actively holding back material evidence. (Paragraph break omitted)

And here’s a trick question: what scandal is being described here? Is it Donald Trump’s attempt to use aid granted by Congress to suborn a Ukrainian announcement of an investigation into a political rival? Or is it Justin Trudeau’s attempt to have a prosecution of a corrupt engineering company stopped from going to trial to avoid financial difficulties for that company―and political embarrassment in Québec? The answer is, technically, that it’s former. The quotation is from the January 22 instalment of “French Press”, the thoughtful newsletter written by David French for The Dispatch. (While we’re at it, may we recommend Advisory Opinions, an equally thoughtful podcast Mr. French co-hosts with Sarah Isgur?) But, by our lights, Mr. French might as well have been writing about l’Affaire SNC Lavalin.

There too the effective head of the executive branch and his political henchmen sought to pervert the course of the execution of the law in their partisan interest. There too, they were discomfited by the unlikely decision of an official to blow the whistle instead of doing their bidding, and the resulting political pressure. There too, this political pressure was enough to arrest the illicit scheme itself, but not to bring about any real acknowledgement of wrongdoing; on the contrary, the master of the executive branch made a great show of having acted in the public interest. There too only partial information was allowed to filter out into the public domain through the medium of legislative hearings, and claims of executive privilege were raised to prevent key witnesses from speaking, or at least speaking fully. There too the courts would have been of no avail in any attempt to get to the bottom of what happened. The similarities between the two scandals are striking.

There are also some meaningful differences, to be sure. For one thing, the person who stood of in the way of the Trudeau government’s scheme to save SNC Lavalin was none other than the Attorney-General. No such high-ranking official has stood up to the Trump administration’s plans. For another, some heads have rolled as a consequence of l’Affaire SNC Lavalin: those of the Prime Minister’s principal secretary (albeit that he made a comeback only months later) and of the head of the civil service. Whether even such imperfect accountability is visited on the Trump administration is, at present, very doubtful. Another difference: obstructive as they have been, the members of Mr. Trudeau’s party in Parliament didn’t stonewall the investigation into his government’s misbehaviour to anything like the same degree as the members of Mr. Trump’s in Congress.

Still, this would be thin gruel for customary Canadian self-congratulation. In response to arguments to the effect that, since the executive’s shady plans were not allowed to come to pass, our constitutional system is working more or less as it should, we expressed here the

worry is that our constitutional set-up fails to adequately establish this connection; that it does not guarantee that ambition will counteract instead of abetting ambition; and it relies too much on human character being, if not angelic, then unusually virtuous.

Our constitutional system, we suggested, lacks the checks and balances that would ensure, or at least make it sufficiently likely, that a lawless executive could not get away with it. In particular, we were skeptical about the ability of the rules and conventions surrounding the accountability of the executive to Parliament to do this work.

Although we did not say much about this in that post, an important reason for this is partisanship, particularly the strong form of party discipline that characterizes the Canadian system. A majority party lines up behind the government formed by its leader, and has every incentive to close ranks, even at the cost of public-serving accountability. This is the inherent flaw of responsible government, which means that the ministry must have the support of a parliamentary majority (or at least an unchallenged plurality). In theory, this subordinates the executive to Parliament. In practice, the power dynamic is more often than not precisely the opposite. Of course, the obverse of this flaw is the executive’s ability to govern effectively and to implement its legislative agenda. All constitutional arrangements come with trade-offs. The question is not whether we can avoid trade-offs altogether, but whether we have made the right ones.

What is disheartening is that in the United States, whose constitutional framers made different trade-offs from ours, and where a different ― and seemingly more robust ― set of checks and balances was put in place to contain the executive, the same problem seems to have nullified those checks and balances. Mr. French writes that “[w]hen presidents work in secret to substitute their personal priorities for the public good … impeachment is the difference between punishment and permission when a president abuses his power while conducting affairs of state”. Yet if the president’s partisan allies refuse to even recognize the legitimacy of this procedure, they make him (or eventually her) just as unaccountable as a Canadian Prime Minister able to command a Parliamentary majority.   

