Rethinking Peace, Order, and Good Government in the Canadian Constitution

This post is written by Brian Bird.

The United States has life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. France has liberté, égalité, fraternité. What is the calling card of the Canadian Constitution? It is peace, order and good government.

Apart from being a concise expression of the political philosophy that animates Canadian society, or at least the philosophy that is supposed to animate it, conventional – and I would say faulty – wisdom has developed around the quintessentially Canadian brand of constitutionalism. The prevailing understanding and analytic approach to peace, order and good government (POGG) has led us to astray with respect to this key element of our constitutional architecture.

Before identifying that prevailing (mis)understanding, let us take a look at the constitutional text. Section 91 of the Constitution Act, 1867 delineates matters over which Parliament has exclusive legislative jurisdiction – matters which, by virtue of that delineation, are off limits for the provinces.

Section 91 begins with the following words:

It shall be lawful for the Queen, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate and House of Commons, to make Laws for the Peace, Order, and good Government of Canada, in relation to all Matters not coming within the Classes of Subjects by this Act assigned exclusively to the Legislatures of the Provinces; and for greater Certainty, but not so as to restrict the Generality of the foregoing Terms of this Section, it is hereby declared that (notwithstanding anything in this Act) the exclusive Legislative Authority of the Parliament of Canada extends to all Matters coming within the Classes of Subjects next hereinafter enumerated; that is to say …

What follows this paragraph is the enumerated list of classes of subjects over which the federal government has exclusive legislative jurisdiction: criminal law, national defence, banking and so forth.

The opening words of section 91 are revealing in at least three ways.

First, the concept of POGG precedes the list of subjects that fall exclusively within federal legislative jurisdiction. I suspect many if not most jurists in Canada envision POGG as residing at the end of the list, as a residual catch-all category. On the contrary, section 91 arguably contemplates legislation for the purposes of POGG as the first and foremost responsibility of Parliament.

Second, the list of subjects that follow the opening paragraph of section 91 are expressly said to be included for “greater Certainty, but not so as to restrict the Generality of the foregoing Terms”. In other words, the enumerated list of subjects under exclusive federal jurisdiction do not diminish the ability of Parliament enact laws for POGG. The conventional wisdom among most Canadian jurists is the opposite, that the list in section 91 curtails Parliament’s power to legislate for POGG.

Third, the power of the federal government to enact laws for POGG is only available where the topic of the law does not come within the areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction. On a strictly textual basis, then, federal laws that are enacted in the name of POGG are invalid if the substance of the legislation reflects a head of provincial power as found in section 92.

This third consideration provides additional texture to the doctrine of paramountcy, which holds that a valid federal law will prevail over a valid provincial law to the extent the two laws clash. It would seem, based on the opening words of section 91, that there is no scenario in which there will be a division of power issue raised by the coexistence of a federal law enacted for POGG and a provincial law enacted for a matter listed in section 92. Parliament cannot enact legislation for peace, order and good government if the substance of that legislation falls within exclusive provincial jurisdiction.

Having taken a closer look at the wording and structure of sections 91 and 92, it seems inescapable that the proper starting point for determining whether Parliament can legislate for POGG is whether the legislation at issue falls exclusively within provincial jurisdiction pursuant to section 92. If the legislation can only be enacted by the province, it is constitutionally impossible for the same legislation to be enacted by Parliament for the purposes of POGG. This result, however, does not exclude the possibility of the legislation being valid under a specified subject of federal jurisdiction in section 91 and that, pursuant to paramountcy, such federal legislation would prevail over conflicting provincial legislation.

To a certain extent, then, the legal principles developed by courts that govern the ability of Parliament to legislate for POGG get off on the wrong foot. As these legal principles currently stand, Parliament can enact laws for the purposes of POGG in three scenarios: to address matters of national concern, respond to emergencies, and fill gaps in the division of legislative powers.

Given the text and logic of sections 91 and 92, the analysis of the validity of a federal law purportedly enacted to promote peace, order and good government should be reworked to feature two steps. The first step is to determine whether the federal legislation engages a matter coming within the classes of subjects assigned exclusively to the provinces. If the federal legislation encroaches on provincial jurisdiction, the federal legislation is invalid unless it can otherwise be saved – for example, by recourse to the enumerated list of federal subjects in section 91.

