Activism v Constitution

The federal court rightly holds that the judiciary cannot control Canada’s climate policy

In a number of jurisdictions, environmental activists have turned to the courts in an ostensible attempt to force the implementation of policies they deem necessary to deal with climate change. Some of these lawsuits have succeeded to great fanfare, others not. Such litigation challenges not only constantly evolving public policy, but also longstanding principles of separation of powers. In the Federal Court’s decision in La Rose v Canada, 2020 FC 1008, the activists lose ― and separation of powers wins.

The activists challenged Canada’s public policy in relation to greenhouse gas emissions, notably insofar as it does not set sufficiently ambitious emission reduction targets, failed to meet the targets that were set, generally allowed emissions to rise, and “support[ed] the development, expansion and operation of industries and activities involving fossil fuels”. [8] All this, they said, “unjustifiably infringed their rights (and the rights of all children and youth in Canada, present and future, due to an asserted public interest standing) under sections 7 and 15 of the Charter” and amounted to a breach of the government’s “public trust obligations with respect to identified public resources”. [7] They sought a variety of declarations and orders, including “an order requiring the [government] to develop and implement an enforceable climate recovery plan that is consistent with Canada’s fair share of the global carbon budget plan”, [12] and asked that the court retain jurisdiction to supervise the implementation of this order.

The government sought to have the activists’ statement of claim struck on the basis that their demands were not justiciable or had no reasonable prospects of success. Justice Manson agrees. After, concluding that Charter claims, even novel ones, can be disposed of in the context of a motion to strike (an issue addressed in the most recent episode of the Runnymede Radio podcast, in which co-blogger Mark Mancini interviewed Gerard Kennedy), he holds that the Charter claims are not justiciable, while the “public trust” claim, although justiciable, has no reasonable prospect of success.

With respect to justiciability, “[t]he question to be decided is whether the Court has the institutional capacity and legitimacy to adjudicate the matter. Or, more generally, is the issue one that is appropriate for a Court to decide.” [29] The novelty of a claim, by itself, is not relevant, and the fact that a claim has a policy dimension is not a bar to justiciability. However, “[t]o engage the Court’s adjudicative functions, the question must be one that can be resolved by the application of law”. [34] The general direction of policy is a matter for governments and legislatures; “[p]olicy choices must be translated into law or state action in order to be amenable to Charter review and otherwise justiciable”. [38]

Justice Manson finds that the challenge here is impermissibly aimed at a general policy choices, “an overly broad and unquantifiable number of actions and inactions” by the government. [40] Indeed, nothing less than “the entirety of Canada’s policy response to climate change” is targeted, with the result that “assessments of Charter infringement cannot be connected to specific laws or state action”, breaking with the normal purpose of judicial review. [43] In effect, the activists seek to put the court in charge of Canada’s climate change policy. This is not the courts’ role, “no matter how critical climate change is and will be”. [48]

Justice Manson also criticizes the remedies sought by the activists. Declarations alone would amount to ineffective statements about the meaning of the Charter, or pronouncements about the effectiveness of public policy more appropriate to a commission of inquiry than a court. Meanwhile, judicial supervision of public policy is not appropriate, and would not, in any case, in itself redress the alleged breach of the plaintiffs’ Charter rights.

While this is not dispositive, Justice Manson also suggests that the Charter arguments would have no reasonable chance of success even if they were justiciable. In the case of the section 7 claim, this is because no one law or even specific set of laws is said to be rights-infringing. That said, in an obiter to the obiter, Justice Manson muses about the possibility of a positive-rights claim succeeding in a future case. As for the section 15 claim, “[i]t is unclear what impugned law creates the claimed distinction, whether on its face or in its impact”. [79] 

As for the “public trust” claim, according to which the government has an obligation, sourced either in the common law or in unwritten constitutional principle, “to preserve and protect the integrity of inherently public resources so that the public is not deprived of the benefits they provide to all”, [81] Justice Manson finds that it is justiciable, but has no reasonable prospect of success. The “public trust” doctrine is not recognized in Canadian law; it is “extensive and without definable limit” [88]; nor can it be supported as a principle essential to the Canadian constitutional order. There is no point in allowing this claim to proceed to trial.

This is the right outcome. As Justice Manson points out, it simply isn’t the role of the courts to dictate policy in areas where choices must be made among a multitude of variables and any number of competing considerations are to be balanced. It is one one thing for the courts to say that public funds must be expended on a specific matter prioritized by the constitution. They have done so in Doucet-Boudreau v Nova Scotia (Minister of Education), 2003 SCC 62, [2003] 3 SCR 3 (which dealt with the construction of schools to which a linguistic minority was entitled under section 23 of the Charter) and Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, [2014] 3 SCR 31 (where the Supreme Court invalidated a regulation imposing “hearing fees” on litigants who sought to have their day in court, in contravention, the majority said, of s 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867). Even that wasn’t uncontroversial, though I think these outcomes are defensible. But it would be something else entirely for a court to improvise itself the arbiter of policy touching on a matter as all-encompassing as climate change. Perhaps there are shades of grey in this area, matters where it is not quite clear whether the issue is too complex for the courts to intervene, as some critiques of Trial Lawyers suggest. But this isn’t one of them.

