Disinformation and Dystopia

Whose disinformation efforts should we really fear―and why we should also fear regulation to stop disinformation

Mis- and disinformation about matters of public concern is much in the news, and has been, on and off, for the last five years. First kindled by real and imagined interference in election campaigns, interest in the subject has flared up with the present plague. Yesterday’s developments, however, highlight the dangers of utterly wrongheaded responses to the issue, one that would will lead to a consolidation of government power and its use to silence critics and divergent voices.


First, we get a hair-raising report by David Pugliese in the Ottawa Citizen about the Canadian Armed Forces’ strong interest in, and attempts at, engaging in information operations targeting Canadians over the course of 2020. Without, it must be stressed, political approval, and seemingly to the eventual consternation of Jonathan Vance, the then-Chief of Defence Staff, the Canadian Joint Operations Command sought to embark on a “campaign … for ‘shaping’ and ‘exploiting’ information” about the pandemic. In their view “the information operations scheme was needed to head off civil disobedience … and to bolster government messages”. They also saw the whole business as a “learning opportunity” for what might become a “routine” part of their operations.

Nor is this all. At the same time, but separately, “Canadian Forces intelligence officers, culled information from public social media accounts in Ontario”, including (but seemingly not limited to) from people associated with Black Lives Matter. This, supposedly, was “to ensure the success of Operation Laser, the Canadian Forces mission to help out in long-term care homes hit by COVID-19 and to aid in the distribution of vaccines in some northern communities”. A similar but also, apparently, unrelated effort involved the public affairs branch of the Canadian Forces, which want its “officers to use propaganda” peddled by “friendly defence analysts and retired generals” and indeed “information warfare and influence tactics”, “to change attitudes and behaviours of Canadians as well as to collect and analyze information from public social media accounts” and “to criticize on social media those who raised questions about military spending and accountability.”

And in yet another separate incident,

military information operations staff forged a letter from the Nova Scotia government warning about wolves on the loose in a particular region of the province. The letter was inadvertently distributed to residents, prompting panicked calls to Nova Scotia officials … [T]he reservists conducting the operation lacked formal training and policies governing the use of propaganda techniques were not well understood by the soldiers.

To be blunt, there seems to be a large constituency in various branches of the Canadian forces for treating the citizens whom they are supposed to defend as enemies and targets in an information war. Granted, these people’s enthusiasm seems to outstrip their competence ― but we know about the ones who got caught. We can only hope that there aren’t others, who are better at what they do. And it’s not a happy place to be in, to be hoping that your country’s soldiers are incomptent. But here we are.


Also yesterday, as it happens, the CBA National Magazine published the first episode of a new podcast, Modern Law, in which its editor, Yves Faguy, interviewed Ève Gaumond, a researcher on AI and digital technologies, about various techniques of online persuasion, especially during election campaigns. These techniques include not only mis- and disinformation and “deep fakes”, but also advertising on social media, which need not to untruthful, though it may present other difficulties. Mr. Faguy’s questions focused on what (more) should Canada, and perhaps other countries, do about these things.

Ms. Gaumond’s views are somewhat nuanced. She acknowledges that “social media is not the main driver of disinformation and misinformation” ― traditional media still are ― and indeed that “we’re not facing a huge disinformation crisis” at all, at present. She points out that, in debates about mis- and disinformation, “the line between truth and falsehood is not so clearly defined”. And she repeatedly notes that there are constitutional limits to the regulation of speech ― for example, she suggests that a ban on microtargeting ads would be unconstitutional.

Ultimately, though, like many others who study these issues, Ms. Gaumond does call for more and more intrusive regulation. She claims, for instance, that “[i]f we are to go further to fight disinformation”, online advertising platforms should be forced not only to maintain a registry of the political ads they carry and of the amounts the advertisers spent, but also to record “[t]he number of times an ad has viewed” and “the audience targeted by the ad”. This would, Ms. Gaumond hopes, deter “problematic” targeting. She also wants to make advertising platforms responsible for ensuring that no foreign advertising makes its way into Canadian elections, and tentatively endorses Michael Pal’s suggestion that spending limits for online advertising should be much lower than for more conventional, and more expensive, formats.

