What to Make of the Constitution

I have written a post on the Senate Reference hearings for I-CONnect, the blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law. In large part, it follows up on and develops some of the ideas I had in my first impressions post last week, with a bit more context. I am cross-posting it below.

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Over the course of three days last week, the Supreme Court of Canada heard submissions from the federal government, the ten provinces, two territories, two ami curiae, and several interveners on the constitutionality of the federal government’s proposals for reforming the unelected upper house of the Parliament of Canada, the Senate. Beyond the obvious importance of possible Senate reform, which has been discussed almost as long as Canada has existed, this case is potentially of great significance because it is the first time the Court considers the meaning of Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982, which includes Canada’s plethora of procedures for constitutional amendment.

The questions the Court is called upon to answer concern four possible reforms. First, the limitation of the terms of a senator’s office, currently held until a retirement age of 75, to a fixed number of years (possibly 9 or 10) or to the life of two Parliaments (about 8 years under normal circumstances, but shorter in the case of minority governments). Second, the creation of a system of consultative elections to be held in the provinces that desire it, the winners of which the Prime Minister would be required to “consider” recommending to the Governor General for appointment to the Senate. Third, the removal of the “property qualification” of $4000 to hold senatorial office, a considerable sum in 1867, meant to ensure the Senate’s position as the House of privilege, but by now a somewhat comical relic of an age long gone and little lamented. And fourth, the outright abolition of the Senate.

The first three of these reforms, the federal government argued, could be implemented by Parliament acting unilaterally, either under s. 44 of the Constitution Act, 1982 (for term limits and the property qualification) or under the residual “peace, order and good government” power of s. 91 of the Constitution Act, 1867 (for consultative elections). As for abolition of the Senate, the federal government took the position that it could be done under the “general” amending formula of the Constitution Act, 1982, requiring the consent of 7 provinces representing at least 50% of Canada’s population (the “7/50 formula”). Most provinces, as well as the interveners, however, are of the view that the instauration both of term limits and of consultative elections can only be done under the 7/50 formula, and that abolishing the Senate requires the provinces’ unanimous consent.

Legally, the reasons for these disagreements come down to differences over the proper way of interpreting Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982. Part V applies to changes to “the Constitution of Canada,” and provides several different amending formulae, ranging from unilateral action to agreement between the federal Parliament and all the provinces, depending on the subject of the proposed amendment. The trouble is that the subjects singled out for special amending formulae are described in confusing terms, making it unclear under which provision of Part V a proposed amendment falls. But the confusion goes even deeper, because the very definition of “the Constitution of Canada,” to the amendments to which Part V applies, is unclear and incomplete.

Over the course of arguments before the Supreme Court, there emerged three interpretive approaches that the Court might adopt. The federal government’s preferred approach is―its denials notwithstanding―literalist. On this reading, the “powers of the Senate” entrenched by s. 44 do not include any senatorial independence that might be compromised by shortened term limits. The expression “method of selecting senators,” in the same provision, refers only to the formal appointment by the Governor General, and not to the fact that Senators are understood to be appointees lacking electoral legitimacy. And, since the list of constitutional changes requiring unanimous agreement of the provinces in s. 41 of the Constitution Act, 1982, does not specifically mention the abolition of the Senate, it does not cover it.

A second approach, championed by Québec, might be called originalist, in that it focuses on preserving the bargain struck at confederation in 1867. The Senate was, all agree, a central element of that bargain, so it is not to be touched without the consent of the parties to that bargain―that is to say, the provinces as well as the federal government. And even if some of the expectations of these parties, such as those regarding senatorial independence, have not been fulfilled, they must be upheld “regardless of reality.”

Most provinces, however, as well as the interveners and the amici curiae, urged the Court to take what was often described as the “living tree” approach, focusing not so much on the words of the constitutional text or the historical compromises that gave birth to it as on what matters most for its present and future operation. So the “method of selecting senators” is not only the part of the selection process described in the constitutional text (i.e. the appointment by the Governor General); “the powers of the Senate” include its independence, whatever exactly that might be (since it is clear that the Senate is, in fact, a political, partisan body); and the requirement of unanimous consent applies not only to the changes listed in s. 41, but also to other fundamental changes to the constitution.