What I wrote here after the Court of Appeal for Ontario struck a claim by a coalition of activists that Ontario’s and Canada’s housing policy violated sections 7 and 15 of the Charter in Tanudjaja v Canada (Attorney General), 2014 ONCA 852, 123 OR (3d) 161 (a case to which Justice Manson refers) remains relevant:

[T]here are good reasons for the courts to refuse to adjudicate, if not any and all social and economic rights claims, then at least … vast campaigns intended to reshape entire areas of government policy. There is the issue of competing priorities ― if not all claims on public support can be satisfied, which ones should be favoured? It’s not obvious, to say the least, that the answer to that question ought to be “those who got adjudicated first.” There is the issue of legitimacy of unelected judges having to order Parliament and legislatures to increase taxes. Charles I lost his head for trying to raise taxes without Parliamentary approval, and George III lost an empire for insisting that he had the right to tax without consent. It is, again, not obvious that judges would fare any better. There is the issue of federalism. … The federal government chooses to help the provinces discharge many of their constitutional responsibilities, and the provinces accept the money (and ask for more), but how a court could assign responsibilities between the two level of government ― something that takes sometimes difficult political negotiations ― is really beyond me.

There is, finally, the issue of the law’s inherent conservatism. If a court decides that social programme X is constitutionally required, then programme X cannot be got rid of even to be replaced by a more effective but differently organized programme. … At best, the government would have to turn to the courts and demonstrate  that its proposed programme would be enough to discharge its constitutional obligations. But it could not really demonstrate this ― it would have to speculate, and it’s not clear that a court ought to be convinced by such speculation. (Paragraph break added)

All these concerns weigh on the attempts to litigate climate change policy. At least some plausible measures to reduce greenhouse gas outputs are antithetical to the promotion of economic growth, and it a complex question, a matter of economics and morality, but certainly not law ― and hence not for the courts to decide ― how these priorities are to be balanced. Carbon taxes (or cap-and-trade systems that amount to indirect taxation) are a key policy tool aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and it is not the courts’ place to impose such taxes without an electoral mandate. Federalism is, if anything, even more of a concern here than it was in Tanudjaja, because provincial governments ― which have an important part of policy responsibility in relation to both the environment and to the economy ― were not even before the court. Finally, climate change policy must necessarily be adjusted to the evolution of both the available science and the existing technologies. (Climate policy in a world of cheap solar electricity or, perhaps, fusion power, probably looks quite different from that of today.) Freezing a particular policy response developed in, say, 2021 in constitutional law sounds like a profoundly bad idea, as well one that is inconsistent with the judicial role.

Just to be clear: I’m not saying that these policies are bad. (I’m also not saying that they’re good.) The point is that the courts neither can nor would be justified in passing on their wisdom or even necessity. As Justice Manson says, the function of judicial review of legislation is to assess specific laws or government decisions against the legal rules and standards set out in the constitution. The task of supervising ongoing policy choices that the plaintiffs here were expecting the Federal Court to undertake is radically different.

It is a relief, then, Justice Manson avoids the temptation to “do something” just because “something must be done”, and accepts that the resolution of an important social issue is outside the scope of his office. That’s not to say that courts should avoid resolving important social issues just because they are important social issues. But nor should they assume that they, and the constitution which they enforce, must have something to say on such matters.

As Dwight Newman has written in a related if slightly different context,

[w]hile climate change policy is an immensely important area for governments, that context does not change the Constitution. Some might wish that it did … But the very nature of a constitution is that it must endure across various policy challenges of the day and not be bent to particular policy choices.

And recall, of course, Lord Atkin’s admonition in the Labour Conventions Reference: “While the ship of state now sails on larger ventures and into foreign waters she still retains the water-tight compartments which are an essential part of her original structure.” (684) Professor Newman and Lord Atkin were both addressing the federal division of powers between the Dominion and the provinces, but their point is no less applicable to the separation of powers among the various branches of government ― here, between the Federal Court and Parliament. We probably do not think enough about separation of powers in Canada, and when we do we too often reduce it to judicial independence. But the separation between the judiciary and the “political branches” must be water-tight both ways. There are ways in which Parliament and the executive cannot interfere with the courts. But there are also ways in which the courts must not interfere with Parliament and the executive. This principle holds no less true in waters warmed up and troubled by climate change.

