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.

Day 12: Mark Mancini

Here are my three favourite dissents at the Supreme Court of Canada. All of my dissents are united by a focus on the Rule of Law and constitutionalism, traditionally understood. In other words, they prioritize constitutional text over abstract values; and they focus particularly on the hierarchy of laws under which the Constitution>statutes>the common law. These might be considered “boring” themes on which to base my dissents, but to my mind, these structural arrangements are fundamental to law in Canada. These dissents focus on the majority’s subversion or misapplication of these fundamental structural constraints.

The TWU decision was one of the most anticipated Supreme Court decisions in 2018. My favourite aspect of this dissent, penned by Brown and Côté JJ, was the rigorous attack on Doré/Loyola as an organizing framework to analyze the constitutional claims in TWU. The dissent admirably showed why these cases are inconsistent with the Rule of Law and constitutionalism.

The Doré/Loyola approach to assessing the constitutionality of decisions engaging Charter rights asks decision-makers to balance Charter values engaged on particular facts with statutory objectives arising in a statutory framework. Courts are supposed to defer to the decision-maker’s balancing of values and objectives. But the slippery nature of Doré/Loyola has been subject to widespread criticism (see my particular criticisms here). Brown and Côté JJ also pointed out the widespread problems with the Doré/Loyola framework: see para 302. But the majority largely ignored these problems, and the suggestion by interveners that Doré/Loyola were unworkable. In a laughably weak paragraph, the majority simply stated that Doré and Loyola are binding precedents [59], without any attempt to justify the approach from first principles.

Brown and Côté JJ’s dissenting opinion admirably dealt with the problems with the Doré/Loyola framework head on. First, the dissent stated that there is no pressing justification for a separate analytical track when speaking of administrative decisions, particularly because the traditional Oakes test is “already context-specific” [302]. Second, the dissent noted that Doré and Loyola permit statutory objectives to trump Charter rights—but such a situation is completely unjustified from the perspective of the Rule of Law and constitutionalism, under which the Constitution trumps potentially unconstitutional statutory objectives, subject only to reasonable limits under s.1—not statutory objectives writ large [305]. Finally, the majority’s navel-gazing with regards to Charter values received the dissent’s ire: these values—as opposed to Charter rights—do not receive constitutional protection [307], and should not because they are not law. Since they are “unsourced,” they can be “entirely the product of the idiosyncrasies of the judicial mind that pronounces them to be so” [308].

Brown and Côté JJ’s dissenting reasons sound in the Rule of Law and constitutionalism. Under Doré, as Brown and Côté JJ note, the traditional hierarchy of laws is perverted. The use of statutory objectives to moor the analysis means that rights can be infringed insofar as a decision limiting those rights is consistent with an enabling statute. This reverses how we typically understand constitutionalism. Under a system based on the Constitution, once a decision is found to limit a constitutional right, that decision is void insofar as it infringes the Constitution—statutes cannot save a decision that infringe the Constitution [305]. True, infringements of Charter rights can be justified under the Oakes test. But it is not only every statutory objective and means that are worthy of the Oakes imprimatur. Yet under Doré, “Charter rights are guaranteed only so far as they are consistent with the objectives of the enabling statute” [305].

More seriously, the use of Charter values allows for potential judicial expansion of rights beyond the text of the Constitution—that which is enacted by the people through democratic processes. As Brown and Côté JJ persuasively note, “values” lack doctrinal rigour, permitting judges to define rights as they see fit. This perverts the relationship that courts should have to constitutional text. The relationship is that of an interpreter, not a creator. Constitutionalism is as much about control on elected representatives as it is on courts, who are supposed to faithfully elucidate the existing Constitution, not create a new one.

At issue in the SFL case was a prohibition on striking interfered with s.2(d) of the Charter, protecting the freedom of association. The majority (Abella J) concluded that s.2(d) incorporated a right to strike, despite the fact that the Court had previously held that the right to strike is not constitutionally entrenched in Canada. While there had been changes in the s.2(d) jurisprudence in the intervening years, those changes, in my view, fell far short of endorsing a free-standing right to strike.

Yet the majority did so, powered by the reasoning that “It seems to me to be the time to [the right to strike] constitutional benediction.” This reasoning—a weak, unsupported assertion of judicial power—was the target of Rothstein and Wagner JJ’s partial dissent.

The dissent in SFL focused on two problems with the majority’s acceptance of a right to strike. First, it noted that constitutionalizing a right to strike upsets the prerogatives of the legislature and the executive, the branches constitutionality assigned to “balance competing tensions in making policy decisions” [115]. As the dissent posits, “Governments, not courts, are charged with adapting legislation to changing circumstances in order to achieve a balance between the interests of employers, employees, and the public” [120]. But secondly, to the dissent, the majority’s approach was inconsistent with existing precedent of the Court, undermining certainty in the law [137, 139].

Rothstein and Wagner JJ’s dissent is so powerful because it resists the judicial usurpation (“benediction”) evident in the majority reasons. It asserts that the text of the Constitution, not judicial predilections or results-oriented reasoning, should be the starting point of constitutional analysis. It refers to the importance of precedent as the bedrock of the legal system; precedent which the majority overrules for no convincing reason. It asserts that the court cannot usurp the power of the legislature in an area traditionally assigned to political channels. These are reminders that courts should keep in mind in the era of Charter adjudication.

Dissents are sometimes valuable because they have the potential to tell the future. Sometimes it takes a long time for a dissent to find majority support. But in Edmonton East, at least part of Brown and Côté JJ’s dissent received majority support in the Supreme Court’s recent administrative law re-do, Vavilov.