If the legislation survives the first step, the second step – tracking the opening words of section 91 – is to determine whether Parliament has made the law “for the Peace, Order, and good Government of Canada”. This language suggests a significant amount of latitude, so long as the legislation bears some rational basis to the three concepts. If that basis exists, the law is valid federal legislation.

If the federal law does not bear a rational basis to the promotion of POGG, Parliament might still be able to validate the legislation at this step by establishing that it falls within one of the classes of subjects listed in section 91. Assuming the federal legislation somehow satisfies section 91, it should be upheld by a court unless other constitutional constraints, such as the guarantees of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, are at issue.

It is worth noting an important and, as far as I can tell, often overlooked aspect of the relationship between the list of federal classes of subjects in section 91 and the corresponding provincial list in section 92. The drafters of the Constitution Act, 1867 give us a hint of the rationale for even including a list in section 91 at all. Indeed, the collective structure of sections 91 and 92 lends itself to section 91 featuring nothing more than the general terms of the opening paragraph cited at the beginning of this post. Why did the drafters opt to go further and include specificity in the form of a federal list?

Besides a likely desire to give Parliament and the provinces a flavour of which matters fall within federal jurisdiction, the words that follow the federal list are revealing. Section 91 concludes by saying that “any Matter coming within any of the Classes of Subjects enumerated in this Section shall not be deemed to come within the Class of Matters of a local or private Nature comprised in the Enumeration of the Classes of Subjects by this Act assigned exclusively to the Legislatures of the Provinces.”

In other words, the list of federal subjects in section 91 fall outside of the subject that appears at the end of the provincial list. Section 92(16) affords the provinces exclusive jurisdiction to legislate “Generally all Matters of a merely local or private Nature in the Province”. The closing words of section 91 preclude the possibility of a province enacting a law that pertains to a federal class of subject on the basis that the substance of the provincial law happens to concern a matter of a “merely local or private Nature in the Province”. Owing to the constitutional text, the provinces cannot attempt to legislate on a factually provincial matter that concerns interest, copyrights, the postal service or any other federal subject unless the provincial law can be sustained through recourse to another subject specified in section 92.

The novel two-step analysis for POGG described above challenges the current approach to this constitutional grant of legislative jurisdiction to Parliament. Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the current approach is the absence of a robust inquiry into whether the federal law under scrutiny promotes the three ends of peace, order and good government. The current approach focuses on three other concepts: national concern, emergencies, and gaps. In my view, this approach must be refined to ensure fidelity to the constitutional text and to the brand of federalism it enshrines.

Admittedly, this revamp of the POGG analysis may not yield different results in certain cases that have already ruled on legislation through the lens of this this constitutional provision. In the most recent Supreme Court ruling where POGG took centre stage, the majority’s opinion in References re Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act – an opinion that affirmed the federally enacted price on greenhouse gas pollution via the national concern branch – may also hold water under the novel approach. There are good reasons to say that the power to enact this law does not belong exclusively to the provinces (step one). And laws that seek to protect the environment – and by extension basic human welfare – serve the peace, order and good government of Canada (step two).

That said, there is also good reason to believe that recalibrating the POGG analysis may lead to different results in future cases. The concepts of peace, order and good government qualitatively differ from the concepts of national concern, emergencies and gaps. It seems intuitive to say that the former concepts are, in a variety of ways, broader than the latter. In short, it may be that the current approach to POGG shortchanges this grant of federal legislative jurisdiction.

Indeed, several existing federal statutes are arguably POGG laws. For example, the Firearms Act, Food and Drugs Act, Privacy Act and Canadian Human Rights Act do not fit neatly within the federal list in section 91. On the current test for POGG, these statutes would not satisfy the emergency branch. They may not satisfy the national concern branch, which remains a difficult needle to thread.

While these statutes likely satisfy the “gap” branch, this outcome also reveals a problem. Saying that POGG can fill gaps in the division of powers, without more, neglects to ask if the gap being filled is a law made for the peace, order and good government of Canada. The gap branch, as it now stands, does not ask whether the federal law is concerned with peace, order and good government.