In reality, however, interpretive approaches are not so neatly distinct. In what an intervener described as a dangerous application of the living tree approach, the federal government urged the Court to allow Parliament to bring the Senate into the 21st century, and not to require unrealistic levels of political agreement, condemning the country to another “135 years of talks.” Conversely, those opposed to the federal government’s proposal made much of the fact that the abolition of the Senate was simply not contemplated when the amending formula was being drafted in 1981, arguing that this, rather than the relative unimportance of such a change, explained its conspicuous absence from s. 41. As a bemused Justice Rothstein put it to Manitoba’s lawyer, “whatever works?” “Welcome to the law,” she replied.

What works, and what doesn’t, are questions that will weigh heavily on the Court’s collective mind. What works with an amending formula which, although drafted merely a generation ago, seems to reflect a very different country than the one in which we now live? A country where constitutional negotiations were not being described as the opening of a “can of worms,” and where agreement on substantive constitutional change seemed within reach; a country much preoccupied by the then-Prime Minister’s suspected republicanism, but not all by the prospect of the abolition of the Senate; a country that thought nothing of ruling its northern territories like colonies, and its First Nations like subject peoples, whose views on constitutional change could safely be ignored. What sort of authority can a constitutional text drafted under such circumstances have? Yet saying that this text is insufficient to meet the needs of today―never mind those of the years and decades to come―only forces one to confront the question of what sort of authority the Supreme Court has effectively to re-write it.

Yet the Supreme Court of Canada has not been shy about intervening in constitutional reform in the past. It stopped possible Senate reform in its tracks with the in 1979, prevented unilateral Patriation of the constitution in 1981, and ruled that a unilateral secession of Québec would be illegal in 1998. In none of these cases was it relying on explicit constitutional provisions. In all of them, it ruled that constitutional change required a broad agreement between the federal government and the provinces, and could not result from unilateral action. Although it is, of course, dangerous to make such predictions on the basis of questions asked at oral argument, insofar as it concludes that Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982 does not clearly reflect this preference for consensus, the Court did not seem very likely to heed the federal government’s call for it not to treat the constitutional text as a mere “suggestion box.”

Living Next to You

Despite living so close, and despite our constitution (not only the main documents, but also the Supreme Court’s constitutional jurisprudence) being substantially influenced (including a negative influence ― attempts not to repeat perceived mistakes) by the American experience, Canadians tend not to know, or not to understand, American constitutional law and theory as well as we sometimes think. Two of the most puzzling, misunderstood, and caricatured elements of that law and theory are originalism and the constitutionally protected right to bear arms. In Canadian legal discourse, both tend to be peremptorily dismissed not only as utterly alien to our constitutional tradition, but also as dangerous, and ― sotto voce anyway ― rather stupid.

Yet peremptory dismissals of ideas, especially ideas in which many intelligent people actually believe, are usually unwise. We don’t need to agree with them, but if we disagree, we should at least try to ensure that our disagreement is somewhat informed. So, if you have a few of hours to spend on learning more about these strange American ideas, here are a couple of links:

About the right to bear arms, an Intelligence Squared debate involving professors Sandy Levinson and Alan Dershowitz (arguing that it has outlived its usefulness), and David Kopel and Eugene Volokh (arguing that it has not).

And about originalism, a discussion between professors Randy Barnett, Mitchell Berman, John McGinnis, and Richard Primus.

Enjoy!

 

First Impressions

I will have more structured and fuller thoughts in the next days, but here are some initial impressions, in no particular order, of the Supreme Court’s hearings on the Senate Reference, almost all of which I watched.

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This case is, of course, largely about constitutional interpretation. (Much more so, in fact, than most constitutional cases in Canada, certainly much more than the many Charter cases where the constitutional text is barely alluded to.) Now, in Canada, we often think of constitutional interpretation as involving a choice between two options: the “living tree” approach on the one hand, and something like originalism on the other. But the arguments in the Senate reference suggest that there are, in fact, at least three different approaches: the living tree, which most provinces invoked; originalism, in the sense of giving an overriding importance to the bargains that made confederation possible, which was Québec’s preferred approach; and literalism or textualism, which is the federal government’s. In reality, things are even more complicated, because the provinces also rely on constitutional structure, and the amici curiae focus primarily on it. And provinces, despite their invocations of the living tree, don’t hesitate also to appeal to the original bargain. In the funniest exchange of the three days, Justice Rothstein summed it all up as “whatever works,” to which Heather Leonoff, Manitoba’s lawyer, replied: “Welcome to the law!”