The controversy in Edmonton East centred around the selection of the standard of review. The majority (Karakatsanis J) ultimately concluded that a presumption of reasonableness review should govern, based on existing precedent. That presumption was justified by (1) the legislative choice to delegate in the first place [22] and (2) expertise, which “inheres in a tribunal itself as an institution…” [33] and (3) access to justice [22]. But Karakatsanis J, in her reasons, actually ended up strengthening the presumption of reasonableness, by rejecting the idea that a contextual analysis should not often rebut the presumption of reasonableness [35], and the idea that statutory rights of appeal cannot rebut the presumption of reasonableness [28].

Brown and Côté JJ took significant issue with all of this. In their view, the existence of a statutory right of appeal on certain questions of law and jurisdiction led to the conclusion in this case that correctness was the applicable standard [78]. To Brown and Cote JJ, statutory rights of appeal could be a signal that the legislature intended more intrusive review [73]. And the dissent was also reticent about the majority’s broad claims of expertise [83].

Brown and Côté JJ’s dissent is justified in principle. The selection of the standard of review is a matter of determining what the legislature meant when it delegated power to a decision-maker. This is because administrative actors are vested with powers only so far as statute provides, and it is for the legislature to prescribe the degree of deference courts must afford decision-makers [85]. This means that courts must carefully parse the delegation of authority to decision-makers, and the statutory context, to determine the degree of deference owed: statutory rights of appeal play a role in this task, as they signal that legislatures intended courts to interfere with a lower administrative decision as it would in any normal appeal. And expertise is not a good justification for a broad-based presumption of expertise, because legislatures may sometimes delegate to a non-expert decision-maker, and a decision-maker might not be expert on all the questions that come before it [85].

All of this, as noted above, was recognized by the Court’s recent opinion in Vavilov. Statutory rights of appeal now serve as valid legislative signals that correctness applies, on questions of law. Expertise is no longer a valid consideration in determining the standard of review. Brown and Côté JJ foretold the future, then, in their Edmonton East dissent.

Day Nine: Leonid Sirota

The Roads Not Taken

Sometimes, as other contributors to the symposium have discussed, dissenting opinions chart the law’s future course. But at other times, they are only signposts for alternative paths which the law passes by, perhaps for the better. And sometimes, they point to the lost straight road, from which the law tragically deviates, never to return. The three dissents below belong to this last category.


1. Justice Beetz in Slaight Communications v Davidson, [1989] 1 SCR 1038

Slaight was an unjust dismissal case, in which a labour arbitrator sided with the former employee. The issue at the Supreme Court was the arbitrator could, consistently with the Charter, require the former employer to provide the employee with a recommendation letter bearing the employer’s signature but actually entirely dictated by the arbitrator, and further to refrain from saying anything else about the former employee. The majority held that he could. After all, there was a power imbalance between employer and employee that needed to be rectified, and anyway the employer was only required to state true facts, as established by the arbitrator.

Justice Beetz saw things differently. To force a person to state “facts in which, rightly or wrongly, he may not believe” is tantamount making him “tell a lie”. The outcome of an official fact-finding process cannot be equated with an objective, all-purpose truth, let alone be elevated into a dogma everyone must believe in. The state has no more authority to make a person proclaim what it, but not he, believes to be true facts than to make him proclaim what it, but not he, believes to be true opinions. Such an order “is totalitarian in nature and can never be justified under s. 1 of the Charter. It does not differ, essentially, from the command given to Galileo by the Inquisition to abjure the cosmology of Copernicus.”

Justice Beetz also rejected the arbitrator’s order that the former employer not say anything other than what the arbitrator required about the former employee. He pointed out that “one should view with extreme suspicion an administrative order or even a judicial order which has the effect of preventing the litigants from commenting upon and even criticizing the rulings of the deciding board or court”. Finally, while condemning the former employer, Justice Beetz pointed out that “under the Charter, freedom of opinion and freedom of expression are guaranteed to ‘everyone’, employers and employees alike, irrespective of their labour practices and of their bargaining power.”

All these points are important, and Canadian law is the worse for not having taken them more seriously. Most disturbingly, of course, we have seen in recent years recurring attempts to impose official dogma on dissenting individuals, whether by the Law Society of Ontario or by the governments of Canada and Ontario. But we also now have an asymmetrical Charter jurisprudence, notably in the realm of freedom of association, against which Justice Beetz correctly warned. And, while fortunately we have not seen attempts to stifle criticism of the judiciary or the administrative state by law, too many Canadian lawyers are intolerant of critiques of their judicial heroes.

2. Justice McLachlin (as she then was) in R v Keegstra, [1990] 3 SCR 697

Before she became, allegedly, the “Conscience-in-Chief” of Canada, or at least of the Central Canadian establishment, and a Chief Justice somewhat notorious for strong-arming colleagues into consensus, Justice McLachlin, as she once was, authored a number of important dissents. Famously, the one in Rodriguez v British Columbia (Attorney-General), [1993] 3 SCR 519 eventually, in effect, became Supreme Court’s unanimous position. The one in Keegstra did not. Even Chief Justice McLachlin, as she became, eventually resiled from it. That’s too bad.

In Keegstra, the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of the Criminal Code‘s proscription of hate speech. The four-judge majority upheld it as a reasonable limit on the freedom of expression. Justice McLachlin wrote for three (on the freedom of expression issue) dissenters. Her opinion is, perhaps, a little fastidious, and contains little in the way of memorable language, but it is thoughtful and deserves to be considered even by those who do not ultimately agree with her. Indeed, having argued the substantive case against the criminalization of hate speech elsewhere on this blog (and Emmett Macfarlane having discussed them in his contribution to this symposium), it is the more general or procedural points that I would like to highlight here.

