Still Keeping It Complicated

The Supreme Court tries to bring more rigour to constitutional interpretation and takes a step towards textualism, but won’t admit it

In my last post, I summarized the opinions delivered in Quebec (Attorney General) v 9147-0732 Québec inc, 2020 SCC 32. While the Supreme Court unanimously holds that corporations are not protected from cruel and unusual punishment by section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the majority (Justices Brown and Rowe, with the agreement of the Chief Justice and Justices Moldaver and Côté) and the principal concurrence (Justice Abella, with Justices Karakatsanis and Martin) strongly disagree about the proper approach to constitutional interpretation and to the role in this process of international and foreign legal materials.

As promised, in this post I present my thoughts on these opinions, primarily on their general approach to interpretation, though I’ll say something on the role of international and foreign materials too. I will, once again, begin with Justice Abella’s opinion, which in my view is representative of what I have described as “constitutionalism from Plato’s cave” ― the judicial creation of constitutional law out of abstract ideals favoured by the judges themselves rather than genuine interpretation of a constitutional text. I will then turn to the majority opinion, which repudiates constitutionalism from the cave, but also seemingly rejects what I regard as the best interpretive method, public meaning originalism. I will argue that there is less to this rejection than meets the eye.

One question on which I will say nothing, although the majority and the principal concurrence trade sharp accusations on it, is which of these opinions is more consistent with precedent. As Benjamin Oliphant and I have pointed out in our article on “Originalist Reasoning in Canadian Constitutional Jurisprudence”, the Supreme Court has never been consistent in how it interpreted the constitution, mixing and matching originalist and living constitutionalist approaches in any number of unpredictable ways. (Mr. Oliphant has developed this theme elsewhere too.) Justices Brown and Rowe are right to call for more rigour and consistency on this front; but they are wrong, as is Justice Abella, to suggest that has been any rigour and consistency in the past. Whatever their flaws, neither the majority nor the concurring opinion break with established law, because there is no real law to break with.


As mentioned in my last post, Justice Abella insists that her approach to interpretation is “contextual” and, above all, “purposive”. In truth, it might be better described as authorizing constitution-making by the Supreme Court. It is “the Court” ― following an American usage, Justice Abella does not bother specifying which one ― that “has, over time, decided who and what came within the Charter’s protective scope”. [49] The Supreme Court does not simply decide cases in which the question arose. No, it apparently ruled, as a matter of discretion, on whom the Charter will protect going forward.

Judicial rulings in constitutional cases are not, for Justice Abella, mere workings out of the constitution’s meaning. Indeed, the constitutional text plays no special role in interpretation for her. This is unsurprising, because Justice Abella embraces the view that co-blogger Mark Mancini recently described as “linguistic nihilism” ― the idea “that language is never clear, or put differently, hopelessly vague or ambiguous”, so that “the task of interpretation based on text is a fool’s game”. (Of course this is of a piece with Justice Abella’s commitments in administrative law.) It is also unsurprising, then, that her discussion of international materials suggests that text does not really matter at all, and a variety of differently-worded provisions all stand for the exact same principles, without any meaningful inquiry into the relevance, if any, of their language. In fact, Justice Abella is openly disdainful of the possibility that textual nuance ― such as “the presence of a comma” [75] ― might make a difference in interpretation.

Another reason for Justice Abella’s refusal to be bound by constitutional text is that this ” could unduly constrain the scope of [constitutional] rights”. [75] This reflects the conviction, common among living constitutionalists, that judicial re-writing of constitutions is a one-way ratchet unfailing causing rights to expand. This view is belied by experience. But, quite apart from that: “unduly” by what standard? If not by reference to text, how do we know what is the due scope of constitutional rights? This ambiguity is of a piece with Justice Abella’s insistence that section 12 “is meant to protect human dignity and respect the inherent worth of individuals. Its intended beneficiaries are people, not corporations.” [51] Is meant… by whom? Intended… by whom? And how do we know?

As Mr. Oliphant and I noted in the paper linked to above, “[m]arks on paper have no will or agency and thus can have no ‘purposes’ or ‘intentions’ that are independent of willful actors”. (537) One possibility, as we suggested, is that this language becomes an opening for an inquiry into the intentions of the Charter‘s framers. But Justice Abella isn’t very interested in that. Unlike the Supreme Court in some cases, she doesn’t consider the Charter‘s drafting history or the views of its framers, beyond a passing reference to Pierre Trudeau’s general comments about the Charter‘s raison d’être.

Justice Abella’s use of ambiguous language and the passive voice, like her refusal to be bound by text or to commit to any hierarchy of interpretive sources, suggest that she believes herself to have has complete discretion in deciding what the Charter is to mean. Her own sense of justice is the only standard of who is “due” protection under the constitution, and what protection they are “due”. This is unsurprising, of course, from someone who professes impatience with the Rule of Law and prefers a “rule of justice”. Constitutional purposes, as she conceives of them, are Platonic abstractions, which the wise ― she the wisest ― must interpret for the rest of us.

As I have said a number of times in the past, “constitutionalism from the cave” is not real constitutionalism. It is antithetical to the Rule of Law. Ultimately, it undermines the foundations of judicial review: if the constitution means whatever unelected judges preoccupied with international approval more than with the law or the commands of the constitution’s framers say it means, there is no particular reason why the political branches would comply with these judges’ musings. It is good that this view is dealt a defeat by the Supreme Court’s majority.


In contrast to Justice Abella, Justices Brown and Rowe emphasize the importance of constitutional text. It is not, I think, merely a matter of the text being chronologically the first consideration for a court engaged in constitutional interpretation: “constitutional interpretation” is “the interpretation of the text of the Constitution”. [9] The text is its focus and overriding constraint; it has “primacy” over other considerations. [10, citing Caron v Alberta, 2015 SCC 56, [2015] 3 SCR 511 at [36]]

One way in which the text matters is, of course, through the ordinary meaning of its words and the inferences that can be drawn from it. Here, since the word “cruel” refers to the infliction of human suffering, it stands to reason that section 12 does not protect corporations. But the significance of the text goes further. The history of the text and the changes it underwent are relevant too, as Justices Brown and Rowe show by pointing ― in language that, as I noted in my last post, closely mirrors that of my comment on the Court of Appeal’s decision in this case ― to the contrast between the language of section 12 and that of its predecessors in Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights 1688. Other provisions on the text are relevant too.

To my mind, this ― so far as it goes ― is a sound approach to constitutional interpretation, and I am happy to see it forcefully stated by a majority of the Supreme Court. If I were to put a label on it, it would be “textualism”. Consider the definition of textualism given by then-Judge, now Justice Amy Coney Barrett in a lecture I reviewed here:

Textualism … insists that judges must construe statutory language consistent with its “ordinary meaning.” The law is comprised of words—and textualists emphasize that words mean what they say, not what a judge thinks that they ought to say. For textualists, statutory language is a hard constraint. Fidelity to the law means fidelity to the text as it is written. (856; footnote omitted)

This is what Justices Brown and Rowe are doing: insisting that the object of interpretation is words, text, and focusing on their ordinary meaning, which is a hard constraint on interpretation.

Yet Justices Brown and Rowe reject the label of textualism. To their mind, what they are doing is purposive interpretation. Judge Barrett, as she then was, saw purposivism as the opposite of textualism, though in my post I cautioned that “many approaches to interpretation and construction, including ones that respect the primacy and constraint of the text, might properly be described as purposive”. Perhaps this is what Justices Brown and Rowe are advocating ― a sort of “purposivism”, if that’s what they prefer to call it, but one that has a great deal more in common with textualism as defined by Judge Barrett than with “purposivism” as defined by Justice Abella.

So maybe the moral of the story here is that we all should be less hung up on labels. But in my view there is a real cost to the lack of clarity that the labels used by the Supreme Court generate. I wrote about this here when I commented on R v Stillman, 2019 SCC 40. In that case, similarly to here, the majority and the dissent both claimed to be engaged in purposive interpretation. But the majority, I argued, was in effect following a public meaning originalist (and hence textualist) approach, while the dissent was doing constitutionalism from the cave. As I said then, to pretend that textualist interpretation is really purposive generates unnecessary detours. Here, the majority’s references to human dignity as the purpose of section 12 do no real work, and unnecessarily burden the reasoning with what is, by the Supreme Court’s own well-known admission in R v Kapp, 2008 SCC 41, [2008] 2 SCR 483, “an abstract and subjective notion”. [22] And, as I also said in my comment on Stillman, mislabeling an originalist or textualist interpretation as purposivist makes it possible for the partisans of an entirely different version of purposivism to invoke cases that go directly against their views as support for them. Justice Abella does precisely that here (at [73]).

Worse still, from my perspective, than the mere confusion about labels is the seeming rejection by Justices Brown and Rowe of the substance of public meaning originalism, under the label of “new textualism” which they borrow from Aharon Barak’s Harvard Law Review Supreme Court Term Foreword, “A Judge on Judging”, where it stands as a shorthand for Justice’s Scalia’s interpretive approach. This is the idea, as President Barak put it, “that that the Constitution and every statute should be understood according to the reading of a reasonable reader at the time of enactment”. (82; reference omitted) Justices Brown and Rowe claim that this approach is “not remotely consistent” [12] with theirs. If they are right, this would be the first rejection of public meaning originalism by the Supreme Court. As Mr. Oliphant and I have shown, until now, the only versions of originalism that had been clearly rejected were those, disfavoured by originalists themselves, that focus on original expected applications and outcomes.

Yet it will take more than this opinion of Justices Brown and Rowe to make me give up on originalism. Let me note, first, that Justice Brown himself was a co-author of the Stillman majority opinion (and that its other co-author was Justice Moldaver, who agrees with Justices Brown and Rowe here). I described that opinion as “perhaps the most originalist, and specifically public-meaning originalist, in a constitutional case since that of the majority in Caron“. And yes, Caron ― which Justices Brown and Rowe repeatedly cite ― was a public-meaning originalist judgment, as I explained here. Both Stillman and Caron focused on ascertaining the meaning of the constitutional provisions at issue there by reference to how they would have been understood by “a reasonable reader at the time of enactment”, over dissents that favoured, respectively a more policy-infused approach and one based on the alleged intent of the framers. If Justices Brown and Rowe really meant to reject public meaning originalism, would they be relying on these cases? That seems implausible.

No less importantly, consider what Justices Brown and Rowe say elsewhere in their opinion. When they discuss the use of international and foreign materials, they draw an “important distinction … between instruments that pre‑ and post‑date the Charter“. [41] The former “clearly form part of the historical context of a Charter right and illuminate the way it was framed”, whether or not they were binding on Canada. The latter, only matter if they bind Canada, and even then subject to only a presumption that Canadian constitutional law conforms to them, and to the principle that international law does not automatically become part of Canadian law. This isn’t quite originalism: an originalist would be warier still of materials that post-date the Charter, although, as I am about to explain, without necessarily rejecting their relevance in all cases. But it’s pretty close. Originalists believe that constitutional text must be interpreted in context as of the date of its enactment, and reference to international materials available to Canadian framers is certainly a legitimate part of ascertaining the context in which the Charter‘s original meaning should be established. The fact that Justices Brown and Rowe draw a dividing line at the moment of the Charter’s enactment suggests that they are, in fact, open to something like originalist thinking.

All in all, my point is not that Justices Brown and Rowe are originalists. However, they are textualists, which is a big part of originalism, and their approach has at least some significant affinities with public meaning originalism. It is unfortunate that their self-misunderstanding muddies the waters. But if we focus on what they do rather than on what they say about what they do we can see that their opinion, despite its flaws, is an important step in the right direction, and by far preferable to Justice Abella’s.


I turn, finally, to the issue of international and comparative materials. I agree with the majority’s calls for care and discernment in the way such materials are used. Partly this is a matter of legal and intellectual rigour. Partly, as Justices Brown and Rowe say, of “preserving the integrity of the Canadian constitutional structure, and Canadian sovereignty”. [23] Justice Abella’s concerns about whether foreign scholars and courts will pay attention to Canadian constitutional law are beside the point. Ultimately, the Canadian constitution means what it means, and not what some international treaty, let alone foreign constitutional text, might mean ― a matter on which Canadian courts often could not pronounce. I would, however, add two further observations, which I already made here in discussing similar issues that arose in the Supreme Court’s decision in Frank v Canada (Attorney General), 2019 SCC 1, [2019] 1 SCR 3.

