Shooting Gallery

A proposed invocation of the Charter’s “notwithstanding clause” in New Brunswick is misguided and disturbing

New Brunswick is the fourth province in the last couple of years, after Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Québec, to announce plans for invoking section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a.k.a. the “notwithstanding clause”, to immunize a bill from scrutiny over possible violations of the Charter. This confirms the trend towards a normalization of the use of the “notwithstanding clause”. Indeed, I think that, if the bill is enacted, it will reinforce this trend considerably, because it is, in substance, a much more serious piece of legislation than the crassly populist, my-way-or-the-highway ukases of Ontario and Québec which, if nothing else, at least continued giving the “notwithstanding clause” a bad name.

Bill 11, just introduced in the provincial legislature, creates a requirement for school pupils to provide proof of vaccination, subject to an exemption on medical grounds alone, and not for conscientious or religious objectors. It is, therefore, a plausible response to the worrying spread of preventable infectious diseases due to the failure of misguided parents to vaccinate their children. As the CBC report on the story notes, “[t]he Public Health Agency of Canada says the risks associated with vaccines are very low”; but anti-vaccination activists still insist that mandatory vaccination amounts to “state and pharma control over Canadian children”, and are gearing up to fight it in the courts.

The CBC quotes New Brunswick’s education minister as claiming that having the mandatory vaccination requirement operate “notwithstanding the provisions of … section 2 and sections 7 to 15 of the Canadian Charter“, as well as, for good measure, the provision of the provincial Human Rights Act that bans discrimination in services, (Bill 11, cl 4) will save “‘expensive court costs’ resulting from … challenges ‘by folks who’ve got nothing but conspiracies and medieval fantasies to base their arguments upon'”. The minister doesn’t say, apparently, whether he thinks such challenges would have any chance of prevailing. Nor does he seem to be advancing any particular view of the relevant rights, or even to have much of a view about which rights are relevant here: why do mandatory vaccinations have to be imposed “notwithstanding”, for example, the right of a party to court proceedings to the assistance of an interpreter (protected by section 14 of the Charter)? I doubt the Minister has a clue. He just wants to preempt litigation challenging his bill.

Once again, this is not a good look for those who defend the “notwithtanding clause” as giving political actors a chance to engage in meaningful debate about the scope of constitutional rights or the justified limits to which they can be subject. As I wrote about the Saskatchewan case, ” real-life governments are largely uninterested in thinking about constitutional rights. If they are allowed to disregard judicial decisions, they will not engage in serious deliberation themselves”. The evidence that has accumulated since then supports this view, not that of, for example, Geoffrey Sigalet and Joanna Baron who celebrated Québec’s invocation of the “notwithstanding clause” as “an opportunity for democratic renewal”. And in the New Brunswick case there isn’t even a (possibly mistaken) judicial decision to disagree with. The minister doesn’t even consider it worthwhile to hear from the courts before imposing his view. This makes sense if, and only if, his view is motivated by considerations of convenience, on which the courts indeed have nothing interesting to say.

As I also wrote after Saskatchewan invoked the “notwithstanding clause”, despite what the fans of the “notwithstanding clause” believe, there can be no

tertium quid, some sort of happy Canadian middle ground between Parliamentary sovereignty and judicial enforcement of constitutional rights. If the norm against using the notwithstanding clause disappears, then it will be used proactively, profusely, and promiscuously. Like the Saskatchewan government now, others will use it whenever they think their policy ends justify the means, without paying attention to the rights the constitution is supposed to protect.

It gives me no pleasure to say this, but: I told you so. And, to repeat what I said at the outset, I worry that the use of the “notwithstanding clause” in the service of what is arguably a worthy cause will only accelerate the decay of what’s left of the norm against it. One could previously hope that, just like the feckless Robert Bourassa’s resort to the “notwithstanding clause” in the face of nationalist backlash against Ford v Quebec (Attorney General), [1988] 2 SCR 712 gave it a bad name, so would reliance on it by the populist, borderline authoritarian governments in Ontario and Québec in the last year. But now, the argument becomes: “the ‘notwithstanding clause’ is not just for populists!” There is a danger, moreover, that people will get the impression that the Charter stands in the way of good and useful public policy. Yet this is, to say the least, far from clear from this case. (Indeed, I think that the New Brunswick government would not have an especially difficult time defending mandatory vaccinations against a Charter challenge. If mandatory pictures on drivers’ licenses are constitutional in the name of public safety, surely vaccinations are too.)

When writing about the Saskatchewan case, I compared the “notwithstanding clause” to a loaded gun that the Charter’s framers left on the Canadian constitutional stage. As Chekhov wrote, a gun is not placed on a theater set by accident: it must go off. I was still hoping, though, that the law is different. I wrote that

constitutional actors are not comedians. Even if they are put in a position where a loaded gun is within their reach, their responsibility is not to fire it, but to keep it safe if they cannot unload it, and to instruct those who follow them to do likewise.

Not the current generation of Canadian politicians though. Too many of them seem to think that elected office is a shooting gallery.

The one ray of hope in all this is that Bill 11 might not yet become law. It will, the CBC reports, be subject to a free vote. Perhaps cooler, or more constitutionally-minded, heads will prevail, and disarm the Minister. If not, the constitutional rights of all of us, and not just anti-vaxxers, risk being among the casualties.