Conflict and Frustration

Last Friday, the Supreme Court issued decisions in three cases dealing with the federal paramountcy doctrine, which holds that when both a federal and a provincial statutes are applicable to a situation, the federal one prevails, and the provincial one is rendered inoperative, to the extent ― if any ― of the conflict between them. In this post, I will comment on two of these decisions, Alberta (Attorney General) v. Moloney, 2015 SCC 51, and 407 ETR Concession Co. v. Canada (Superintendent of Bankruptcy), 2015 SCC 52, which deal largely with the specific issue of the kinds of conflict that can arise between a federal and a provincial statute, and how to distinguish between them.

The Court is split, with Justice Gascon writing for a seven-judge majority in both cases, and Justice Côté (with the agreement of the Chief Justice) concurring in judgment but disagreeing about the reasoning. Yet it seems to me that this conflict within the court is quite unnecessary, and only serves to illustrate the unsatisfactory character of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on the issue of paramountcy (as well as some other federalism issues not in play in these cases), about which I complained after its previous engagements with this topic in Marine Services International Ltd. v. Ryan Estate, 2013 SCC 44, [2013] 3 S.C.R. 53 and in Bank of Montreal v. Marcotte, 2014 SCC 55, [2014] 2 S.C.R. 725.

* * *

The issue in both Moloney and 407 Concession was whether provincial laws which prevented a person from renewing a driver’s license or registering an automobile unless he or she paid back certain debts ― one related to a traffic accident caused while driving uninsured in Moloney and one resulting from an accumulation of unpaid road tolls in 407 Concession ― could be applied to persons whose debts had been released through a bankruptcy. Bankruptcy law is a federal competence, and the federal Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act provides rules governing a bankrupt’s release from all “claims provable in bankruptcy,” which the debts in question were conceded to be. Provincial law, meanwhile, doesn’t force the bankrupt to satisfy these claims but, by making it impossible for him or her to keep driving on the province’s roads, creates a very strong incentive to do so.

All the judges agreed that this amounted to a conflict between federal and provincial law, which triggered the application of the doctrine of federal paramountcy, so that provincial law became inoperative. The provinces cannot refuse to register the vehicles of persons discharged from bankruptcy in order to induce them to pay the debts from which the bankruptcy was supposed to have released them. But, as I mention above, the judges did not agree about the reasons for this conclusion.

For the majority, there existed an “operational conflict” between the federal and the provincial laws at issue, meaning that “it is impossible to comply with both.” [Moloney, 18] The conflict must be “clear, direct or definite,” [22] but in asking whether a conflict exists the court need not limit itself “to the actual words or to the literal meaning of the words of the provisions at issue.” [23] The ordinary methods of statutory interpretation are to be used. In Moloney,

the test for operational conflict cannot be limited to asking whether the respondent can comply with both laws by renouncing the protection afforded to him or her under the federal law or the privilege he or she is otherwise entitled to under the provincial law. … [T]he laws at issue give inconsistent answers to the question whether there is an enforceable obligation: one law says yes and the other says no. [60]

For the majority, this is sufficient for a finding of conflict. Similarly, in 407 Concession, “[u]nder the federal law, the debt is not enforceable; under the provincial law, it is. The inconsistency is clear and definite. One law allows what the other precisely prohibits.” [25]

The concurrence disagreed. In its view, the majority’s

analysis contrasts with the clear standard that has been adopted for the purpose of determining whether an operational conflict exists in the context of the federal paramountcy test: impossibility of dual compliance as a result of an express conflict [and] conflates the two branches of the federal paramountcy test, or at a minimum blurs the difference between them and returns the jurisprudence to the state it was at before the second branch was recognized as a separate branch. [Moloney, 93]

So long as the discharged bankrupt does not drive, the province has no “leverage to compel payment of the debt” and “the literal requirement of the federal statute is, strictly speaking, met. It therefore follows that the two acts can operate side by side without conflict.” [97] The same was true in 407 Concession. Indeed, courts should favour findings of no operational conflict, including by interpreting ambiguous federal legislation narrowly so as to make room for provincial laws to operate alongside it.

In the concurrence’s view, these cases, and perhaps most others where the doctrine of paramountcy is invoked, ought to be analyzed under the heading of the frustration of the purpose of the federal statute. This makes it possible to carefully analyze the purpose of the federal law and to take into account the federal government’s view of whether this purpose is being frustrated by the operation of the provincial legislation, and generally to foster a co-operative approach to federalism that embraces the concurrent operation of federal and provincial laws in the same area.