First, international and foreign materials may be more relevant and persuasive to courts engaged in constitutional construction, and in particular (but not only) in the demarcation of reasonable limits on rights under section 1 of the Charter, than in cases such as this one, which concern the interpretation of the Charter‘s text. When courts develop legal doctrine, they have more reason to look to international experience ― including international experience post-dating the Charter‘s enactment ― than when they seek to discern the meaning of the Charter‘s words ― an exercise to which, as Justices Brown and Rowe recognize, international and foreign materials post-dating the Charter are unlikely to be relevant. The majority’s unwillingness to seriously engage with public meaning originalism causes it to seemingly lump all constitutional questions together and so to lose sight of this nuance.

Second, when and to the extent that international and foreign law is relevant, judicial consideration of it should, as I wrote in my comment on Frank, “not be partial ― either in the sense of having a pre-determined result in mind, or in the sense of being incomplete”. I’m not quite sure what Justices Brown and Rowe mean by saying that such materials should be kept to “providing support and confirmation for the result reached by way of purposive interpretation”. [22; emphasis in the original] But it would not be intellectually honest for a court to only consider materials that agree with its conclusions and deliberately discard others. If the court considers foreign and international sources, it should address those that it does not find persuasive.

The court should also be careful not to misunderstand or mischaracterize these sources. Justice Abella’s invocation of the “judges in the majority” in Furman v Georgia, 402 US 238 (1972), as having “definitively discussed” the purpose of the Eighth Amendment is an example of such dangers. There was no unified majority in Furman; the two judges whom Justice Abella quotes, Justices Marshall and Brennan, were in fact the only ones who took the position they took, which was that the death penalty was necessarily cruel and unusual punishment. Three others took a more limited view that opened the door to the re-imposition of the death penalty, which was given the green light in Gregg v Georgia, 428 US 153 (1976), in effect reversing Furman. If judges are to refer to foreign law, they need to understand and be honest about it.


Overall, the Supreme Court, and specifically the majority opinion of Justices Brown and Rowe, brings a welcome dose of rigour to the task of constitutional interpretation in Canada. The primacy of constitutional text as the object of interpretation is affirmed, while freewheeling discretion to make the constitution the best it can be in a judge’s opinion is rejected. There is also a more rigorous approach to the use of international and foreign materials in constitutional interpretation. Compared to the alternative vividly illustrated by Justice Abella, this is all very welcome (and all the more so if, as I hypothesized in my last post, Justice Abella’s opinion was originally intended to be the majority one).

But the majority opinion is very far from perfect, and it will perpetuate much of the confusion that afflicts constitutional interpretation in Canada. Even as it adopts the methods of textualism and is largely compatible with public meaning originalism it disclaims the former and purports to reject the latter. This messiness is the sad consequence of a lack of serious thought about constitutional interpretation in Canada. One can only hope that this gap will be filled in the years to come.

You Read It Here First

The Supreme Court holds that the Charter does not protect corporations against cruel and unusual punishment

Can corporations avail themselves of the protection of section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms against “any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment”? In Quebec (Attorney General) v 9147-0732 Québec inc, 2020 SCC 32 the Supreme Court unanimously holds that it cannot. The question excited some debate, both for its own sake and also for its implications for constitutional interpretation more broadly, in the wake of the Québec Court of Appeal’s decision in this case, 9147-0732 Québec inc c Directeur des poursuites criminelles et pénales, 2019 QCCA 373. I argued against the position of the Court of Appeal’s majority and in favour of the one now adopted by the Supreme Court (here and then here); others, however, disagreed.

The narrow issue of the scope of section 12 is now decided, at least as a matter of positive law. But the splits among the Supreme Court’s judges and the ambiguities of the majority opinion delivered by Justices Brown and Rowe (with the agreement of the Chief Justice and Justices Moldaver and Côté) mean that the broader question of how Canadian courts should interpret the constitution remains unsettled. Although both the majority and Justice Abella, who concurs (with Justices Karakatsanis and Martin) claim for themselves the mantle of purposivism, the majority moves in a textualist direction, even as it denies doing so, while the concurrence defends an approach under which the constitution means whatever the Supreme Court thinks it should mean, though it does not quite admit it. Justice Kasirer, meanwhile, concurs in the result and pointedly refuses to step into his colleagues’ interpretive debate.

In this post, I summarize the opinions. I will follow up with comments, mostly on constitutional interpretation, in a separate post tomorrow. Benjamin Oliphant will also have comments in the coming days, dealing with both constitutional interpretation generally and the use of international law in particular.


The respondent (we’re not actually going to refer to it ― or to the case as a whole ― by the number, are we? what are supposed to call this case though?) was charged with having undertaken some construction work without the requisite license. It argued that the fine it would have to pay would be excessive, and thus in violation of section 12 of the Charter. All three judgments made short work of this view. All commended the dissenting reasons of Justice Chamberland at the Court of Appeal and, like him, all pointed to the fact that cruelty referred to the infliction of suffering in body or mind, of which human beings were capable, and legal persons were not. Justice Kasirer’s concurrence, which limits itself to making these points, is all of five paragraphs long.

But, for whatever reason, the other eight judges do not think this is enough. They debate the general principles of constitutional interpretation, focusing on two main issues: first, the primacy, or lack thereof, of the constitutional text; and second, the role of international materials. The subject of this debate is unusual for a Supreme Court of Canada decision: constitutional interpretation is seldom addressed at such length even in cases that actually turn on it, which this one doesn’t really. So is the debate’s vehemence. The perennial talk of the differences between the mean, originalism-debating US Supreme Court and its kinder, gentler Canadian counterpart was always overwrought, but it feels especially out of place now.

Another oddity of the debate between the majority opinion and that of Justice Abella is that the former seems to have been written entirely in response to the latter. It is a rare majority opinion that is introduced by a disclaimer that “[d]espite our agreement in the result, we find it necessary to write separately”. [3] I wonder whether the decision was originally assigned to Justice Abella, but some judges (starting presumably with Justices Brown and Rowe), being dissatisfied with her treatment of the interpretive issues, wrote separately, and ended up peeling off others, forming a new majority. Be that as it may, it is perhaps useful to start with Justice Abella’s reasons, since the majority responds to them more than the other way around.

Justice Abella describes her interpretive approach as “contextual” and “purposive”. The text has no special role to play in determining the Charter’s import: “examining the text of the Charter is only the beginning of the interpretive exercise, an exercise which is fundamentally different from interpreting a statute”, [71] and “elevating the plain text” of the Charter’s provisions “to a factor of special significance” is a mistake. [72] Due to its often “vague, open-ended language … [t]he text of those provisions may … be of comparatively limited assistance in interpreting their scope”. [74] Indeed, attaching too much importance to constitutional text

could unduly constrain the scope of those rights, or even yield two irreconcilable conclusions leading, for example, to the interpretive triumph of the presence of a comma in expanding gun-owners’ rights under the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution in District of Columbia v Heller, 554 US 570 (2008) [75]

Insisting on the primacy of the plain text of Charter rights” also undermines the constitution’s ability of to develop and “creates a risk that, over time, those rights will cease to represent the fundamental values of Canadian society and the purposes they were meant to uphold”. [76] Finally, “[a] textualist approach would also make Canadian constitutional law more insular”, [78] by which Justice Abella means both less inclined to consider foreign authority and less attractive as a reference point to foreign jurists.

Rather, purpose has to be inferred from a variety of contextual indicia, there being no “rigid hierarchy among these interpretative guides”, [80] although elsewhere Justice Abella suggests that “the principles and values underlying the enactment of the Charter provision are the primary interpretive tools”. [70] Justice Abella refers to dictionary definitions of the word “cruel”, the textual context of section 12 (notably the fact that almost no other “legal rights” protected by the Charter have been held to extend to corporations), and the historical context of its enactment (with respect to which Justice Abella briefly refers to the Bill of Rights 1688, the comments of some judges in  Furman v Georgia, 408 US 238 (1972), and the Canadian Bill of Rights).

Justice Abella also refers, copiously, to contemporary interpretations of section 12’s equivalents in foreign and international instruments. This is justified, she argues, by the fact that “Canada’s rights protections emerged from the same chrysalis of outrage” about Nazi crimes “as other countries around the world”. [98] It also ensures that Canada maintains a “leading voice internationally in constitutional adjudication”. [106] Unlike the majority, she wants to avoid creating a “hierarchical sliding scale of persuasiveness” [104] among these sources and “thereby transform[] the Court’s usual panoramic search for global wisdom into a series of compartmentalized barriers”. [61] Textual differences among these sources do not matter, because “a common meaning can be ascribed to their various formulations”. [108] These sources include international treaties, both those to which Canada is a and those to which it is not (like the American Convention on Human Rights), as well as the interpretations of these treaties by the relevant adjudicative bodies, as well as the jurisprudence of foreign domestic courts.

All these sources tend to the same conclusion:

In line with the global consensus, [section 12’s] purpose is to prevent the state from inflicting physical or mental pain and suffering through degrading and dehumanizing treatment or punishment. It is meant to protect human dignity and respect the inherent worth of individuals. … Since it cannot be said that corporations have an interest that falls within the purpose of the guarantee, they do not fall within s. 12’s scope. [135-36]

The majority, as already noted, strongly disagrees with Justice Abella’s approach. Like Justice Abella, Justices Brown and Rowe purport to interpret the Charter in a purposive manner. However, they accuse Justice Abella of “minimizing the primordial significance assigned by this Court’s jurisprudence to constitutional text in undertaking purposive interpretation”. [4] They insist that

within the purposive approach, the analysis must begin by considering the text of the provision … because constitutional interpretation, being the interpretation of the text of the Constitution, must first and foremost have reference to, and be constrained by, that text”. [8-9; emphasis in the original]

They add that “[g]iving primacy to the text” [10] is also the way to avoid framing the purpose of a provision too narrowly or too broadly.

Justices Brown and Rowe reject the charge that they are favouring a narrowly textualist approach. What Aharon Barak’s described, in his Harvard Law Review Supreme Court Term Foreword, “A Judge on Judging”, as “new textualism”, a “‘system [which] holds that the Constitution and every statute should be understood according to the reading of a reasonable reader at the time of enactment’ and in which ‘[r]eference to the history of the text’s creation . . . is not allowed’” [12], is “not remotely consistent with [the approach] which we apply and which our law demands”. [12]

Analyzing section 12, Justices Brown and Rowe first note that “the words ‘cruel and unusual treatment or punishment’ refer to human pain and suffering, both physical and mental”. [14; emphasis in the original] They mostly endorse Justice Abella’s historical analysis, although they “add that an examination of s. 12’s historical origins shows that the Charter took a different path from its predecessors”, [16] going back to Magna Carta, because “the right not to be denied reasonable bail without just cause was carved off from the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, and placed in s. 11(e) of the Charter”, while “[e]ven more significantly, the protection against ‘excessive fines’ was not retained at all”. [16] All “this is highly significant, if not determinative: excessive fines (which a corporation can sustain), without more, are not unconstitutional”. [17]

Readers may have seen these arguments before: in part, of course, in Justice Chamberland’s dissent at the Court of Appeal, but the reference to both Magna Carta and to section 11(e) of the Charter first appeared right here, in my comment on the Court of Appeal’s decision. Here’s what I wrote:

The Charter does things somewhat differently from its forbears. The right “not to be denied reasonable bail without just cause” is placed in a separate provision (section 11(e)) from the protection against cruel and unusual punishment (section 12). The proscription of “excessive fines”, meanwhile, has not been retained. These drafting choices ought to matter. In particular, the Charter’s text means that excessive fines are not, without more, unconstitutional. (Paragraph break removed, emphasis added)

I’ll let the reader judge how likely the similarity ― not only of ideas, of course, but of the way in which they are presented and even of the words used, especially the passage quoted above from paragraph 17 and the italicized sentence from my post ― is to be coincidental.