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Speaking of the lawyers, it’s a tough job they had. None more so than Nancy Brown, for British Columbia, the first to argue yesterday. She was, perhaps, a bit slow to get into the substance of her argument ― as all of her colleagues who preceded her, none of whom could resist the temptation of reminding the court of the historic significance of the case, had been. As Ms Brown was speaking of the importance of confederation, the Chief Justice snapped that the Court had already heard about it many times, and demanded to be told something “new.” The Chief Justice achieved what I suppose was her aim ― the lawyers who went after Ms Brown focused and shortened their arguments, trying not to repeat too much of what others had said before. But I had the impression that Ms. Brown was somewhat thrown off course by the Chief Justice’s comments, and that it was not very fair to take the court’s (admittedly understandable) frustration out on her in this way.

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Not everybody had such a hard time, though. The academics involved ― Sébastien Grammond, the Dean of the Civil Law Section at the Faculty of Law of the University of Ottawa, was impressive in his argument for the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada, and McGill Law’s Dean Daniel Jutras, even more so. (I’m biased, of course, as an alumnus!) Dean Jutras’ fellow amicus, John Hunter was very good as well, though the Court gave him a hard time. But perhaps the most impressive performance was that of Senator Serge Joyal, who intervened and represented himself. It is often said that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client, but Mr. Joyal is no fool. He spoke with both emotion and intelligence, and brought insights to the Court which the judges had been looking for (about the pre-Patriation constitutional negotiations, in which he was very much involved). Indeed, Mr. Joyal, I think, is precisely the sort of person of whom the Senate was meant to consist. Too bad there are not more of them there.

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As for the best moment involving a judge, it came this morning when Justice Cromwell asked Mr. Hunter, who was arguing that the federal government’s plan to institute purportedly non-binding elections to choose persons whose appointment to the Senate the Prime Minister would have to “consider” did not entail a modification of the constitution, whether the government could, instead of elections, auction off Senate seats ― provided the auction was non-binding. (Mr. Hunter initially resisted, but eventually conceded this would be possible, subject of course to an eventual judgment of the voters. Not a great moment, I think, for the position he was supporting.)

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This brings me to way this will go. The federal government is in trouble. It is, of course, dangerous to make predictions based on hearings, but I have a strong impression that the Court ― all eight judges ― was skeptical of its position. The questioning both of its lawyers and of those who supported its position (as Alberta and Saskatchewan largely did, and Mr. Hunter did in part) was tougher than that of its opponents. Especially issue of the abolition of the Senate, I would be very surprised indeed if the Court were to endorse the federal government’s view that it could be effected without the unanimous consent of the provinces.

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If that is right, however, the Court may well ― though perhaps it will not ― more or less re-write the Constitution Act, 1982. The constitutional text does not, after all, mention the abolition of the Senate, which would at first glance suggest that the federal government’s position that the general amending formula, requiring the consent of 7 provinces with 50% of Canada’s population, should apply to it. What became quite clear in the course of the argument, however, is that the constitutional text does not contemplate a great many things which were not thought of in 1981, including some very fundamental changes, and that the Court seems reticent to hold that such changes (including, for example, turning Canada into a dictatorship), might happen with less than unanimous support. Judging by the tenor of the arguments, the Court may well follow the suggestion of some provinces and of the amici curiae, and hold that such fundamental changes require  unanimity, regardless of what the constitutional text says ― or, rather, doesn’t say. The federal government’s lawyers’ concluding exhortation not treat the Constitution Act, 1982, as a “suggestion box” may have come too late. Yet there would have been no need for it if the government itself had not done exactly that with its plan for getting to an elected Senate through the back door.

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Whichever way the Court’s decision goes ― whether it ends up endorsing the federal government’s plan for getting around constitutional text or re-writing that text ― it would be pretty revolutionary. The Chief Justice might have been tired of hearing it, but this is, indeed, a historic case.

What We Said

Apologies for the recent silence. There was no particularly good reason for it, either. Anyway, I’m back.