Ultimatelty, though she doesn’t “think that we should tackle speech per se”, Ms. Gaumond muses that “[w]e should see how to regulate all platforms in a way that we can touch on all possible ways that disinformation is spread”. This means not only spending limits but also that “[y]ou cannot pay millions of dollars to microtarget … what you’re saying to people that believe the same thing as you do without oversight from other people, from Election Canada”. And beyond that

not only regulating social medias [sic], but also all of the environment that has created the disinformation crisis. That means education, funding and great journalism, the media ecosystem is one of the important components of why we’re not facing such a big disinformation crisis.


There are a few things to say about Ms. Gaumond’s proposals ― keeping in mind Mr. Pugliese’s report about the activities of the Canadian forces. The overarching point is the one suggested by the juxtaposition of the two: while researchers and politicians fret about disinformation campaigns carried ou by non-state and foreign actors, the state itself remains the most important source of spin, propaganda, and outright lies with which we have to contend. Unlike bots and Russian trolls, the state can easily dupe the opinion-forming segments of society, who are used to (mostly) believing it ― partly out of ideological sympathy, but partly, and it’s important to stress this, because the state is also an important source of necessary and true information which such people rely on and relay.

This means that we should be extremely wary of granting the state any power to control information we can transmit and receive. Its armed agents think nothing of manipulating us, including for the sake of propping up the government of the day. And it is no answer that we should grant these powers to independent, non-partisan bureaucracies. The Canadian Forces are also an independent, non-partisan bureaucracy of sorts. I’m pretty confident that they weren’t trying to manipulate opinion out of any special affection for the Liberal Party of Canada, say. They are just on the side of order and stability, and any civilian bureaucratic structure would be too. It would also be likely to be tempted to squish questions about its own budget and functioning, and to develop an unhealthy interest in people it regards as trouble-makers. Civilians might be more suspicious of right-wing groups than of BLM, but the ones have the same right to free speech and to privacy as the others.

Another thing to note is the confusion among the different issues clustered under the general heading of concerns about mis- and disinformation. Concerns about the targeting of advertising may be valid or not, but their validity often has little to do with the truthfulness of the ads at issue. Concerns about foreign influence may be magnified when it is being exercised through misleading and/or microtargeted ads, but they are not necessarily linked to the issues either of disinformation or of microtargeting. Spending limits, again, have little to do with disinformation. No doubt a knowledgeable researcher like Ms. Gaumond would be more careful about such distinctions in a paper than she sometimes is in the interview with Mr. Faguy. But can untutored policy-makers, let alone voters, keep track?

In light of all this, Ms. Gaumond’s suggestions, though sprinkled with well-intentioned caveats about “not saying ‘you cannot say that'”, should give us serious pause. Even increasing disclosure requirements is far from a straightforward proposition. As Ms. Gaumond notes, Google simply refused to carry political ads rather than set up the registry the government required. Facebook and Twitter might follow if they are forced to make disclosures that would reveal the functioning of their algorithms, which they may have good reasons for keeping out of their competitors’ sight. More fundamentally, the idea that all (political?) speech should at all times be tracked and monitored by the state does not strike me as healthy. Political debate is a fundamental right of citizens, not something we can only engage in on the government’s sufferance. We are not children, and government ― including Elections Canada ― is not a parent who needs to know what we are getting up to online. Last but not least, because of the government’s track record of spin and deceit, it cannot be trusted with educating citizens and funding media in a way that would solve the problems of the “environment that has created the disinformation crisis”. The solution must come from the civil society, not from the state.

Lastly, let me note in my view Ms. Gaumond may be far too optimistic about the willingness of Canadian courts to uphold constitutional limits on government regulation of electoral speech. Their record on this issue is generally abysmal, and the Supreme Court’s reasoning in the leading case, Harper v Canada (Attorney General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 SCR 827, is itself misinformed and speculative. If government actors take the initiative on these matters, the courts will not save us.