For one thing, Justice McLachlin was fundamentally skeptical of content-based regulation of speech, and much sympathetic to the American approach, the views all such regulation with great suspicion. For another, Justice McLachlin firmly rejected the attempt to equate hate speech with violence. Violence, she stressed, involved the use of physical force, not words, even hurtful words. Furthermore, Justice McLachlin refused to read down the Charter‘s protection of freedom of expression in the name of equality: “it seems a misapplication of Charter values to … limit the scope of that individual guarantee [of freedom of expression] with an argument based on s. 15, which is also aimed at circumscribing the power of the state”. Compare this to the use of “Charter values” to impose egalitarianism on private actors and eviscerate religious freedom in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, [2018] 2 SCR 293!

Last but not least, consider Justice McLachlin’s insistence on the need for evidence to justify limitations on the freedom of expression. While acknowledging the appropriateness of some deference to the government on this issue, Justice McLachlin nevertheless wrote that, in order to avoid trivializing the justification of limitations on rights, “in cases … where it appears that the legislation not only may fail to achieve its goal but may have a contrary effect, the Court is justified in finding that the rational connection between the measure and the objective is absent”. Good intentions are not enough ― nor is the sort of ill-informed speculation, camouflaged as “common sense”, that has all too often sufficed in subsequent Supreme Court decisions.

Had just one vote gone the other way, and this opinion become the law, our constitution may well have been in much better shape than it is, far beyond the narrow issue of hate speech. As things stand, Keegstra has to count as one of the more significant missed opportunities in the Charter‘s history.

3. Justice Moldaver in Reference re Supreme Court Act, ss 5 and 6, 2014 SCC 21, [2014] 1 SCR 433, a.k.a. l’Affaire Nadon

In l’Affaire Nadon the Supreme Court was asked to opine on the eligibility of the judges of federal courts for appointment to the Supreme Court itself, and especially that of judges of the federal courts from Québec for appointment to one the Supreme Court’s Québec seats. It was, as readers will recall, a very high-profile and controversial case (more on which in a forthcoming book by Michael Plaxton and Carissima Mathen). The sort of case, in other words, in which the Supreme Court not infrequently issues unanimous opinions “by the court”. But Justice Moldaver’s dissent prevented the majority from giving itself this ultimate institutional imprimatur.

The majority held that, while judges of the federal courts were, as former lawyers, eligible for non-Québec seats on the Supreme Court, only current lawyers or current judges of the Québec’s superior courts could take one of the Québec seats. In doing so, the majority relied heavily on the idea that judges from Québec had to be not only experts in the civil law, but also representatives of Québec’s “social values”. This, they could not do without being current, not merely former, judges of Québec’s courts or members of the Québec bar.

For his part, Justice Moldaver dissected each of the majority’s arguments, and found them empty. In particular, as a matter of text, the two provisions governing eligibility for appointment ― the general one requiring judges to be or to “ha[ve] been” judges or lawyers of at least 10 years’ experience, and the specific one providing that Québec judges are to be chosen “from among the judges of the Court of Appeal or of the Superior Court of the Province of Quebec or from among the advocates of that Province” ― are “inextricably linked”. If the 10-year rule applies to Québec seats, as the majority accepted, so must the eligibility of former lawyers.

As for purpose, Justice Moldaver rejected the majority’s claim that the eligibility criteria had anything to do with the representation of Québec’s alleged “social values”. Indeed, “[i]mporting social values — 140 years later — is unsupported by the text and history of the [Supreme Court] Act”. The majority’s interpretation leads to the absurd result that judges not only of the federal courts, but also of Québec’s provincial court, are ineligible for appointment, while a lawyer who has done no more than pay his fees to the Québec bar while not engaging with the law at all could be appointed; so could a former judge who rejoined the Québec bar for a single day. While Parliament might have chosen such absurd criteria for eligibility and said so, “when interpreting a statute to determine what the relevant criteria are — i.e. what Parliament intended them to be — absurd results are to be avoided”.

As I have said here before, the majority opinion was not only wrong but pernicious; in particular, its linchpin, the concept of “social values”, was just self-important twaddle. Justice Moldaver deserves credit for exposing its vacuity. Rumour has it that he did it at some cost to himself. His fortitude, then, is to be commended as much as his legal acumen.


Honourable mentions: Justices Brown and Côté in Law Society of British Columbia v. Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, [2018] 2 S.C.R. 293, which I described here as “probably the best opinion to come out of the Supreme Court in a long while”, and Justices Martland and Ritchie in Re: Resolution to amend the Constitution, [1981] 1 SCR 753, a.k.a the Patriation Reference, which I plan on discussing further in a post on unwritten constitutional principles in a not-too-distant future.

Day Eight: Anna Su

University of Toronto

There are many reasons for judges (especially at the highest court) to write separate dissenting opinions. The first, in my view, is that it sets forth clear positions on the major legal issues of the day, ready to be taken on anew in a future judgment. In that sense, it is the Supreme Court that becomes the venue for important legal debate, especially for novel constitutional questions. It should not only be the task of academics to recognize and reflect on these significant controversies and to lead the intellectual discussion. A second, more canonical, reason for dissents is that some judge might perceive its truth somewhere down the road and it becomes law in the future. Of course, it might not always happen. But at the very least, at that moment, the possibility that judges can dissent can somewhat improve the majority opinion. Or at least one would hope. I chose these three opinions because they 1) clearly identify a recurring debate in constitutional law, and 2) I hope they could be a prompt for future justices to reconsider how they look at cases in that particular subject.