And there is a very good reason for that: the Québec Court of Appeal has released its opinion in response to a reference by the Québec government on the constitutionality of the Federal Government’s Senate reform plans, which involve the limitation of Senators’ terms to 9 years and, more importantly, the setting up of provincial elections the appointment of the winners of which a Prime Minister would be obliged to “consider” recommending to the Governor General. In Reference re Bill C-7 Concerning the Reform of the Senate, 2013 QCCA 1807 (the French opinion is here; English translation here), the Québec Court of Appeal holds that this project is unconstitutional if undertaken unilaterally by Parliament; it can only be implemented as a constitutional appointment pursuant to par. 42(1)(b) of the Constitution Act, 1982.

The Court starts off by explaining the importance of the Senate to the Fathers of Confederation. The constitution of Canada was meant to be, as the Preamble put it, “similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom,” and that meant, among other things, having an unelected Upper House of the legislature. The province of Canada had, in fact, experimented with an elected Upper House ― and Sir John A. Macdonald had not liked the experience. The appointed, undemocratic Senate was an essential part of the bargain struck in 1867. To this day, “it seems that the Senate and its members play a significant role in federal political life, and that the institution is not simply a mirror of the House of Commons” (par. 12). The Supreme Court has confirmed the Senate’s position as an entrenched, central part of the compromise that made Confederation possible, in Re: Authority of Parliament in relation to the Upper House, [1980] 1 SCR 54.

So much for the context. The relevant constitutional text consists of, on the one hand, par. 42(1)(b) and, on the other, s. 44 of the Constitution Act, 1982. The former provides that an amendment according to what is usually referred to as the 7/50 procedure, requiring the consent of 7 provinces representing between them at least half of the Canada’s population, is necessary to effect “[a]n amendment to the Constitution of Canada in relation to” any of a number of “matters,” among which are “the powers of the Senate and the method of selecting Senators.” As for s. 44, it provides that “[s]ubject to sections 41 and 42, Parliament may exclusively make laws amending the Constitution of Canada in relation to the executive government of Canada or the Senate and House of Commons.” Also relevant are s. 24 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which provides that Senators are “summon[ed]” by the Governor General, and par. 41(a) of the Constitution Act, 1982, which requires the unanimous consent of the provinces to amendments “in relation to … the office of the … Governor General.” Québec argued that the proposed Senate reform came within the terms of par. 42(1)(b) as affecting “the method of selecting Senators” and/or par. 41(a) as affecting the office of the Governor General. The Court accepted the former claim, and rejected the latter.

S. 42, it said, should not be interpreted restrictively, as an exception to a more general principle contained in s. 44. These provisions are of equal importance. Amendments relating with the “internal management” of the Senate fall under s. 44; those that have to do with the Senate’s “role[s] within the federal legislative structure, in particular those of ensuring provincial and regional representation and examining bills with sober second thought,” under s. 42 (par. 34).

Crucially, Parliament cannot get around the entrenchment of s. 42 by legislating so as to leave in place the formal provisions of the Constitution while changing the way it operates in practice. For one thing, this would contradict “the principle of supremacy of the Constitution” (par. 43). For another, it would subvert the compromise that made possible the Patriation of the 1981/82, which, so far as the Senate was concerned, had consisted in kicking the can down the road, and postponing any amendments ― to be effected at some later date pursuant to the new amending formula. Finally, s. 42 must be interpreted in light not only of the legal formalities, but also of the political realities of the constitution:

section 42 cannot be read as reflecting a consensus between the federal and provincial governments in 1982 to preserve the formalism but not the reality with respect to the matters set out therein, including the method of selecting senators. … [W]hat interest would the provinces have had when the Constitution Act, 1982 was adopted to protect a juridical reality that, even then, was inconsistent with political reality?

The political reality is that “the method of selecting Senators,” as it existed in 1982, included no electoral process. “The method of selecting Senators” refers not only to their final appointment by the Governor General, but to the entire process leading to that appointment. That process would be modified by the federal government’s reform project. Therefore that project requires a constitutional amendment.

That amendment need not be unanimously supported by the provinces, however, because it does not affect “the office of the Governor General”. While the Governor General is responsible for the final appointment of the Senators as a matter of law, “[i]n reality, the appointment of senators became the exclusive prerogative of the Prime Minister who was then in office whenever a vacancy occurred” (par. 55). The federal government’s reform project would have affected not the Governor General’s (purely formal) role in the process, but the Prime Minister’s. And “to assimilate an amendment of the powers of the Prime Minister with those of the Governor General for the purposes of paragraph 41(a) of the Constitution Act, 1982 would limit Parliament’s powers because of a constitutional convention. Such a limitation does not exist, or at a minimum, does not concern the courts” (par. 58). Conventions exist in a separate, non-justiciable realm. They can be modified by the behaviour of political actors; therefore, a fortiori, they can be modified by statute, without the need for a constitutional amendment.