The issue of mis- and disinformation is at least much a moral panic as a genuine crisis. As Ms. Gaumond points out, the trouble is to a considerable extent with traditional media and political forces outside anyone’s easy control; as Mr. Pugliese’s reporting makes clear, we must fear our own government at least as much as any outside force. Yet fears of new technology ― not to mention fear-mongering by media and political actors whose self-interest suggests cutting social media down to size ― mean that all manner of new regulations are being proposed specifically for online political discussions. And the government, instead of being reined in, is likely to acquire significant new powers that will further erode the ability of citizens to be masters in their own public and private lives.

Esprit d’Escalier

Just two years after its notorious decision in Gray’s case, the Supreme Court took a more skeptical view of the executive’s claims of broad emergency powers

There is a wonderful French phrase that describes the flash of wit that only comes well after the conversation in which it would have served is over ― say, as one is walking down the stairs, leaving the party: esprit d’escalier. We’ve all had it, no doubt. A so has the Supreme Court ― or so it seems to me after reading an old decision co-blogger Mark Mancini recently pointed out to me, In re Price Bros and The Board of Commerce of Canada, (1920) 60 SCR 265.

This case offers a spirited example of robust statutory interpretation being used to counter-act an overbroad grant of discretion to the executive in wartime legislation. For this it deserves to be more widely known (and I take it that this was Mark’s first interest in the decision). But, for my part, I cannot fail to note the sad contrast with the Supreme Court’s better-known engagement with such things just two years earlier, with In Re George Edwin Gray, (1918) 57 SCR 150.


Recall that in Gray, a majority of the Supreme Court adopted an extremely broad reading of the powers delegated to the Governor-in-Council by the War Measures Act, 1914. Specifically, the key issue there was whether the governor could, by regulation, override an exemption from the obligation to do military service that had previously been granted by statute. In the leading judgment (in which three of the four judges in the majority concurred), Justice Anglin recognized that

[n]o doubt the amendment of a statute or the taking away of privileges enjoyed or acquired under the authority of a statute by order-in-council is an extreme exercise of the power of the Governor-in-council to make orders and regulations of a legislative character. (180)

Still, he found that it was justified, in view of the breadth of the grant of powers in section 6 of War Measures Act

to do and authorize such acts and things and to make from time to time such orders and regulations as he may by reason of the existence of real or apprehended war, invasion or insurrection deem necessary or advisable for the security, defence, peace, order and welfare of Canada.

These words were followed by an enumeration of specific subjects the regulations could address, but since that was introduced by a clause providing that the enumeration was “for greater certainty, but not so as to restrict the generality of the foregoing terms”. For Justice Anglin, this meant that it would be wrong to apply to ejusdem generis maxim of statutory interpretation, which suggests that mention of examples means that the general category has to be understood by reference to these examples.

And Justice Anglin insisted, too, that

The exercise of legislative functions such as those here in question by the Governor-in-council rather than by Parliament is no doubt something to be avoided as far as possible. But we are living in extraordinary times which necessitate the taking of extraordinary measures. (181-82)

Chief Justice Fitzpatrick made a similar point:

It seems to me obvious that parliament intended, as the language used implies, to clothe the executive with the widest powers in time of danger. Taken literally, the language of the section contains unlimited powers. Parliament expressly enacted that, when need arises, the executive may for the common defence make such orders and regulations as they may deem necessary or advisable for the security, peace, order and welfare of Canada. The enlightened men who framed that section, and the members of parliament who adopted it, were providing for a very great emergency, and they must be understood to have employed words in their natural sense, and to have intended what they have said. (158-59)


Meanwhile, Price Bros concerned an order of the Board of Commerce requiring a paper company to supply specified quantities of newsprint to certain newspapers. (Remember those?) Simplifying somewhat, the Board’s jurisdiction to make such an order was supported on two grounds. First, a previous order under the War Measures Act invested the Board with the powers of a “Commissioner and Controller of Paper”, including, specifically, the power to make orders of this nature. Second, the Board separately had jurisdiction under the Combines and Fair Prices Act (the forerunner of the Competition Act) to regulate trade in a “necessary of life”, defined as

a staple and ordinary article of food (whether fresh, preserved, canned, or otherwise treated) clothing and fuel, including the products, materials and ingredients from or of which any thereof are in whole or in part manufactured, composed, derived or made, and such articles of any description as the Board may from time to time by special regulation prescribe.

