How to do Originalism

In my last post, I summarized the Supreme Court’s recent decision in  Caron v. Alberta, 2015 SCC 56, which held that Alberta is not under a constitutional obligation to enact legislation in French as well as English. There was, you will recall, a majority opinion by Justices Cromwell and Karakatsanis, who were joined by four of their colleagues, and a dissent by Justices Wagner and Côté, joined by Justice Abella. In this post, I would like to venture some comments on the disagreement between them. This disagreement was quite sharp. The dissenters insist that the majority’s reasoning both results from and perpetuates an injustice, although they never explicitly accuse the majority of being unjust. I suppose that dissenting judges often think that ― but it seems to me that the thought is rarely expressed. And yet, in a sense, the disagreement between the two opinions is very narrow, almost abstruse.

Both the majority opinion are originalist, in the sense that they accept that the meaning of the relevant constitutional provision is to be determined by reference to the ideas of the time of the provision’s enactment. The provision at issue in Caron is a passage from an Address by the Canadian Parliament to the Queen, adopted in 1867 pursuant to section 146 of the Constitution Act, 1867 to ask for the incorporation of what was then Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory (to which I will collectively refer as “the North-West”) into Canada, and incorporate into the constitution as a schedule to the Imperial government’s Order that annexed most of these lands (except the portion that became the province of Manitoba) to Canada. The Address and the Order resulted from a complex series of events and interactions between the Canadian government and Parliament, the Hudson’s Bay Company (which owned and administered the North-West), the British government, and the inhabitants of the North-West and their government and delegates who negotiated their entry into Canada. The two opinions make extensive reference to these events and interactions, and to the thoughts of the people involved. Repeated out-of-hand rejections of originalism notwithstanding, it is alive and kicking in Canadian constitutional law, as Benjamin Oliphant and yours truly have been pointing out for a while now.

The majority and the dissent disagree, however, about the sort of originalism that ought to govern their interpretation of the 1867 Address. The majority’s approach is something like “original public meaning originalism,” which, as Lawrence Solum explains, “emphasizes the meaning that [constitutional provisions] would have had to the relevant audience at the time of its adoption[].” Much of the majority opinion is devoted to showing that the phrase “legal rights” used in the Address would not have been understood, in 1867 or 1870, as referring to linguistic rights. The majority’s summary of the reasons for its conclusion as to the interpretation of the phrase legal rights notes that

(i) Never in Canada’s constitutional history have the words “legal rights” been taken to confer linguistic rights;

(iii) The contemporary discussions show that neither Canada nor the representatives of the territories ever considered that the promise to respect “legal rights” in the 1867 Address referred to linguistic rights;

(iv) The contemporary evidence also shows that the territorial representatives themselves considered that their linguistic rights had been assured through the Manitoba Act, 1870, not the 1867 Address or the 1870 Order;

(v) Federal legislation and debates surrounding it in relation to the new North-West Territories in 1875 and 1877 show that no one involved thought that there had been any guarantee of legislative bilingualism in 1870. [4; emphases removed and added]

In other words, the majority’s focus is on the public meaning of the term “legal rights,” and more specifically its meaning to Canadians or Canadian lawyers generally (i, v), the Canadian government (iii, v), and the representatives of the North-West (iii, iv, v).

The dissent, by contrast, favours “original intent originalism,” which focuses on the intentions of the authors of the relevant constitutional provisions. Its review of the historical evidence focuses not so much on how the words “legal rights” would have been understood ― indeed, the analysis of these words takes up a very short portion of the dissenting opinion ― but on what the parties, and especially the inhabitants of the North-West, sought to accomplish. Their wishes, the importance they attached to legislative bilingualism are the dominant considerations for the dissenters. The dissent insists that “our reading of constitutional documents must be informed by the intentions and perspectives of all the parties, as revealed by the historical evidence.” [235; emphasis added] These documents are “a statement of the will of the people” [235] ― and one gets the impression that, for the dissent, the will to which is seeks to give effect is rather more important than the statement itself.