This is not necessarily to disparage anything and everything about political partisanship. A case can be made for the proposition that Mr. Trump’s election to the presidency is the consequence of weak parties as much as of strong partisanship. But it should be clear by now that adjusting our constitutional systems to strong, and perhaps hypertrophied, partisanship is a challenge that a variety of democratic polities must face, and quickly. Our political scandals sound similar because our constitutional weaknesses are.

Shooting Gallery

A proposed invocation of the Charter’s “notwithstanding clause” in New Brunswick is misguided and disturbing

New Brunswick is the fourth province in the last couple of years, after Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Québec, to announce plans for invoking section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a.k.a. the “notwithstanding clause”, to immunize a bill from scrutiny over possible violations of the Charter. This confirms the trend towards a normalization of the use of the “notwithstanding clause”. Indeed, I think that, if the bill is enacted, it will reinforce this trend considerably, because it is, in substance, a much more serious piece of legislation than the crassly populist, my-way-or-the-highway ukases of Ontario and Québec which, if nothing else, at least continued giving the “notwithstanding clause” a bad name.

Bill 11, just introduced in the provincial legislature, creates a requirement for school pupils to provide proof of vaccination, subject to an exemption on medical grounds alone, and not for conscientious or religious objectors. It is, therefore, a plausible response to the worrying spread of preventable infectious diseases due to the failure of misguided parents to vaccinate their children. As the CBC report on the story notes, “[t]he Public Health Agency of Canada says the risks associated with vaccines are very low”; but anti-vaccination activists still insist that mandatory vaccination amounts to “state and pharma control over Canadian children”, and are gearing up to fight it in the courts.

The CBC quotes New Brunswick’s education minister as claiming that having the mandatory vaccination requirement operate “notwithstanding the provisions of … section 2 and sections 7 to 15 of the Canadian Charter“, as well as, for good measure, the provision of the provincial Human Rights Act that bans discrimination in services, (Bill 11, cl 4) will save “‘expensive court costs’ resulting from … challenges ‘by folks who’ve got nothing but conspiracies and medieval fantasies to base their arguments upon'”. The minister doesn’t say, apparently, whether he thinks such challenges would have any chance of prevailing. Nor does he seem to be advancing any particular view of the relevant rights, or even to have much of a view about which rights are relevant here: why do mandatory vaccinations have to be imposed “notwithstanding”, for example, the right of a party to court proceedings to the assistance of an interpreter (protected by section 14 of the Charter)? I doubt the Minister has a clue. He just wants to preempt litigation challenging his bill.

Once again, this is not a good look for those who defend the “notwithtanding clause” as giving political actors a chance to engage in meaningful debate about the scope of constitutional rights or the justified limits to which they can be subject. As I wrote about the Saskatchewan case, ” real-life governments are largely uninterested in thinking about constitutional rights. If they are allowed to disregard judicial decisions, they will not engage in serious deliberation themselves”. The evidence that has accumulated since then supports this view, not that of, for example, Geoffrey Sigalet and Joanna Baron who celebrated Québec’s invocation of the “notwithstanding clause” as “an opportunity for democratic renewal”. And in the New Brunswick case there isn’t even a (possibly mistaken) judicial decision to disagree with. The minister doesn’t even consider it worthwhile to hear from the courts before imposing his view. This makes sense if, and only if, his view is motivated by considerations of convenience, on which the courts indeed have nothing interesting to say.

As I also wrote after Saskatchewan invoked the “notwithstanding clause”, despite what the fans of the “notwithstanding clause” believe, there can be no

tertium quid, some sort of happy Canadian middle ground between Parliamentary sovereignty and judicial enforcement of constitutional rights. If the norm against using the notwithstanding clause disappears, then it will be used proactively, profusely, and promiscuously. Like the Saskatchewan government now, others will use it whenever they think their policy ends justify the means, without paying attention to the rights the constitution is supposed to protect.