Ultimately, the concurrence endorses the majority’s view that the frustration-of-federal-purpose test is met in these cases. Bankruptcy law aims at the “financial rehabilitation” of the bankrupt, allowing (and/or providing the incentive for) him or her to re-integrate economic life free from the burden of past debts. Giving the province the ability to demand payment of some debts goes against this purpose. If the bankrupt wants to drive, he or she must pay out; it is as though the debts at issue were not a thing of the past. And while a creditor might be able to “revive” a debt in exchange for fresh consideration, letting a bankrupt drive is not good consideration because the province has no authority to prevent a person from driving on account of his or her failure “to satisfy a … debt that was released in bankruptcy” [81] to begin with.

* * *

Given this ultimate agreement, the apparent conflict between the majority and the concurrence is a bit surprising. Justices Gascon and Côté trade mutual accusations of making one or the other “branch” of the paramountcy test “meaningless” [69; 128], but never actually explain why these accusations are serious ones. What would be lost if the two branches of the test were fused?

Like the doctrine of federal paramountcy itself, the two-branch test used to apply it was created by the Supreme Court itself. Unlike the doctrine, however, it is both a relatively recent creation, and one that can be dispensed with. It seems to me that the “operational conflict” branch of the test can easily be, not just “rendered meaningless,” but abandoned altogether.

To be sure, Justice Côté quotes the majority reasons in Quebec (Attorney General) v. Canadian Owners and Pilots Association, 2010 SCC 39, [2010] 2 S.C.R. 536, at par. 64, for the proposition that “[c]laims in paramountcy may arise from two different forms of conflict.” But that statement is itself only asserted, not explained. Justice Côté claims that

[w]hile it is true that [these two branches of the paramountcy test] overlap, it is not true that a finding of an operational conflict in the first branch will necessarily entail a finding of frustration of a federal purpose in the second branch. An overlap between the two forms of conflict does not mean the branches are necessarily redundant. [107]

Unfortunately, Justice Côté does not give any examples of situations where an operational conflict would not coincide with a frustration of the purpose of the federal law. She only states that “[t]he federal scheme may be drafted in a manner that does not match the record of Parliament’s intent, but that results in an express conflict with a provincial law,” [107] but the ― purely hypothetical ― possibility of such poor legislative drafting seems like a very weak reason for preserving a legal distinction that will, in practice, (almost?) never make any difference, and yet will generate disagreement and confusion.

It seems to me that the “operational conflict” branch of the paramountcy test should simply be discarded. Impossibility of dual compliance should be regarded as an instance ― perhaps the clearest, but not the only possible instance ― of a frustration of the federal purpose.  What Justice Côté says about the way to analyze frustration of purpose makes sense, at least so long as one accepts the general thrust of the Supreme Court’s federalism jurisprudence which favours what it terms co-operation (but which I believe is actually competition) resulting from the concurrent operation of federal and provincial legislation. But it’s not clear to me that one cannot approach frustration of purpose in the way described by Justice Côté unless one insists on a rigid separation and a narrow definition of the “operational conflict” branch of the paramountcy test.

* * *

In the meantime, the situation is a bit like the one that prevailed in administrative law before Dunsmuir v. New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 S.C.R. 190. The Supreme Court had first created a “patent unreasonableness” standard of review, and then, considering that it was too narrow, added an additional one, called “reasonableness simpliciter” ― without discarding “patent unreasonableness.” As a result, courts wasted a great deal of time deciding which of the two applied. Similarly after articulating the “operational conflict” test for the application of the paramountcy doctrine, the Supreme Court concluded that it did not capture all the situations where the doctrine should apply and, instead of simply broadening the test, added another one on top of it. As a result, courts will waste time in inconsequential efforts to figure out which of the two should be applied, before arriving to the same result.

The unsatisfying dispute between the majority and the concurrence in Moloney and in 407 Concession is a reminder, if one was needed, that conflict and frustration tend to go together. The Supreme Court’s attempts to disentangle them serve no useful purpose.

Cooperative, or competitive?

The critics of the Supreme Court’s decision in the long-gun registry case, Quebec (Attorney General) v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 14,  have lamented the majority’s failure to make good on what seemed like the promise of cooperative federalism in the Court’s recent jurisprudence. In La Presse + today, Jean Leclair argues that the judges in the majority “most certainly weaken the principle of cooperative federalism, which they had so extolled” (translation mine). Striking a more optimistic note over at I-CONnect, Paul Day hopes the dissent will “become the point of departure for Canadian courts and commentators interested in exploring ‘cooperative federalism’.” There certainly has been much talk about cooperative federalism in connection with this case, and more broadly in recent years. But what if the phrase were not an apt description for the Supreme Court’s actual concerns? I am, very tentatively, inclining to the idea that it would have been more accurate to speak not of cooperative, but of competitive federalism.

