Osgoode Hall Law School, York University
All judicial opinions are directed to adjudicating disputes and to the clarification and development of the law. Majority and dissenting opinions reach different conclusions of course; they also speak to different points in time. Dissenting opinions imagine and bring into view more distant legal futures. The dissenter hopes to have an impact on the development of the law further down the road, when anticipated injustices fostered by the majority’s position have been revealed.
Because the value of a dissent emerges over time, we ought to be cautious about lauding or condemning dissents early in their lifetimes. After a few decades have passed, we can ask: what impact has the dissent had on the development of the law? has the dissent shifted or ignited professional, judicial and scholarly debates about what the law ought to be?
The best dissents expose flaws in majority opinions and where they will take us. They deftly catch and ride the waves of ascendant normative currents in the law. They pose better questions, open new debates, and expand our critical imaginations about what a just future might look like. They invite us to dissent, not just from the majority, but also from the dissent itself. And by doing so they remind us that the best dissents are the ones that have not yet been written.
The three dissents I have chosen to highlight in the Supreme Court of Canada’s public law jurisprudence are Justice Beetz’ in the Anti-Inflation Reference,  2 SCR 373 , Justice La Forest’s in the Provincial Judges Reference,  3 SCR 3, and Justice McLachlin’s in Shell Canada Products Ltd v Vancouver (City),  1 SCR 231. Each has had an important impact on the subsequent development of the law, has advanced debates in professional and scholarly circles, and has invited us to pursue further critique beyond where the dissents themselves ventured.
Justice Beetz and the POGG Power
In his dissent in the Anti-Inflation Reference, Justice Beetz began by explaining in precise detail why the federal Anti-Inflation Act interfered with provincial jurisdiction “in a frontal way and on a large scale”. His concerns about federal interference with provincial autonomy resonated with the times – the Parti Québécois would be elected for the first time four months later. He explained why inflation was not a subject-matter that could be allocated to the national concern branch of POGG. To do so, he wrote, would “destroy the equilibrium of the constitution” since inflation lacked “a degree of unity that made it indivisible, an identity which made it distinct from provincial matters and a sufficient consistence to retain the bounds of form”.
Justice Beetz then turned to the emergency branch of POGG, describing its distinct contours, as he had with the national concern branch, with new conceptual clarity. The emergency power, he wrote, temporarily accords to Parliament all legislative powers necessary to deal with a crisis, including “concurrent and paramount jurisdiction” over matters that fall within (ordinarily exclusive) provincial jurisdiction. Resort to the emergency power, he said, “amounts to a temporary pro tanto amendment of a federal Constitution by the unilateral action of Parliament.”
The majority judges were willing to allow Parliament to rely on the emergency power despite the absence of any indication in the legislative history that it was doing so. Justice Beetz stood firmly against sanctioning such a cavalier approach to federalism and democratic deliberation. He insisted that “Parliament cannot enter the normally forbidden area of provincial jurisdiction unless it gives an unmistakable signal”. In the absence of such a signal, “[i]t is the duty of the courts to uphold the Constitution, not to seal its suspension”.
The Court has not had an opportunity to revisit the emergency power since 1976. Justice Beetz’ opinion on the required form of its exercise remains the dissenting view. But the force of his position is undeniable. It is, like all the best dissents, a law in the becoming, an imminent law set to bloom. It would be foolhardy for Parliament to attempt to invoke the emergency power by stealth ever again.
Justice Beetz’ comments on the national concern branch of POGG were powerful obiter dicta that later became the law when they were adopted by the Court in R v Crown Zellerbach Canada Ltd,  1 SCR 401 (1988) a decade later. The criteria Justice Beetz articulated – and whether those criteria need to be adjusted to give greater weight to the importance of national responses to problems of the scale and urgency of global warming – will be at the heart of the references on the validity of the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act to be heard by the Supreme Court in March 2020. The new emphasis Justice Beetz gave to provincial autonomy in 1976 will continue to shape the evolution of the POGG power and Canadian federalism jurisprudence more generally.
Justice La Forest and Unwritten Constitutional Principles
Chief Justice Lamer’s extended obiter dicta in the Provincial Judges Reference, locating a guarantee of judicial independence applicable to all courts in the preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867, were a startling and self-serving expansion of judicial power.
Justice La Forest’s dissenting opinion was a lacerating critique of the majority’s overreaching dicta. He emphasized that if judicial review is not grounded in the provisions of the text of the constitution, the courts lack a democratically legitimate basis for placing limits on the powers of the executive and legislative branches of government. “The express provisions of the Constitution are not, as the Chief Justice contends, ‘elaborations of the underlying, unwritten, and organizing principles found in the preamble”, he wrote. “On the contrary, they are the Constitution. To assert otherwise is to subvert the democratic foundation of judicial review.”
Remarkably, Justice La Forest’s powerful critique failed to pry any of his colleagues loose from the majority opinion. The Court has adopted Chief Justice Lamer’s dicta in a series of rulings on judicial independence. Nevertheless, Justice La Forest’s dissent has had a large influence. Much of the scholarship commenting on the Court’s use of constitutional principles has echoed his concerns. Apart from the Secession Reference,  2 SCR 217], the Court over the last two decades has rebuffed many attempts to use unwritten principles to fill gaps in the constitutional text. In British Columbia v Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd, 2005 SCC 49,  2 SCR 473, for example, Justice Major wrote that “protection from legislation that some might view as unjust or unfair properly lies not in the amorphous underlying principles of our Constitution, but in its text and the ballot box”.
The opinions in the Provincial Judges Reference and the Secession Reference stand, but otherwise the Court appears to have drawn a line in the sand on the gap-filling deployment of unwritten principles. The power of Justice La Forest’s dissent has played an important role in halting any further reliance on a methodology that raised serious questions about the legitimacy of constitutional judicial review.
Justice McLachlin, Racism, and Municipal Government
At issue in Shell Canada Products Ltd v Vancouver was the validity of a resolution of the Vancouver City Council refusing to do business with Shell until the company “completely withdraws from South Africa”. The municipal boycott of Shell was motivated by “moral outrage against the racist apartheid regime in South Africa”. Justice Sopinka’s majority opinion found that the resolution was not adopted for municipal purposes and also amounted to unauthorized discrimination against Shell. For these two reasons, he concluded that the resolution was beyond the scope of the city’s statutory powers.
Justice McLachlin’s dissent rejected the majority’s parochial approach to local government. She aligned herself instead with “the weight of current commentary” that supports “a more generous, deferential approach” to the exercise of municipal powers. A healthy respect must be given, she wrote, to “the democratic responsibilities of elected municipal officials and the rights of those who elect them”. The welfare of the city’s residents included their moral welfare. Moreover, the city’s power to enter into transactions necessarily entailed a power to discriminate between companies. She thus departed from the majority’s perverse expression of greater concern about discrimination against Shell than it did about the oppression of African peoples.
While the majority’s insistence on a strict separation of municipal purposes and global concerns has yet to be overruled, the approach outlined in Justice McLachlin’s dissent has had a strong influence on the development of municipal law over the past quarter century. Citing her opinion on multiple occasions, the Court has embraced a broad and purposive approach to the interpretation of municipal powers.
The opinions in Shell participated in a long-standing Canadian tradition of managing to say nothing about racism in cases about racism. Neither opinion mentioned the inter-relationships between forms of colonialism and racism across the British Commonwealth. Nor did the Vancouver resolutions have anything to say about the connections between racism at home and abroad, and the need to address the impacts of racism and settler colonialism on Indigenous peoples in the city. Future dissents – and majority opinions – are less likely to leave these issues unspoken.