It gives me no pleasure to say this, but: I told you so. And, to repeat what I said at the outset, I worry that the use of the “notwithstanding clause” in the service of what is arguably a worthy cause will only accelerate the decay of what’s left of the norm against it. One could previously hope that, just like the feckless Robert Bourassa’s resort to the “notwithstanding clause” in the face of nationalist backlash against Ford v Quebec (Attorney General), [1988] 2 SCR 712 gave it a bad name, so would reliance on it by the populist, borderline authoritarian governments in Ontario and Québec in the last year. But now, the argument becomes: “the ‘notwithstanding clause’ is not just for populists!” There is a danger, moreover, that people will get the impression that the Charter stands in the way of good and useful public policy. Yet this is, to say the least, far from clear from this case. (Indeed, I think that the New Brunswick government would not have an especially difficult time defending mandatory vaccinations against a Charter challenge. If mandatory pictures on drivers’ licenses are constitutional in the name of public safety, surely vaccinations are too.)

When writing about the Saskatchewan case, I compared the “notwithstanding clause” to a loaded gun that the Charter’s framers left on the Canadian constitutional stage. As Chekhov wrote, a gun is not placed on a theater set by accident: it must go off. I was still hoping, though, that the law is different. I wrote that

constitutional actors are not comedians. Even if they are put in a position where a loaded gun is within their reach, their responsibility is not to fire it, but to keep it safe if they cannot unload it, and to instruct those who follow them to do likewise.

Not the current generation of Canadian politicians though. Too many of them seem to think that elected office is a shooting gallery.

The one ray of hope in all this is that Bill 11 might not yet become law. It will, the CBC reports, be subject to a free vote. Perhaps cooler, or more constitutionally-minded, heads will prevail, and disarm the Minister. If not, the constitutional rights of all of us, and not just anti-vaxxers, risk being among the casualties.

The Rule of Law All the Way Up

Introducing my recently-published chapter on the Rule of Law and Canadian constitutional law

LexisNexis Canada recently published (if I understand correctly, as a standalone book as well as a dedicated issue of the Supreme Court Law Review (2d)) Attacks on the Rule of Law from Within, a collection of essays co-edited by my friends Joanna Baron and Maxime St-Hilaire. The publisher’s blurb gives a concise summary of the project’s background and contents:

This volume is a collection of six papers developed from the Runnymede Society’s 2018 national conference by a community of legal experts in response to Supreme Court of Canada Justice Rosalie Abella’s comment that “the phrase ‘rule of law’ annoys her”. 

Grounded on the intuition that the legal profession supports the rule of law, the papers examine the historical perspective on threats to the rule of law, the sufficiency of the current Canadian legal framework to support this ideal and how the principle of stare decisis as observed by the Supreme Court of Canada undermines the spirit of the rule of law. The volume also discusses how the law relating to Aboriginal title and the duty to consult fails to adhere to the Rule of Law standards … to the detriment of indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians alike.

I am honoured to have contributed to this volume, with an essay called “The Rule of Law All the Way Up”, which focuses on what I see as the lack of commitment to the Rule of constitutional Law in by scholars, judges, and politicians. Here is the abstract:

Canadian constitutional law is seldom criticised for its failure to live up to the ideal of the Rule of Law. This article argues that it should be so criticised. A number of widely accepted or uncontroversial Rule of Law requirements―the need for general, stable, and prospective rules, the congruence between the “in the books” and the law “in action, and the availability of impartial, independent courts to adjudicate legal disputes―are compromised by a number of ideas already accepted or increasingly advocated by Canadian lawyers, judges, and officials.

This article describes four of these ideas, to which it refers as “politicization techniques”, because they transform what purports to be “the supreme law of Canada” into a set of malleable political commitments. These are, first, deference to legislatures or the application of a “margin of appreciation” and the “presumption of constitutionality” in constitutional adjudication; second, constitutional “dialogue” in which courts not merely defer, but actively give way to legislative decisions; the substitution of political for legal judgment through the application of the “notwithstanding clause” of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; and the rewriting of constitutional law by the courts under the banner of “living tree” constitutional interpretation.

The article concludes with an appeal to those who profess commitment to the Rule of Law in relation to the Constitution not to embrace or endorse the means by which it is subverted.

The entire chapter is available to download on SSRN. It builds on many of the themes developed on my posts here ― the rejection of judicial deference on constitutional issues, whether to legislatures or to the administrative state; the imperative to renounce the use of the Charter‘s “notwithstanding clause”; and the perils of “living constitutionalism”. Some of these, notably the issue of deference to administrative interpretations of constitutional law and constitutional interpretation, I will also be pursuing in future work. (Indeed, the first of these is the subject of the paper I will be presenting at the Journal of Commonwealth Law symposium next month.)

