There are two main views out there about what section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a.k.a. the notwithstanding clause, does, descriptively speaking. One is that it is a means by which legislatures can free themselves from constitutional constraint to effectuate their own policy preferences. The other is that, far from being an escape hatch from the constitution, section 33 allows legislatures to give effect to their own considered views of what the constitution requires. The majority in the recent decision in Toronto (City) v Ontario (Attorney General), 2021 SCC 34 (on which I commented here) recently endorsed the latter view, as defended by Dwight Newman. (An early version of Professor Newman’s chapter making this case is available on SSRN.)
The defenders of this view, including Professor Newman, hold up Saskatchewan’s use of its section 33 powers a few years ago as exemplary in this regard. Geoffrey Sigalet and Ben Woodfinden have written that it was “[p]erhaps the best illustration” of what they had in mind. The Saskatchewan legislature enacted the School Choice Protection Act, 2018 in response to the Court of Queen’s Bench decision in Good Spirit School Division No. 204 v Christ the Teacher Roman Catholic Separate School Division No. 212, 2017 SKQB 109, which declared unconstitutional the funding of Catholic schools for educating non-Catholic students but not of other religious or secular private schools. (I wrote about that decision here. It was later reversed on appeal in Saskatchewan v Good Spirit School Division No. 204, 2020 SKCA 34. ) The Court of Queen’s Bench found that preferential funding of Catholic schools infringed the principle of state neutrality and thus both the freedom of religion and equality rights protected respectively by sections 2(a) and 15(1) of the Charter.
As part of a broader research project looking at whether legislatures do indeed put forward their own interpretations of the constitution when they invoke section 33 of the Charter, I have read the debates about Bill 89, which became the School Choice Protection Act, in the Saskatchewan legislature. In light of the importance that this particular law has assumed in the notwithstanding clause discussion, I thought it would be worthwhile to share my account of these debates, followed by some comments, without waiting complete the entire project (which I am due to present at the Legacies of Patriation Conference this coming April).
Bill 89 was introduced in the Legislative Assembly on November 8, 2017—almost seven months after Good Spirit was decided. A week later, the then-Minister of Education launched the second reading debate with a speech that occupies all of six paragraphs in the Hansard transcript. The Minister acknowledged that the Bill was “in response to the Court of Queen’s Bench … decision” and referred to the Court’s finding that the state’s duty of religious neutrality, and hence the Charter’s religious liberty and equality provisions had been infringed. (2927) However, the Minister asserted that the province’s “funding model … does not discriminate based on religious affiliation”. (2927) The Minister did not explain why she disagreed with the court; nor did she make any other argument about freedom of religion or equality, beyond this one sentence.
Rather, she insisted that “[h]aving to wait for a decision on the appeal could leave parents and students with a great deal of uncertainty about the future, not knowing if they would continue to be funded to attend a separate school”. (2928) As a result, said the Minister, “[i]t is important to invoke the notwithstanding clause now in order to provide certainty to parents and to students so that they can be assured that they will continue to be funded to attend their school without having to wait for the outcome of an appeal”. (2928) This would be the entirety of the contribution the government side of the Assembly would make to the second reading debate.
That debate went on until May 2018, albeit at a desultory pace (on the last day, one of the opposition members complained that “[w]e haven’t seen this bill up too often on the order paper this session and there are a lot of outstanding questions here that do remain outstanding.” (4222)) A number of opposition members spoke, most of them acknowledging the potential for disruption if the Good Spirit judgment were allowed to enter into force. For one, indeed, “there’s no question that, unchallenged, that [sic] this ruling would make fundamental changes to education and classrooms, not only in Saskatchewan but the entire country”. (3173) They also repeatedly endorsed resort to section 33 in some cases, at least as a last resort, one invoking Alan Blakeney in doing so. (3259-60)
However, opposition members argued the government should not have relied on its section 33 powers before the appeals were exhausted. In the words of the member who spoke immediately after the minister, “[w]hile the appeal is being considered, there is no legitimate need to jump to the notwithstanding clause”. (2928) Another darkly warned of “the unintended consequences of using the notwithstanding clause at this point”, which “could be huge”. (3119) However, the member did not specify what these huge unintended consequences might be. Beyond voicing these concerns with process and timing, the opposition members did not add to the Assembly’s collective consideration of the Charter, despite occasional calls on “every member of this House to look through this court decision, to read through the findings”. (3173) Instead, they took advantage of the “debate” to voice recriminations about the government’s funding and management of Saskatchewan’s schools—an issue that is not obviously germane to the constitutional issues Bill 89 raised.