The Supreme Court, with only Justice Mignault dissenting as to the War Measures Act, and unanimously as to the Combines and Fair Prices Act, found that the Board’s order was ultra vires.

Justice Idington, who had dissented in Gray, effectively rejected its holding that the delegation of power under section 6 of the War Powers Act is practically unlimited and isn’t confined to the matters enumerated in that provision. For him, one of these subjects had to support the impugned regulations, and none could. In particular, authority to regulate “trading, exportation, importation, production and manufacture” cannot

apply to the mere direction of selling newsprint paper by a manufacturer thereof to a person wishing to use it. Indeed, after much consideration, I cannot think how that purely business transaction of a very ordinary type can be said to have any relevancy to the matters therein specified of possibly vital importance in many ways conceivable in a state of war. (270)

Justice Brodeur, who had also dissented in Gray, was of a similar view.

For their part, Justices Duff and Anglin, who had been in the majority in Gray, neither contradicted nor endorsed this analysis; nor did they so much as mention Gray. (Nor did their colleagues, for the record.) They focused on a somewhat different issue: that regulation of the paper trade in 1920, a year and a half after the armistice and almost a year after peace was officially concluded, could not sensibly be said to be “necessary or advisable for the security, defence, peace, order and welfare of Canada” “by reason of the existence of … war”. Justice Duff was all circumlocution, but Justice Anglin went so far as to say that it would take bad faith to really think so, and the government must rather have been mistaken about its war powers subsisting despite the war having ended, to “[t]he common knowledge possessed by every man on the street, of which courts of justice cannot divest themselves”. (279)

As for the other argument, to the effect that the Board could regulate newsprint as a “necessary of life”, the Court was, as mentioned above unanimous in rejecting it, and indeed in finding it rather unserious. Justice Anglin’s reasons, though, are worth a closer look, because they offer yet another point of contrast with Gray. In that case, he had found that the prefatory “for greater certainty, but not so as to restrict the generality of the foregoing” excluded the application of the ejusdem generis canon of interpretation. Not so here with the “articles of any description” clause, though Justice Anglin explicitly noted that

[a]t first blush the words “of any description” appended to the general words “other articles” would almost seem to have been inserted  to indicate an intention to exclude the application to this section of the ejusdem generis rule, and to require that the general words “other articles” should here be given their ordinary general construction. (283)

But, Justice Anglin said, “consideration of the character of the Act and of the context as a whole” suggests “that Parliament cannot have meant that words the ‘other articles’ should bear their ordinary broad signification”. (285) For one thing, Parliament wouldn’t have needed to describe staple foods explicitly, if it were otherwise; for another, because the designation of an item as a “necessary of life” by the Board allowed for the imposition of criminal penalties for its “accumulation or withholding from sale”, he found it

inconceivable that Parliament meant to confer such wide and unheard of powers. I rather think that no one would be more surprised and shocked than the legislators themselves were they informed that they had done so. I am therefore satisfied that Parliament must have intended that the words “other articles of any description” in sec. 16, notwithstanding their obvious and emphasized generality, should receive a much more restricted construction. (286)

Justice Anglin observes, for good measure, that Poarliament “must be taken to have been fully cognizant of … the ejusdem generis rule of construction so frequently acted on by the courts”. (286)


All that makes sense to me; there is much to like about Price Bros. But wouldn’t the arguments that prevailed there ― and prevailed rightly ― have applied with equal force in Gray? If general language referring to “articles of any description” could be read down to only apply to a comparatively narrow class of items; if the courts, rather than an administrative board, could authoritatively interpret what is necessary for life; if Parliament must be taken to be cognizant of the ejusdem generis principle when legislating; a fortiori, if the limited reading of the War Measures Act offered by Justices Idington and Brodeur deserved no express disagreement; why wasn’t any of that so in the earlier case?

The answer, I’m afraid, seems inescapable. When the judges saw “extraordinary times”, a “time of danger”, “a very great emergency”, they saw also “extraordinary measures” taken by “enlightened men”. Once the danger had passed, the enlightened men became capable of incompetence if not bad faith, and judges gathered their wits, or redressed their backbones. A Marxist take on it all might point out that the Supreme Court refused to take the side of a simple farmer torn off from his land and sent to do and die, but did side with capitalists denied the opportunity of profit. But I am no Marxist, and have no reason to suppose that this is fair. More likely, the older maxim is the better: Inter armes tacent leges.