For my part, I prefer the majority’s approach. Prof. Solum’s brief introduction to originalism, to which I link above, points to some problems with the “original intent” version of that theory, which the dissent in Caron illustrates. One issue is the difficulty of ascertaining a collective “intent,” especially among a large and diverse group of constitutional framers or, as in Caron, in a situation where there were different parties with divergent interests involved. Indeed, although the dissent asserts, generally, that “[t]he Constitution of Canada emerged from negotiations and compromises … achieved when parties to the negotiations make concessions in pursuit of a mutual agreement and reach a meeting of the minds,” [235] the 1867 Address, which is, after all, the operative constitutional provision, was not the result of a negotiation at all. It was a unilateral statement by the Parliament of Canada, and it is therefore not obvious that the intentions or aspirations of the people of the North-West are actually relevant to its interpretation.

Another problem with “original intent” originalism, in Prof. Solum’s words, is that “[t]he intentions of the framers of a given constitutional provision can be formulated as abstract and general principles or as particular expectations” as to how the provision will be applied. Assuming the relevant actors in 1867-70 had a unified intent, was it that legislative bilingualism in the North-West would in fact be continued and respected ― as indeed it was for decades ― or that it would also be constitutionally entrenched? Actually, this questions points to a broader difficulty, which affects the majority opinion as much as the dissent, and of which more shortly.

Both of these issues to point to a third one, which is simply that the intent of the framers of a constitutional provision is difficult to ascertain, and that the legitimacy of an intention not codified in the constitutional text itself as a source of constitutional law is very questionable. As I wrote here in connection with Québec’s arguments in l’Affaire Mainville, there is a danger of litigants ― or, I would now add, judges ―

simply taking advantage of the fact that the intent of the framers cannot be known … and using it as a banner under which to carry its own interpretive theory that doesn’t have much to do with the only sign the framers left of their intent ― the text itself.

Be that as it may, I want to reiterate a point that I might have made here before. Denying the significance of originalism to Canadian constitutional law, as both judges and scholars are wont to do, does not actually make it go away. Canadian courts still make originalist decisions, such as Caron, and litigants still make originalist arguments. But, importantly, this all happens in an intellectual vacuum. Because we are only interested in the question whether to do originalism, and have a ready-made negative answer for it, the debates over how to do it, such as those prof. Solum describes in the post linked to above and here, have not happened this side of the border, and the American debates have been ignored. As a result, questionable approaches to constitutional interpretation can endure unchallenged ― even if, as in Caron and in l’Affaire Mainville, they do not prevail when the votes are counted.

I come back to the broader issue I have with both the majority and the dissent to which I referred above. Both opinions assume that, if the “legal rights” which Canada undertook to uphold in the the 1867 Address include linguistic rights, then they are constitutionally entrenched. But it is not clear to me that this must be so. After all, nobody thinks that the (other) “legal rights” that all agree were part of this undertaking, those of property and contract, were similarly entrenched beyond modification by ordinary legislation, whether federal or, eventually, territorial and provincial. Canada had to respect the rights that existed at the time the North-West was annexed, but that did not mean that Parliament or the legislatures created in the territories could not subsequently legislate to modify or even derogate from these rights. Why exactly are linguistic rights different? Neither opinion explains this.

The comparison with ordinary “legal rights” also casts doubt on the dissent’s assertion that legislative bilingualism or language rights more broadly are “not a political issue that can be left up to the government.” [243] Leaving rights to “government” ― or, more accurately, to legislatures ― need not mean that these rights will not be protected at all. To be sure, it may well be a good idea to entrench (some) rights beyond the reach of ordinary legislation. I have myself argued that the framers of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms erred in not doing so with property rights. But there is no need, it seems to me, to seek to infer the decision to entrench a right from tenuous evidence of intent, or from the desires of those whom this right would benefit. Contrary to what the dissent in Caron suggests, it is not at all clear that injustice results from a failure to do so.

The Caron majority thus arrived at what I believe is the right result, but even its reasoning might be questionable. Moreover, while its approach to originalist constitutional interpretation is better than the dissent’s, it is just as little explained and defended. Still, I hope that this case might give us the impetus to abandon the pretense that originalism has no place in our jurisprudence, and to start thinking more seriously about when, and how, as well as whether, it ought to be employed.

What Did They Mean?

Must the laws of Alberta ― like those of Manitoba (as well as Québec, New Brunswick, and of course Parliament itself) be enacted and published in both French and English? The answer to this question, which the Supreme Court addressed in Caron v. Alberta, 2015 SCC 56, decided on Friday, turns on the meaning of a short phrase in a document soon to be 150 years old.