If this all sounds familiar, it might be because you’ve read Fabien Gélinas’s and my paper on “Constitutional Conventions and Senate Reform,” in which we argued that the amending formula of the Constitution Act, 1982, must be understood in light of the constitutional conventions which determine the practical operation of the constitution. This means, on the one hand, that the “method of selecting Senators” means discretionary decision-making by the Prime Minister and no electoral process, and on the other, that “the office of the Governor General” does not in fact include the power to choose Senators. As a result, the federal government’s reform project comes within the scope of par. 42(1)(b), but not 41(a).

I am very happy with this opinion. I hope that the Supreme Court, which is set to hear the arguments on the federal government’s own Senate reform reference in a few weeks, comes to similar conclusions (and perhaps even spares a few words for us)!

Constitutional Conventions and Senate Reform

Fabien Gélinas and I have written a paper on the (under-appreciated yet crucial) role of constitutional conventions for assessing the constitutionality of the federal government’s plans for reforming the Senate, which are the subject of references now being considered both by the Supreme Court and by the Québec Court of Appeal. (The factums for the Supreme Court reference are available here.) Our paper is now on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Constitutional conventions are of central importance to the operation of the Canadian constitution; the constitution cannot be understood without reference to them. Yet their effect on the constitutionality of the federal government’s successive proposals for reforming the Senate, which aim at making most or all senators elected rather than appointed at the Prime Minister’s discretion as they are now, has not received much attention.

Constitutional conventions are essential to an assessment of the constitutionality of the proposed Senate reform. Although the government’s proposal does not affect formal constitutional provisions, it would change the actual operation of the constitution by subverting the conventions which make the prime minister responsible for senatorial appointments and requires the unelected Senate to yield to the House of Commons.

We argue that he amending formula of the Constitution Act, 1982, must be interpreted to take these conventions into account. Conventions are underpinned by constitutional principles and are an essential part of the context in which constitutional text must be understood. For the constitution to be a “living tree,” its interpretation must, so far as possible, be consistent with the way it is actually lived. The “method of selecting Senators” and the “powers of the Senate,” which par. 42(1)(b) of the Constitution Act, 1982, protects from unilateral amendment by Parliament are not those that exist only on paper, but those of the living constitution. Because the government’s Senate reform proposal would change them, it can only be enacted under par. 42(1)(b). In its present form, it is unconstitutional.

And from our conclusion:

The [Supreme] Court … held that the new amending formula set out in the Constitution Act, 1982 replaced the rules on constitutional amendment that applied before its enactment. But that formula requires interpretation—and in order to be meaningful, its interpretation must also take the conventions of the constitution into account. These conventions, through which the constitution develops, are part of what makes it “a living tree”. No less than the society’s views on, say, equality, they are part of the evolving context that courts must appreciate when interpreting the constitution.

 The amending formula’s provisions relative to the Senate must, therefore, be understood in the context of the conventions that apply to that institution and give life to the relevant constitutional principles. These conventions limit the Senate’s powers and define the way in which its members are chosen, which are protected from unilateral amendment by Parliament. The federal government’s plan for unilateral Senate reform would alter both of these characteristics and is, for this reason, unconstitutional.

The paper is fairly short, and, I hope, fairly readable. We hope that it reaches people involved with the Supreme Court case, so if you are one of them, please take a look at it, and if you know such people, feel free to pass it on to them.

What Will They Be Thinking?

Jack Balkin has an interesting post on Balkinization, discussing what he calls “arguments from the future” in constitutional law―arguments to the effect that a constitutional issue has to be resolved a certain way because of what people will think about it at some point in the future, say in 20 years. “If,” he writes,

like Martin Luther King, you believe that the arc of the moral universe is long, but that it bends toward justice, you will want to be sure that you do justice today, so that people tomorrow will see that you were on the right side when the chips were down.