So perhaps this is all inevitable. Perhaps we should even be happy that the judges did, after all, recover ― mostly. Consider Justice Mignault’s partial dissent in Price Bros: Neither common knowledge nor even proclamations by the King satisfied him, and he insisted that only a proclamation by the Canadian government, in the form prescribed by the War Measures Act, would have put an end to the government’s emergency powers under that Act. The government had not troubled itself with issuing such a proclamation. This might be something to ponder as we are dealing with one emergency, and facing strident calls for governments to proclaim and assume enormous powers to try to deal with yet another, climatic, one.

But this brings me to the last point I’ll make here, and it might be a somewhat hopeful one. Gray is usually taken as authority for Parliament’s ability to delegate vast powers to the executive, especially in emergency contexts. That’s true, so far as that goes. But it’s worth noting, first, that just two years after it was decided it may already have been seen as something of an embarrassment, including by the same judges who decided it. Perhaps more significantly, at the very least, Price Bros should be taken as authority for the proposition that courts should not take the executive’s assertions about the existence of emergencies and the need for emergency powers on faith. However deferential they may be while the emergency is ongoing, their willingness to check the executive in this respect is a salutary constraint on powers that could easily destroy the constitution in its absence.

One of the Institutions of the Land

More mixed feelings about John A. Macdonald

Some time ago, I posted my impressions on reading the first volume of Richard Gwyn’s biography of Sir John A. Macdonald. I came away from it with admiration for Macdonald’s role in creating Canada and its institutions, but not much love for the man. I have now finished reading the second volume, which covers the period from Confederation until Macdonald’s death in 1891. Here are some further thoughts on the man who continues to generate frantic hatred, determined admiration, and weary exasperation.

My dislike of Macdonald’s nationalism has only been reinforced, although this may be as much Gwyn’s fault as his own. My assessment of the first volume was mostly positive ― I said it was “serious but no less engaging for that, and written with both sympathy for its subject and honesty about his flaws”. These comments, so far as they go, apply to the second volume too. However, the biographer’s nationalist convictions ― already evident in the first volume ― really appear to overwhelm the narrative at times, and leave me wondering whether he does not attribute his own thoughts and purposes to his subject.

In this post, I will address three themes that stood out to me (and ignore any number of other aspects of Macdonald’s life: the Canadian Pacific scandal, for example, or his doting on a disabled daughter). First, nationalism and especially Macdonald’s National Policy, so iconic that my friend Asher Honickman and Ben Woodfinden have sought to recycle its label, if not also its substance, for contemporary purposes. Second, constitutional law and especially the jurisprudence of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. And third, Macdonald’s relationship with Aboriginal Canadians and other minorities.


The National Policy, which Macdonald first proposed in the 1870s in response to a global economic crisis and pursued through the remainder of his life and career, imposed high tariffs on most imports. The hope was to spur Canadian manufacturing and improve the prospects of the growing numbers of industrial workers. Gwynn does his best to write warmly of this policy, proceeding from what he takes to be the axiom that having stuff made in Canada by Canadians is a Good Thing. We are supposed to admire Macdonald’s nation-building instincts for seeking to bring about this result.

But why exactly? Gwynn recognizes that the National Policy was no great economic success. To be sure, the protected manufacturers initially did well. But it’s not clear that overall employment improved. What is clear is that the years of the National Policy were also the years during which, as Gwynn notes, Canada lost population: thousands upon thousands of its people left for the better prospects in the United States, while the hoped-for immigrants from Europe mostly did not come. I take it that this a complex story: many francophone Quebeckers left for reasons that might have been peculiar to their situation and beyond the power of federal politicians to remedy. But certainly the National Policy failed to achieve its economic objectives. And despite its protectionist policy, Canada’s economic fortunes remained tied to those of the world beyond its borders. Things went better when the global economy improved, and worse when it deteriorated.