The second reading debate was concluded on May 7, 2018, and the bill was committed to the Standing Committee on Human Services. The committee met on May 23, for an hour and a half. Much of this time was taken up by exchanges between the (new) Minister of Education, assisted by a Ministry of Justice lawyer, and a single member from the opposition. It is worth noting that the Committee Chair warned the members that the Minister may have felt constrained by the ongoing appeals process, although it is not obvious in what respects, if at all, the Minister was really prevented from making his views clear, or for that matter why he should have felt so constrained.
The Minister reiterated his predecessor’s argument that Bill 89 was a response to the Good Spirit decision and that “[i]nvoking the notwithstanding clause ensures that the government can continue to fund school divisions based on the status quo funding model, which … does not distinguish based on religious affiliation”. (733) This would “ensure that parents continue to have a choice as to where they wanted to send their children, … [if] non-Catholic parents wanted to continue to send their children to Catholic schools and have government funding for those children attending those schools” (734)―something he would later describe as “protecting the rights of non-Catholic parents”. (737) The Minister further asserted that “in terms of using it to protect the rights of individuals … it’s a fair use of the [notwithstanding] clause. But from that perspective, I think that any time that you’re using that particular clause, I think you want to be very cautious and very careful about that.” (737) In response to an opposition member’s question, he also noted that, except with respect to the funding of non-Catholic students at Catholic schools, the existing constraints on discrimination in school admissions would not be affected by Bill 89. (740) The Minister pointed to the uncertainty with which the parents were faced, a concern the opposition member shared, and claimed that this concern could not have been addressed in any other way. (738) Yet he later admitted that “whether there are other tools that can be implemented” or what they might be was something he was “not prepared to talk about”, “because [he] ha[d]n’t given a whole bunch of thought to them”. (742) It would, rather, be “for the parties to start giving some fairly serious thought to what this all looks like at the end of the day”. (742) There was no debate on the single amendment approved by the select committee and no Third Reading debate either. Bill 89 received Royal Assent on May 30, 2018.
To be blunt, if this is supposed to be a good advertisement for legislative engagement with the constitution, the product is not an impressive one. A key proponent of section 33, Peter Lougheed, who was Alberta’s Premier at the time of Patriation, would later argue that, in deciding to invoke the notwithstanding clause “a legislature should consider the importance of the right involved, the objective of the stricken legislation, the availability of other, less intrusive, means of reaching the same policy objective, and a host of other issues”. (16) Professor Newman has similarly lofty expectations. But there is precious little of this in evidence in the Bill 89 debates.
The importance of the right involved? No one, neither the Ministers nor opposition members, engage with freedom of religion, equality, and the state’s duty of neutrality at all, unless we want to count the Ministers’ bald assertions that the funding system the court has declared to be discriminatory does not discriminate. It is fair to say that politicians should not be held to the same standards of reasoning as judges, but surely we’d expect to see something, anything, by of an explanation. Nor does any of the speakers question why the funding model was set up the way it was, with a privilege for Catholic schools that was denied to others. Nor, evidently ― and despite the Minister’s initial, quickly self-contradicted, assertion to the contrary ―, has anyone given serious thought to alternatives to this scheme and to using the notwithstanding clause to keep it in existence, although ― as I wrote here shortly after the decision was rendered, an obvious alternative does exist: the legislature could fund non-Catholic minority schools on equal terms with the Catholic ones.
The only relevant concern that was voiced during these proceedings was that with ensuring stability for non-Catholic students in Catholic schools and their parents. This is, obviously an issue that deserved a lot of attention. Yet paradoxically ― and, certainly by the time of the committee discussion, everyone was aware of this! ― invoking section 33 was only a short-term fix, not a permanent solution to this difficulty. Yet no thought was given either to a system of equal funding for all schools, which would have solved the constitutional problem, or to a system of gradual transition out of the arrangement the Court of Queen’s Bench had found to be unconstitutional, at least for those children who were only starting their schooling.
One final thing to note is that, quite apart from the quality of the legislature’s consideration of the issues, the quantity is rather lacking. In particular, I find the lack of participation by the government side of the legislature remarkable, and not in a good way. The only remotely serious discussion ― and even this is a generous assessment ― of the rights issues happened in committee, where the Minister was present in his executive capacity, not as a legislator. The government had a strong majority in the legislature ― but it was largely a silent one. In a very real way, the legislature did not offer any views at all on Bill 89.
In short, the Saskatchewan legislature did not put forward any alternative interpretation of the Charter rights involved ― it paid no mind to them at all. Its consideration of justified limitations on these rights was limited. The solution it adopted was not a permanent one. In my respectful view, those who hold up this episode as a proof of concept for the claim that legislatures can use section 33 to give effect not to brute majoritarian preferences but to constitutional judgments are wrong to do so. Perhaps, as I consider other recent episodes where section 33 was used or where its use was serious contemplated, I will find better support for their theory. But this ain’t it.