I am very grateful to Ms. Baron and Professor St-Hilaire for having given me the opportunity to present these thoughts, and write them up for publication. I am also grateful to Justice Bradley Miller, of the Court of Appeal for Ontario, who gave me thoughtful comments when I presented my chapter (then still very much in draft form) at the 2018 Runnymede Society conference, as well as to Kerry Sun, who was a very helpful editor. And I am looking forward to reading the other contributions in the volume, once I am done preparing the talks I am about to give in the coming weeks.

The System Is Working

Environmentalist groups have a point when they say they are being muzzled by Elections Canada; trouble is, that’s exactly how the law is meant to work

As the media reported earlier this week, environmentalist groups are angry at Elections Canada, which has warned them that spending money to raise awareness of climate change in the run-up to the coming federal election would subject them to the rules on “third party” participation in election campaigns. Many are feeling that they will be required to keep quiet during the campaign, which rather defeats the purpose of being advocacy groups. Even the BBC has a story on this.

For its part, Elections Canada has issued a response claiming that the Canada Elections Act doesn’t prevent advocacy groups from advocating, so long as they register if they spend $500 or more and comply with the spending cap. Elections Canada adds that the registration requirement “leads to increased transparency” and has been in place “for nearly 20 years”. Helpfully, I suppose, the statement concludes with an acknowledgement that the rules “can be complex”, and Elections Canada is happy to answer questions about them.

The rules are indeed somewhat complicated, as I explain below. But the bottom line is simple enough. Despite the officials’ protestations, NGOs ― be they environmentalist or other ― have a point when they say that they are being muzzled. To some extent, that’s what the Canada Elections Act is designed to do; to an even greater extent this might be an unintended consequence of the Act’s pursuit of transparency, but an entirely predictable one. The issues are well known; I, for one, raised them in my statement to the House of Commons Select Committee that considered the latest round of amendments to the Canada Elections Act. The only surprising thing is the degree to which people still end up being surprised when problems of sort arise.


The Canada Elections Act‘s regulation of political spending is predicated on the idea that attention during election campaigns should be focused on politicians ― individual candidates and political parties, especially parties. Parties, if they run candidates in all ridings, are able to spend tens of millions of dollars on advertising ― which they are entitled to buy at favourable rates, in addition to an allowance of free airtime. Non-politicians ― that is, individuals, labour and student unions, corporations, and NGOs ― are known as “third parties” in the election law jargon and, as I explained here, their participation in electoral debates is viewed as anomalous, indeed suspicious, and is strictly limited.

One set of limits concerns the amounts of money third parties are allowed to spend, which are only a small fraction of the spending allowed political parties. The Supreme Court has upheld the limitation of third party spending during election campaigns, notably in Harper v Canada (Attorney General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 SCR 827, although there is good reason to be critical of that decision, which I have even rated as one of the worst in the last fifty years. (As I noted here, the High Court of Australia was also quite skeptical of Harper in a recent decision.) Last year, Parliament enacted further limits that apply even before the formal campaign begins, and their constitutionality has not yet been tested; Harper, in my view, does not dispose of the question.

In addition to spending limits, “third parties” are also subject to onerous registration and reporting requirements. Some of these are the cause of the latest dust-up. Specifically, Division 1 of Part 17 of the Canada Elections Act imposes such requirements on “third parties” that incur more than $500 of expenses on, notably “partisan activities” and “partisan advertising” during the “pre-election period”, which begins on June 30 of the year for which a fixed-date election is scheduled and ends with the start of the election campaign. During the election campaign itself, governed by Division 2 of Part 17, “election advertising”, as well as “partisan activities” count for the spending thresholds that can trigger registration and reporting requirements.