Now, the “competitive” part of competitive federalism usually refers to “horizontal” competition between the components in a federation (e.g. the States in the United States or the provinces in Canada). The idea is that these components will compete with each other by enacting different policies on the same subject. Individuals and businesses will “purchase” these different policies by moving from one jurisdiction to another one, whose policies they prefer and, similarly to what happens in the marketplace, this competition will show whose policy is the most attractive one, or allow a differentiation between the regulators allowing the preferences of persons with different tastes to be satisfied.

Applying this idea to the “vertical” context of competition between the federation and the components is not straightforward, because in the vertical context, the central legislature will normally hold a trumping power (e.g. through the Supremacy Clause under the U.S. Constitution or the paramountcy doctrine in Canadian constitutional law). The competition is not entirely fair, since one of the competitors can pretty much declare himself the winner. And that’s when the competition can take place at all. Because the two levels of legislatures have different legislative powers, there are many areas over which they cannot compete.

But, in the Canadian context at least, vertical competitive federalism is not impossible. Indeed, under the guise of encouraging “cooperative federalism,” the Supreme Court has actively promoted it. As prof. Daly notes, the Court

has employed cooperative federalism as an interpretive principle to reshape constitutional law: most notably, the doctrine of interjurisdictional immunity–premised on the existence of exclusive zones of federal and provincial authority in the areas of competence set out in the Constitution Act, 1867–has been reduced to virtually nothing.

While I do not think that “virtually nothing” is quite correct, because interjurisdictional immunity still applies, at least, in “situations already covered by precedent” (Canadian Western Bank v. Alberta, [2007] 2 S.C.R. 3, 2007 SCC 22, at par. 77), the Court’s unwillingness to expand its application is indeed the most significant consequence of what it describes as its embrace of the cooperative federalism principle. But it seems to me that the limitation of interjurisdictional immunity is conducive to competition rather than cooperation. So, too, are the Court’s insistence on interpreting the notion of conflict between federal and provincial law narrowly, so as to limit the scope of potential application of the paramountcy doctrine, and the application of the “double aspect” doctrine, which allows concurrent jurisdiction over “matters” deemed to be at once federal in one “aspect” and provincial in another. Together, these principles in the Supreme Court’s federalism jurisprudence counteract, in part, the two factors that make vertical competition in a federation difficult. Limiting the scope of interjurisdictional immunity expands the areas over which Parliament and the provincial legislatures have concurrent jurisdiction and which both can regulate, while limiting the application of the paramountcy doctrine results in fewer occasions on which Parliament’s regulation prevails simply by virtue of being Parliament’s.

Of course, the vertical competition for which the Court thus makes room isn’t quite the same as horizontal federal competition. The option of moving away from a set of policies one doesn’t like is off the table, because Parliament’s policies are applicable throughout the country. But voters still have the option of rewarding the government that enacts the policies they support, and punishing the one that doesn’t. The competition between the two levels of government is thus not for citizens and businesses who can move from one jurisdiction to the next, but for the political benefits that result from enacting policies that citizens want to see enacted.

This brings me back to the gun registry issue. Québec presented the registry as the product of federal-provincial cooperation; the dissenting judges at the Supreme Court, as well as their academic supporters such as profs. Leclair and Daly accepted that characterization. But isn’t it at least as plausible to regard the federal registry as the product of competition between Parliament and the legislatures for the political benefits of satisfying the citizenry’s preferences in the area of gun control? Parliament created the registry because it, or its masters in the executive, thought that this would have political benefits for them. Now, however, a differently constituted Parliament, catering to a different electoral coalition, thinks that it will benefit from enacting a different policy.

Seen from this perspective, the issue for the Supreme Court was not whether a partner in a cooperative venture had acted disloyally, but whether one competitor had to assist the other in implementing a policy it chose to discard. Imposing a requirement to do so would have restricted the freedom of the market for policies and might conceivably have deterred entrants, contrary to the Court’s apparent policy of encouraging vertical regulatory competition within the Canadian federation.

Now it is still arguable that competition in a federal context must be loyal, and that Parliament had failed to respect that requirement, or indeed that competition has no place in this context. Either way, you can endorse my re-interpretation of the case, as an analytical matter, and still believe that its outcome was a mistake. But I would suggest that the majority’s decision is at least more consistent with the Court’s previous cooperative competitive federalism jurisprudence than its critics allow, and that, conversely, the dissent’s position involves a greater departure from the previously accepted principles than defenders claim.