Justices Brown and Rowe then move on to discussing the use of international materials. This discussion, though, is still relevant to a more general consideration of constitutional interpretation. It begin with an assertion that “[a]s a constitutional document that was ‘made in Canada’ … the Charter and its provisions are primarily interpreted with regards to Canadian law and history”. [20] International and foreign materials can “support or confirm an interpretation arrived at through the Big M Drug Mart approach”, but not “to define the scope of Charter rights”. [28] Different types of instruments should also be treated differently: those that are binding on Canada are entitled to a presumption that the Charter is consistent with them; others are not. The date on which the international instruments came into being matters too:

International instruments that pre‑date the Charter can clearly form part of the historical context of a Charter right and illuminate the way it was framed. Here, whether Canada is or is not a party to such instruments is less important … As for instruments that post‑date the Charter, … [i]t can readily be seen that an instrument that post‑dates the Charter and that does not bind Canada carries much less interpretive weight than one that binds Canada and/or contributed to the development of the Charter. [41-42]

Foreign judicial decisions, meanwhile, must be invoked with “[p]articular caution” [43] and subject to an explanation as to the “way they are instructive, how they are being used, or why the particular sources are being relied on”. [44]


I am happy to see such extensive debate of constitutional interpretation taking place at the Supreme Court, though like Justice Kasirer I am a bit mystified by the reasons why it took place in this case. As co-blogger Mark Mancini and I argued just recently, Canadian law will benefit from more and better conversations about constitutional interpretation. A discussion of the use of international and comparative materials is also welcome, though again I wonder if this was the case in which it had to happen.

At the same time, by way of a preview of my next post, I will say that the treatment of constitutional interpretation in this case is not altogether satisfactory. To be sure, the majority opinion is a step in the right direction, as the contrast with Justice Abella’s concurrence makes clear. Yet although a substantive improvement on the alternative, this opinion engages in some misdirection and perpetuates the confusion that all too often characterize discussions of constitutional interpretation in Canada.

Activism v Constitution

The federal court rightly holds that the judiciary cannot control Canada’s climate policy

In a number of jurisdictions, environmental activists have turned to the courts in an ostensible attempt to force the implementation of policies they deem necessary to deal with climate change. Some of these lawsuits have succeeded to great fanfare, others not. Such litigation challenges not only constantly evolving public policy, but also longstanding principles of separation of powers. In the Federal Court’s decision in La Rose v Canada, 2020 FC 1008, the activists lose ― and separation of powers wins.


The activists challenged Canada’s public policy in relation to greenhouse gas emissions, notably insofar as it does not set sufficiently ambitious emission reduction targets, failed to meet the targets that were set, generally allowed emissions to rise, and “support[ed] the development, expansion and operation of industries and activities involving fossil fuels”. [8] All this, they said, “unjustifiably infringed their rights (and the rights of all children and youth in Canada, present and future, due to an asserted public interest standing) under sections 7 and 15 of the Charter” and amounted to a breach of the government’s “public trust obligations with respect to identified public resources”. [7] They sought a variety of declarations and orders, including “an order requiring the [government] to develop and implement an enforceable climate recovery plan that is consistent with Canada’s fair share of the global carbon budget plan”, [12] and asked that the court retain jurisdiction to supervise the implementation of this order.

The government sought to have the activists’ statement of claim struck on the basis that their demands were not justiciable or had no reasonable prospects of success. Justice Manson agrees. After, concluding that Charter claims, even novel ones, can be disposed of in the context of a motion to strike (an issue addressed in the most recent episode of the Runnymede Radio podcast, in which co-blogger Mark Mancini interviewed Gerard Kennedy), he holds that the Charter claims are not justiciable, while the “public trust” claim, although justiciable, has no reasonable prospect of success.

With respect to justiciability, “[t]he question to be decided is whether the Court has the institutional capacity and legitimacy to adjudicate the matter. Or, more generally, is the issue one that is appropriate for a Court to decide.” [29] The novelty of a claim, by itself, is not relevant, and the fact that a claim has a policy dimension is not a bar to justiciability. However, “[t]o engage the Court’s adjudicative functions, the question must be one that can be resolved by the application of law”. [34] The general direction of policy is a matter for governments and legislatures; “[p]olicy choices must be translated into law or state action in order to be amenable to Charter review and otherwise justiciable”. [38]

Justice Manson finds that the challenge here is impermissibly aimed at a general policy choices, “an overly broad and unquantifiable number of actions and inactions” by the government. [40] Indeed, nothing less than “the entirety of Canada’s policy response to climate change” is targeted, with the result that “assessments of Charter infringement cannot be connected to specific laws or state action”, breaking with the normal purpose of judicial review. [43] In effect, the activists seek to put the court in charge of Canada’s climate change policy. This is not the courts’ role, “no matter how critical climate change is and will be”. [48]

Justice Manson also criticizes the remedies sought by the activists. Declarations alone would amount to ineffective statements about the meaning of the Charter, or pronouncements about the effectiveness of public policy more appropriate to a commission of inquiry than a court. Meanwhile, judicial supervision of public policy is not appropriate, and would not, in any case, in itself redress the alleged breach of the plaintiffs’ Charter rights.

While this is not dispositive, Justice Manson also suggests that the Charter arguments would have no reasonable chance of success even if they were justiciable. In the case of the section 7 claim, this is because no one law or even specific set of laws is said to be rights-infringing. That said, in an obiter to the obiter, Justice Manson muses about the possibility of a positive-rights claim succeeding in a future case. As for the section 15 claim, “[i]t is unclear what impugned law creates the claimed distinction, whether on its face or in its impact”. [79] 

As for the “public trust” claim, according to which the government has an obligation, sourced either in the common law or in unwritten constitutional principle, “to preserve and protect the integrity of inherently public resources so that the public is not deprived of the benefits they provide to all”, [81] Justice Manson finds that it is justiciable, but has no reasonable prospect of success. The “public trust” doctrine is not recognized in Canadian law; it is “extensive and without definable limit” [88]; nor can it be supported as a principle essential to the Canadian constitutional order. There is no point in allowing this claim to proceed to trial.


This is the right outcome. As Justice Manson points out, it simply isn’t the role of the courts to dictate policy in areas where choices must be made among a multitude of variables and any number of competing considerations are to be balanced. It is one one thing for the courts to say that public funds must be expended on a specific matter prioritized by the constitution. They have done so in Doucet-Boudreau v Nova Scotia (Minister of Education), 2003 SCC 62, [2003] 3 SCR 3 (which dealt with the construction of schools to which a linguistic minority was entitled under section 23 of the Charter) and Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, [2014] 3 SCR 31 (where the Supreme Court invalidated a regulation imposing “hearing fees” on litigants who sought to have their day in court, in contravention, the majority said, of s 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867). Even that wasn’t uncontroversial, though I think these outcomes are defensible. But it would be something else entirely for a court to improvise itself the arbiter of policy touching on a matter as all-encompassing as climate change. Perhaps there are shades of grey in this area, matters where it is not quite clear whether the issue is too complex for the courts to intervene, as some critiques of Trial Lawyers suggest. But this isn’t one of them.

What I wrote here after the Court of Appeal for Ontario struck a claim by a coalition of activists that Ontario’s and Canada’s housing policy violated sections 7 and 15 of the Charter in Tanudjaja v Canada (Attorney General), 2014 ONCA 852, 123 OR (3d) 161 (a case to which Justice Manson refers) remains relevant:

[T]here are good reasons for the courts to refuse to adjudicate, if not any and all social and economic rights claims, then at least … vast campaigns intended to reshape entire areas of government policy. There is the issue of competing priorities ― if not all claims on public support can be satisfied, which ones should be favoured? It’s not obvious, to say the least, that the answer to that question ought to be “those who got adjudicated first.” There is the issue of legitimacy of unelected judges having to order Parliament and legislatures to increase taxes. Charles I lost his head for trying to raise taxes without Parliamentary approval, and George III lost an empire for insisting that he had the right to tax without consent. It is, again, not obvious that judges would fare any better. There is the issue of federalism. … The federal government chooses to help the provinces discharge many of their constitutional responsibilities, and the provinces accept the money (and ask for more), but how a court could assign responsibilities between the two level of government ― something that takes sometimes difficult political negotiations ― is really beyond me.

There is, finally, the issue of the law’s inherent conservatism. If a court decides that social programme X is constitutionally required, then programme X cannot be got rid of even to be replaced by a more effective but differently organized programme. … At best, the government would have to turn to the courts and demonstrate  that its proposed programme would be enough to discharge its constitutional obligations. But it could not really demonstrate this ― it would have to speculate, and it’s not clear that a court ought to be convinced by such speculation. (Paragraph break added)

All these concerns weigh on the attempts to litigate climate change policy. At least some plausible measures to reduce greenhouse gas outputs are antithetical to the promotion of economic growth, and it a complex question, a matter of economics and morality, but certainly not law ― and hence not for the courts to decide ― how these priorities are to be balanced. Carbon taxes (or cap-and-trade systems that amount to indirect taxation) are a key policy tool aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and it is not the courts’ place to impose such taxes without an electoral mandate. Federalism is, if anything, even more of a concern here than it was in Tanudjaja, because provincial governments ― which have an important part of policy responsibility in relation to both the environment and to the economy ― were not even before the court. Finally, climate change policy must necessarily be adjusted to the evolution of both the available science and the existing technologies. (Climate policy in a world of cheap solar electricity or, perhaps, fusion power, probably looks quite different from that of today.) Freezing a particular policy response developed in, say, 2021 in constitutional law sounds like a profoundly bad idea, as well one that is inconsistent with the judicial role.

Just to be clear: I’m not saying that these policies are bad. (I’m also not saying that they’re good.) The point is that the courts neither can nor would be justified in passing on their wisdom or even necessity. As Justice Manson says, the function of judicial review of legislation is to assess specific laws or government decisions against the legal rules and standards set out in the constitution. The task of supervising ongoing policy choices that the plaintiffs here were expecting the Federal Court to undertake is radically different.


It is a relief, then, Justice Manson avoids the temptation to “do something” just because “something must be done”, and accepts that the resolution of an important social issue is outside the scope of his office. That’s not to say that courts should avoid resolving important social issues just because they are important social issues. But nor should they assume that they, and the constitution which they enforce, must have something to say on such matters.

As Dwight Newman has written in a related if slightly different context,

[w]hile climate change policy is an immensely important area for governments, that context does not change the Constitution. Some might wish that it did … But the very nature of a constitution is that it must endure across various policy challenges of the day and not be bent to particular policy choices.

And recall, of course, Lord Atkin’s admonition in the Labour Conventions Reference: “While the ship of state now sails on larger ventures and into foreign waters she still retains the water-tight compartments which are an essential part of her original structure.” (684) Professor Newman and Lord Atkin were both addressing the federal division of powers between the Dominion and the provinces, but their point is no less applicable to the separation of powers among the various branches of government ― here, between the Federal Court and Parliament. We probably do not think enough about separation of powers in Canada, and when we do we too often reduce it to judicial independence. But the separation between the judiciary and the “political branches” must be water-tight both ways. There are ways in which Parliament and the executive cannot interfere with the courts. But there are also ways in which the courts must not interfere with Parliament and the executive. This principle holds no less true in waters warmed up and troubled by climate change.

Just Asking

Should the power over criminal law be transferred to the provinces?

Let me ask you what might be a provocative question: is there a good reason why criminal law and criminal procedure should be a matter of federal jurisdiction in Canada? The initial choice of the Fathers of Confederation to make them matters for Parliament under section 91(27) of the Constitution Act, 1867 was justified and turned out well, I think. But the reasons that were relevant at Confederation, and for a century thereafter, no longer hold true. Should we amend the constitution to make criminal law a provincial power ― and, if so, on what conditions?

I should note that this post is just me thinking on the screen. I do not mean it as a definitive word on anything. I am not an expert on criminal law, and might be missing something important. By all means, tell me if, and why, you think I’m wrong (or more wrong than usual). Still, I thought these questions are worth thinking about.


So far as I can tell ― and I haven’t done any actual research on this, so I may just be spewing out preconceptions and received wisdom here ― criminal law and procedure being a federal power continues the basic divide established as early as the Quebec Act 1774. Private disputes would be “determined agreeably to the said Laws and Customs of Canada“. To preserve the ability of the French Canadian majority in Québec to control (most of) its private law, “property and civil rights” became subject to provincial jurisdiction at Confederation. By contrast, the Quebec Act maintained English criminal law in force:

whereas the Certainty and Lenity of the Criminal Law of England, and the Benefits and Advantages resulting from the Use of it, have been sensibly felt by the Inhabitants, from an Experience of more than nine Years, during which it has been uniformly administered; be it therefore further enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That the same shall continue to be administered, and shall be observed as Law in the Province of Quebec, as well in the Description and Quality of the Offence as in the Method of Prosecution and Trial.