Environmental Sustainability is Not An Unwritten Constitutional Principle

On the IACL-AIDC Blog, Professor Lynda Collins (Ottawa) suggests that “ecological sustainability [should be recognized] as an Unwritten Constitutional Principle (UCP)—a foundational, binding norm to provide guidance to courts and legislators as we navigate the difficult waters of our current environmental crisis.” This argument also appeared in a joint article by Prof. Collins and (now Justice) Lorne Sossin, where the authors link this nascent principle of environmental sustainability to the Constitution’s apparent status as a living tree. In short, without the UCP of ecological sustainability, or whatever the principle is defined as, “the Constitution would become ‘self-defeating’; to extend the metaphor, it would be a dying tree rather than a living tree” [318].

I strongly disagree with the thrust of both the blog post and the article. While environmental sustainability is a noble objective, and I commend the authors for saying so, interpretation of legislation or assessment of the legality of discretionary decisions cannot be driven by our own personal policy preferences (Hillier, at para 33) . Simply because environmental sustainability is a good idea does not make it a constitutional mandate. Accepting it as such would continue a dangerous trend in constitutional law—a desire to transform the Constitution into a vessel for popular modern policy objectives, thereby making it a document of majoritarian rule rather than a counter-majoritarian restriction on governmental action.

I first wish to show why environmental sustainability cannot be a UCP. Then I assess the dangerous implications of recognizing such a principle.


For a UCP to be recognized by a court, it must meet general certain criteria. In the Quebec Secession Reference, at para 49, the Court generally described these criteria as follows:

Behind the written word is an historical lineage stretching back through the ages, which aids in the consideration of the underlying constitutional principle. These principles inform and sustain the constitutional text: they are the vital unstated assumptions upon which the text is based….These defining principles function in symbiosis.

But these principles are not free-standing licences for judges to read-in modern “values” into the Constitution that is designed to be resistant to change. In fact, the principles are institutional or structural in nature. They “inform and sustain the constitutional text…” (my emphasis). Consider some of the commentary from the Quebec Secession Reference:

These supporting principles and rules, which include constitutional conventions and the workings of Parliament, are a necessary part of our Constitution because problems or situations may arise which are not expressly dealt with by the text of the Constitution. In order to endure over time, a constitution must contain a comprehensive set of rules and principles which are capable of providing an exhaustive legal framework for our system of government. Such principles and rules emerge from an understanding of the constitutional text itself, the historical context, and previous judicial interpretations of constitutional meaning [32].


The principles assist in the interpretation of the text and the delineation of spheres of jurisdiction, the scopes of rights and obligations, and the role of our political institutions [52].

Consider also the Court’s comment in the Patriation Reference, at 874:

[The Constitution of Canada includes] the global system of rules and principles which govern the exercise of constitutional authority in the whole and in every part of the Canadian state.

These comments are clearly related to the role of unwritten principles in interpreting textual ambiguities in the constitutional text, which itself is designed to set out the institutional capacities of the state. The goal is to provide a “legal framework for our system of government.” This restriction means that unwritten constitutional principles, to be recognized, must bear some “vital” relationship to the constitutional structure and the history. These are not freestanding policy preferences: indeed, the Court said as much in the Quebec Secession Reference, when it opined that “the recognition of these constitutional principles…[cannot] be taken as an invitation to dispense with the written text of the Constitution” [53].

Some of the principles recognized thus far reflect this theory of unwritten principles as central to structural or textual concerns. Take, for example, federalism. A federal structure is established by ss.91-92 of the Constitution Act, 1867. Federalism, then, is “inherent in the structure of our constitutional arrangements” (Quebec Secession Reference, at para 56, my emphasis). Federalism responds to “underlying social and political realities” that are implicitly reflected in the “diversity of the component parts of Confederation, and the autonomy of provincial governments to develop their societies within their respective spheres of jurisdiction” (Quebec Secession Reference, at paras 57-58). The limiting principle to all of this is the use of an unwritten principle to provide meaning to unstated assumptions or ambiguities inherent in the text or structure of the Constitution. Unwritten principles are not at-large.

So, in all of this, where does ecological sustainability stand? For Collins, either of “ecological sustainability,” “respect for the environment” or “environmental protection” “…meets all of the criteria the Supreme Court has set out for “Unwritten Constitutional Principles.” This is because—picking up on language in the Quebec Secession Reference—sustainability is the “lifeblood” of the Constitution, and a
“vital unstated assumption underlying the Canadian state.” Historically, Collins relies on various documents that show that sustainability is an unwritten constitutional principle. The Charter of the Forest (1217) apparently “guaranteed to British subjects rights of access to vital natural resources” and under Roman Law, the Justinian Code enshrined a version of the public trust doctrine. The Supreme Court itself has recognized that the environment is an important fundamental value (see British Columbia v Canadian Forest Products).