How to Be Good Neighbours

Sometimes, the soundness of a position only becomes apparent by comparison with the alternative. So it has been, for me, in the gun registry litigation, which has finally concluded this morning with the Supreme Court’s decision in Quebec (Attorney General) v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 14. The majority finds that contrary to Québec’s claims, the federal government was entitled to destroy the long gun registration data it had accumulated while registering such guns was mandatory, regardless of provincial objections. The dissenters, for their part, would have held that the statutory provision requiring the destruction of the data is unconstitutional ― but that Québec is not constitutionally entitled to the data, whose fate must be settled by a political negotiation. The dissenters present their position as the more realistic one ― yet their proposed remedy is, in my view, so unpragmatic as to show that this position is unsound.

* * *

The majority, in terse reasons by Justices Cromwell and Karakatsanis, with whom the Chief Justice and Justices Rothstein and Moldaver agree, mostly relies on the principles of federalism ― understood, primarily, as a clear division of legislative powers ― and parliamentary sovereignty. The principle of co-operative federalism, which Québec invoked, can it the majority’s view serve

to provide flexibility in separation of powers doctrines, such as federal paramountcy and interjurisdictional immunity. It is used to facilitate interlocking federal and provincial legislative schemes and to avoid unnecessary constraints on provincial legislative action. [17]

But it neither amounts to a self-standing constraint on the exercise of legislative powers by either the federal Parliament or the provincial legislatures, nor “impose[s] a positive obligation to facilitate cooperation where the constitutional division of powers authorizes unilateral action.” [20] Furthermore, the province cannot invoke its reliance on or expectation of the continued existence of the gun registry. Parliament must remain free to abolish what it had previously created. The majority also concludes that provincial participation in the operation of the registry was limited and merely a part of the framework established by federal law.

The majority holds that the provision of the legislation abolishing the long gun registry which requires the destruction of the data was within Parliament’s legislative competence. As the creation of the registry was valid legislation in relation to criminal law, so must be its abolition, and so also must be provision settling the question of what is to happen to the now-unneeded data. The reasons that motivated Parliament to settle that question in the particular way it did rather than otherwise are irrelevant. Nor does a desire to make life more complicated, at a practical level, for the other level of government translate into a constitutionally cognizable harm:

[a]n intention on the part of one level of government to prevent another from realizing a policy objective it disagrees with does not, on its own, lead to the conclusion that there is an encroachment on the other level of government’s sphere of exclusive jurisdiction. [38]

Since Québec could not “validly enact legislation that deals with what will happen with the data of the repealed scheme,” [40] Parliament’s enactment of such legislation does not impede the exercise of any provincial powers.

* * *

In contrast to the majority’s, the dissenting reasons, jointly written by Justices Lebel, Wagner, and Gascon, with the agreement of Justice Abella, try to convey the impression of careful attention to the real-life background of the dispute. The dissent starts with a history of gun control in Canada, and includes repeated reference to the Polytechnique Massacre and the importance of gun control to Québec. It emphasizes the statements of various federal politicians (including the future prime minister Stephen Harper) and officials regarding the collaborative nature of the Canadian gun control regime. It also delves deeply into the mechanics of that regime’s operation, and details the ways in which provincial officials contribute information to and rely on its linchpin, the Canadian Firearms Information System database, highlighting the fact that, although legislation suggests that provincially- and federally-collected data ought to be distinct, they are, in reality, very much intertwined.

This leads the dissent to the conclusion that the long gun registry, as part of the broader gun control regime, is the fruit of a “partnership” between the federal government and Québec. This partnership “is consistent with the spirit of co‑operative federalism,” having

enabled the federal and provincial governments to work together, rather than in isolation, to achieve both federal (criminal law) and provincial (public safety and administration of justice) purposes. [149]

Upholding the principle of (co-operative federalism) thus requires “protect[ing]” such partnerships

both when they are implemented and when they are dismantled. It would hardly make sense to encourage co‑operation and find that schemes established in the context of a partnership are valid while at the same time refusing to take this particular context into account when those schemes are terminated. [152]

A legislature that wants to dismantle a partnership must “tak[e] into account the reasonably foreseeable consequences of the decision to do so for the other partner” [153] ― and so must the courts, when they consider the constitutionality of the resulting legislation.