Justices Binnie and Lebel in Chaoulli v Quebec (Attorney General), 2005 SCC 35, [2005] 1 SCR 791

“This does not mean that the courts are well placed to perform the required surgery.”

In their joint dissent in Chaoulli, Justices Binnie and Lebel emphasized a minimalist role for the judiciary in deciding the question of whether the prevailing single-tier health care system in Quebec was compliant with the s.7 guarantee under the Charter. Both justices would have upheld the Quebec prohibition on private health insurance as they questioned the appropriateness of the court passing judgment on what constitutes “reasonable health services”. The dissent is persuasive in holding the dispositive effect of the phrase “principle of fundamental justice” – the bread and butter component of s.7 litigation – under close scrutiny. Indeed, as the dissent went, a legislative policy cannot be deemed arbitrary just because we may disagree with the decision. The dissent acknowledged that the existence of waiting times is certainly a public concern and that a two-tier health care system would have a negative impact on the integrity, functioning and viability of the public system, but it expressed skepticism that this is within the purview of courts to evaluate.

Over the course of its s.7 jurisprudence, the SCC has given the phrase “principles of fundamental justice” substantive content by defining them as principles against arbitrariness, vagueness, overbreadth and gross disproportionality. Arbitrariness in particular, refers to the relationship between the means adopted and the policy objective. The dissent shows the indeterminacy of this standard. In contrast to the characterization of the majority, the dissent showed an equally plausible and clear relation between the prohibition against private health insurance and the preservation of access to a health system based on need.

There will be many more cases to be litigated under s.7. A prominent one in the offing is the recently filed suit by minors against the federal government for violating their s.7 rights to life, liberty and security of the person for, among others, its failure to curb greenhouse gas emissions that is incompatible with a stable climate system. The question of whether courts are the right venues to seek relief thus remains evergreen. The broad themes of the Chaoulli dissent illustrate the limitations and possibilities of s.7 case law.

Justice Abella in Alberta v Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, 2009 SCC 37, [2009] 2 SCR 567

Justice Abella’s spirited dissent began with a succinct encapsulation of what the s.2(a) doctrinal framework is about. Freedom of religion is an important constitutional value. Accordingly, there is a high threshold to be met by any infringing measure. It is a very good illustration of what it means to take freedom of religion seriously in a pluralistic society, regardless of the final outcome. In this case, the controversy was whether the Hutterites were entitled to an accommodation from the mandatory photo requirement in drivers’ licenses on the grounds that their religion forbade them from having their photos willingly taken. Justice Abella laid out the drastic harm to the constitutional rights of the Hutterites, absent such exemption, since it would not allow them to maintain the autonomous and insular nature of their communities without any driving privileges.

This point is greatly appreciated especially in juxtaposition with how the majority opinion disposes of this argument, which suggested that the Hutterites could avail of third-party transport for necessary services. In his landmark essay Nomos and Narrative, the late legal scholar Robert Cover wrote about the jurispathic function of courts—that is, their ability to quash other commitments and forms of interpretation when they are incompatible with national norms. Religious freedom cases brought before courts often highlight this ability. In such cases, courts assert one law, often the state’s, to the rejection of all others. I am always reminded of this when I read opinions that make short shrift of the constitutional promise to celebrate pluralism and its guarantee to protect religious liberty. Justice Abella’s dissent in Hutterian is not one of them.

The dissent also fleshes out what proportionality stricto sensu in the Oakes test looks like. As the majority points out, this stage has not often been used in Charter cases.

Justice L’Heureux-Dubé in R v Van der Peet, [1996] 2 SCR 507

The dissent by Justice L’Heureux-Dubé in Van der Peet offers an explanation of why the ideal of legal reconciliation (one of the many dimensions of reconciliation) between Canada and its indigenous population remains an aspiration, rather than reality. Professor John Borrows, for instance, still criticizes the originalist framework for proving aboriginal rights that Van der Peet has ushered in and urges lawyers and academics to reject history as the sole determinant of legal analysis under s.35. But in 1996, Justice L’Heureux-Dubé already rejected the frozen rights approach she saw the majority opinion to be taking, and emphasized that “the notion of aboriginal rights must be open to fluctuation, change and evolution, not only from one native group to another, but also over time.”

In particular, her approach to interpreting aboriginal rights rejects the reliance

on the proclamation of sovereignty by the British imperial power as the “cut-off” for the development of aboriginal practices, traditions and customs overstates the impact of European influence on aboriginal communities. Taking British sovereignty as the turning point in aboriginal culture assumes that everything that the natives did after that date was not sufficiently significant and fundamental to their culture and social organization.  This is no doubt contrary to the perspective of aboriginal people as to the significance of European arrival on their rights.

Moreover, “crystallizing aboriginal practices, traditions and customs at the time of British sovereignty creates an arbitrary date for assessing existing aboriginal rights”.

And finally, Justice L’Heureux-Dubé writes:

the “frozen right” approach imposes a heavy and unfair burden on the natives: the claimant of an aboriginal right must prove that the aboriginal practice, tradition or custom is not only sufficiently significant and fundamental to the culture and social organization of the aboriginal group, but has also been continuously in existence, but as the Chief Justice stresses, even if interrupted for a certain length of time, for an indeterminate long period of time prior to British sovereignty. This test embodies inappropriate and unprovable assumptions about aboriginal culture and society. It forces the claimant to embark upon a search for a pristine aboriginal society and to prove the continuous existence of the activity for “time immemorial” before the arrival of Europeans.