But economic nationalism is not merely futile, or even counter-productive; it is also deceitful and, , despite its name, more divisive than truly national. While benefitting the manufacturers and perhaps their workers, the National Policy hurt farmers, who increasingly depended on manufactured implements, for which they had to pay more, and who were hit by retaliatory tariffs on their exports. In the name of the nation, a minority reaped the profits, while a majority paid the price. Macdonald knew this of course. But from the beginning of the policy, he misrepresented it as more or less cost-free and avoided using the language of protectionism, knowing that it would be unpopular. In his last election campaigned, he made thinly veiled insinuations of treason to discredit the pro-free trade Liberals.

To my mind, there is nothing admirable in any of this. The history of the National Policy is one of grift and lies. It ought to count against Macdonald on any assessment of his merits ― but even for people who do not admire him like Gwynn, it seldom does. That certainly says more about us than about Macdonald.


In contrast to the first volume’s relative lack of interest in the shaping of the text of what we now call the Constitution Act, 1867, the second volume of Gwynn’s biography devotes some attention to that text’s interpretation by the courts and Macdonald’s reaction to it. Or rather, from Gwynn’s perspective, the courts’ ― and specifically the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council’s misinterpretation and Macdonald’s failure to respond. Gwynn adopts entirely the view, which has long been ascendant in the progressive English-Canadian legal discourse, that confederation was meant to be highly centralized, and that blundering or outright malevolent British judges remade it into something almost, but not quite, entirely unlike its true self.

Macdonald, in Gwynn’s telling, is a victim of this process, suffering from a sort of Stockholm syndrome if not permanent false consciousness. Due to his longstanding admiration for the British legal system and the men running it, he never does much of anything to try countering the step-by-step perversion of his constitutional design. Power-hungry provinces and haughty, stupid jurists doing their bidding in London run the show, while the Prime Minister, so wily, so ambitious, and so determined in just about every aspect of politics, keeps a stoic, resigned silence.

As the reader may have guessed, I find this picture quite implausible. Granted, I also happen to think that the cases which Gwynn and his predecessors in the Canadian legal academy find so offensive were correctly decided. Perhaps that makes me biased here ― but at least it is not, as was often their case, a partisan bias. I dislike and fear both the federal and the provincial governments, roughly equally. They have a clear preference for federal power. But be that as it may, is it not simply more logical to think that, if Macdonald never seriously protested, and never sought to have the UK Parliament revise Canada’s constitutional balance, it is because he did not find the Privy Council’s jurisprudence so out of kilter with his own views of Confederation?

More precisely, is it not more consistent with everything else we know about Macdonald to suppose that he understood that, whatever his personal preferences ― which were, to be sure, for greater centralization ― these preferences weren’t shared even by his political allies (in Québec and, say, Nova Scotia), let alone his opponents. He knew that the constitution that was enacted in 1867 was not quite as centralized as he might have wished. He would also have known that the way in which it was interpreted was not an aberration or an usurpation, but a plausible application of what had been enacted. It’s likely enough that he would have preferred the courts to rule differently. But there is quite a gap between such a preference and a regret that things turned out the way they did, and the picture of pathetic impotence presented by Gwynn.


I turn now to the issue on which Macdonald’s reputation now seems be foundering, at least in some circles: his relationship to the non-white-male sections of society. It’s complicated. One thing to note is that Gwynn’s book, published less than a decade ago, already seems somewhat dated. It barely even mentions residential schools, if it mentions them at all. That seems like a gap. At the same time though, this does suggest that there is a lot more to judge Macdonald by, for the better and for the worse, than this one issue.

Gwynn does devote a great deal of attention to Macdonald’s policy and views toward the Métis (including, but not only, Louis Riel and his companions) and the Prairie First Nations. Macdonald seems to have been somewhat inconsistent, and often the issue did not attract as much of his attention as it deserved. By today’s standards he could be utterly heartless, and the people whose way of life was crumbling in the face of advancing white settlement were often left to suffer without aid or sympathy. As Gwynn points out, the principle that people should not be counting on the state’s help was not only applied to Aboriginals ― but he doesn’t note, in this connection, that the National Policy was a welfare policy of sorts, albeit a destructive one, as welfare policies tend to be. And generally, Gwynn writes that Macdonald ― despite flashes of recognition of the priority of Aboriginal presence in Canada ― didn’t believe that First Nations could truly be part of the Canadian society. (It was a more complicated story with the Métis.)