The lenity of the Criminal Law of England was such that dozens if not hundreds of offences could lead to hanging, but that was still better than judicial torture, which had existed under ancien régime French law. Here again, Confederation ensured that the status quo would continue, by putting criminal law within Parliament’s jurisdiction ― in contrast to the situation that prevailed in the United States and that would prevail in Australia.

This was as well. I doubt there was any chance of French criminal law being brought back to Canada in the 19th century ― even maintaining the old civil law proved a frightful challenge, which was one of the reasons for the introduction of the Civil code of Lower Canada (as I explained here). But given the relative moderation of federal politics in comparison with what went on in some of the provinces, notably with the authoritarian regimes of the Social Credit in Alberta and the Union Nationale in Québec, federal control over criminal law has been a blessing. It was the reason, notably, for the invalidation of Québec’s ban on “communistic propaganda” in the notorious “Padlock Act” in Switzman v Elbling, [1957] SCR 285.

But something very important happened since then: the enactment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 2 of the Charter protects Canadians across the country from dictatorial legislation such as the Padlock Act. Sections 7 to 14 of the Charter entrench substantive, formal, and procedural provisions historically associated with the “certainty and lenity of the criminal law of England”. Section 24 of the Charter and section 52(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982 provide remedies against governments and legislatures that disregard these rights. These judicial protections (subject to an obvious caveat, to which I will get shortly) are likely to be more effective than the structural devices employed at Confederation. After all, we know that Parliament keeps enacting, and the courts ― to the chagrin of “tough-on-crime” politicians and even some misguided judges ― keep invalidating absuvie criminal laws. As a result, it’s not obvious to me that the centuries-old reasons for making criminal law a federal matter are still valid.


Meanwhile, there are other considerations, some also longstanding but others less so, that support transferring this power to the provinces. The former category includes the principle of subsidiarity: the idea that power should be decentralized and exercised as closely to the citizen as it can be effectively exercised. It’s not clear to me why the provinces couldn’t competently and effectively legislate over criminal law and criminal procedure. As it is, they already legislate over provincial offences under section 92(15) of the Constitution Act, 1867. Since criminal law reflects moral considerations, it would make sense for Canadian provinces, with differing moral outlooks of their electorates, to be in charge of defining this law for themselves. Other usual benefits of decentralization, such as the possibility of provinces experimenting with different policies, within constitutional constraints, would also apply.

The more novel benefit of transferring the power over criminal law to the provinces would be to nip in the bud the tendency for Parliament to rely on the criminal law power to enact regulatory schemes that invade areas of provincial jurisdiction ― or, rather, since this tendency is already well-developed, to pluck off its increasingly putrid flower. Examples of this tendency, all upheld at least in part, include laws dealing with tobacco advertising, the registration of firearms, assisted human reproduction, and most recently genetic non-discrimination. (Shannon Hale blogged here on her and Dwight Newman’s critique of the Supreme Court’s lax approach to Parliament’s criminal law power in Reference re Genetic Non‑Discrimination Act, 2020 SCC 17.) Denying Parliament the power to make criminal law would not only allow us to reap the benefits of federalism in this area, but also to preserve them in others.

Now, I do think that some safeguards must be in place for this change to the distribution of powers to work well. One is already part of the Canadian constitution’s design. Others will need to be implemented as part of a package of amendments together with the transfer of jurisdiction over criminal law to the provinces.

The (mostly) existing safeguard the appointment of the judges of the superior courts, who preside at the most significant criminal trials, by the federal rather than the provincial governments. This has been an important barrier against the power of populist provincial governments. It will become an even better one if the federal government exercises its appointment power without being distracted by populist tough-on-crime considerations that caused it, for example, to introduce police officers into the selection committees that vet prospective judges. However, for this system to continue to work well, it will need to be coupled with an assurance that at least the more serious criminal cases will continue to come to the superior courts, either for trial or, at least, on appeal. Section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867 may do this already, but I would prefer an explicit addition to section 11 of the Charter.

The other additional safeguards I would want to see include, first and foremost, the repeal of the Charter‘s “notwithstanding clause“, which allows Parliament and, more to the point, provincial legislatures, to suspend the effective protection of the rights entrenched in sections 2 and 7-15 of the Charter. At a minimum, the protections of the rights of the accused in sections 7-14 should be free from the threat of override; but it is highly desirable that the substantive protections of fundamental freedoms in section 2 should be so too. Section 15 is perhaps less relevant here, but there is no reason to maintain the “notwithstanding clause” for its sake. The reason for contemplating transferring the criminal law power to the provinces, despite the greater risk of populist takeovers, is that the Charter protects against its being abused. This protection must be effective at all times, and not at the provincial legislatures’ sufferance.

Lastly, some additional adjustments to the division of powers scheme will be necessary. For one thing, a federal equivalent of the current section 92(15) will be necessary to replace Parliament’s plenary criminal law power. Just like the provinces now, Parliament should be able to provide for penal enforcement of its legislation. Moreover, some measure of extra-territorial criminal power will need to remain with Parliament as well. There is of course some danger that even this limit grant of power will be abused. This is what has happened in the United States, despite Congress not having any explicit criminal law powers. The crimes created under the power to enacted laws “necessary and proper for carrying into execution” Congress’s other powers have become literally innumerable: when the American government tried to count all of the offences on its books, it failed. (Some are documented by a darkly humorous Twitter account.) However, the Canadian jurisprudence on the division of powers generally, and on ancillary powers in particular, is much more robust than its American counterparts, so one can reasonably hope that this American disaster can be avoided in Canada. For another, while the federal power over penitentiaries in section 91(28) will no longer make much sense, a more limited power to maintain a carceral system for those convicted of the remaining federal offences will be necessary.


Needless to say, there is very little chance of my proposals ― even assuming that they make sense which, to repeat, they may well not ― ever being taken up. Even apart from Canada’s general, and I’m inclined to think generally sound, aversion to constitutional tinkering, I just don’t see Parliament giving up such a high-profile legislative power that has, for politicians, the virtue that its exercise allows for relatively low-cost grandstanding and virtue-signalling. But who knows. And, if nothing else, I think we should from time to time ask ourselves whether the existing division of powers makes sense, if only to remind ourselves of the reasons why we have it and why, on the whole, it is a good and useful thing.

Unstuck

Ontario’s Superior Court strikes down the anti-carbon tax-sticker law, but still doesn’t get freedom of expression

Last year, I wrote about Ontario’s Federal Carbon Tax Transparency Act, 2019 (the “Act”) ― both about the disgraceful way in which it became law and about its unconstitutional speech compulsion, which I argued should not even be considered as a potentially justified limitation of the freedom of expression under section 1 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, because it was tantamount to the imposition of an official ideology. The constitutionality of the Act was in fact challenged by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and, last week, in CCLA v Ontario (Attorney General), 2020 ONSC 4838, the Superior Court of Ontario struck it down.

At first glance, this is a welcome development for the freedom from compelled speech. Not only is the compulsion invalidated, but Justice Morgan’s approach might seem to bear some resemblance to the one I had proposed: in effect, he denies the government the chance to justify the Act under section 1. But look at Justice Morgan’s reasons more closely, and they turn out to be very narrow. Indeed, they could be used to support significant speech compulsions in the future.

This is not altogether surprising. Justice Morgan was constrained by the Court of Appeal’s reasoning in McAteer v. Canada (Attorney General), 2014 ONCA 578, 121 OR (3d) 1, upholding the constitutionality of the requirement that applicants for the Canadian citizenship swear an oath to bear “true allegiance” to the “Queen of Canada”, which I have described as a “parade of horribles“. And indeed it was none other than Justice Morgan who had written the first instance decision in that case. While it wasn’t quite as bad as that of the Court of Appeal, it did not evince much understanding of the harms of compelled speech either.


The Act required all gas stations to display a prescribed sticker alerting customers to the amount of the “federal carbon tax” levied on the gas they were purchasing. The evidence adduced by the CCLA showed that it was meant as a not-so-subtle intervention in the 2019 federal election campaign, in which the Ontario government supported the anti-carbon-tax position of the federal Conservatives and opposed the pro-carbon-tax Liberals. This partisan dynamic is a key factor in Justice Morgan’s reasoning.

Before getting to the substantive issues, Justice Morgan must address the Attorney General’s objection to the CCLA’s standing to challenge the Act. As it turns out, the CCLA has tried to enlist actual gas stations as plaintiffs or co-plaintiffs, but none would come forward. Justice Morgan explains that “retailers, with a view to market forces rather than to politics and constitutional law, have been loath to participate in this case” due to its political valence. [40] But the record to which Justice Morgan alludes suggests that this is not quite accurate: politics, in the shape of a fear of regulatory retaliation, seems to have been a motivating factor too. Be that as it may, Justice Morgan grants the CCLA public interest standing to pursue the case.

He must next decide whether the sticker requirement limits the freedom of expression protected by section 2(b) of the Charter. To this end, he applies the test set out in the Court of Appeal’s McAteer decision:

The first question is whether the activity in which the plaintiff is being forced to engage is expression. The second question is whether the purpose of the law is aimed at controlling expression. If it is, a finding of a violation of s. 2(b) is automatic. If the purpose of the law is not to control expression, then in order to establish an infringement of a person’s Charter right, the claimant must show that the law has an adverse effect on expression. In addition, the claimant must demonstrate that the meaning he or she wishes to convey relates to the purposes underlying the guarantee of free expression, such that the law warrants constitutional disapprobation. (McAteer, [69])

Justice Morgan finds that the sticker is indeed a form of expression. Yet in his view its purpose is not to control expression. In particular, he takes the view that “it would be difficult for the government to control expression by compelling certain messages … but not restricting others”. [50] Objectors remain free “to disavow” [52] the message they are compelled to voice, for example by posting disclaimers; hence their expression is not “controlled”. However, it is adversely impacted by the Act.

The key point for Justice Morgan is that, unlike the citizenship oath in McAteer, the sticker does not promote democracy and the Rule of Law. Indeed, it does not even serve to truthfully inform. Justice Morgan attaches some importance to the sticker’s use of the “carbon tax” nomenclature, which in his view is at odds with the Court of Appeal for Ontario’s opinion, in Reference re Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act, 2019 ONCA 544, 146 OR (3d) 65, that the policy at issue is not a “tax” within the meaning of the Constitution Act, 1867. Moreover, the sticker says nothing of the ways the money levied as carbon tax is distributed, in part to taxpayers, in part to provinces. As a result, it is a form of “spin”. [60] By requiring it, “the government is not so much explaining a policy [as] making a partisan argument”. [63] And “[b]y using law for partisan ends, the Ontario legislature has enacted a measure that runs counter to, rather in furtherance of, the purposes underlying freedom of expression”. [65]

This limitation of the freedom of expression is not justified under section 1 of the Charter. Indeed, unusually, Justice Morgan finds that the Act lacks a pressing and substantial purpose ― the first, and normally very low, hurdle a statute must meet to be upheld under section 1: “While truly informing the public about the components that make up the cost of gasoline would be a pressing and substantial purpose, promoting the Ontario governing party over the federal governing party is not.” [69] The Act is purely partisan rather than a real “policy choice”. [69] Justice Morgan goes through the other steps of the justified limitation analysis by way of an obiter, but it all comes down to his concern with partisanship. The Act is invalid.


Right outcome, but the reasoning is another matter entirely. Justice Morgan’s approach is illogical and conflicts with the Supreme Court’s precedents, notably inthat it collapses the two stages of the Charter analysis that the Supreme Court has always sought to keep distinct: first, the question of whether a right is being limited; second, that of whether the limitation is justified.

First, to say, as Justice Morgan does, that one’s expression is not controlled because one can disavow something one has been coerced to say is perverse. The fact that one is forced into disavowals shows sufficiently that what one is saying is not what one chooses to say.