Dissents in Canadian constitutional law opinions are far from being nasty “body slams,” as Dahlia Litwick describes dissenting opinions in the US Supreme Court, but they fulfill similar functions. At the very least, they enhance the legitimacy of judicial institutions since they reinforce the impartiality and independence of judges. There should be more of them.

Day Seven: Howard Kislowicz

The Disagreement is the Law

Howie Kislowicz

On the surface, dissenting judgments paint alternative visions of the law in a particular case. More deeply, they demonstrate that disagreement is a fundamental feature of the way law is made in our legal tradition. I did not choose the three dissenting views highlighted here because I think they “got the law right” (though I agree with some elements of them). I chose them because, each in their own way, they question an orthodoxy  and address the contingencies of Canadian constitutional law. 

McLachlin J in Adler 

In Adler, two groups of parents who sent their children to private religious schools sought a constitutional remedy on the basis of their religious freedom and equality rights. They were aggrieved because, though the Ontario government funded Catholic schools pursuant to its constitutional obligations under the s. 93 of the Constitution Act 1867, it did not fund any other religious schools. Adler is most often discussed in relation to the question of what courts do when one part of the Constitution appears to conflict with another. The answer, that one part of the constitution cannot invalidate another, had previously been given.(FN 1: Or, as I prefer, the legal equivalent of the theological question: could an omnipotent god create a brisket so big that even they couldn’t eat it?)

My focus here, however, is on Justice McLachlin’s (as she then was) Charter analysis. The majority held that s. 93 created a comprehensive code with respect to education, and this included the provision of both public and Catholic or Protestant schools. As such, the majority reasoned, no aspect of this system could be subject to Charter review.

Justice McLachlin, however, held that the constitutional obligations imposed by s 93 were for “Ontario to fund schools for the Roman Catholic minority in Ontario.” In other words, only the support of Catholic schools, not of public schools, was shielded from Charter scrutiny. This opened the door to Charter analysis.

Justice McLachlin held that the absence of funding for non-Catholic religious schools was not a religious freedom problem: no one was prohibited from sending their children to such schools. 

She went on, however, to consider the position of non-Catholic religious schools in contrast with that of secular public schools. I would wager that for many such an analogy might seem of no assistance. The religious parents in Adler could, after all, send their children to the funded public schools. From one perspective, such access represents equality, it does not violate it. The reason Justice McLachlin’s judgment stands out is because it engages directly with the perspective of the religious parents. “To these children,” Justice McLachlin held, “public education is as inaccessible as a job on the construction site was to [a turban-wearing Sikh person].” While Justice McLachlin ultimately held that the infringement of equality rights was justified, she showed a remarkable capacity to understand a perspective that might easily have been dismissed. She was also careful to specifically reject the argument that any disadvantage experienced by the religious families was due to their choice of religion: “If a charge of religious discrimination could be rebutted by the allegation that the person discriminated against chose the religion and hence must accept the adverse consequences of its dictates, there would be no such thing as [religious] discrimination.”

Abella J in NS 

A second dissent that has stayed with me is Justice Abella’s in R v NS. The case addressed whether the complainant in a sexual assault prosecution could testify while wearing a niqab, a veil worn by some Muslim women that covers the whole face except the eyes. The two accused argued that this would compromise their fair trial rights by depriving court and counsel of access to her demeanour. 

The majority created a test designed to balance the fair trial rights of the accused and the religious freedom rights of the complainant. While the test speaks in terms of reconciling competing interests, I think Faisal Bhabha was right when he wrote that the impact of the test is likely that niqabi sexual assault complainants will have to choose between testifying without their niqab or not testifying (see also para 96 of the dissent). Sexual assault prosecutions typically require testimony from the complainant to lead to a conviction, and the test is structured to make such important testimony subject to a no-niqab rule (see also Natasha Bakht’s work). 

One of the challenges in the case is that it hinges on the assumption that a witness’s demeanour is a valuable indicator of their credibility. The social science on this question tends in the opposite direction, suggesting that ordinary people do no better than chance at detecting deception (see here and here). Though some of this social science was put to the court, this was not done through an expert witness who was able to stand for cross-examination. Accordingly, the majority of the court would not change the common law’s widespread assumption that watching a witness testify provides reliable information about their credibility. 

Justice Abella’s dissent is compelling because this did not end the analysis for her. Instead of going down the path of the social science, Justice Abella used the common law’s tradition of analogical reasoning to question the position that a witness must testify with their face showing. Perhaps most persuasive is the analogy she draws to those with “physical or medical limitations that affect a judge’s or lawyer’s ability to assess demeanour. A stroke may interfere with facial expressions; an illness may affect body movements; and a speech impairment may affect the manner of speaking… yet none has ever been held to disqualify the witness from giving his or her evidence.” This passage is remarkable because it challenges a deep assumption of our legal processes and, like Justice McLachlin’s dissent in Adler, it refuses to treat religion differently than disability on the grounds that religion is “chosen.”

La Forest J in Provincial Judges’ Reference

The last dissent I highlight relates to the unwritten aspects of our Constitution. The Provincial Judges Reference addressed whether the principle of judicial independence constrained legislatures’ powers to limit the salaries of provincial judges. The disagreement between the majority and the dissent reveals a fundamental divergence in the conception of what Canada’s Constitution is and how courts should understand it. 

For the majority, the text of the Constitution only incompletely lays out the principle of judicial independence: “[t]he only way to explain the interpretation of ss. 96 and 100… is by reference to a deeper set of unwritten understandings which are not found on the face of the document itself”. The majority referred to the preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867, which expresses the desire to form a country “with a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.” This, the Court held, points us to seek the Constitution’s “organizing principles” in “the legal and institutional structure” of the United Kingdom. 