The immediate context for this discussion is the U.S. Supreme Court’s upcoming consideration of same-sex marriage which, though still controversial now in the U.S., is clearly gaining in acceptance, especially among younger people. It seems a reasonable bet, then, to suppose that, 20 years from now, a decision saying that marriage equality is not constitutionally protected will look retrograde, bigoted, or worse. That’s how the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1986 decision upholding the constitutionality of sodomy laws, Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186, looks today, or how its decision upholding the constitutionality of “separate but equal” segregation, Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), eventually came to look, though as prof. Balkin notes, it actually anticipated the feelings of the succeeding generation, and became odious much later on. Nobody wants to go down in history as a bigot. And especially, as prof. Balkin points out, when one has one’s job for life, with no employers or voters to please, the way one will be remembered is a powerful motivation.

But, prof. Balkin observes, arguments from the future can be marshalled in support of different positions:

If we believe in a narrative of inevitable progress, then an argument from the future is an argument for working toward whatever we think “progress” is, and not being left behind. On the other hand, if we believe that America is in decline, then an argument from the future is an argument for holding fast to values that future generations will thank us for defending.

And, whatever direction one thinks things are headed now, one must also recognize that this direction might not be set in stone forever: in a century, “[p]erhaps people … will realize that today’s ‘progressive’ causes were all a big mistake.” His conclusion is that

the point about all arguments from the future is that they are arguments that imagine the future, rather than describe what it will actually be. We never fully know what the future will be like, and it is rarely exactly what we imagine in the present.  Arguments from the future are fallible, because we ourselves are fallible.

I think that’s right, and I would like to add to this skepticism.

One question is simply empirical: do courts actually use arguments from the future to justify their decisions? Do lawyers openly invoke them? Of course, prof. Balkin is surely right that reputation with future generation weighs, and probably heavily, on many judges’ minds. Still, is it any different from other “personal” influences (such as one’s political or religious views) that good judges, at least for the most part, set aside when deciding cases? Such things, no doubt, influence a judge’s intuitions about a case, but then he or she must write an opinion justifying the decision. If the opinion “won’t write”―if the decision cannot be supported by arguments that don’t rely on personal preferences―then a decent judge will revise his or her initial intuition. So if arguments from the future do not feature in judicial opinions, there is at least some reason to think that they are not as important as those that do.

Then, there is the question of competence, which prof. Balkin discusses: can courts figure out what the future will be like with any degree of confidence? The answer to that is that they surely cannot. As prof. Balkin notes, the gift of prophecy is just not really a part of human nature. Not only do we not know whether the future holds progress or decline, we do not even know what is one and what the other. When Justice Holmes and his colleagues were deciding Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927), the infamous case that upheld the constitutionality of the forced sterilization of an allegedly “feeble-minded” woman because “three generations of imbeciles are enough,” eugenics probably seemed like a very progressive idea. 20 years later, it was odious. And courts are in an especially bad position to play prophets, since they are likely to lack, or to have a very incomplete picture of, the information needed to make even educated guesses about the future.

Finally, there is the question of legitimacy. Even if courts could predict the future, and even setting aside the question of “what future”―a year hence, a generation, a century?―how is it legitimate for the views of future generations to dictate what the meaning of a constitution is? Of course the alternatives―that constitutional meaning is to be discovered in the past or in the present―are also vulnerable to criticism. But one can give at least prima facie plausible justifications for them. The views of the people who ratified the constitution count because of the democratic process they went through (and through which we could go again if we don’t like what they left us). The views of the present generation count because, after all, that’s whose decisions the constitution governs and whose rights it defines. But what about the views of people who are yet to be born? It might make sense to say that the constitution means what it has always meant, or that it means what it means; but to say that it now means what it will mean in 25 years seems to me rather paradoxical.

It is difficult and morally questionable enough for courts to try to figure out what the constitution meant or means now. There’s little point in bothering to guess what it will some day come to mean, just as there is little point in bothering to judge past generations from what we think is the height of our moral progress. If people in the future want to waste time on judging us, let them. We have enough difficult questions to answer for the present.

Original Myth

Any constitution, at least I suppose any constitution that has existed for a while, is surrounded by myths―stories that we tell ourselves to explain why things are as they are and, often, to reassure ourselves that they are as they ought to be. Among the myths surrounding the Canadian constitution, one of the most popular ones is that according to which originalism has no place in Canadian constitutional interpretation. Justice Binnie, for example, retold this myth in a debate with justice Scalia on “judging in a democracy” at a conference dedicated to the 25th anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

As many if not all myths, this one is rooted in fact, namely in the famous rejection of originalism by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in the “Persons Case”―Edwards v. Canada (Attorney General), [1930] A.C. 124. The Privy council compared the constitution to a “living tree” and held that it interpretation should make room for its “growth and expansion within its natural limits.” But as with other myths, our anti-originalist myth makes claims much broader than what its historical foundation can support. Contrary to popular belief, originalism is not altogether absent from Canadian constitutional law, though areas in which it lives on are admittedly narrow enough.

