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.