The dissent’s final approach to the issue in the case still takes the form of a traditional division of powers analysis. It concludes that the “true purpose” of the provision requiring the destruction of the gun registry data without offering it to the provinces “is to ensure that the information on long guns can no longer be used for any provincial purposes.” [176] But because registration falls, fundamentally, under the provincial power over property and civil rights, this provision does too, and is thus, in “pith and substance,” not valid federal legislation in relation to criminal law. Nor can it be justified as ancillary to the broader, valid, exercise of the criminal law power resulting in the abolition of the registry. For one thing, it is not necessary, in order to abolish the federal registry, to refuse to hand over the data to the provinces; for another, in the context of the Canada-Québec “partnership,” the encroachment on the provincial powers is too serious to be justified as ancillary.

The dissent accordingly concludes that the provision at issue is unconstitutional, being beyond Parliament’s legislative powers. However, it also finds that Québec “has not established a legal basis for its claim to the data.” It is not the courts’ role to order the federal government to hand over the gun registry data. Rather, as the data are the “fruit” of a partnership, it is for the partners themselves to decide, as a political matter, how to dispose of them. The province, no more than the federal government, cannot make that decision unilaterally. Since they failed to make that decision at the moment of creating the partnership, they must do so now, by means of a negotiation.

* * *

As I mentioned at the outset, I believe that the majority has the better of the argument here. I find its argument that, since the province could not itself decide what is to happen to the data, the data’s destruction cannot be frustrating the exercise of a provincial legislative power compelling. By contrast, the dissent’s claim that Parliament is “encroaching” on provincial jurisdiction strikes me as unpersuasive. All that Parliament does is to make an eventual exercise of the provincial legislative power more costly (financially and, perhaps, though unlikely in this case, politically). The province is still free to act, so long as it is willing to pay the price. That might not be nice of Parliament but, as I will presently explain, I don’t think that Parliament is under a duty to be nice here.

Before doing so, I want to return to my point about the dissent’s proposed remedy. As I wrote after the oral argument, where Justice Wagner had floated his and his colleagues’ eventual proposed solution,

[d]eclaring a duty to negotiate might have worked (hypothetically of course) in the secession context, where the end point of a successful negotiation would be clear (i.e. a peaceful separation), although the details would need to be worked out. Here, the parties have an irreconcilable disagreement over what the end state would be (data handover or data destruction). What can they negotiate about?

It is striking that, at the conclusion of an opinion that presents itself as attuned to the political realities, a pragmatic rebuttal to a rather dogmatic majority judgment the dissenters propose a remedy that would utterly fail to solve the dispute before it and result in protracted, acrimonious, and ultimately futile negotiations. This is not pragmatism, but either naïveté or a rather cynical bet that, as the negotiations drag on and on, the current federal government will be replaced by one more favourable to Québec’s claims later this year. More importantly though, in my view, the dissent’s proposed remedy amounts to an acknowledgement that Québec’s claim was ultimately political, not legal. “Co-operative federalism” was an attempt to bridge the gap between the two, but even for the dissent, it was not enough.

Still, doesn’t the idea have some value? Shouldn’t there be, in a federation, a sense of good-neighbourliness preventing the two orders of government from exercising their powers in a manner which, though superficially legitimate, imposes serious costs ― something like the neighbourhood disturbances or nuisances of private law ― on each other? Well, perhaps. But there is an important requirement of good-neighbourliness that the majority opinion actually serves much better than the dissent. The majority’s reasoning means that both the federal government and the provinces are clear about their own, and the other’s, entitlements when they embark on a joint venture. If they go ahead, they know the risks. The dissent’s reasoning would only have served to generate confusion about who may do what, and under what circumstances. It is good fences that make good neighbours.

Beavertail Western

Suppose you are the sheriff of a remote town in the Wild West. John, the man who used to run the town’s saloon ― the only saloon within a hundred-mile radius as it happens ― passed away, and left the saloon to a son of his, name of Steve. However, unlike John, who was never fewer than two sheets in the wind himself, Steve is a teetotaller, and abhors the bottle. So he decides to close down the establishment ― not to sell it, but to close it down altogether, and smash the bottles to smithereens. And he told everybody who’ll listen without shooting him (which isn’t a great many people, but they talk, so word spread and you heard all about it) that the point is to make sure nobody will open another saloon anytime soon, so as to get the townsfolk to stop drinking already, repent their sins, and start living like decent, law-abiding citizens.

Now, just as Steve is about to embark on the bottle-smashing fun, a guy rides in and demands that he hand over some of the alcohol, so that he can open a saloon of his own. Not that he has a building, or personnel, or much of anything ready, but never mind that. And as Steve refuses, the stranger barges in and demands that you call up the posse and put the fear of God into that obnoxious moralizer.