The Court’s majority, in an opinion by Justices Cromwell and Karakatsanis, found that Parliament’s promise to protect the “legal rights” of the inhabitants of the then-Rupert Land and North-Western Territory did not encompass a guarantee of legislative bilingualism. The dissenters, justices Wagner and Côté (whose opinion Justice Abella joined), begged to differ, repeatedly accusing the majority of committing an injustice. I will summarize the two opinions in this post, and venture some thoughts in a separate one.

* * *

To understand this case, a rather lengthy historical explanation is in order. In 1867, the territories that have since become Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, as well the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, the Nunavut, and parts of Québec and Ontario, belonged to and were administered by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). Section 146 of the Constitution Act, 1867, provided for the “admission” into Canada by the Imperial government, on address of the Canadian Parliament, “on such Terms and Conditions in each Case as are in the Addresses expressed and as the Queen thinks fit to approve, subject to the Provisions of this Act.” Parliament approved the first such address in 1867, and another one in 1869. The 1867 address stated that Canada would uphold “the legal rights of any corporation, company, or individual” in the North-West ― the phrase on which the issue before the Supreme Court turned.

However, the Canadian annexation plans provoked a rebellion in the Red River Settlement, the main population centre in the North-West, in what would eventually become Manitoba. The rebels formulated a number of conditions on which they would accept Canadian sovereignty. Among them were demands for legislative as well as judicial bilingualism. They also demanded the creation, out of the territories, of a single province of Assiniboia, and made financial demands. 

The Canadian authorities responded, first, by issuing a Royal Proclamation promising among other things that “all your civil and religious rights and privileges will be respected” upon entry into Canada. Under pressure from the Imperial government, they negotiated with delegates from the North-West and eventually accepted that part of the new territories would enter Canada as a new province, Manitoba. The rest would become a federally administered Territory, whose creation was provided for by an Order of the Imperial government, to which the 1867 and 1869 addresses of the Canadian Parliament were annexed. That Order is part of the Constitution of Canada described in and entrenched by section 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982.

In the first years after 1870, the new North-Western Territory was governed as though it were part of Manitoba. The laws enacted (in both French and English) by that province’s legislature applied. Then, in 1875, Parliament enacted a statute setting up a separate territorial government. A requirement of legislative bilingualism was included in that law in 1877, as a result of an amendment moved by a Senator from Manitoba. Legislation enacted in 1891 made clear that the Territory’s legislature could decide which language to use. In 1905, the province of Alberta (as well as Saskatchewan) was created out of a part of the Territory, and eventually it legislated to enact future laws in English only.

If Canada’s undertaking to protect the “legal rights” of the North-West’s inhabitants included language rights, such as legislative bilingualism, then this chain of enactments was invalid. Canada could not allow the North-Western Territory, or its successors the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, to renounce legislative bilingualism, and the provinces had no authority to do so. This was the appellants’ main argument.

* * *

For the Supreme Court’s majority, the phrase “legal rights” does not encompass legislative bilingualism. While the constitution generally “should be interpreted in a large and liberal manner,” [35] and linguistic guarantees are particularly important, “[t]hese important principles … do not undermine the primacy of the written text of the Constitution.” [36] Moreover, it is not enough to

simply resort to the historical evidence of the desires and demands of those negotiating the entry of the territories, and presume that those demands were fully granted. It is obvious that they were not. The Court must generously interpret constitutional linguistic rights, not create them. [38]

Having set out these interpretive principles, the majority explains why in its view they lead to the conclusion that “legal rights” do not include legislative bilingualism. First, “[l]anguage rights were dealt with explicitly in s. 133 of the Constitution Act, 1867 and in the Manitoba Act, 1870 in very similar and very clear terms. The total absence of similar wording in the contemporaneous 1870 Order counts heavily against the appellants’ contention.” [40] Second, “political leaders in the territories themselves expressly provided for language rights when they were meant to be protected and those rights were differentiated from other, more general, rights.” [52] Third, “[t]he parliamentary debates related to the adoption of the 1867 Address show that language rights were not subsumed under the term ‘legal rights’ or ‘droits acquis‘ / ‘droits légaux‘ [which were used in various French versions of the Address].” [53] Rather, “legal rights” referred to property and economic rights. Fourth,