The definitions of “partisan” and “election advertising”, found in section 2(1) of the Canada Elections Act, are very broad. The former term “means the transmission to the public by any means during a pre-election period of an advertising message that promotes or opposes” a party or a candidate, further defined in section 2(7) as “naming”, “identifying” (“including by … logo” or picture, as the case may be, and “providing a link to an Internet page that” names or identifies the party or candidate. “Election advertising” includes the same things as “partisan advertising”, but also “taking a position on an issue with which a … party or candidate is associated”, even without naming that party or candidate. Since issues with which no candidate or party “is associated”, come election time, are about as common as colour pictures of a Maple Leafs Stanley Cup parade, the definition of “election advertising” encompasses pretty much any advertising that has anything to say on matters of government or policy.

Now, some means of communicating with the public are exempted from these definitions. In particular, the exemptions cover anything that the media will print or broadcast without charge to the speaker ― things like quotes in news items, interviews, and op-eds. Also exempt are organizations’ communications with their members, shareholders, or employees, as well as “the transmission by an individual, on a non-commercial basis on the Internet, of his or her personal political views”. Note, though, that on its face the latter exemption doesn’t cover ― indeed, it rather pointedly excludes ― a group’s or an organization’s online communications, even if not paid for (for example, tweeting under the organization’s handle). And of course, any communication that the media are not interested in carrying free of charge will count as an advertising. In effect, for groups and organizations, the media are the gatekeepers of their ability to communicate with the public without having to register as “third parties”.

So what’s the big deal about registration? Well, although you won’t know it from the Elections Canada statement linked to above, registration doesn’t just mean filling out a form. There are a number of other requirements. To begin with, unions and corporations cannot register before their board has adopted a resolution authorizing them to incur expenses on “partisan” or “election advertising” (sections 349.6(5) and 353(5) of the Canada Elections Act). All “third parties” are also required to have a “financial agent” who will be responsible for collecting money to be spend on “partisan” or “election advertising” and for spending it (sections 349.7 and 354). These transactions must be done through a separate bank account (section 358.1) After the election is over, a detailed report on the money collected, advertising taken out, and costs incurred must be filed (section 359). And this is not all. Those “third parties” that spend more than 10,000$ are also required to file interim reports during the course of the election campaign and, most significantly, to appoint auditors (section 355) and file the auditor’s report on their spending (section 360).

Needless to say, this is all quite costly, at least in time, but also ― especially for those third parties that spend more 10,000$ ― in money. Big trade unions, whose budgets are extracted from workers who don’t get a say on whether to contribute or on how the money is spend, may not be especially troubled by these costs. But for NGOs, whose income comes from voluntary (albeit taxpayer-subsidized) donations, and which need to be much more careful about how they spend it, compliance with the Canada Elections Act may be too expensive. From their perspective, the sensible if unfortunate thing to do may well be to keep quiet for the duration of the election campaign, or even starting with the beginning of the pre-campaign period.

This means that for a period of almost four months preceding the election ― the period when the most people pay attention, even if it’s still sporadic and fragmentary attention, to political and policy issues ― civil society organizations may indeed be prevented from expressing their opinion about politicians, except to the extent that the media will let them. Again, the bigger and better-known you are, the less of a problem this may be for you. Smaller groups, whose views are (naturally and fairly) of less interest to the media, will find it more difficult to get across to the voters. The more unusual voices, in other words, are the ones who are the most at risk of being silenced ― in effect if not, perhaps, in intent ― by the Canada Elections Act.

And of course even for larger groups, having to pass through the media means sound-bite-sized interventions have a much better chance of getting across to the voters than anything more serious. Say that a politician or party is anti-environment, or pro-worker, or something equally inane, and the media may well pick it up. But they’re not going to run a detailed report card assessing the competing parties’ platforms on some issue ― but publishing it on an NGO’s website, let alone running it as an advertisement would mean having to comply with burdensome registration and reporting requirements under the Canada Elections Act.


No wonder, then, that environmentalists are feeling muzzled and frustrated. And of course groups pursuing other agendas may be feeling that way too ― or may come to feel that way when the occasion arises. They have more than a little justification. And they shouldn’t be the only ones feeling wronged. The voters should be too. You may not miss the presence of a particular set of activists in the election campaign, but the rules that silence them silence the activists on your side too. You may not be all that interested activists generally have to say, but you should be interested in politicians’ feet being held to the fire.