This way of reading the constitution, by reference to underlying or organizing principles that are not explicit in the text, has become familiar. But Justice La Forest presented a way of engaging with the Constitution more firmly anchored in its text. He accepted that the Constitution “embraces unwritten rules,” but emphasized that “these rules really find their origin in specific provisions of the Constitution viewed in light of our constitutional heritage”. To the extent that judicial independence was entrenched in the Constitution, this was “accomplished… by ss. 99100 of the Constitution Act, 1867, not the preamble”.

Here is the crux of the disagreement. For La Forest J, the written provisions of the Constitution are not incomplete expressions of the underlying principles that animate the Constitution. The express provisions “are the Constitution. To assert otherwise is to subvert the democratic foundation of judicial review”. Why? Because “[j]udicial review… is politically legitimate only insofar as it involves the interpretation of an authoritative constitutional instrument” (emphasis added). 

Justice La Forest’s dissent represents a contrary view on the primacy of the text over unwritten principles. It understands the documents to be the Constitution, whereas the majority seems to understand them to be an imperfect expression of the Constitution’s principles. These are very different ways of understanding the nature of our political community and its fundamental commitments. I don’t think I share Justice La Forest’s view, but it provides a reminder that our Constitutional documents do not come with clear instructions on how they are to be read and what unwritten principles they might include. In this way, La Forest J’s dissent accomplishes, I think, the goals of writing a dissenting view: it challenges its readers to scrutinize their interpretive commitments, which often go unstated.

My students sometimes lament that dissenting views are on the syllabus. But the law is more than a set of normative propositions. The records of legal disagreements give us glimpses at alternate possibilities; they model how a society characterized by deep divisions can rely in part on law to build a life in common.

Day Six: Carissima Mathen

It was a formidable challenge to select only three Supreme Court dissents.  To make the choice more manageable, I decided to stick to Charter case law, and to focus on opinions that I personally found persuasive.  That left out a number of notable opinions, such as William McIntyre’s uncompromising yet necessary challenges to his colleagues during the 1980sThat sort of divergence adds to the jurisprudential project, which regrettably is not always in evidence in many dissents produced today.

In selecting my three opinions, I also thought about the purpose and value of the dissenting voice.  I prioritized the willingness to challenge orthodoxy, to articulate hard truths or to recognize doctrinal deficiencies.  I looked, too, for powerful writing.

A.C. v. Manitoba (Director of Child and Family Services)2009 SCC 30

 In this 2009 case, a 6-1 majority upheld a provincial law that permits judges to order medical treatment for non-consenting minors under the age of 16.  Justice Ian Binnie wrote a dissent.

A.C., a 14-year-old Jehovah’s Witness, refused a life-saving blood transfusion.  Medical experts concluded that she had the requisite capacity to make that decision.  Nonetheless, because the legislation set out more stringent criteria for persons under age of 16, A.C. was administered the transfusion.  She argued that the law violated her Charter rights.

The majority judges determined that it was possible to interpret and apply the legislation in a constitutional manner.  However, on the basis that A.C.’s own situation was moot (since she was no longer in care), none of them pronounced on whether she had been deprived of her Charter rights, or indeed whether someone under the age of 16 could ever refuse life-saving treatment.

Justice Binnie recognized that A.C. sought the freedom to make what most people would view as a terrible mistake. But, if an otherwise capable person has the right to make that choice, on what basis might A.C. be denied?  In Binnie J’s view, the state had not offered any justification for that denial.

In preferring the safer terrain of statutory interpretation, Justice Binnie said, the majority had not actually responded to A.C.’s claim.  The issue was not whether something like a “best interests” test (the focus of much of the majority decision) could be rendered more consistent with the Charter.  The question was whether the state could substitute that test for the wholly different one: whether a person has the capacity to make a particular decision.  If a “mature minor” has that capacity, Binnie J. argued, the basis for applying a best interests test disappears. Consequently, his colleagues had not lived up to the Charter’s promise.  Binnie J. strongly implied that the majority’s reluctance to fully enter into the debate was grounded in both disbelief that anyone would refuse medical care, and suspicion of the faith-based context of A.C.’s choice.  While it is valid to seek to protect children who lack capacity, there is no relationship between that goal and removing the choice from children with capacity.  Thus, the deprivation of A.C.’s section 7 right to direct her own medical treatment was arbitrary.

If the autonomy rights the Charter guarantees are to be meaningful, they cannot be limited to choices that a majority of persons understand and respect.  Justice Binnie’s unstinting embrace of principle makes this one of my favourite dissents.  His approach holds valuable lessons today, as our society confronts difficult questions surrounding medical aid in dying

R v. Hall, 2002 SCC 64

A 2002 case about bail, Hall features a powerful dissent authored by Justice Frank Iacobucci (joined by Major, Arbour and Lebel JJ.)

Section 11(e) of the Charter states inter alia that no person may be denied bail without just cause.  In the 1992 case of R v. Morales, the Supreme Court assessed criminal provisions permitting bail to be denied if “necessary in the public interest”.  A majority found those words vague and, thus, unconstitutional.

Some years later, Parliament amended the law so that even where a flight or public risk is not established, detention is permissible “where [it] is necessary in order to maintain confidence in the administration of justice” considering the strength of the case, gravity and circumstances of the offence, and the potential for a lengthy sentence. The Hall trial judge found that the highly charged aftermath of a murder and the strong evidence underlying the Crown’s case made it necessary to detain the defendant. The Supreme Court upheld that ruling, and the law permitting it, as a rare case in which pre-trial detention on a “tertiary ground” was justified.