The political context that Justice Morgan’s reasons depict highlights this problem. As he explains, it appears that gas station owners would rather keep quiet and sit out the political conflict about the carbon tax. This is their right ― the obverse of the freedom of speech is the freedom to stay silent. If they are forced into disavowals and denials, the gas stations will inevitably be taking sides in the political conflict they are trying to avoid ― if anything, this will be much more obvious than if they merely comply with the Act and display the required stickers. Of course, such a response is not what the Ontario legislature envisioned, but it would be caused entirely by the Act, and so it is absurd to deny that the Act amounts to a form of control of the gas stations’ expression.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court’s precedents mandate no such twisted inquiry. Ostensibly the most important freedom of expression case (I have argued here that it is only “leading from behind”), and the source of the “control” language used in McAteer and by Justice Morgan is Irwin Toy Ltd v Quebec (Attorney General), [1989] 1 SCR 927. The distinction between legislation that has control of expression as purpose and that which doesn’t is described as follows in the joint opinion of Chief Justice Dickson and Justices Lamer and Wilson:

If the government’s purpose is to restrict the content of expression by singling out particular meanings that are not to be conveyed, it necessarily limits the guarantee of free expression. If the government’s purpose is to restrict a form of expression in order to control access by others to the meaning being conveyed or to control the ability of the one conveying the meaning to do so, it also limits the guarantee. On the other hand, where the government aims to control only the physical consequences of certain human activity, regardless of the meaning being conveyed, its purpose is not to control expression. (974)

Applied to speech compulsions rather than censorship, this means that any legislation that “singles out particular meanings” that must be communicated, or forces an audience to listen to a communication, necessarily has control of expression as its purpose. Such legislation limits (or, as the Supreme Court often says, prima facie infringes) the freedom of expression. There is no need to consider effects, let alone to ask the purely subjective question of whether they are worthy of “constitutional disapprobation”.

This inquiry into effects and “disapprobation” in effect forces claimants to show that the law which compels their speech is not justified, and more specifically that it pursues an end worthy of judicial condemnation. The success of such an argument in this case should not blind us to the fact that this is a high hurdle. As noted above, this approach collapses the usual section 1 test of whether a limitation on a right is justified into the threshold inquiry of whether a right is limited in the first place, and it means that the claimant rather than the government bears the burden of proof. It follows that Justice Morgan’s streamlined approach to the section 1 analysis is rather less supportive of freedom of expression than one might think. The important work is already done by the time he gets there, as he has, in effect, found that the Act is unjustifiable. Had he not so found, he would have upheld it without ever getting to section 1, just as the Court of Appeal upheld the citizenship oath in McAteer.

Last but not least, Justice Morgan’s emphasis on partisanship as the fundamental problem with the Act is also misguided. For one thing, as tempting as it might be to say that partisanship can never be a sufficient justification for restricting Charter rights, the Supreme Court has in the past upheld laws that protect political incumbents from criticism, notably in Harper v Canada (Attorney General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 SCR 827. I think the Supreme Court was wrong to disregard the partisan valence of that legislation, but this shows that it will often be difficult to disentangle partisanship from other, specious considerations. Indeed, Justice Morgan himself suggests that a statute that is “a hybrid of policy and partisanship” would deserve to be treated as fully legitimate.

More importantly, Justice Morgan’s understanding of partisanship is very narrow. It does not encompass the promotion of a state ideology that rises, if perhaps only slightly, above the “horse race” version of partisan politics. He has nothing but sympathy for governmental “protection and promotion of Canada’s national and legal culture” [58] by means of forcing those who did not agree with this culture to voice loyalty to it. Needless to say, there is a political dimension to a “national and legal culture”, especially when this culture is coercively imposed by the state, even though Justice Morgan is oblivious to this. To him the distinctions between partisanship and high principle appear obvious. To the rest of us living in 2020, they are anything but.

Consider an obvious example: the late and unlamented “statement of principles” requirement that the Law Society of Ontario tried to impose on its members. Certainly its supporters argued in terms promoting a certain high-minded vision of social and legal culture (indeed they spoke of a “culture shift”). But then again, as we now know, there is a bitter partisan division over the issue within the ranks of the Law Society’s membership. So how would Justice Morgan approach the question of the constitutionality of the requirement? And would his approach be different now than it would have been before the partisan cleavage was revealed by the success of the StopSOP campaign in the 2019 Bencher election? Whatever we might think of the “statement of principles” or its opponents (of whom I was one), or of compelled speech more broadly, I hope we can agree that this is not a reasonable way of addressing such an important issue.


Of course it is a good thing that the Act is no more, and that the Ontario government, if it wants to continue its anti-carbon-tax propaganda campaign, will have to do it by itself, rather than by means of conscripting third parties. I have argued here that such ideological conscription is wrong when it serves to supposedly advance some rights-protecting agenda. It is no less wrong, obviously, when its aim has to do with fiscal and environmental policy. Governments have plenty of resources at their command. If they want to propagandize, they have no need to get unwilling individuals to do it for them.

Yet, the state of the law on compelled speech, and indeed on freedom of expression more generally, in Ontario at least, is cause for concern. It’s not just that few restrictions on freedom of expression are ever struck down. More importantly, the courts fail to understand what free speech means, and why it matters. Justice Morgan’s reasons for striking down the Act illustrate these failures just as much as his and the Court of Appeal’s earlier reasons for upholding the citizenship oath did.

Throwing Away the Key

Thoughts on life imprisonment without parole, in New Zealand and in Canada

Last week, Justice Mander of New Zealand’s High Court sentenced the Christchurch mosque shooter to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for the murder of 51 people, attempted murder of 40 others, and terrorism. This punishment is provided for by section 103(2A) of New Zealand’s Sentencing Act 2002.

Justice Mander’s sentencing remarks in R v Tarrant, [2020] NZHC 2192 hold some lessons for Canadians, as the Québec Court of Appeal is considering the appeals of both the Crown and the accused from the sentence the Superior Court imposed on the Québec mosque shooter in R v Bissonnette, 2019 QCCS 354. In that decision, about which Maxime St-Hilaire and I wrote here, Justice Huot found the possibility of stacking parole ineligibility periods for multiple murders in a way that amounted to sentencing those who commit them to life imprisonment without parole to a cruel and unusual punishment and a deprivation of liberty contrary to principles of fundamental justice, contrary to sections 7 and 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Although stating that “the needs of denunciation, of setting an example, and of incapacitation” are especially “pressing” [766; translation mine], Justice Huot went on to find that life imprisonment without a realistic prospect of parole was contrary to Canadian values. Canada, he wrote, “is not a land where the most undesirable elements of the community are shut in a gaol and their very existence forgotten, the key of their liberty having been thrown into the river of a vast collective indifference.” [845; tanslation Professor St-Hilaire’s and mine] For him, the possibility of rehabilitation, even for the worst offenders, means that it is “sophistry to assert that [multiple murderers] should reasonably expect, in a free, civilized, and democratic society, to spend the rest of their days behind bars”. [975] Justice Mander’s cogent remarks help show that this was wrong.


Justice Mander, it worth noting, is by no means insensitive to considerations of humanity and anti-populism that apparently influenced Justice Huot so much. He considers the prospects of rehabilitation, and notes that “[t]he sentence [he] impose[s] must represent a civilised reaction based not on emotion but justice and deliberation”. [177] But these concerns are not dispositive in a case such as this.

Addressing Mr. Tarrant, Justice Mander explains that his

prime objectives are threefold. First and foremost, to condemn your crimes and to denounce your actions. Second, to hold you accountable for the terrible harm you have caused — in plain terms, to attempt to impose some commensurate punishment … on behalf of the whole community, which in particular includes the victims of your crimes and their families, all of whom are a part of New Zealand’s multicultural society. Third … to protect the community from a person capable of committing cold-blooded murder on such a scale and who presents such a grave risk to public safety. [124]

Justice Mander notes that section 9 of New Zealand bill of Rights Act 1990 prohibits the imposition of “disproportionately severe … punishment” (judicially interpreted as calling for a test of gross disproportionality ― similar to the one applied to test the constitutionality of legislation under section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms). He notes, also, that “[t]here is European jurisprudence that indicates the imposition of a whole-of-life sentence in the absence of any effective review mechanism is incompatible with
international human rights instruments”. [139] Nevertheless, he finds that nothing short of a life sentence without parole would be proportionate to the crimes here.

Let me quote just one paragraph about the facts (this one drawn from Justice Mander’s discussion of the aggravating circumstances). It is horrible, and there is, alas, so much more horror in this case ― as there was in the Bissonnette one:

It is self-evident that your offending constituted extreme violence. It was brutal and beyond callous — your actions were inhuman. You deliberately killed a thre-eyear-old infant by shooting him in the head as he clung to the leg of his father. The terror you inflicted in the last few minutes of that small child’s life is but one instance of the pitiless cruelty that you exhibited throughout. There are countless more examples. You showed no mercy. [151]

In Justice Mander’s view,

no minimum period of imprisonment would be sufficient to satisfy the legitimate need to hold you to account for the harm you have done to the community. Nor [would] minimum term of imprisonment would be sufficient to denounce your crimes. [179]

Indeed, in a comment particularly relevant to the comparison the sentence he imposes with Justice Huot’s preoccupation with not letting people spend their lives behind bars, Justice Mander observes that, were he “to impose a minimum period of imprisonment in an endeavour to meet the purposes that I am required to achieve in sentencing you for murdering 51 people, it could not be less than [Mr. Tarrant’s] natural life”. [180] Ultimately, he does

not consider, however long the length of your incarceration during your lifetime, that it could, even in a modest way, atone for what you have done. Ordinarily such an approach would be a poor guarantee of just and proportionate punishment, but I consider yours is one of those exceedingly rare cases which is different. [184]

I think that Justice Mander is right about all of this. Justice Huot, who would no doubt hurl accusations of “sophistry”, populism, and other assorted sins, would not only be wrong but, at the risk of sounding pompous, morally obtuse. Collective indifference and forgetfulness are not just, or even primarily, concerns in relation to those who commit terrible crimes. It would be no less ― and indeed much more ― wrong to be indifferent to the crimes themselves. And it will still be wrong decades from now.

As I recently wrote in discussing an Alberta judgment on the application of section 12 of the Charter, I think that the gross disproportionality test is a sensible construction of its “cruel and unusual punishment” prong, so far as individuals (rather than legal persons) are concerned. Well, I don’t think there is anything grossly disproportional, or indeed disproportional in any way, in denying the possibility of parole to a man who presents himself to a place of worship with the sole purpose of killing as many people as possible, and proceeds to do just that. On the contrary, I think justice may well demand no less. Perhaps there are policy considerations that would explain why a legislature might not put that option on the table. But at the level of principle, I think the New Zealand approach of making the life without parole sentence available in cases where the objectives of punishment cannot be met by a lesser one is right. The Canadian approach of making the parole non-eligibility terms of multiple murderers run consecutively amounts to the same thing, but less transparently, so I think the New Zealand one is preferable.

Granted, the sentencing court should consider repentance and the prospect, even if unlikely on balance, of rehabilitation. There seems to be a difference on this point between the Québec and Christchurch cases, and if this were the reason for Justice Huot’s decision not to impose, in effect, a life sentence without parole, it might have been defensible. (I’m not sure it would have been. Luckily I’m not a judge in charge of sentencing mass murderers, so I get to punt on this question.) But that’s not the main consideration that motivated Justice Huot. On the contrary, he felt strongly enough the need to denounce and punish Mr. Bissonnette that he rewrote (which is a nice way of saying “broke”) the law to impose a 40-year parole ineligibility period, instead of a 25-year one. That suggests that, ultimately, he thought that, as in the Christchurch case, punishment and denunciation dominate. And, if so, a sentence without parole is warranted.


I fully agree with Justices Huot and Mander that the measure of just punishment is not its ability to grab the headlines, and that a civilized justice system must move away from the “an-eye-for-an-eye” instinct. Cases such as these remind us, in any event, the futility of such fantasies. Even if we were in the business of killing murders, we couldn’t kill them six, or fifty-one, times over.

But Justice Mander’s sentencing remarks are a reminder that one need not be vengeful, or to simple-mindedly parrot the tough-on-crime line, to find, in truly shocking and exceptional cases, that the most severe punishment is warranted. Protecting the lives of the citizens is the state’s first responsibility on any plausible view of its role. Providing justice, in the form punishment, in response to those who take their fellow human beings’ lives is the second. In the face of contempt for human life and indifference to, if not actual pleasure in, human suffering, retribution is called for. In extreme cases, locking such people up and throwing away the key is only fair. I do hope that the Québec Court of Appeal, and the Supreme Court if comes to that, take note.