The ostensible rationale for registration and reporting requirements is that they serve to promote transparency, in addition to assisting in the enforcement of spending limits applicable to “third parties”. It is on that basis that the Supreme Court upheld those requirements that apply in the course of the election campaign ― although not those applicable in the pre-campaign period, which weren’t yet in the Canada Elections Act ― in Harper. Yet one needs to weigh the value of transparency against the costs that its pursuit imposes on those subject to the Canada Elections Act ― and, as I have just explained, on the voters who are being deprived of important contributions to the electoral debate.

The Harper majority’s analysis on this point was quite perfunctory. There is no real discussion of compliance costs and their deterrent effects. Instead, the majority is content to baldly assert that “[t]he appointment of a financial agent or auditor is not overly onerous. Rather, it arguably facilitates the reporting requirements.” [145] Even worse, the majority did not at all consider what I think is the crucial issue: the thresholds at which the registration and reporting requirements kick in. All it said was that the requirements “vary depending on the amount spent on election advertising”. [145] Yet one can accept the principle of imposing such requirements on heavy spenders while also acknowledging that the existing rules go much too far.

In New Zealand, “third parties” are not required to register until they spend NZ$13,200 (ca. C$11,000); more detailed reporting requirements only apply once a “third party” spends NZ$100,000. (Even then, third parties aren’t peremptorily required to provide an auditor’s report, although they may be asked to do so.) These strike me as rather more reasonable figures than those in the Canada Elections Act, though even they should probably be multiplied several-fold to account for the fact that New Zealand’s population is only a small fraction of Canada’s.

It is difficult to believe that a “third party” spending a few thousand, or even tens of thousand of dollars is going to have any substantial impact on an election by itself. At most, it may be successful enough in getting other people ― voters, media, or politicians ― to discuss the issues it is raising. It is this discussion, rather than anything published on an NGO’s website or even a Facebook ad, that might, conceivably albeit theoretically, matter. In the abstract, this discussion might be enriched by more disclosure. In practice, the very real costs of the disclosure requirements end up preventing the conversations from happening at all. I fail to see how the voters benefit from this.


As Elections Canada points out in its response to the environmentalist groups, the “advertising during the election period has been subject to the Canada Elections Act for nearly 20 years”. This is true. (As noted above, rules on advertising in the pre-election period are new.) For about half of this time, it has been known, at least to those who study these things, that the rules tend to hobble not business interests, but labour unions and civil society groups. Colin Feasby wrote about this in 2010; I did (in the context of Québec elections, which are subject to similar but even more draconian rules) in 2012; also in 2012 Tom Flanagan came out in support of rules like those in the Canada Elections Act, whose enactment he had opposed, with the declared intention to muzzle unions; I updated Dr. Feasby’s findings in an article published in 2015. And in my statement to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs when it was studying amendments to the Canada Elections Act last year (which, among other things, introduced restrictions on “third parties” in the pre-campaign period) I specifically mentioned both the registration and reporting requirements’ tendency to muzzle civil society, and the needless low threshold at which these requirements apply. Needless to say, that had no effect on the resulting legislation.

Yet at every election the impact of restrictions on “third parties” seems to surprise. It happened in Québec in 2014, when the Chief Electoral Officer tried censoring a short documentary a group of citizens had produced to oppose the election of the Parti québécois and the enactment of its “values charter”. Eventually, the Chief Electoral Officer changed his mind; but he was wrong to do so. It happened again in Québec in 2018, now with environmentalist groups being targeted. And now it’s happening at the federal level. The system, one might say, is working. It was designed to shut down political debate not dominated by politicians or the media. That’s what it’s doing.

It will be obvious that I don’t think it’s a good system. Like the National Post’s Chris Selley, I think the rules need to be changed. Whether any restrictions on political spending are justified is debatable but, as noted above, one can accept the premises of Canada Elections Act and still support relaxing its requirements a great deal. Ideally, the next Parliament will take up the issue. But there is also room for litigation. Certainly rules on pre-campaign spending, whose constitutionality has not yet been tested all the way to the Supreme Court can be challenged. But perhaps even the registration and reporting rules upheld in Harper could be attacked, provided that the courts are forced to consider solid evidence of their pernicious effects.