Justice Iacobucci’s dissent was excoriating.  He accused the majority of abandoning the presumption of innocence and its concomitant right to liberty.  He took exception to the suggestion that “a well-functioning bail system” requires the occasional power to deny bail for a purpose unrelated to trial attendance or public safety.  He pointed out the pernicious systemic effects of pre-trial detention, such as inducing guilty pleas and inhibiting defendants’ ability to participate in their own defence.

Iacobucci J. was especially disturbed by the idea that confidence in the administration of justice may require detaining someone on the basis of nothing more than (often flawed, even irrational) public sentiment.  In his view, the justice system should educate and protect against such attitudes, not coddle them.  Given the specific context and the values engaged in pre-trial detention, the amended ground for denying bail was equally as deficient as its predecessor.

Hall was issued during the heyday of the idea that Charter rulings are part of a “dialogue” between courts and legislatures (a concept of which I have long been skeptical).  Justice Iacobucci was one of the strongest proponents of dialogue (see, most notably, his decision in Vriend v Alberta).  Yet, giving the dissent special force and resonance, he specifically critiqued the idea that “dialogue” could justify the majority’s approach.  He called Hall an example of “how dialogue can break down”.  Although Parliament purported to respond to Morales, it had not demonstrated due regard for the constitutional standards set out in that case.  It had simply re-issued the “public interest” ground by another name.  By failing in turn to uphold fundamental freedoms and liberty, the Court majority had “transformed dialogue into abdication” and misconceived its role under the Constitution.

Little Sisters Book and Art Emporium v Canada (Little Sisters 2), 2007 SCC 2

My final entry deals with process and litigation.  As I have written elsewhere, the mechanisms by which people ensure the constitutionality of legislation is vital to the rule of law.  Little Sisters 2 powerfully illustrates the troubling thinness of constitutional process.  In addition, its dissent includes a rare and striking mea culpa.

In 2007, the Supreme Court refused to uphold an interim costs award to the Little Sisters Bookstore.   In earlier litigation the bookstore had established long-standing discrimination against it by Canada Customs especially in relation to the LGBT materials it imported.   In a majority opinion written by Ian Binnie, the Court decided against any section 52 remedies.  Relying on government assurances that the regime had been fixed, Justice Binnie issued only declaratory relief under section 24(1) of the Charter.

Believing that it continued to be the subject of discriminatory seizures, Little Sisters launched a new action.  Having already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, it sought advance costs.  The B.C. Supreme Court awarded them, but on appeal the order was set aside. A majority of the Supreme Court affirmed the latter decision on the basis that the new claim was a fact-based dispute with no broader public interest.

While advance costs do not enjoy unqualified support in the legal community, it is difficult to think of a Charter case in which they would be more justified.  In Little Sisters 2, the strongest advocate for the bookstore turned out to be Justice Binnie.  In his dissent, he implicitly recognized the paucity of his original remedy:

I differ from my colleagues about what is truly at stake in this appeal…  In my view, Little Sisters No. 1 provides more than “important context” [as my colleagues describe it].  The ramifications of that decision go to the heart and soul of the appellant’s present application.  …  This case is not the beginning of a litigation journey.  It is 12 years into it. […]

The present application…comes before us precisely because the appellant says that the Minister’s assurances proved empty in practice, that the systemic abuses established in the earlier litigation have continued, and that (in its view) Canada Customs has shown itself to be unwilling to administer the Customs legislation fairly and without discrimination…  [W]as the Minister as good as his word when his counsel assured the Court that the appropriate reforms had been implemented?

For Justice Binnie, failing to grant Little Sisters advance costs risked putting the state beyond the reach of judicial review.  The public interest lay in having the claim ensue – even if paid for by the State.  It was a refreshing, if belated, acknowledgement of the systemic barriers faced by many constitutional litigants.

 

 

Day One: Dwight Newman

Three dissents of principle

Professor of Law, University of Saskatchewan

In considering some dissents of note, it is important to consider what factors make a dissent stand out. Amongst these are its intellectual coherence, its adherence to basic principle, and its tendency to stand up to a majority opinion with some surface allures. In some cases, such dissents of principle end up shaping the law in future, and that is the case in varying ways with all three of the dissents I will discuss here: the dissent of Beetz J. in the Anti-Inflation Act Reference, [1976] 2 SCR 373, the dissent of La Forest J. in the Reference re Remuneration of Judges of the Provincial Court (P.E.I.), [1997] 3 SCR 3, and the dissent of LeBel J. in Alberta v. Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, 2009 SCC 37, [2009] 2 SCR 567.

Beetz J. in the Anti-Inflation Act Reference

Justice Beetz, though not always attracting as much attention today, was an intellectual giant of his era. His dissenting opinion in the 1976 Anti-Inflation Act Reference, in which he stood up for fundamental principles of federalism, is a landmark judgment. In the case, Beetz J. wrote against the majority judgments upholding relatively popular legislation designed to combat severe inflation, including the lead judgment of Laskin C.J.C. supported by the future chief justice Dickson J.

In doing so, Beetz J. had to articulate tests for the so-called “peace, order, and good government” (POGG) power. While the majority mistakenly stated the POGG test too broadly and in ways that would harm Canadian federalism had they come to be applied in other cases, the tests articulated by Beetz J. could inform future jurisprudence, notably shaping the approaches of both the majority and the dissent in the 1988 decision in R. v. Crown Zellerbach Ltd., [1988] 1 S.C.R. 401

On the use of the national concern branch of POGG, Beetz J. actually obtained a majority even in the Anti-Inflation Act Reference itself, as Ritchie J.’s opinion signed on with Beetz J. on this issue. The judgment of Laskin C.J.C. had a peculiar ambiguity to it, not drawing clear distinctions between “national dimensions” and a “national emergency”, and Beetz J.’s dissent thus offered an appealing intellectual rigour by comparison to an approach that would have failed to offer meaningful constraints on federal power. Indeed, Beetz J. presciently warned against the dangers of the federal government inventing new powers by developing creative names for matters it sought to claim under the POGG power.