[t]he end result of the negotiations regarding legislative bilingualism was the enactment of the Manitoba Act, 1870. Conversely, it was never the objective of the 1870 Order to dictate that French and English must be used by the legislative body governing the newly established North-Western Territory. [58]

While the delegates from the North-West “sought to entrench bilingual rights, just as … they sought for the territories to enter Canada as a province,” [60] they only succeeded with respect to what became Manitoba ― which, however, is where most of the North-West’s people lived. Fifth, the 1867 Address cannot be taken to reflect an agreement between Canada and the people of the North-West that would not be reached until 1870.

The majority further argues that the events after 1870 confirm that the relevant actors did not understand legislative bilingualism in the North-Western Territory to be a matter of constitutional obligation. Although the amendment establishing bilingualism in the Territory’s government was not contentious, nothing shows that it was perceived as fulfilling a constitutional duty. If anything, the government at the time thought that the matter was best left to the Territory’s legislature ― as was eventually done.

Before concluding, the majority notes that if the appellants were to succeed, legislative bilingualism would be “constitutionally entrenched not only for Alberta, but also for all of the former HBC lands, which now form part of Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, Yukon, Nunavut and present-day Northwest Territories.” [102] Moreover, “[t]he logical extension of this reasoning would also lead inevitably to the conclusion that a variety of other demands made by the settlers have been constitutionalized by the words ‘legal rights,'” [102] including the to entrench the then-prevailing practice of appointing bilingual judges.

* * *

The dissent took a different approach to the issue before the Court. In its view, “[t]he answer to the question whether Alberta is constitutionally required to enact … all its laws in French as well as in English is written across the history of Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory” ― and not merely in the phrase “legal rights” in the 1867 Address. Ascertaining the meaning of that step is only the last step of its analysis.

Much of the dissenting opinion consists of an extensive review of the historical evidence. Its authors insist that “the content of the promises conveyed in the 1867 Address cannot be interpreted without reference to the context in which they were made.” [139] This review serves to stress, time and again, the importance of legislative bilingualism to the people of the North-West.

This population, the dissent notes, was composed of both French- and English-speakers; their legislature and their courts used both languages, as did the administrators appointed by the HBC; departures from these practices were met with discontent and resistance. Bilingualism extended throughout the North-West ― it was not limited to what became the province of Manitoba, and as the delegates who negotiated the annexation with the Canadian government represented the people of all the North-West, not only of the Red River Settlement, it would have been been inconceivable for them to limit their demands for legislative bilingualism to that province. Indeed, the Canadian government did not oppose these demands, nor was it in a position to do so, being pressed to conclude an agreement by the Imperial authorities.

For the dissent, the events after 1870 support the existence of a constitutional promise of legislative bilingualism to the people of the North-West. Little changed there in the aftermath of the annexation to Canada, since the bilingual administration of Manitoba exercised power. And once the territorial government was established, it was bilingual in practice, even before bilingualism was required by federal law.

This historical review takes up more than 100 paragraphs in the dissenting opinion. The “Application of the Principles of Constitutional Interpretation to the 1867 Address,” which follows it, fewer than 30. The principles in question “are that the Constitution must be interpreted contextually, that its provisions must be given a broad and purposive reading, and that its nature — as an expression of the will of the people governed by it — is relevant.” [216]

Applying these principles, the dissent concludes that the “historic” “compromise between the Canadian government and the territories’ inhabitants” [222] included a promise of legislative bilingualism. Referring to the French version of the 1867 Address, which spoke of the “droits acquis” ― the vested rights ― of the people of the North-West, the dissent states that “legislative bilingualism was one of these vested rights.” [226] It was also implicitly referred to by the Royal Proclamation, with its promise to uphold “civil and religious rights” ― which thus “recognized the cultural needs of the Métis” [229] of the North-West. That the protection of linguistic rights was not explicit as in other constitutional provisions is not determinative. To hold otherwise would be unjust and incompatible “with the broad and generous approach to constitutional interpretation that this Court has repeatedly taken,” [231] and with the “large and expansive meaning” which the authors of the 1867 Address “attributed … to the[] rights” it contained. [234] Finally, the dissent asserts that, like Confederation itself,

[t]he annexation of the territories … resulted from negotiations between a dominant English-speaking party and a party with a strong interest in protecting the French language. Like the French-speaking minority in the negotiations that resulted in Confederation, the inhabitants sought to have the protection of their linguistic rights entrenched in the Constitution, and this was granted to them. [239]

To give effect to “the will of the people” who enacted it, the interpretation of the Constitution must take their demands into account.