Steve is telling you it’s his booze, and he’s entitled to do whatever he wants with it. The guy is telling you that by doing that, he’s preventing him from doing something that he is perfectly entitled to do ― opening up a saloon that is ― and that since he has no use for the stuff anyway, it’s just mean and in bad faith. So what do you do? Never mind the law. You are the law, and there’s no other to be had. You’re going on first principles here. If you think that Steve ought to hand over the booze this guy is demanding, you’ll tell Steve that he’s got to do it ― or else. Will you?

As you’re thinking about it, and maybe have even come to a decision, the guy reveals that he is Steve’s estranged brother Phil. You hadn’t recognized him, because he’d been away for a while, but now that he’s told you, you know it’s true. A brother. Family and all that. So, does that change your answer? And then Phil tells you that he’d actually helped John collect those bottles. Would ride around all day to buy the finest moonshine in the state and bring it to pops. Steve retorts that not only is Phil exaggerating the extent of his involvement, but John also paid him for what little work he did put in, and he’s got the books to prove it. Do you think it matters? Are you going to investigate just what Phil did and didn’t do, and whether he was compensated for it?

Over to you, Sheriff.

The Shootout

This morning the Supreme Court heard the oral argument regarding Québec’s demand for the long-gun registry data which the federal government wants to destroy, pursuant to the legislation which abolished the registry two years ago. I have uploaded a very rough (and probably somewhat incomplete) transcript of the argument here. In this post, I will summarize it and offer some more or less random thoughts.

***

Québec argued that the gun registry had always been a joint venture between the federal government and the provinces. That’s how it was “sold” by the federal government when it was set up, and that’s how all the parties involved, including for example the RCMP, had always seen it. Federal and provincial firearms regulations are inextricably linked. Thus the Chief Firearms Officer in Québec, although appointed pursuant to federal law to execute tasks set out in federal law, is a high-ranking provincial police officer, and also executes tasks under provincial legislation.

Accordingly, the principle of co-operative federalism required that even if the federal government was no longer interested its own objectives through that venture, it allow Québec to pursue its own. The federal government, Québec pointed out, doesn’t dispute that the province could set up a gun registry of its own, to pursue purposes related to health and safety, crime prevention, and the administration of justice. It should not be able to frustrate the realization of these purposes by destroying the gun registry data.

And in response to the federal government’s claim that the destruction of the data is necessary to protect gun-owners’ personal data, Québec argued that not only was the data that would actually be destroyed ― the guns’ serial numbers ― not very significant, but its own data-protection regime was as good as the federal one, and indeed better. (Québec’s lawyer pointed out, with a bit of snark, that the provision requiring the destruction of the gun registry data precluded the application of some of the federatol data-protection legislation.)

The federal government’s main argument was that it was Parliament that had created the gun registry, and Parliament was free to change its mind as to the registry’s effectiveness and usefulness. Having changed its mind, it was free to abolish the registry ― which meant destroying it ― and did not have to consult the provinces. Imposing a duty to consult the provinces before enacting legislation that affects them would not be an application of the principle of co-operative federalism, which is limited to making it possible for federal and provincial law to operate simultaneously in the same area ― it would transform the structure of Canadian federalism. It would also run counter to the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty, which makes a legislature free to overturn any agreement entered into by the executive, even if implemented in legislation enacted by a previous legislature. And, having chosen to abolish the registry, Parliament logically had to destroy the data. Even the former Privacy Commissioner confirmed that the principles of privacy law require the destruction of any personal data one no longer has use for.

The federal government tried hard to counteract the impression that the gun registry was anything like a joint venture between it and the provinces. It contended that even though its operation involves a provincial employee acting as a Chief Firearms Officer, that person executes tasks set out in federal legislation and regulations, and the province is fully compensated for the time she spends doing so. In any event, it is the federal Registrar of Firearms who controls the gun-registry data.

The federal government also made a point of questioning Québec’s need for the data it wants to destroy. It pointed to the recent decision in Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic v. Canada, 2014 ONSC 5140 (about which I blogged here), where the Superior Court found that the efficacy of the registry in preventing domestic violence had not been established, and that even police officers disagreed about the effectiveness of the registry. It also pointed out that, unlike for handguns, the registry did not indicate where a long gun was stored, so that the police could not rely on it alone to find out whether a person was likely to have a gun in a particular place or not.

The bottom line, for the federal government, is that if Québec wants to create its own registry, it must do so on its own, without federal help. Parliament was committed to the conclusion that the registry had been an unwarranted and unnecessary intrusion upon the privacy of law-abiding citizens everywhere ― including in Québec. It did not wish to go back on that commitment. If Québec wants to set up a registry for its own ends, it should assume the political and financial costs of doing so.