One application of originalism in Canadian constitutional law can be found in a Privy Council decision rendered only a few years after the Persons Case, A.-G. Canada v A.-G. Ontario, [1937] A.C. 326, better known as the Labour Conventions Reference. As I wrote here, Lord Atkin rejected the federal government’s argument that a constitutional provision allowing Parliament to enact legislation implementing imperial treaties also allowed it to implement treaties entered into by Canada itself, holding that “it is impossible to strain the section so as to cover the uncontemplated event” (Canadian independence, that is, uncontemplated at the time of confederation in 1867). As I said in the post linked to, Lord Atkin’s reasoning is not only originalist, but it is that, too. And however much that decision has been criticized, including by those who, like F.R. Scott, thought that it contributed to the Privy Council’s distortion of the constitution’s original meaning, it is an essential part of the fabric of our constitutional law.

Another application of originalism in Canadian law is in the interpretation of the terms “the Constitution of Canada” and “the constitution of the province” in ss. 91(1) and 92(1) of the Constitution Act, 1867 (now ss. 44 and 45 of the Constitution Act, 1982) does not include what Justice Beetz described, in Ontario (Attorney General) v. OPSEU, [1987] 2 S.C.R. 2, at 40, as “fundamental term[s] or condition[s] of the union formed in 1867.” In OPSEU, Justice Beetz cited Att. Gen. of Québec v. Blaikie, [1979] 2 S.C.R. 1016, which held that legislative bilingualism of the federal Parliament and Québec’s legislature was “part of the Constitution of Canada and of Quebec in an indivisible sense” (OPSEU, p. 40) and thus outside the scope of s. 92(1), as an example of the application of that rule. The rule was also applied in Re: Authority of Parliament in Relation to the Upper House, [1980] 1 S.C.R. 54, to support the conclusion that some hypothetical constitutional amendments regarding the Senate would be outside the scope of Parliament’s power under s. 91(1). It will also  be applied, though we do not yet know to what effect, in the Supreme Courts future decision on the constitutionality of the federal government’s proposed Senate reform.

Finally, something like originalism is also used to define the “core jurisdiction” of provincial superior (“s. 96”) courts that cannot be removed from them, whether in favour of the Federal court or of (purely) provincial courts. Although Parliament and provincial legislatures respectively can confer on these courts jurisdiction that was exercised by superior courts at Confederation (in 1867), they cannot, pursuant to MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. v. Simpson, [1995] 4 S.C.R. 725, make these grants of jurisdiction exclusive.

Originalism seldom, if ever, appears unalloyed in Canadian constitutional law. Thus, as I wrote in the post on the Labour Conventions Reference linked to above, Lord Atkin’s reasons not only rely on the original meaning of the provision at issue, but are also “mindful of principle and of practical concerns.” Blaikie, for its part, uses an originalist approach to interpretation of the term “constitution of the province,” but then switches to living constitutionalism in order to answer “the question whether ‘regulations’ issued under the authority of acts of the Legislature of Quebec are “Acts” within the purview of s. 133,” holding that  “it would truncate the requirement of s. 133 if account were not taken of the growth of delegated legislation” since 1867. Still, a fair reading of these decisions must acknowledge how important originalist reasoning is to them.

Very tentatively, I am inclined to think that this is unavoidable. We wouldn’t have an entrenched constitutional text that prevails over ordinary legislation unless we thought that the moment of its enactment had some special importance―otherwise it is not clear why decisions taken then must carry greater weight than those reached more recently. And if that moment had and still has some sort of special importance, then so, plausibly, have the ideas or practices that prevailed then. The temptation to refer to them might be too strong to avoid. This is very sketchy, I know, but, I hope, enough for now.

UPDATE: In the interest of shameless self-promotion, I mention that I took on another myth of the Canadian constitution, the one contrasting our “peace, order, and government” with the Americans’ “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” here.