Unusual Indeed

The trouble with a caustic, pseudo-originalist opinion of Wakeling JA

In my last post, I described the decision of the Alberta Court of Appeal in R v Hills, 2020 ABCA 263, which upheld a mandatory minimum sentence for the offence of firing a gun into a place “knowing that or being reckless as to whether another person” is there. Two of the judges, Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling delivered concurring opinions in which they called on the Supreme Court to reconsider its jurisprudence on mandatory minimum sentences and indeed on the interpretation of section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects against “any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment”, more broadly, notably R v Smith, [1987] 1 SCR 1045 and R v Nur, 2015 SCC 15, [2015] 1 SCR 773. I summarized the arguments made by both of the concurring judges in the last post.

Here, I consider specifically Justice Wakeling’s opinion. It is very unusual indeed, in both substance and form. It deploys unorthodox and, in my view, untenable, interpretive techniques, and arrives at startling conclusions. It is long, seemingly scholarly (though there is less real scholarship to it than meets the eye), and caustic. I don’t recall reading anything quite like it in Canada, though admittedly I do not read as many judgments as I would like, especially below the Supreme Court level.


Let me begin with Justice Wakeling’s approach to constitutional interpretation. Justice Wakeling does not explain what he is doing, which is unfortunate, because an explanation might have clarified matters ― not least to Justice Wakeling himself. Be that as it may, what Justice Wakeling seemingly does is resort to a sort of expected applications originalism. This is a way of describing attempts to interpret constitutional provisions by asking how their framers would have expected a question about their application to be resolved. This is a fool’s errand. Serious originalists have long given up on what Benjamin Oliphant and I have described as “speculative transgenerational mind reading”. (126) As Randy Barnett has written, “ascertaining ‘what the framers would have done’ is a counterfactual, not a factual or historical inquiry”. (71)

But Justice Wakeling’s version of expected applications originalism is particularly bad, because he refers to a great extent to events and real or purported beliefs that long predate the enactment of the Charter. Indeed his discussion of the Charter and the views, if any, of its framers is remarkably brief. Justice Wakeling points out that the late

Professor Hogg predicted in 1982 that Canadian courts would give section 12 of the Charter “the same interpretation” courts gave section 2(b) of the Canadian Bill of Rights. In other words, section 12 was of minimal value. Modern political realities made a constitutional death-penalty watch dog unnecessary. And that was the only role section 12 was intended to serve. [217; references omitted]

Most of what Justice Wakeling has to say about the meaning of section 12 goes back much further. The Bill of Rights 1688 is of special significance to him, as he argues that its

prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment was undoubtedly a response, either entirely or, at least partially, to the blood-thirsty sanctions Chief Justice Jeffrey and the other judges imposed on supporters of the 1685 Monmouth Rebellion that challenged the rule of the Catholic King James II during the Bloody Assizes of 1685 and the brutal flogging imposed on Titus Oates for his perjured testimony that cost a large number of Catholics their lives. [148]

From this, Justice Wakeling draws a straight line to the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution, the Canadian Bill of Rights, and the section 12. He describes the US Supreme Court’s departure from the focus on “horrific penalties” akin to torture and its embrace of disproportionality as a touchstone for assessing violations of the Eighth Amendment in Weems v United States, 217 U.S. 349 (1910) as “judicial heresy”, and writes of the author of the majority opinion in that case that “Justice McKenna’s fingerprints are all over” Smith, [187] and thus subsequent section 12 jurisprudence.

This approach to the interpretation of section 12 makes no sense. Even on an originalist view, why should the meaning of the Charter be determined by what might have been the intentions or expectations not of its framers, but of those of the Bill of Rights 1688, the Eighth Amendment, or even the Canadian Bill of Rights? This isn’t expected applications originalism but expected applications pre-originalism. I know of no precedent or justification for it.

The better originalist approach is that which focuses on the public meaning of constitutional provisions. Historical antecedents are not irrelevant to establishing public meaning (and I have referred to the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights 1688 myself in writing about section 12 here). However, they are useful in that they ― and their interpretation ― helps us ascertain how a contemporaneous reader would have understood the provision when it was enacted. That being so, the signicance of Weems and subsequent American jurisprudence is very different from that which Justice Wakeling attributes to them. Whether or not they were accurate interpretations of the Eighth Amendment’s original meaning is beside the point. What is noteworthy is that these interpretations would have been part of the context in which section 12 was enacted, and so colour the public meaning the phrase “cruel and unusual punishment” had by the time the Charter was adopted.

A related problem with Justice Wakeling’s approach to interpretation is his use of texts that use wording different from that of section 12 to suggest that the meaning of section must be different. This can be a very useful interpretive tool, but it has to be wielded carefully and honestly. Justice Wakeling relies on three comparisons: with early the constitutions of some American States; with a rejected draft of the Canadian Bill of Rights; and with section 9 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. All of these texts explicitly refer to proportionality, whereas section 12 does not.

Of these, the American texts are somewhat expansive policy statements, of a kind that was mostly ― except, notoriously, in the case of the Second Amendment ― rejected in (what became known as) the US Bill of Rights. The absence of such a statement from the Eighth Amendment doesn’t prove that it disproportionality is not part of its permissible construction. (Somewhat similarly, the absence of an explicit reference to separation of powers, analogous to that found in some State constitutions, in the US Constitution doesn’t mean it does not in fact provide for separate powers.)

With respect to the proposed wording of the Canadian Bill of Rights, Justice Wakeling says that “[a] number of commentators criticized its vagueness”. [201; reference omitted] The concerns of the only such commentator whom Justice Wakeling actually quotes are telling, for he worried, in part about whether a reference to “inhuman or degrading” punishment might be taken to outlaw flogging. Yet Justice Wakeling himself notes that the British “Parliament has repealed the brutal punishments that prompted the 1689 Parliamentary prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments” [153] ― including “flogging”! [154] That commentator’s concerns, in other words, do not deserve to be taken seriously, on Justice Wakeling’s own account. (The reference to flogging is interesting in another way, to which I will shorty turn.) And anyway the exclusion of words like “inhuman” because of their vagueness does not prove that the words retained did not have an element of vagueness calling for construction.

Lastly, the reference to the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act strikes me as quite inappropriate, since that statute was enacted eight years after the Charter. Some of its provisions sought to remedy avoid the Charter‘s real or perceived ambiguities; they tend to be more specific than the Charter‘s. (Compare, for example, New Zealand’s distinct provisions on “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion” and the “manifestation of religion and belief” with section 2(a) of the Charter.) In the case of section 9, one might suppose ― I have not looked into this ― that they New Zealand drafters thought that the outcome of Smith was justified and wrote it into the statute in so many words for the avoidance of doubt. But their choice to do so does not mean tell us anything about the meaning of the Charter, whose drafters were obviously not aware of the subsequent work of their Kiwi counterparts.

The last interpretive issue I will address here is Justice Wakeling’s reading of section 12 as a mere enumeration, and a remarkably brief one at that, of prohibited punishments. One striking consequence of this reading is that Justice Wakeling thinks that, because imprisonment was a commonly used punishment when the Charter was enacted and thus not unusual,

section 12 … does not allow a court to declare jail sentences cruel or unusual punishments. … [O]ffenders may not invoke section 12 to challenge either mandatory-minimum or mandatory-maximum jail sentences or any other jail sentence. [244]

(It is worth noting that Justice O’Ferrall “question[s]” [115] and indeed seems to reject this view.)

Justice Wakeling repeats a mistake committed by Justice Scalia, including in his comments on the Eighth Amendment in the famous lecture “Originalism: The Lesser Evil”. Justice Wakeling refers to some of Justice Scalia’s decisions seeking to limit the import of the Eighth Amendment to the 1791 catalogue of barbarity ― but not to that lecture where, tellingly, Justice Scalia professed being a “faint-hearted” originalist, because he wouldn’t bring himself to countenance the punishment of flogging even if was practised in 1791. The catalogue approach, it seems, doesn’t really work.

In a lecture of his own, “Scalia’s Infidelity: A Critique of Faint-Hearted Originalism“, Randy Barnett explains why. He points out that

original public meaning originalism attempts to identify the level of generality in which the Constitution is objectively expressed. Does the text ban particular punishments of which they were aware, or does it ban all cruel and unusual punishments? (23)

As Professor Barnett notes, “[t]his is not to say … the broader provisions of the text lack all historical meaning and are open to anything we may wish them to mean”. (23) But that meaning, if there is one, must be established with reference to the time of those provisions’ enactment ― not to a period that preceded it by two or three centuries. Justice Wakeling’s own reasons suggest that, whatever may have been the case in 1689 or even 1791, the phrase “cruel and unusual” may well have acquired a broad and morally loaded meaning by 1982. He does not even contemplate this possibility.


This leads me to concerns about the form and tone of Justice Wakeling’s opinion. It has an air of scholarliness: at over 12,000 words and 200 footnotes, it has the heft of an academic article. And yet this is only an appearance. It is inimical to good scholarship ― even, I would argue, in a judicial opinion, and not only in an academic setting ― to ignore counter-arguments and relevant sources that do not support one’s claims. Meanwhile, a great many of those footnotes turns out to cite to Justice Wakeling’s own opinions; a flaw of much academic writing, my own not excepted, but manifested here to an inordinate degree.

And then there is the bitter vehemence of Justice Wakeling’s writing. From the outset, he heaps scorn on the Supreme Court’s precedents, calling the “reasonable hypothetical” approach to section 12 they command “remarkable, to say the least”, [124] and claim that “[t]here is no constitutional doctrine that justifies this unusual method”. The decision in Smith is “surprising[]” [219] and “unexpected”. [220] “The contribution” that an argument made by Justice Lamer ― to whom Justice Wakeling denies the courtesy of a “as he then was” ― “makes to the debate is difficult to comprehend”. [226]

But Canadian courts and judges are not the only targets of Justice Wakeling’s contempt. I have already referred to his desription of Weems as “heresy”. If this were said about a fellow judge on Justice Wakeling’s court, this would be as mean as any of Justice Scalia’s cantankerous dissents. Still, such disagreements can appropriately be aired. But judges do not normally take it upon themselves to critique their colleagues in other jurisdictions. Not only is Justice Wakeling not qualified to pronounce on what it orthodox and what is heretical under American law ― it’s just not his job. Not content with commentary on the past, however, Justice Wakeling dabbles in political prognostication too, declaring that he

suspect[s] that the likelihood that additional states will abolish the death penalty is probably about the same as the likelihood that the Supreme Court – with a majority of conservative-minded justices – will sanction additional limits on the availability of the death penalty. [181; reference omitted]

To be clear, I have no objection to a judge expressing disagreement with the jurisprudence of a higher court. On the contrary, judicial criticism of binding authority ― so long as that authority is followed ― can be valuable; no less, and arguably more, than that of scholars and other commentators. If the lower courts are saying that a legal doctrine is not working well, the higher courts would do well to listen ― though they need not agree, and they should not agree in this case, as I argued in my last post. Justice O’Ferrall’s opinion strikes me as perfectly fine. But not so Justice Wakeling’s.

I have been tone-policed enough to be wary of engaging in such critiques myself. But Justice Wakeling is, after all, a judge ― and I think that judges can rightly be held to a standard of equanimity that should not be applied to academics, whose role it is to critique, and sometimes criticize, the exercise of the judicial power. I have also defended the use of strong language in judicial opinions. Still, there are lines not to be crossed. A judge ought not to be dismissive or petulant; nor should he engage in political commentary or, I think, make any sort of pronouncement on the merits of the laws (enacted or judicially articulated) of other countries. Justice Wakeling is and does all of these things. If he wants to act like a politically preoccupied professor, he should resign his judicial office.


I do not know how widespread the views expressed by Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling are. Perhaps the Supreme Court will take heed and reconsider its jurisprudence in relation to section 12. In any case it will face other difficult questions about the interpretation of the Charter. Justice Wakeling’s opinion illustrates a number of things not to do in such cases. Courts should not look to the ways the authors of constitutional provisions, let alone the authors of their predecessors, expected these provisions to be applied. They should not be careless, let alone deliberately unfair, when they compare different texts. They should not convert moral language into laundry lists. And, of course, they should not be mean-spirited. Justice Wakeling’s opinion is unusual indeed, and I hope it stays that way.