This flaw in the current POGG test seems to echo the conventional wisdom that the division of powers in Canada is “exhaustive”. Yet, based on the text of sections 91 and 92, the division of powers is not exhaustive in the way that is often thought. If the subject of a law cannot be hung on a hook within the provincial or federal lists and cannot be said to further peace, order and good government, this is a law that no legislature in Canada can enact. The division of powers presents the field of subjects that can be treated by legislation in Canada, but it is not exhaustive in the sense that legislatures can enact laws about anything and everything. The field of legislative jurisdiction in Canada has boundaries. Parliament cannot enact a statute that defines water as H3O instead of H2O. While there is no provincial head of power that impedes this law, there is also no federal head of power or POGG basis that permits such a statute. This law is, subject-wise, out of bounds.

If the current branch-based approach to POGG shortchanges this head of federal power, does Parliament in fact enjoy far more legislative latitude? The answer is likely something less than “far more latitude”. In addition to the field and boundaries just described, the provinces enjoy exclusive jurisdiction to legislate generally on all matters “of a local or private Nature”. In other words, only the provinces can enact laws for local POGG. Besides this check on federal legislative power, there is also – as noted above – constraints imposed by other constitutional instruments such as the Charter.

I finish by noting an interesting interpretive question: must federal legislation for POGG serve all three concepts contained in this clause (peace, order and good government)? Or, alternatively, does the federal legislation only need to serve at least one of these concepts? I leave this intriguing issue, and others that inevitably spring from a consideration of the POGG clause, for another day.

Peace, order and good government may be the most famous phrase in the Canadian Constitution. Many people say the phrase encapsulates Canada’s political culture. It is therefore surprising to discover that, in terms of how this concept lives and breathes within our constitutional atmosphere, we have fallen far short of understanding it.

McCaw: Declarations of Invalidity in the ONSC

Can one ONSC judge bind another?

In R v McCaw, 2018 ONSC 3464, the Ontario Superior Court decided that constitutional declarations of invalidity are binding on other judges of the Ontario Superior Court. The case concerned s.33.1 of the Criminal Code, under which Parliament narrowed the common law defence of extreme intoxication set out in  Daviault, denying it in general intent casesIn McCaw, the Court was faced with conflicting authority: previous Ontario Superior Court decisions declared that s.33.1 of the Criminal Code infringed ss.7 and 11(d) of the Charter, and that the infringement could not be saved by s.1. But these previous cases had all considered the issue anew, rather than considering it finally decided. McCaw centred on the effect of these previous cases: was s.33.1 unconstitutional for the purposes of this case? The court said yes, considering itself bound.

I do not propose to get into the facts of the case or any criminal law substance, except for the specific remedies question of one superior court judge binding another through a constitutional declaration of invalidity (inspired by discussions on Twitter!) Putting aside whether the Supreme Court’s remedies doctrine is sound, McCaw represents a faithful application of it, particularly the Court’s strong-form interpretation of s.52 of the Constitution Act, 1982. Section 52 has been  interpreted to provide the courts power to issue declarations of invalidity, but textually provides that laws are of no force or effect to the extent of their inconsistency with the Constitution.

First, the McCaw court’s holding that it was bound by the previous ONSC authority on point is consistent with the operation of constitutional remedies—particularly declarations of invalidity. In Hislop, the Supreme Court confirmed that in most cases, courts granting constitutional declarations are operating in a “Blackstonian paradigm” (on this, see Dan Guttmann’s illuminating article). In the ordinary course, courts seek to resolve past wrongs. A typical case involves Party A claiming against Party B for Event C, which occurred in the past. A court discovers the law that applied to that past event. In the constitutional context, the Blackstonian paradigm essentially tells us that a law declared unconstitutional by a court was always unconstitutional, from the time of its enactment (Hislop, at para 83). And the Supreme Court confirmed this idea: a judicial declaration does not cause a legislative provision to be unconstitutional—rather, s.52(1) as a remedial authority dictates what is and isn’t constitutional (see Martin, at para 28). The judicial declaration is simply a recognition that s.52 always regarded the impugned provision as unconstitutional. This has particular effect in benefits cases, where claimants previously denied can claim retroactively.