And yet. It may be daft to point out that, if nothing else, the Canadian state under Macdonald (or later) didn’t physically exterminate its Aboriginal population ― unlike its neighbour across the 49th parallel. But it mattered then. And there is more than just that. How many people tearing down his statutes know that in 1885 Macdonald pushed through electoral legislation that enfranchised (some) First Nations men? They were then disenfranchised by legislation enacted by Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals. I have to admit, I did not know that either. One can certainly object that the franchise is pretty useless when you are starving. That’s fair enough. But if we are interested in assessing Macdonald’s views and record, I still think that his choice to expend political capital on this legislation, from which he did not stand to benefit much at all, has got to count for something. Towards the end of his life, Macdonald was a man increasingly behind the times, a mid-19th century man surviving in the century’s closing decade. As it happens, though, attitudes towards Indigenous peoples were more benevolent ― not, to be sure, egalitarian ― in the middle of the century (not just in Canada ― this was true in New Zealand also), and Macdonald’s views reflected this.

Just as strikingly, to me, Macdonald sought to include women’s suffrage in the same bill that enfranchised First Nations Canadians for the first time. He failed. Despite the fact that this measure would likely have benefitted his party ― Macdonald being very popular with women, apparently ― there was more determined opposition to it, and Macdonald did not get his way. If he had, Canada would have beaten New Zealand to egalitarian bragging rights and, more importantly, enfranchised women a generation before it eventually did (under another self-interested Conservative government). Again, I did not know this, and I suspect that many of Macdonald’s critics ― and perhaps more than a few of his boosters ― don’t either.

The last point I will mention here concerns immigration. Here too, Macdonald’s record is better than Laurier’s. But it’s not great. Macdonald’s government made an effort (not always successful, but real) to recruit immigrants in Europe, including (and even especially) within minority groups persecuted in their home countries. But things were very different where non-white immigration was concerned. Macdonald himself seems to have had little sympathy for the anti-Chinese feelings growing in Canada, especially in British Columbia, towards the end of his life. But he eventually went along with them and brought in legislation that imposed a tax on Chinese immigrants, and so sharply reduced their numbers, although it wasn’t yet set at the prohibitive levels that Laurier’s government would bring in. It was, if I understand correctly, the first immigration restriction in Canadian history, and there is no question that it was motivated by racism, even if not personally felt racism.


So what are we to make of Macdonald? Much depends of course on how we go about making the judgment. The common assumption seems to be that Macdonald was a great man and blameless of any particularly great sins by the standards of his time, and also that he deserves clear condemnation if judged by our contemporary views of political morality. I’m not sold on either view.

Even against the standards of his own time, the National Policy and, more generally, Macdonald’s nationalism, especially in its ugly partisan aspects deserved condemnation. Macdonald knew that the policy was benefitting a section of the nation at the expense of others ― and did his best to hide this and deceive the voters. And the advantages of free trade had been understood for a century by the time he deluded the voters into thinking that he found a weird trick for economic prosperity. Similarly, Macdonald knew that the restrictions on Chinese immigration were an unprincipled sop to populist feeling, even though he wouldn’t have thought about them in terms of racial equality as we do now.

And then, of course there is the matter of the Canadian Pacific scandal, and government corruption more generally. I haven’t focused on that, partly because, to be honest, I’m still not sure I understand what happened, and partly to save space. But mostly, I think this is not the most interesting or important part of Macdonald’s legacy. If, however, we think about him from the perspective of his own time, this issue should probably assume the importance it had for his contemporaries. And this is not to Macdonald’s advantage.

Conversely, though, looking back at Macdonald from today’s vantage point need not lead to unreserved condemnation. As I argued in my post on Gwynn’s first volume, for all his failings on an egalitarian standard, he has had a decisive influence in securing Canada’s independence, and sovereignty in the West. This was not, to put it mildly, an unmitigated blessing for the West’s Indigenous peoples, but it beat the alternative, which was not ― by 1870 ― the preservation of the Indigenous peoples’ freedom and way of life, but colonization by the United States. Macdonald’s enfranchisement of First Nations’ men and even his failed attempt to secure women’s suffrage also deserve a great deal more credit by our standards than by those of his own time.