* * *

So much for the opinions. I will try to have some thoughts on them shortly.


In one of my very first posts, I wondered what the Supreme Court meant by describing a statute, or a common-law right, as “quasi-constitutional.” I concluded that this description probably did not mean anything substantial, and was little more than an indication that the Court considered the statute or right in question as very important. Its decision yesterday in Thibodeau v. Air Canada, 2014 SCC 67, is further evidence for that proposition. The main issue in Thibodeau was whether the limitation of an airline’s liability for “damages” to its passengers set out in the so-called Montreal Convention, an international treaty dealing with commercial air travel and made part of Canadian law by the Carriage by Air Act, prevented the Federal Court from making an award of damages for Air Canada’s violation of its duties under the Official Languages Act.

A large part of the majority’s decision, and the dissent, are concerned with the issue of whether the Montreal Convention applies to an award of damages made under a statute such as the Official Languages Act, rather than a more traditional claim (say for injury or lost luggage). Justice Cromwell, writing for a five-judge majority concludes that it does, based on his reading of the Convention’s text, his understanding of the Convention’s purpose, and his review of foreign decisions. Justice Abella’s dissent (with which Justice Wagner agrees) comes to the contrary conclusion. I will not deal with the interpretation issue here.

What I want to briefly focus on ― though don’t expect any deep thoughts here ― is the subsequent issue of the interplay between the Montreal Convention and its implementing legislation, and the Official Languages Act. Subsection 77(4) of the Act gives the Federal Court the power to “grant such remedy as it considers appropriate and just in the circumstances” for violations. This is obviously a very broad grant of remedial power, and it would normally include the possibility of awarding damages. So having concluded that the Convention purports to exclude such awards of damages, the majority must decide whether the “quasi-constitutional” Official Languages Act trumps this exclusion.

To answer this question, Justice Cromwell says, one must first determine whether the Montreal Convention and the Official Languages Act actually conflict. Only if they do will it be necessary to determine which is to prevail. When legal rules merely “overlap in the sense that they address aspects of the same subject, they are interpreted so as to avoid conflict wherever this is possible” (par. 89). Justice Cromwell concludes that there is no conflict here, because subs. 77(4) of the Official Languages Act and the Montreal Convention can be reconciled by not interpreting the former as requiring damages to be available in all circumstances (and, in particular, when such an interpretation would conflict with Canada’s international obligations). Justice Cromwell points out that “[c]ourts are … slow to find that broadly worded provisions were intended to be an exhaustive declaration of the applicable law where the result of that conclusion creates rather than avoids conflict” (par. 99). They are also reluctant to conclude that there exists a conflict between provisions enacted for different purposes. These considerations apply here.

The appellants and the Official Languages Commissioner, however, argued that because the Official Languages Act is quasi-constitutional, it must be taken to apply fully, allowing for no “reconciliation” in the case of an “overlap.” Justice Cromwell acknowledges the “quasi-constitutional” status of the Official Languages Act, and says that it “should be interpreted generously to achieve its purpose” (par. 112), but holds that “[t]hese factors, however, do not alter the correct approach to statutory interpretation” (par. 112) ― which is the same as for all other statutes. For Justice Cromwell, the Act, “read in its full context, demonstrates that Parliament did not intend to prevent s. 77(4) from being read harmoniously with Canada’s international obligations given effect by another federal statute.” Subsection 77(4), Justice Cromwell adds, is “broad and general” rather than “an exclusive and exhaustive statement in relation to the Federal Court’s remedial authority …  overriding all other laws and legal principles” (par. 113). Other remedies remain available against Air Canada, while the Montreal Convention does not restrict the availability of damages against anyone else. The provisions can be made to work together without either losing its meaning, so there is no conflict.

