Just Asking

Should the power over criminal law be transferred to the provinces?

Let me ask you what might be a provocative question: is there a good reason why criminal law and criminal procedure should be a matter of federal jurisdiction in Canada? The initial choice of the Fathers of Confederation to make them matters for Parliament under section 91(27) of the Constitution Act, 1867 was justified and turned out well, I think. But the reasons that were relevant at Confederation, and for a century thereafter, no longer hold true. Should we amend the constitution to make criminal law a provincial power ― and, if so, on what conditions?

I should note that this post is just me thinking on the screen. I do not mean it as a definitive word on anything. I am not an expert on criminal law, and might be missing something important. By all means, tell me if, and why, you think I’m wrong (or more wrong than usual). Still, I thought these questions are worth thinking about.


So far as I can tell ― and I haven’t done any actual research on this, so I may just be spewing out preconceptions and received wisdom here ― criminal law and procedure being a federal power continues the basic divide established as early as the Quebec Act 1774. Private disputes would be “determined agreeably to the said Laws and Customs of Canada“. To preserve the ability of the French Canadian majority in Québec to control (most of) its private law, “property and civil rights” became subject to provincial jurisdiction at Confederation. By contrast, the Quebec Act maintained English criminal law in force:

whereas the Certainty and Lenity of the Criminal Law of England, and the Benefits and Advantages resulting from the Use of it, have been sensibly felt by the Inhabitants, from an Experience of more than nine Years, during which it has been uniformly administered; be it therefore further enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That the same shall continue to be administered, and shall be observed as Law in the Province of Quebec, as well in the Description and Quality of the Offence as in the Method of Prosecution and Trial.

The lenity of the Criminal Law of England was such that dozens if not hundreds of offences could lead to hanging, but that was still better than judicial torture, which had existed under ancien régime French law. Here again, Confederation ensured that the status quo would continue, by putting criminal law within Parliament’s jurisdiction ― in contrast to the situation that prevailed in the United States and that would prevail in Australia.

This was as well. I doubt there was any chance of French criminal law being brought back to Canada in the 19th century ― even maintaining the old civil law proved a frightful challenge, which was one of the reasons for the introduction of the Civil code of Lower Canada (as I explained here). But given the relative moderation of federal politics in comparison with what went on in some of the provinces, notably with the authoritarian regimes of the Social Credit in Alberta and the Union Nationale in Québec, federal control over criminal law has been a blessing. It was the reason, notably, for the invalidation of Québec’s ban on “communistic propaganda” in the notorious “Padlock Act” in Switzman v Elbling, [1957] SCR 285.

But something very important happened since then: the enactment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 2 of the Charter protects Canadians across the country from dictatorial legislation such as the Padlock Act. Sections 7 to 14 of the Charter entrench substantive, formal, and procedural provisions historically associated with the “certainty and lenity of the criminal law of England”. Section 24 of the Charter and section 52(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982 provide remedies against governments and legislatures that disregard these rights. These judicial protections (subject to an obvious caveat, to which I will get shortly) are likely to be more effective than the structural devices employed at Confederation. After all, we know that Parliament keeps enacting, and the courts ― to the chagrin of “tough-on-crime” politicians and even some misguided judges ― keep invalidating absuvie criminal laws. As a result, it’s not obvious to me that the centuries-old reasons for making criminal law a federal matter are still valid.


Meanwhile, there are other considerations, some also longstanding but others less so, that support transferring this power to the provinces. The former category includes the principle of subsidiarity: the idea that power should be decentralized and exercised as closely to the citizen as it can be effectively exercised. It’s not clear to me why the provinces couldn’t competently and effectively legislate over criminal law and criminal procedure. As it is, they already legislate over provincial offences under section 92(15) of the Constitution Act, 1867. Since criminal law reflects moral considerations, it would make sense for Canadian provinces, with differing moral outlooks of their electorates, to be in charge of defining this law for themselves. Other usual benefits of decentralization, such as the possibility of provinces experimenting with different policies, within constitutional constraints, would also apply.

The more novel benefit of transferring the power over criminal law to the provinces would be to nip in the bud the tendency for Parliament to rely on the criminal law power to enact regulatory schemes that invade areas of provincial jurisdiction ― or, rather, since this tendency is already well-developed, to pluck off its increasingly putrid flower. Examples of this tendency, all upheld at least in part, include laws dealing with tobacco advertising, the registration of firearms, assisted human reproduction, and most recently genetic non-discrimination. (Shannon Hale blogged here on her and Dwight Newman’s critique of the Supreme Court’s lax approach to Parliament’s criminal law power in Reference re Genetic Non‑Discrimination Act, 2020 SCC 17.) Denying Parliament the power to make criminal law would not only allow us to reap the benefits of federalism in this area, but also to preserve them in others.

Now, I do think that some safeguards must be in place for this change to the distribution of powers to work well. One is already part of the Canadian constitution’s design. Others will need to be implemented as part of a package of amendments together with the transfer of jurisdiction over criminal law to the provinces.