Wilfrid Laurier eulogized his late rival by observing that “his stesmanship … is written in the history of Canada” and that

the life of Sir John Macdonald, form the date he entered Parliament, is the history of Canada, for he was connected and associated with all the events, all the facts which brought Canada from the position it then occupied―the position of two small provinces, having nothing in common but their common allegiance, united by a bond of paper, and united by nothing else―to the present state of development which Canada has reached.

Laurier also compared Macdonald to “one of the institutions of the land”. All this was accurate, and remains relevant. Ultimately, one’s judgment on Macdonald is one’s judgment on Canada itself. Many people see the very real flaws and sins, and judge negatively. But, for my own part, I compare to the alternatives, and judge―not without sorrow and reproof―but with gratitude.

A Citizen’s Guide to the Rule of Law

Introducing a chapter on the nature and importance of the Rule of Law

Last year, Peter Biro of Section1 asked me to contribute a chapter on the Rule of Law for the book he was putting together. The book, Constitutional Democracy under Stress: A Time for Heroic Citizenship, is going to be available in the second week of August, but, with Mr. Biro’s kind permission, you can read my contribution, “A Citizen’s Guide to the Rule of Law“, now ― and for free. It’s meant to be a relatively concise and accessible introduction to the concept of the Rule of Law and to the main strands of scholarship about it, as well as an examination of whether Canadian law actually lives up to the Rule of Law’s requirements. Here is an abstract:

This chapter sets out, for both a generalist and a legally trained readership, the basic contours of the Rule of Law as a legal and political ideal, with a special focus on the ways in which ideal is understood and implemented in the Canadian legal system. It begins by explaining why law is necessary, and why it must bind both government and individuals. A review of three key themes around which the understanding of the Rule of Law is often organized in scholarship follows. The first of these themes is the form that the law, especially legislation, takes. The second is the process by which law is made and enforced by legislatures, the courts, and the administrative state. The third is the possibility that the Rule of Law may impose constraints on the substance of the laws, especially in order to protect fundamental individual rights. The chapter concludes by arguing that adherence to the Rule of Law is the only way in which the exercise of power can be contained and the arbitrariness inherent in it in the absence of law can be counteracted.

The reason for writing this chapter (other than that Mr. Biro asked me to do it) is that too many people ― up to and including at least a couple of Supreme Court judges ― don’t seem to understand what the Rule of Law is and why it matters. I write in the introduction, the Rule of Law is paired with “the supremacy of God” in the preamble to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and

there is indeed something theological about the reverence with which some lawyers speak of the Rule of Law, and … it too is an elusive and mysterious idea—and one, moreover, that induces as much impatience in those not converted to it as any religious dogma. (104)

The reason for this impatience is that, however dimly they understand it, the Rule of Law’s detractors ― from absolutist kings to populist politicians to the judges who would abet the ones or the others ― realize that it is a break on the exercise of political power. As I explain in the conclusion of the chapter,

It is precisely the constraint that law represents that so infuriated James I … and that infuriates his spiritual descendants, as impatient as he of limits on their ability to do what they are convinced is right and necessary or just. Be they administrators on a mission to rationalize and organize society, do-gooders on a quest for equality, or patriots in pursuit of national greatness, they resent their inability to act without prior authorization; they chafe at the need to give those unwilling to be organized or equalized opportunities to challenge their commands; they would disregard ancient rights in the pursuit of the greater good. They wish they could do what they believe is necessary, right, and just. (120)

Yet power, as I have explained here, here, here, here, and here, corrupts. It must be kept in check. The Rule of Law is necessary for us to be able to do so. It is, in a real sense, a victim of its own success: people in Western democracies have forgotten what life without the Rule of Law is like, so they speculate about its being dispensable. But no one among those engaged in such speculation would want to live without the Rule of Law. If it sometimes gets in the way of their, and our, good intentions, this is a price well worth paying. I hope you read my chapter to understand, or better yet to simply remind yourselves, why this is.

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.