On the emergency branch, Beetz J. was ready to insist upon the need for transparency in any invocation of emergency powers, along with the other elements needed for the use of the power, including genuine temporariness.  Writing of the mixed body of evidence put forth in support of the federal anti-inflation legislation allegedly being focused on an emergency, Beetz J. showed his readiness to describe matters frankly: “I remain unimpressed” (p. 466). His dissent in the case continues to stand as a tour de force in resisting federal overreach.

La Forest J. in the Provincial Court Judges Reference

The dissent of La Forest J. in the Reference re Remuneration of Judges of the Provincial Court (P.E.I.) (Provincial Court Judges Reference), saw La Forest J. standing alone against a Court that claimed to find unwritten constitutional principles governing judicial salaries. The forthrightness of the judgment is stark, as La Forest J. wrote that “the approach adopted by the Chief Justice, in my view, misapprehends the nature of the Constitution Act, 1867” (para. 320) and he suggested that the approach adopted caused the very legitimacy of the Court to be “imperiled” (para. 316). Indeed, he saw the case as being about “the nature of judicial power” (para. 300) in so far as the rest of the Court dreamt up arguments not proffered by the parties to find unwritten principles in the preamble of the Constitution Act, 1867.

In doing so, the majority set the stage for the kind of reasoning they would end up using in the Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 SCR 217 shortly thereafter. But it was La Forest J.’s resistance to judicially created principles that would later win out, as the Court had to take  steps in British Columbia v. Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., 2005 SCC 49, [2005] 2 SCR 473 to fend off a surge in litigation grounded in alleged unwritten principles. The majority managed to use unwritten principles on judicial salaries and on secession but came to realize that such an approach was unmanageable for the judiciary as an institution. In Imperial Tobacco, it also indicated its arguably newfound respect for “the delimitation of […] rights chosen by our constitutional framers” (para. 65). While unwritten constitutional principles were convenient in a particular moment, the principled position is to seek to focus on the written text, and that was what La Forest J. defended. 

There has been over the years much talk that La Forest J.’s  resignation from the Court—essentially simultaneous with the release of the judgment in being announced weeks before the release and taking effect weeks after—was a mark of his profound disagreement with the decision, its methodology, and its implications for the upcoming cases. His dissent lives on as a defence of the rule of law.

LeBel J. in Alberta v. Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony

There are many important Charter dissents, and the dissent of LeBel J. in Alberta v. Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony might not be a common choice.  In some ways, the dissent of Abella J. in the same case has attracted more attention and defends some of the same positions as those within the dissent of LeBel J. But it is LeBel J.’s dissent that has a certain starkness and that marks more profoundly a certain commonsensical resistance to the majority’s convenience-oriented rejection of a religious freedom claim.

The facts concerned the religious freedom claim of a small group of 250 Hutterite farmers from some particular colonies in rural Alberta whose understanding of Scriptural principles against graven images took a particularly strict form: they took the view that they could not have their photographs on their driver licences. The province of Alberta had implemented a universal photo requirement to create a universal facial recognition database and removed an exemption previously granted to these 250 Hutterite farmers that would exclude them from the database, along with the 700,000 Albertans who did not have driver licences at all.   

While the majority opinion of McLachlin C.J.C. (erroneously) accepted the creation of the database itself as the government objective for purposes of analyzing any infringement and McLachlin C.J.C went so far as to suggest that the farmers in question could simply arrange alternative transportation, LeBel J. eviscerated the majority logic in a few lines. Writing against the judgment of McLachlin C.J.C. —who grew up in rural Alberta—it fell to LeBel J. to point out the importance of a driver’s licence in rural Alberta and to suggest that an appropriate constitutional balance was not obtained “by belittling the impact of the measures on the beliefs and religious practices of the Hutterites and by asking them to rely on taxi drivers and truck rental services to operate their farms and to preserve their way of life” (para. 201). 

The defence of collective aspects of religious freedom resonating through various parts of LeBel J.’s dissent (and the subject of a beautiful passage about communities of faith at para. 182), also found in Abella J.’s dissent, won out in Loyola High School v. Quebec (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 12, [2015] 1 SCR 613.  There, McLachlin C.J.C. and Moldaver J., wth Rothstein J. also signing on, decided to state that LeBel J. had not actually been in dissent on the significance of religious communities and the collective dimensions of religious freedom (para. 93). Sadly, such reassurances may have come too late, as many understood the majority opinion in Hutterite Brethren as implicitly about worries about future cases involving Muslims, and the majority’s tolerance of government restrictions probably set a tone for the years to come. But, in principle, LeBel J.’s dissent came to be the law on these aspects.

Another, fascinating dimension of LeBel J.’s dissent also deserves more attention than it has received thus far. In his dissent, he also fosters new thought on the Oakes test for rights limitations, recognizing explicitly some problems in how it had come to be applied over the years. This thought was also prescient, and further rethinking of the Oakes test has emerged as an arena for ongoing discussion. Like other great dissents of principle, LeBel J.’s dissent in Hutterian Brethren sparkles with intellectual energy and stands on fundamental points of principle in ways that make it endure not as a mere minority report but as a light for the future.