But there is a problem with all of this. It is one thing for environmental sustainability—whatever that means—to be a fundamental societal value. But what is the fundamental structural link back to the Constitution? One does not appear in either Collins & Sossin’s article or Collins’ blog post. As a legal matter, environmental sustainability appears separate and apart from fundamental institutional features that are either a part of British Westminster parliamentary democracy, or are otherwise central to Canada’s particular legal arrangements. Environmental sustainability may be a bedrock societal principle, but whether it is fundamental to the Constitution—which is not necessarily co-extensive with “society,” whatever that is—is a completely different question altogether.

Of course, one might say that ecological sustainability is the basic starting point for any society with a Constitution. That is, it is so fundamental that without it, there would be no world to begin with, hence no Constitution. This argument appears absurd to me, and though Collins seems to make it at some points, it never appears as a full-fledged contention—probably for good reason. For one, the argument as taken would make “ecological sustainability,” a goal without any limiting principle, the dominant organizational principle of the entire society. This would be on the assumption that without ecological sustainability, we’d all die. While protecting the environment is an admirable and necessary goal, no one would suggest that it is a goal to be achieved at all costs. Certainly regulators would not accept this proposition because regulation often involves an eclectic mix of performance standards, design standards, and other incentives that might delay the accomplishment of pure and complete “ecological sustainability.” And yet no one would deny that these measures are somehow unconstitutional because they are not sufficiently strong command-and-control regulation. The unlimited scope of the authors’ nascent principle is a significant problem for its own sustainability.

But more importantly, the Constitution could still exist in a world ravaged by climate change. And that is the key distinction between the principle of ecological sustainability and the other so-far-recognized unwritten principles of constitutional law. The other principles are essential to the workings of the Constitution as such—and I mean this in the most strictly construed manner possible. The Constitution could not exist in any meaningful way without these principles, such that they are “vital” to its operation. Federalism gives life to the textual division of powers. Respect for minorities supports federalism. The Rule of Law is fundamental to any constitutional system. Ecological sustainability is an admirable goal to be achieved by legislatures, but it is not related to the fundamental architecture of the Constitution, such that the Constitution (not society more generally) could continue to work without it. In fact, situations of climate emergency might be the most apt circumstances for the Constitution to work its magic.


I want to close by outlining some of the pernicious legal and practical effects of the sort of argument advanced by Collins and Sossin. On the legal front, the correlation that the authors draw between “ecological sustainability” and the “living tree” doctrine continues to prop up this dying metaphor as a doctrine of constitutional law. Take the authors’ footnote 70, which outlines this tenuous connection in the context of the Quebec Secession Reference;

Note the recurrence of biological language in this passage (“symbiosis,” “lifeblood,” “living tree”). This language arguably reflects an implicit understanding that all our human structures depend on our biological survival. In this sense there is no principle more fundamental than that of a healthy environment.

This footnote, more than any other argument I’ve seen, illustrates at least one problem with the living tree mode of thinking. Not only is that mode completely inconsistent with the overall perspective in the Persons Case, in this context, it allows enterprising scholars to draw connections and make arguments that are based primarily on the status of sustainability as an ideal policy goal. But that is not the concern of the Constitution, properly interpreted. The living tree is a constitutional aberration, not a constitutional doctrine.

And courts have been increasingly concerned with preventing judges—let alone scholars—from pouring their preferred policy outcomes into the Constitution. I cited Justice Stratas’ comments in Hillier, above. But consider also his opinions in Williams and Cheema, where the same principle was used to the same effect in the context of statutory interpretation. We always have to be on guard for the imposition of one’s personal policy preferences into the law, when those policy preferences do not represent the duly-enacted law of the responsible legislature. How would the people who believe in environmental sustainability like it if those on the opposite side of the spectrum sought to impose a principle of “resource development” in the Constitution, tying it to tenuous constitutional signals like the fact that the federal government has the power under s.91(2) to regulate trade and commerce? The question needs no answer.

Practically, it continues to be my view that there are certain things that are best addressed and constitutionally assigned to legislatures—not courts. Courts are not designed to vindicate the policy goals of the moment. And, for those sympathetic to the idea that environmental sustainability is a fundamental value of Canadian society, it would seem odd to suggest that courts in the adversarial system should be the ones to vindicate that value. Instead, wide study and a nuanced regulatory response seem to be the best options from a practical perspective. And yet the blunt force of an unwritten constitutional principle—that remains undefined, unclear, and unhelpful—emerges as the regulatory response in Collins and Sossin’s article.

Clearly, the environmental crisis needs a better answer.