Counter-Rebellion

Judges of the Alberta Court of Appeal question the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on mandatory minimum sentences

Last month the Alberta Court of Appeal issued an interesting decision that concerned the constitutionality of yet another mandatory minimum sentence, this one in section 244.2 of the Criminal Code, for “intentionally discharg[ing] a firearm into or at a place, knowing that or being reckless as to whether another person is present in the place”. The mandatory minimum is four years’ imprisonment (or more if organized crime is involved). For fairly straightforward rasons given by Justice Antonio, R v Hills, 2020 ABCA 263, upholds the four-year mandatory minimum, rejecting the claim that it is “cruel and unusual” within the meaning of section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But in separate concurring reasons Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling go on to criticize the Supreme Court’s approach for dealing with such cases. Both concurring opinions raise important questions, not only about the correct approach to mandatory minimum sentences under section 12 of the Charter, but also about constitutional interpretation and construction more broadly.

In this post, I summarize Justice Antonio’s lead opinion, as well as the common aspects of the two concurring ones, and explain why I think the Supreme Court is right and Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling are wrong about section 12. In a follow up post, I shall write in some detail about Justice Wakeling’s opinion, which is startling, and startlingly wrong, in its method and tone, and deserves special attention and criticism.


In R v Smith, [1987] 1 SCR 1045 and, more recently, R v Nur, 2015 SCC 15, [2015] 1 SCR 773, the Supreme Court held that a mandatory minimum sentence that is “grossly disproportionate” to the gravity and blameworthiness of an offence is “cruel and unusual” within the meaning of section 12. Gross disproportionality can be shown either in the particular case or, alternatively ― and controversially ―, in a reasonable hypothetical, a set of circumstances that can be expected to occur and that would be captured by the impugned provision. This is the approach that the accused in Hills took.

Mr. Hills pleaded guilty to having repeatedly fired a rifle “suitable for big game hunting” [4] into the walls and windows of a family residence ― among with less frightening misdeeds, all part of a rampage undertaken in a state that a former Toronto mayor would have described as drunken stupor. The sentencing judge considered that the mandatory minimum would not be grossly disproportionate to his offence, but it could be in a reasonable hypothetical, mainly because the applicable definition of “firearm” captures weapons shown by an expert to be incapable of penetrating a typical building wall. One could therefore reasonably imagine the four-year sentence being imposed on a person who fired a weapon “at a place” whose occupants were not thereby endangered. The judge sentenced Mr. Hills to three and a half years’ imprisonment.

Justice Antonio (with whose reasons Justice O’Ferrall agrees, so far as they go) considers this to be an error. This is because the shots fired even from low-power weapons might “penetrate a door or window”. [80] Moreover, the weapons or the shots might alarm bystanders or the people inside the place at which they are fired, and generally undermine “the feeling the safety in communities”. [82] Justice Antonio also refers to Nur, where

 a 40-month sentence was imposed on a 19-year-old first offender who merely possessed a loaded firearm in a public place for a short period of time and did not discharge it or use it in a threatening manner. If 40 months was an appropriate sentence in the Nur case, then an additional eight months as a mandatory minimum penalty where a firearm was actually used does not amount to a grossly disproportionate sentence.

Justice Antonio concludes that a fit sentence for Mr. Hills would be four and a half years’ imprisonment.


As mentioned above, Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling both call for the Supreme Court’s decisions in Smith and Nur to be revisited insofar as they require the courts to undertake gross disproportionality analysis based on reasonable hypotheticals, and not only the facts before the sentencing court. Some of the arguments they make are similar. I address them here. Justice Wakeling’s opinion also makes additional points not raised by Justice O’Ferrall. I turn to them below.

The main argument on which Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling rely is that the use of reasonable hypotheticals to test the constitutionality of mandatory minimum sentences is inconsistent with the import of section 12. Justice O’Ferrall argues that

[a]n interpretation [of the Charter] which relies on the presumed detriment to a non-existent offender if a certain term of imprisonment is imposed is not an interpretation which a citizen would contemplate. It is an interpretation which might legitimately surprise the citizen. It does not flow logically from the text of s.12 of the Charter. [108; see aslo Justice Wakeling’s comment at [126]]

For Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling, since section 12 protects an individual “right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment”, only the situation of the offender before the court can be taken into consideration, and the courts should avoid invalidating provisions that might only hypothetically result in unconstitutional applications. Just as laws are not invalidated because they might be invoked to effect unconstitutional arrests, they should not be disturbed because they might, in some cases, lead to unconstitutional sentences. As Justice O’Ferrall puts it, “[b]ut for the approved reasonable hypothetical analysis, the accused could [sic] care less about the constitutionality of the law. His complaint is with respect to his treatment or punishment”. [109]

Indeed, Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling reject the test of “gross disproportionality” itself, which the Supreme Court has long used as a proxy for deciding whether a punishment is cruel and unusual. Justice O’Ferrall argues that

A sentence may be disproportionate from the perspective of both the offender and the offence and yet … prescribed to achieve the fundamental purpose of sentencing, namely protecting society. Even a grossly disproportionate sentence may not be found to constitute cruel and unusual punishment if, for example, in order to stem the tide of a deadly pandemic, Parliament found it necessary to prescribe extremely harsh punishments for what otherwise might be regarded as minor misdemeanors. [117; see also Justice Wakeling’s comment at [132]]

I do not think that any of this is right.

Start with the meaning of section 12. The concurring opinions go wrong because they fail to distinguish between the interpretation and the construction of constitutional provisions. Interpretation is the activity of ascertaining the communicative content of the text. Construction is the elaboration of doctrines that allow the text to be given legal effect. Some cases can be resolved at the interpretation stage. As I have argued here, the interpretation of section 12, and specifically of the word “cruel”, can tell us that this provision does not protect corporations. But in other cases courts need to engage in (good faith) construction to apply vague language ― and that of section 12 is vague, if not quite as vague as some commentators would have believe.

The word “cruel” is not infinitely malleable, but it is not self-explanatory either. Unless they are going to rely on seat-of-the-pants impressionistic decision-making in every case, courts need to work out a consistent way to determine whether a given sentence is cruel and unusual. This is an exercise in construction, which is a form of legal reasoning. Unlike in the realm of interpretation, the presumed (actually, purely conjectured) reactions of reactions of citizens are not a useful guide to what the courts should do here. The courts’ task is not to avoid surprises ― the framers of the constitution make a certain degree of judicial creativity unavoidable when they use vague language ― but rather, as Randy Barnett and Evan Bernick have argued, to give effect to the purpose of the provision.

Is the test of gross disproportionality a misguided construction of section 12? In my previous post on that provision’s meaning (linked to above) I have suggested that it is not, so far as the punishment of natural persons is concerned. I wrote that “disproportionality can be a useful indication of cruelty”, provided that “also causes or reflects indifference to suffering”, which may “always be the case with grossly disproportional punishment is inflicted on human beings”. Justice O’Ferrall’s example is ambiguous and does not persuade me. It may be taken to suggest that in the circumstances of “a deadly pandemic” “what otherwise might be regarded as minor misdemeanors” become extremely blameworthy crimes. If so, there is no gross disproportionality in punishing them harshly, so long as the relevant circumstances exist. But if Justice O’Ferrall suggests that a public emergency justifies harsh punishment of unrelated offences, I don’t see how that follows.

If not the gross disproportionality test, is the reasonable hypothetical approach an impermissible construction of section 12? Actually, I think there are very good reasons for the courts to adopt it. Contrary to what Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling say, a mandatory minimum sentence impacts an offender as to whom it would not be cruel and unusual, albeit indirectly. As Justice Arbour explained in her concurrence in R v Morrisey, [2000] 2 SCR 90,

mandatory minimum sentences … must act as an inflationary floor, setting a new minimum punishment applicable to the so-called ‘best’ offender whose conduct is caught by these provisions.  The mandatory minimum must not become the standard sentence imposed on all but the very worst offender who has  committed the offence in the very worst circumstances.  The latter approach would not only defeat the intention of Parliament in enacting this particular legislation, but also offend against the general principles of sentencing designed to promote a just and fair sentencing regime and thereby advance the purposes of imposing criminal sanctions. [75] 

Justice Wakeling’s own reasons illustrate this dynamic. He breaks down the range of sentences permitted by Parliament into bands for the least and most serious cases, and those in the middle. On this approach, if Parliament enacts or raises the mandatory minimum, the sentences of most offenders, except perhaps the very worst ones, go up. Of course, Parliament is entitled to intervene in sentencing. But the fact that its intervention impacts all offenders means that it is appropriate to consider its constitutionality even in cases where the minimum sentence would not have been cruel and unusual. At the risk of mixing metaphors, I think it’s not an implausible construction of section 12 to say that it does not permit the inflationary floor to be sullied by the cruelty of sentences required to be imposed even on some, albeit not all, offenders.

The other reason for the courts to continue to police reasonable hypotheticals might sound more in policy, but it too is relevant to section 12. It is plea bargaining. A prosecutor can threaten an accused person with a high mandatory minimum sentence so as to secure a guilty plea to some other, less serious offence. By the very nature of such situations, there is no scope for the mandatory minimum to be challenged; indeed the offence to which it is attached never even features before a court. But to the extent that the mandatory minimum has served to secure a guilty plea from a person who might be innocent (or at least might be able to raise a reasonable doubt about his or her guilt), its deployment by the prosecutor is, arguably, a form of cruel and unusual treatment that offends the Charter.


It has been set that the judicial response to the last Conservative government’s “tough on crime” agenda has been nothing less than a rebellion. Justice Wakeling professes himself “extremely troubled by the fact that Canadian courts have been busy striking down Criminal Code provisions that impose mandatory-minimum sentences”. [123] The concurring opinions in Hills are a counter-rebellion of sorts, directed not against Parliament but against the Supreme Court.

But the rebels are wrong. Their approach to constitutional text, which collapses interpretation and construction and oversimplifies constitutional meaning is not compelling. They fail to see the repercussions of mandatory minimum laws that deserve the suspicion with which the courts have treated them. The Supreme Court has often read constitutional provisions ― both power-conferring and rights-protecting ones ― more expansively than it should have. But I am not convinced that this is the case with section 12 of the Charter.


PS: I have neglected blogging on judicial decisions in the last couple of months, and will try to make up at least some of this backlog. If you have a case I should get onto in mind, please do get in touch.

Unholy Trinity

Introducing a new article that makes the case against judicial deference to administrative applications of constitutional law

Readers may recall my unhappiness when the Supreme Court decided the companion cases in which the Trinity Western University challenged the denials of accreditation to its proposed law school by the law societies in British Columbia and Ontario, Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, [2018] 2 SCR 293 and Trinity Western University v. Law Society of Upper Canada, 2018 SCC 33, [2018] 2 SCR 453. I argued that “[t]he Supreme Court’s decision and reasoning subvert the Rule of Law and nullify the constitutional protection for religious freedom“.

One salient feature of these cases was the Supreme Court’s (re-)embrace of its earlier decisions in Doré v Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 SCR 395 and Loyola High School v Quebec (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 12, [2015] 1 SCR 613, which urged judicial deference to administrative decision-makers who applied (or indeed simply ought to have borne in mind) the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Trinity Western cases emphasize this deference, as well as various other aspects of the Canadian judiciary’s surrender of its interpretive authority over the law, which has now been partially walked back in Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65.

At the kind invitation of Matthew Harrington in his capacity as editor of the Journal of Commonwealth Law, I have put my thoughts on this aspect of the Trinity Western cases and generally on the misbegotten idea of judicial deference to administrative applications of constitutional law into article form. The piece, “Unholy Trinity: The Failure of Administrative Constitutionalism in Canada”, is now available from the Journal’s website and my SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The jurisprudence of the Supreme Court of Canada that follows Doré v Barreau du Québec involves administrative decision-makers as key actors in the implementation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Supreme Court emphasizes their expertise in implementing constitutional rights and “Charter values” in the context of the regulatory regimes they are charged with enforcing, and holds that this expertise entitles administrative tribunals to deference when they make decisions that affect the rights the Charter protects or the values that underpin these rights. This article argues that the Supreme Court is wrong to endorse this deferential approach, sometimes described as “administrative constitutionalism”.