This may be a sensible outcome, though I find it difficult distinguish what Justice Cromwell does from an application of the principle that lex specialis derogat generalis ― a specific law applies in derogation of a broad one ― which is of course one way of resolving conflicts between statutes rather than of “harmonizing” them. And it is a way of resolving conflicts that is specifically excluded by  subs. 82(1) of the Official Languages Act, which provides that its Parts I-V “prevail to the extent of the inconsistency” with any other act of Parliament. But even taking Justice Cromwell’s reasons at face value, they very strongly suggest that a statute’s “quasi-constitutional” standing is in reality, quasi-meaningless.

Local Circumstances

The Supreme Court has delivered its ruling this morning in the dispute about the ability of a party to submit exhibits in French into evidence in cases before the courts of British Columbia. In Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie‑Britannique v. British Columbia, 2013 SCC 42, it holds, by a bare 4-3 majority, that exhibits submitted for the truth of their contents (as well as pleadings and other materials) must be in English, pursuant to an 18th century British statute that is still applicable in British Columbia. It thus confirms the decision of the BC Court of Appeal, about which I had blogged here. The main questions in the appeal were whether the Proceedings in the Court of Justice Act, 1731 applied to documents submitted as exhibits, whether it was applicable in the British Columbia, and whether it had been modified by subsequent legislation. (The Court also considered an alternative argument based on the BC rules of civil procedure, but I will skip it here.)

The appellants’ first argument was that the 1731 Act does not apply to documents submitted into evidence ― contrary to, say, pleadings. The Act provides that

all Writs, Process and Returns thereof, and Proceedings thereon, and all Pleadings, Rules, Orders, Indictments, Informations, Inquisitions, Presentments, Verdicts, Prohibitions, Certificates, and all Patents, Charters, Pardons, Commissions, Records, Judgments, Statutes, Recognizances, Bonds, Rolls, Entries, Fines and Recoveries, and all Proceedings relating thereunto, and all Proceedings of Courts Leet, Courts Baron and Customary Courts, and all Copies thereof, and all Proceedings whatsoever …

must be in English. Justice Wagner, for the majority, concluded that the word “proceedings” was broad enough to extend not only to pleadings and similar documents, but also to exhibits:

“proceedings” include the taking of evidence for the purpose of hearing a motion or conducting a trial, and this includes documentary evidence filed as an exhibit attached to an affidavit. (par. 20)

The appellants further argued that, whatever its scope, the 1731 Act was not the law of British Columbia. According to common law principles, eventually codified in provincial legislation, English law was “received” in British Columbia at the time it was settled by British colonists, insofar as it was applicable in the “local circumstances.” BC law has fixed the “reception date” at 1858, at which time the 1731 Act was in force. However, the appellants claimed that “local circumstances” rendered it inapplicable. They claimed, first, that “applicable” should be taken to mean “necessary,” and second, that necessity should be assessed at the time when the dispute to which the rule of law at issue potentially applies, rather than at reception date. Since there is no necessity for the 1731 Act, it should no longer apply in British Columbia.

Justice Wagner rejects these arguments. Applicability does not require necessity ― it is enough that the law not be unsuitable to the local circumstances. Otherwise, the status of English law would be too uncertain, to the detriment of the legal system. It would be wrong to require the particular “mischief” that motivated the legislation’s enactment by the Westminster Parliament to have been present in the colony at time of reception: “If reception depended on comparing the very specific historical circumstances that motivated a statute, almost no statutes would be received” (par. 32). As for the time at which suitability is to be assessed, it is the reception date, not the moment when a dispute arises. Again, to do otherwise “would be to introduce an unacceptable level of uncertainty into the law” (par. 35) and would go against the longstanding approach of common law courts, usurping the legislature’s role to change the law.

The appellants’ third argument was that even if applicable, the 1731 Act had been modified or repealed by subsequent legislation. Although no law modified it explicitly, implied repeal is possible, says Justice Wagner, “if subsequent legislation” ― whether primary or subordinate legislation (such rules of court, which are technically a regulation) ― “has occupied the field to such an extent that the court can infer that the legislature intended to repeal the earlier statutes” (par. 44). To apply this test, it is important correctly to characterize “the field” ― here, according to Justice Wagner, it is the language of judicial proceedings. No legislation subsequent to the 1731 Act occupies it completely for civil matters. (For criminal matters, s. 530 of the Criminal Code does.) The BC rules of civil procedure only govern documents prepared for use in court, and not all the aspects of proceedings covered by the 1731 Act. Indeed, although that law has been repeatedly applied by BC courts, the legislature never intervened to change it. As for the influence of the Charter, with its recognition of bilingualism and minority linguistic rights, it must not be forgotten that it “also reflects a recognition that Canada is a federation,” (par. 56) and, in this area, does not impose the same obligations on each province. It might be well for the BC legislature to act, but the Court has no power to force it to do so.