***

It is difficult to know what the Court will do with this, if only because so many the judges were silent during the argument. Not a single one of the non-Québec judges asked a question of Québec’s lawyer, and, among them, only the Chief Justice and, once or twice Justice Abella, questioned the federal government’s lawyer. The Québec judges, who did thus almost all of the questioning, seemed somewhat sympathetic to the province’s position, and skeptical of the federal government’s claim that it could act unilaterally. Such skepticism would, indeed, be in keeping with the Supreme Court’s usual preference for requiring agreement between the different levels of government. But the federal government’s arguments based on Parliamentary sovereignty were quite powerful, and they may have had some effect.

It may all come down to the Court’s comprehension of how the registry operated. Will it, like Québec’s Superior Court, agree with the province that it really was a joint venture, so that one of the partners is entitled entitled not only to keep it going despite the other losing interest, but also to receive the other partner’s help for doing so? Or will it agree with the federal government’s characterization of the provincial role in the operation of the registry as very limited and thus insufficient to support any duties once the decision to discontinue the registry has been made, as the Québec Court of Appeal concluded? Even among the judges who spoke this morning, it is very difficult to say who thought what on this point.

But the Court may also look for a way out of the dilemma. Early on in Québec’s argument, Justice Wagner asked whether the Court might simply declare that the parties had a duty to negotiate. Québec’s lawyer seemed skeptical, although he eventually said that if the declaration had enough force to make the federal government hand over the data, he would be happy with it. Yet I find it difficult to see how that would work. Declaring a duty to negotiate might have worked (hypothetically of course) in the secession context, where the end point of a successful negotiation would be clear (i.e. a peaceful separation), although the details would need to be worked out. Here, the parties have an irreconcilable disagreement over what the end state would be (data handover or data destruction). What can they negotiate about?

It seems to me that the court cannot fudge ― either Québec is entitled to the registry data, or the federal government can destroy it. As in a hockey shootout, there can be only one winner here.

You Didn’t Build That

The Québec government is not entitled to obtain and keep the Québec-related data of the now-defunct federal gun registry: so holds the a unanimous five-judge panel of the Québec Court of Appeal in a judgment delivered today, reversing the Superior Court, which had ruled for the province last fall.

The Court of Appeal is not impressed with the trial judgment. The judge misunderstood the operation of the firearms registration scheme, it says, exaggerating the role played by the provinces in the creation and operation of the gun registry. Provincial authorities are not actually involved in the registration of individual firearms. This, the Court says, is “palpable” but not “overriding” error. More importantly, “there can be no question that this area falls within federal jurisdiction, and there lies the error of law justifying the reversal of the trial judgment” (par. 33).

The Court holds that Parliament had the power to abolish the gun registry which it had itself created. And it is not persuaded by the trial judge’s finding that the real purpose of destroying the registry data was to prevent provinces from setting up registries of their own. Rather, Parliament “in no way seeks to prevent provinces from enacting their own registries, although it does not wish to participate” in their doing so (par. 42). Parliament’s reason for destroying the gun registry data is not a desire to harm the provinces, but a wish “not to unduly risk the disclosure of information the government no longer needs” (par. 43) ― and the Court makes a point of observing, in a footnote, that Québec’s own legislation requires the destruction of records the provincial government no longer has the need for. As for co-operative federalism, it is an interpretive principle, but does not change the distribution of powers between Parliament and provincial legislatures. It cannot serve to make invalid an otherwise constitutional exercise of Parliament legislative power.

Furthermore, “Québec has no property right in the [gun registry] data” (par. 55). The fact that its public servants exercised some “administrative functions” with respect to it ― for which Parliament compensated the province ― does not change this. They had no control over the data and did not even contribute to it. The provincial contribution was limited to information about firearms license holders, which is not affected by the abolition of the gun registry. The Court concludes that “[l]egally, there is no real partnership between the federal government and the government of Québec concerning the gathering and preservation of data” which Québec is now trying to obtain (par. 63).

In short, the Court’s response to the government of Québec is “you didn’t build that. And since you didn’t build it, those who did can take it away from you.” Although the Court claims that the problem with the trial judge’s decision was an error of law regarding the powers of Parliament, the real issue seems to be the understanding of the legislative scheme pursuant to which the gun registry had been set up and operated. This, I think, is as it should be. Parliament obviously could terminate the gun registry if it wished to, and the province’s only claim to its data could rest on its contribution to its collection. If there was no real contribution, then the claim has nothing to rest on. As for who, between the Court of Appeal and the trial judge, is right about the extent of the provincial contribution to the gun registry, it may well be that the Supreme Court will have the final word ― Québec’s government has already said that it will appeal.