At the same time, a declaration of invalidity also operates prospectively (Hislop, at para 82). For obvious reasons, the government cannot pursue causes of action under an unconstitutional statute after the judicial recognition that the statute is unconstitutional; nor can a court (itself subject to law) deny a defence to a claimant if it is unconstitutional to do so. So, if what the Supreme Court says is true, once a statute is recognized as unconstitutional, it is systemically unlawful reaching backwards and forwards. After the declaration, subsequent courts dealing with causes of action arising before or after the declaration are bound by s.52, which now views the provision as unconstitutional.

The timing question is central. If s.33.1 was always unconstitutional, and continues to be, a later judge dealing with a case is bound temporally. If a cause of action arose before the declaration (but the case is heard after), a claimant should have access to the common law defence (to the extent s.33.1 abridges it). If a cause of action arose after the declaration, the claimant should also have access to the defence because the declaration applies s.52 prospectively. Section 52 therefore has independent meaning.

I’m alive to the criticism: isn’t it wrong for one s.96 judge to bind another (or the hundreds of other) s.96 judges? In some specific remedial situations, this is true. But in those situations, we are talking only about the typical Party A vs Party B case, where the validity of a law is not impugned. Accordingly, the only remedy sought is personal. But if we are talking about the specific context of s.52, things are more complicated because of a second feature of s.52—its systemic application with virtually no exceptions, as opposed to personal remedies under s.24(1) of the Charter. This is a strong distinction drawn by the Supreme Court. As it confirmed in Martin, the unconstitutionality of a law is dealt with by s.52(1) independently. Section 52(1) confers no discretion on judges, and once a judge declares a law unconstitutional, s.52 operates to effectively remove it from the statute books completely (Ferguson, at para 65). If we accept this authority, we should view the McCaw problem not as one judge binding another judge in a typical horizontal stare decisis sense (or even a weaker judicial comity sense), but s.52 itself binding other judges. This is perfectly consistent with the hierarchy of laws, under which the Constitution binds all state actors. If this is true, one judge cannot later get out of the declaration of invalidity by simply reasoning around it. Similarly, the remedy for the Crown is to appeal the declaration, not collaterally attack it in a later proceeding.

Take the counterfactual and think about it in the context of the Supreme Court’s doctrine. If a subsequent Ontario Superior Court judge could conclude that s.33.1 is constitutional, even if a previous judge found it unconstitutional, the principle that no one should be subject to unconstitutional laws could be abridged. A subsequent judge could, in effect, conclude that a law is constitutional on certain facts—even though it has been previously found unconstitutional. But this is directly contrary to the Supreme Court’s own authority, which holds that a law rendered unconstitutional by s.52 is just that: unconstitutional. It cannot be patched up later on a case-by-case basis, and it is sufficient for the law to have an unconstitutional effect on one person to be unconstitutional in law (particularly under s.7). Put differently, if a law is unconstitutional in one regard, it is unconstitutional in all regards, past and present (subject to specific doctrines such as qualified immunity). The fortune or misfortune of drawing a later case and a later judge is, unfortunately, not sufficient to oust s.52.

There is room to criticize this strong-form interpretation of s.52. I don’t know if it necessary follows from the text of s.52 that a law unconstitutional in one regard is unconstitutional in all regards–for example, that we cannot have meaningful
“as-applied” remedies, as the Americans do. Section 52 simply says that unconstitutional laws are invalid to the extent of their inconsistency with the Constitution. Here, in the interstices of “extent of inconsistency,” is where the debate occurs. This phraseology justifies our understandings of remedies like severance and reading-in, but these are statutory remedies that apply to all persons equally. It seems to be a different order of business altogether for Judge B to disregard Judge A’s (operating in the same court) finding of unconstitutionality, unless we want to change what we mean by an “unconstitutional” law. Could it be that a law is unconstitutional to one person and not another?

There are many open questions here, some of which I hope are addressed by the Court of Appeal for Ontario. But all this to say, I do not see McCaw as flatly wrong on the current understanding of constitutional remedies.