Justice Karakatsanis disssented, along with Justices Lebel and Abella. In her view, the courts have an inherent residual discretion to control proceedings before them, which includes the power to authorize the submission of evidence in a language other than English. This inherent jurisdiction can be ousted by legislation, but only “by clear and precise statutory language” (par. 84). The 1731 Act is not clear; on the contrary, its “origins, precise meaning and scope remain shrouded in antiquity” (par. 81). It is not enough to oust the courts’ inherent jurisdiction. Furthermore, Justice Karakatsanis disagrees with the majority’s approach to the issue whether the 1731 Act has been modified by subsequent legislation. Although not repealed, it has been modified by the BC rules of civil procedure. These require documents prepared for use in court to be in English ― but not documents originally prepared for other purposes. They do not prevent the courts from exercising their discretion to accept documents in French. Constitutional values, and especially respect for bilingualism, should guide the exercise of discretion.

Although the majority and the dissent are, to some extent, talking past each other, I find the majority’s reasoning more persuasive. I think Justice Karakatsanis’ reasoning based on the “antiquity” and consequent obscurity of the 1731 Act is a bit facile. If it is part of the law, then the court must interpret it. I think she also fails to address the federalism concerns raised by Justice Wagner. (Indeed, when discussing the importance of bilingualism, she brings up the federal Official Languages Act; I do not think it is either fair or legally correct to rely on it to impose more bilingualism on a province than its legislature or the Charter do.)

Finally, as a matter of policy, I am far from sure that Justice Karakatsanis’ preferred approach of leaving the admission of French-language documents to the discretion of judges promotes access to justice. It would cause disputes and preliminary hearings, which would drive up the costs of litigation for all parties ― perhaps more than simply translating the documents.

Le mépris de Pauline Marois

J’ai essayé, depuis le début de ce blogue, de le garder non-partisan. Cependant, lorsqu’un parti politique propose des mesures non seulement à l’encontre, mais au mépris des droits fondamentaux et de la constitution et de la loi qui les protègent, je dois le dénoncer. C’est ce que fait aujourd’hui le Parti québécois.

Comme le rapporte La Presse, la chef du PQ, Pauline Marois, propose, si le PQ prend le pouvoir, de créer une “citoyenneté québécoise” et de rendre la “connaissance appropriée” de la langue française un critère d’éligibilité à toute élection régie par le droit provincial (donc provinciale, municipale ou scolaire). Le test linguistique serait aussi administré à tout nouvel arrivant au Québec souhaitant devenir citoyen québécois et, peut-être, bien que ce ne soit pas clair du tout, aux citoyens canadiens actuels.

Ce n’est pas la première fois que le PQ et Mme Marois proposent de telles mesures. Ils l’avaient déjà fait avec le Projet de loi 195, dont la proposition actuelle serait une version plus sévère encore. Ce projet de loi avait été vivement dénoncé. Ainsi, dans ce texte, des professeurs de droit de l’Université de Montréal, dont François Chevrette et Jean Leclair, ont notamment écrit que

[l]e projet de loi 195 veut notamment limiter l’éligibilité à être candidat lors d’une élection aux personnes ayant la « citoyenneté » québécoise, elle-même conditionnelle à une connaissance appropriée de la langue française. Parce qu’il crée une citoyenneté à deux vitesses (deux classes de Québécois), parce qu’il limite les droits démocratiques, et parce qu’il établit une discrimination injustifiable fondée sur la langue, cet aspect du projet de loi proposé par le Parti québécois est inconstitutionnel et illégal.

Un groupe de constitutionnalistes de l’Université d’Ottawa a également produit un texte au même effet.