Difference without Discrimination

The Québec Court of Appeal delivered an important decision last Friday, Droit de la famille ― 139, 2013 QCCA 13, upholding the constitutionality of Québec’s child-support guidelines, despite the fact that their application results, in many cases, in substantially lower child-support awards than that of the federal guidelines which, in one way or another, now apply in the other provinces. The appellants argued that the difference amounted to discrimination contrary to the equality guarantee of s. 15(1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. At trial, the judge agreed that it did, but held that the infringement of s. 15(1) was justified by s. 1 of the Charter. Now, in a judgment signed by the entire five-judge panel, the Court of Appeal held that there is no s. 15(1) infringement at all.

The reason for the existence of the two separate sets of guidelines is the somewhat messy division of powers over family matters between Parliament and the provincial legislatures. Pursuant to s. 91(26) of the Constitution Act, 1867, Parliament has competence over “marriage and divorce” ― which includes the child-support obligations of divorcing parents. Provinces (in addition to a competence over the “solemnization of marriage” (s. 92(12)), have power over “property and civil rights in the Province” (s. 92(13)), which includes the child-support obligations of parents who are not divorcing because they had never married in the first place. The upshot is that children of never-married couples in every province faced a different legal regime than those of their counter-parts in other provinces and those of divorcing couples in the same provinces. Now my knowledge of family law is very limited indeed, but I don’t suppose any of that would have struck anyone as problematic in 1867, if such questions would even have crossed anyone’s mind at a time when divorce was all but impossible and “bastard” children were very much second class citizens. But while our views of justice in the family realm have changed, the constitutional division of powers hasn’t, so Parliament and the provinces have had to work around it.

The solution they came up with was for Parliament to enact (or rather, to delegate to the Governor-in-council the power to enact) a set of child-support guidelines that would apply in divorce cases, which provinces could make applicable to never-married parents; alternatively, a province could come up with its own set of guidelines, which the federal government would, on some conditions, make applicable in divorce cases in that province. Either way, the legal regime applicable to support obligations for all children in the same province would be the same―but there could be differences between provinces. Most provinces chose the first option, using the federal guidelines for all cases. But Québec opted for the alternative, coming up with its own set of guidelines, which the federal government then made applicable to divorcing parents in Québec. In some ways, Québec’s guidelines were similar to the federal ones, but there were also significant differences in the factors taken into account to determine the amount of child support, often resulting in lower amounts being awarded under the Québec guidelines.

Hence the complaint of discrimination. But not any difference in the way the law treats people or groups amounts to discrimination pursuant to s. 15(1) of the Charter. The difference must be based on one of the grounds (such race, gender, religion, etc.) enumerated in that provision or an “analogous ground” (such as citizenship and sexual orientation). The relationship of the difference complained of and a prohibited ground of discrimination is the central issue in this case.

The appellants argued that they were being discriminated against on the basis of their place of residence (that, Québec as opposed to the rest of the country). But, as the Court of Appeal pointed out, the Supreme Court has always rejected claims that place of residence was an “analogous ground” for the purpose of s. 15(1). Perhaps the most dramatic such case was Haig v. Canada (Chief Electoral Officer), [1993] 2 S.C.R. 995, where the appellant had been prevented from voting in Québec’s referendum on the Charlottetown Accord because he had not lived in the province for 6 months at the time of the vote and in the referendum on the same issue organized by the federal government in the other provinces because he was now living in Québec. The only “exception” to this rule concerned the status of off-reserve Indians, who, as the Supreme Court pointed out, face much more intractable choices than other Canadians when it comes to choosing their place of residence. Theirs is a special situation that does not bear on this case. Furthermore, said the Court of Appeal, in a federal country such as Canada the equality guarantee must be interpreted in light of the federal principle and of the fact that it can result in different legal regimes being applicable to similarly situated persons in different parts of the country. “Thus, differential treatment depending on the province of residence cannot, a priori, be suspect from the standpoint of the right to equality” (par. 62, translation mine). Even when differential treatment results from the application of the same federal statute (rather than from a comparison between the laws of two different provinces), it is not constitutionally suspect.

I think that’s the right decision. Provinces have different needs and different values; they are distinct political communities. The Charter should not become a means of preventing them from making different choices. And, because of the entanglement of federal and provincial responsibilities, which only becomes more complex as society changes and becomes increasingly different from that of 1867, we need co-operative federalism, including federal laws that create, or incorporate by reference to provincial law, different rules for different provinces. The Court of Appeal recognized this reality.