It does so by examining the Supreme Court’s decisions in the companion cases that upheld the denial of accreditation by the law societies of British Columbia and Ontario to a proposed fundamentalist Christian law school (the Trinity Western Cases). After reviewing both academic defences of “administrative constitutionalism” and Supreme Court’s previous engagement with it, the article shows that the Trinity Western Cases illustrate the failure of “administrative constitutionalism” to live up to the main arguments made by its supporters. This failure is not accidental, but consistent with significant trends in Canadian administrative law. The article then goes on to consider the implications of the Supreme Court’s decision in Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov for the future of “administrative constitutionalism” in Canada, arguing that Vavilov undermines the theoretical foundations of “administrative constitutionalism” or, at a minimum, will change the way it is implemented. The article concludes with an argument that, in addition to not delivering on the promises made on its behalf, “administrative constitutionalism” is also contrary to the Rule of Law. “Administrative constitutionalism” is second-rate constitutionalism in practice, and wrong in principle. The sooner it is recognized for the misguided idea that it is and abandoned, the stronger our actual constitution and the rights it protects will be.

The issue of whether, or at least to what extent and on what conditions, courts should continue to defer to administrative applications of the Charter is very much a live one in the aftermath of Vavilov. Lower courts have ask themselves how to apply Doré in light of Vavilov’s guidance on reasonableness review, and my article makes some suggestions which might be useful in this regard. And the Supreme Court itself, having punted on deference in Charter cases for now, will have to revisit the issue, presumably once Doré‘s author and staunch defender, Justice Abella, retires next year. I would like to think that my paper ― and the somewhat less uncompromising one by co-blogger Mark Mancini, which is set to appear in the Dalhousie Law Journal ― can contribute to the arguments that those challenging Doré will make on that occasion. I’ll be happy to speak to anyone making such arguments. Doré must go, and the delusion of “administrative constitutionalism” and the injustice of the Trinity Western cases must go with it.

Bill 21 and the Search for True Religious Neutrality

The saga of Quebec’s Bill 21, An Act respecting the laicity of the State, trudges on. In December, the Quebec Court of Appeal upheld a Superior Court decision declining to suspend certain parts of the law – which prohibits front-line public employees from displaying overt religious symbols while on duty – until a full application for judicial review pursuant to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms could be heard. The applicants who sought the suspension claim that Bill 21 violates (among other things) the guarantees of freedom of religion and the right to equality respectively protected by sections 2(a) and 15 of the Charter. An appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada is expected to be heard on the suspension issue. Meanwhile, the Superior Court has ordered that three other Charter challenges which have been launched in the interim be heard at the same time as the original application for judicial review.

The Quebec government insists that Bill 21 is grounded in the constitutional principle of the religious neutrality of the state. Such descriptions, however, fundamentally misstate what religious neutrality ought to require of state actors. At its core, Bill 21 is inconsistent with the trajectory of religious neutrality in Canadian public law. Granted, this principle has been subject to conflicting scholarly and judicial visions of what the state’s constitutional obligations are vis-à-vis religion. Yet as I argue in this post, religious neutrality, holistically and purposively understood, ensures that the state treats religious adherents fairly by preserving equal space for their participation in public life.

Canadian conceptions of religious neutrality tend to fall along a spectrum. At one end we have those who see religious neutrality as essentially privatizing all aspects of religious belief. We might describe this as closed religious neutrality, to borrow language used by Janet Epp Buckingham. In its most extreme form, this type of neutrality seeks to purge any and all expressions of religious conviction from the public square. Only secular or irreligious worldviews can inform public discourse, and the state is prevented from even indirectly facilitating religious expression. Richard Moon describes this approach to religious neutrality as essentially relegating matters of religious faith to the private sphere, subject to a view that “[s]tate neutrality is possible only if religion can be treated as simply a private matter — separable from the civic concerns addressed by the state” (para 4).

On the other end of the spectrum we have what I call inclusive religious neutrality. Unlike closed approaches to religious neutrality, inclusive religious neutrality recognizes that the state is only one of numerous actors in the public square and has no jurisdiction to exclude religious perspectives from public life. Under this conception of religious neutrality, the state is permitted and even encouraged to preserve and create positive public space for religious adherents (such as, for example, by subsidizing charitable religious activities which pursue a common or public good) so long as it does so in an even-handed manner and does not privilege one religious group to the exclusion of others.

Inclusive religious neutrality affirms that the state is not competent to arbitrate religious debates, even where these disputes have public implications. This is subject to the obvious caveat that the state will always have a vested interested in curbing or discouraging objectively harmful religious practices. But beyond this otherwise narrow exception, it is rarely appropriate for the state to act in a way that has the effect of promoting or stigmatizing certain religious beliefs or practices. Inclusive religious neutrality is thus reinforced by equality-enhancing values which recognize that the state’s uneven support for certain beliefs suggests that those who do not adhere to these beliefs are less deserving of public citizenship.

Although not necessarily identified as such, the constitutional commitment to equality was one of the driving forces behind Chief Justice Brian Dickson’s oft-quoted decision in R v Big M Drug Ltd Mart, [1985] 1 SCR 295 [“Big M”], the first Charter-era ruling from the Supreme Court on freedom of religion. While the Chief Justice recognized that the guarantee of freedom of religion is grounded in principles of individual liberty, his reasons also highlighted why explicitly religious laws (in that case legislation requiring businesses to observe the Christian Sabbath) will run afoul of the Charter, noting that the “theological content of … legislation remains as a subtle and constant reminder to religious minorities within the country of their differences with, and alienation from, the dominant religious culture” (para 97).

On this point, Bruce Ryder has written at length about how the Canadian constitutional commitment to substantive equality intersects with the right of religious adherents to participate in public life as equal citizens. As Ryder explains:

[T]he Canadian conception of equal religious citizenship is not confined to a private or religious sphere of belief, worship and practice. Instead, a religious person’s faith is understood as a fundamental aspect of his or her identity that pervades all aspects of life. … They have a right to participate equally in the various dimensions of public life without abandoning the beliefs and practices their faith requires them to observe. In contrast, some other liberal democracies are more likely to insist that citizens participate in public institutions on terms that conform to the state promotion of secularism. On this view, equal religious citizenship is confined to the private sphere, and must give way to the secular requirements of public citizenship. (2)

Inclusive religious neutrality, as I have described it here, is inextricably tied to Ryder’s articulation of the concept of equal religious citizenship. Religious neutrality presumes that religion is no more or less immutable than the other grounds of discrimination enumerated in section 15 of the Charter. This is to say that religion is “constructively immutable”, which means that it is just as impermissible for the state to discriminate against someone because of their religious beliefs or identity as it is to discriminate on the basis of immutable grounds such as race or gender. While this point may seem trite, laws and policies like Bill 21 are a sobering reminder of the tendency of many state actors to treat religious belief as something which can be readily detached from a person’s core identity.

It should be clear by now that religious neutrality is more than a derivative duty imposed on the state by some combination of sections 2(a) and 15 of the Charter. Indeed, it would be a critical mistake to conclude that religious neutrality begins and ends with the text of the Constitution. The dyadic guarantees of religious freedom and religious equality, as the Supreme Court affirmed in Saumur v Quebec (City), [1953] 2 SCR 299 [“Saumur”], are “a fundamental principle of our civil polity” (342). Religious neutrality is thus a pre-existing, foundational and enforceable legal principle which explains why the Charter protects religious adherents. Without a proper understanding of what religious neutrality demands, there is no principled reason why the state should be prevented from pursing an ecclesiastical agenda or discriminating against religious adherents.

Granted, the very idea of religious neutrality, whether closed or inclusive, is ultimately a conceit. From a philosophical perspective, policy-making is a fundamentally normative undertaking. Whenever the state implements or pursues a given policy – no matter how benign – it is making a statement about what society ought to look like. Such declarations are informed by assumptions about what morality and justice demand. In this way, Benjamin Berger explains, “religion will have much to say about matters of broad public policy import”, in that the state’s adoption “of positions on such matters will … involve position-taking on matters of deep religious interest” (772).

When viewed from an inclusive perspective, however, the state’s duty of religious neutrality does not bestow the state with a “secularizing mission” – quite the opposite. Secularism, like all worldviews, is built on assumptions about divinity, society and what it means to be human. In other words, secularism is itself a religion. Although this may seem counterintuitive, religion, functionally defined, does not require faith in a higher deity or even the supernatural. As American political theologian Jonathan Leeman writes, “any and every position that a person might adopt in the political sphere relies upon a certain conception of human beings, their rights and their obligations toward one another, creation and God” (81). In this sense, Leeman explains, religion “determines … the worldview lens through which we come to hold our political commitments.” (Id) Thus, everyone is, to some degree, religious. This is why an inclusive approach to religious neutrality seeks to ensure that the state does not directly or indirectly support irreligious worldviews over religious ones. If irreligiosity is just another form of religion, then official state support for irreligion will favour some religious adherents (namely secularists, atheists and agonistics) over others.

Since the advent of the Charter, the Supreme Court has trended toward the inclusive conception of religious neutrality which I have outlined above. As noted, Dickson CJC’s reasons in Big M prevent majoritarian religions from excluding minority religious groups from public life. In the decades since this landmark ruling, the Supreme Court has articulated with increasing precision what the state’s duty of religious neutrality entails. The Court’s majority ruling in S.L. v Commission scolaire des Chênes, 2012 SCC 7 [“S.L.”] is particularly instructive, in which Deschamps J found that neutrality is realized when “the state neither favours nor disfavours any particular religious belief, that is, when it shows respect for all postures toward religion, including that of having no religious beliefs whatsoever” (para 32).

Justice Gascon’s majority reasons in the Supreme Court’s subsequent ruling in Mouvement laïque québécois v Saguenay (City), 2015 SCC 16 take Deschamps J’s observations from S.L. even further. A truly neutral public space, Gascon J noted, “does not mean the homogenization of private players in that space” since “[n]eutrality is required of institutions and the state, not individuals” (para 74). Religious neutrality thus protects the “freedom and dignity” of believers and non-believers alike, and in doing so promotes and enhances Canadian diversity (Id).

Bill 21 is a quintessential example of how a closed approach to religious neutrality excludes religious minorities from the full benefits of public citizenship, contrary to Gascon J’s vision of “a neutral public space that is free of discrimination and in which true freedom to believe or not believe is enjoyed by everyone equally” (Id). Despite what its proponents may argue, Bill 21 does not preserve a religiously neutral public space, but instead forces front-line public employees to give the appearance of irreligiosity to the extent that they want to keep their jobs. The Quebec government’s decree that these employees hide their faith-based identities while undertaking their public duties is actually an insistence that they adopt completely alien religious identities if they are to participate fully in public life. Such a policy is anathema to an inclusive conception of religious neutrality.

None of this is to say that the Charter challenges which have been launched against Bill 21 are certain or even likely to succeed. The Quebec government’s invocation of the section 33 override – allowing Bill 21 to operate notwithstanding violations of sections 2(a) and 15 of the Charter – makes the outcome of any application for judicial review uncertain. Yet as others (including on this blog) have observed, there are a number of compelling arguments to be made that section 33 does not insulate Bill 21 against infringements of section 28 (i.e. the equal application of the Charter to men and women) or violations of the federal division of legislative powers.

In a similar vein, a strong argument can be made that section 33 cannot be invoked to insulate Bill 21 against violations of religious neutrality, since this constitutional duty pre-dates and exists independent of the Charter. This is not to say that religious neutrality is an unwritten constitutional principle, per se, since unwritten principles cannot be used to fill in perceived gaps in the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Charter. The unwritten constitutional principles which have been recognized by the Supreme Court (namely federalism, democracy, constitutionalism and the rule of law, and the protection of minorities) differ from religious neutrality in that the latter is grounded in specific pre-Charter constitutional protections which directly inform enforceable Charter guarantees. To use section 33 to override the state’s duty of religious neutrality would be, in the language of Saumur, to circumvent “an admitted principle” of Canadian public law (342). Advocates for the rights of religious minorities can only hope the courts will agree.

For a more thorough examination of the development of the principle of religious neutrality in Canadian law, see my paper “Inclusive Religious Neutrality: Rearticulating the Relationship Between Sections 2(a) and 15 of the Charter”, (2019) 91 SCLR (2d) 219.