À leur face même, les mesures proposées par le PQ sont effectivement anticonstitutionnelles. Elles violent l’article 3 de la Charte canadienne des droits et libertés, qui dispose que “[t]out citoyen canadien a le droit de vote et est éligible aux élections législatives … provinciales.” L’imposition d’exigences supplémentaires, que ce soit l’obtention d’une citoyenneté québécoise ou un test linguistique, y est manifestement contraire. Elles vont aussi à l’encontre de la garantie d’égalité devant la loi de l’article 15 de la Charte. L’instauration d’une citoyenneté québécoise empiète sur le pouvoir fédéral en matière de naturalisation, art. 91(25) de la Loi constitutionnelle de 1867. L’exigence de connaissance du français pour être élu à l’Assemblée nationale, quant à elle, ignore le droit de tout membre de cette assemblée, protégé  par l’article 133 de la Loi constitutionnelle de 1867, de s’y exprimer en anglais.

Rien de tout cela n’est nouveau. Ces critiques ont été formulées à l’encontre du Projet de loi 195, et le Parti québécois et Mme Marois ne pouvaient les ignorer. J’en conclus qu’ils méprisent profondément les droits constitutionnels des Québécois. Mme Marois, pourtant, n’en avait pas toujours autant contre la constitution canadienne. C’est elle qui, en 1997, en tant que ministre de l’éducation, en a obtenu, de concert avec le gouvernement fédéral de Jean Chrétien, l’amendement permettant au Québec de remplacer ses commissions scolaires religieuses par celles organisées sur une base linguistique. Il est d’autant plus désolant qu’aujourd’hui, alors qu’elle aspire a prendre la tête du pouvoir exécutif québécois, chargé de l’application de la loi au Québec, elle soit prête à agir illégalement en toute connaissance de cause.

De plus, il n’y a pas que la constitution canadienne que les mesures proposées par le PQ et par Mme Marois violeraient. Elles seraient également contraires à la Charte des droits et libertés de la personne, une loi quasi-constitutionnelle québécoise, qu’ils n’ont pourtant pas annoncé avoir l’intention d’abolir ou de modifier. Elles iraient aussi à l’encontre des obligations internationales en matière de droits de la personne auxquels un Québec indépendant chercherait sans doute à souscrire.

En fait, deux exemples historiques démontrent bien le caractère choquant, anti-démocratique et illibéral des propositions du PQ. Le premier, que je dois à mon ami Alexandre Forest, est celui du serment du test, qui excluait les catholiques de l’exercice de toute charge gouvernementale et de l’administration de la justice. L’autre, c’est l’utilisation, par les gouvernements racistes du Sud des États-Unis, de prétendus “tests d’alphabétisme” pour empêcher les Noirs de se prévaloir de leur droit de vote acquis suite à la Guerre civile. Le PQ et sa chef rejoignent une tradition fanatique et raciste.

On dira, à leur défense, qu’il faut parler la langue d’un pays pour en être citoyen, tant dans le sens strictement juridique du terme (le Canada impose, après tout, un test linguistique, bien que minime et sujet à une dérogation pour motifs d’ordre humanitaire, à l’obtention de la citoyenneté canadienne), que dans un sens plus large, plus politique. Mais la Loi sur la citoyenneté fédérale n’impose pas de tests linguistiques aux citoyens de naissance, et ne crée pas deux classes de citoyens, dont une est inéligible  aux élections. Et il n’est pas vrai qu’il faut parler français pour pouvoir comprendre la vie politique québécoise. Il existe, au Québec, des médias de langue anglaise, et les lois québécoises sont bilingues. La constitution canadienne a été conçue pour protéger le droit des citoyens des deux langues officielles de participer à la vie publique à travers le pays, mais particulièrement au Québec. Certes, un québécois qui ne parle pas français se prive d’idées importantes qui sont exprimées dans cette langue. Mais c’est aussi le cas de son concitoyen unilingue francophone. On n’empêche pas celui-ci de prendre part à la vie publique, et il est injuste d’en empêcher l’autre.

Les propositions du Parti québécois et de Pauline Marois sont anticonstitutionnelles et, ce qui est plus important,  liberticides et injustes. À moins qu’ils n’y renoncent, cela devrait suffir, peu importe ce qu’on pense de leurs autres politiques (dont certaines sont également liberticides et injustes) à les éliminer de la considération de tout électeur soucieux de l’égalité et de liberté de tous les québécois.