The (mostly) existing safeguard the appointment of the judges of the superior courts, who preside at the most significant criminal trials, by the federal rather than the provincial governments. This has been an important barrier against the power of populist provincial governments. It will become an even better one if the federal government exercises its appointment power without being distracted by populist tough-on-crime considerations that caused it, for example, to introduce police officers into the selection committees that vet prospective judges. However, for this system to continue to work well, it will need to be coupled with an assurance that at least the more serious criminal cases will continue to come to the superior courts, either for trial or, at least, on appeal. Section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867 may do this already, but I would prefer an explicit addition to section 11 of the Charter.

The other additional safeguards I would want to see include, first and foremost, the repeal of the Charter‘s “notwithstanding clause“, which allows Parliament and, more to the point, provincial legislatures, to suspend the effective protection of the rights entrenched in sections 2 and 7-15 of the Charter. At a minimum, the protections of the rights of the accused in sections 7-14 should be free from the threat of override; but it is highly desirable that the substantive protections of fundamental freedoms in section 2 should be so too. Section 15 is perhaps less relevant here, but there is no reason to maintain the “notwithstanding clause” for its sake. The reason for contemplating transferring the criminal law power to the provinces, despite the greater risk of populist takeovers, is that the Charter protects against its being abused. This protection must be effective at all times, and not at the provincial legislatures’ sufferance.

Lastly, some additional adjustments to the division of powers scheme will be necessary. For one thing, a federal equivalent of the current section 92(15) will be necessary to replace Parliament’s plenary criminal law power. Just like the provinces now, Parliament should be able to provide for penal enforcement of its legislation. Moreover, some measure of extra-territorial criminal power will need to remain with Parliament as well. There is of course some danger that even this limit grant of power will be abused. This is what has happened in the United States, despite Congress not having any explicit criminal law powers. The crimes created under the power to enacted laws “necessary and proper for carrying into execution” Congress’s other powers have become literally innumerable: when the American government tried to count all of the offences on its books, it failed. (Some are documented by a darkly humorous Twitter account.) However, the Canadian jurisprudence on the division of powers generally, and on ancillary powers in particular, is much more robust than its American counterparts, so one can reasonably hope that this American disaster can be avoided in Canada. For another, while the federal power over penitentiaries in section 91(28) will no longer make much sense, a more limited power to maintain a carceral system for those convicted of the remaining federal offences will be necessary.


Needless to say, there is very little chance of my proposals ― even assuming that they make sense which, to repeat, they may well not ― ever being taken up. Even apart from Canada’s general, and I’m inclined to think generally sound, aversion to constitutional tinkering, I just don’t see Parliament giving up such a high-profile legislative power that has, for politicians, the virtue that its exercise allows for relatively low-cost grandstanding and virtue-signalling. But who knows. And, if nothing else, I think we should from time to time ask ourselves whether the existing division of powers makes sense, if only to remind ourselves of the reasons why we have it and why, on the whole, it is a good and useful thing.

Constructive Shooting

How to evaluate New Brunswick’s use of the Charter’s “notwithstanding clause.”

Mark Mancini and Geoff Sigalet

Yesterday our colleague Leonid Sirota wrote a somewhat scathing review of the New Brunswick government’s recent intention to invoke the notwithstanding clause. The legislation at issue requires students to provide proof of vaccination, with a sole exemption on medical grounds. Leonid ably describes the legislation’s context more in his post, so we need not repeat it here.

The purpose of our post today is to try to clarify the lines of debate raised by New Brunswick’s potential invocation of the notwithstanding clause. The notwithstanding clause can be used pre-emptively, in absence of a court decision, or as a response to a court decision. Our first legal point is that there is nothing objectionable whatsoever about New Brunswick using the notwithstanding clause in the absence of a court decision—so long as the use is prospective, as noted in the seminal Ford case. Our second normative point is that the case against pre-emptive uses of the clause is grounded in a deeper concern about using the clause to override Charter rights, rather than to disagree with courts about how such rights relate to matters of public policy. But pre-emptive uses of the clause could anticipate disagreements with courts about how rights relate to public policy, and critics of the notwithstanding clause are too quick to denigrate the role legislatures have to play in constructing and protecting Charter rights.

Start with the legal point. The Ford decision set out the bases on which the notwithstanding clause could be used, but all of the requirements for its use were based on form only. For example, the use of the clause could be prospective only; retroactive applications are not permitted. There were limitations in the text of s.33 that also bore on the problem; for example, the legal force of the clause would expire after 5 years; and the force of the notwithstanding clause would only apply to Charter rights contained in section 2 or sections 7 to 15 of the Charter. These are the only formal requirements for the use of the notwithstanding clause.

Nowhere in the text or the history, that we can see, is there a legal distinction between uses of the clause that should solely apply to responses to court decisions as opposed to ab initio uses of the clause in absence of a court decision. In fact, the text of the notwithstanding clause could sanctify the use of the notwithstanding clause in both circumstances. Recall that the text says the following:

Section 33.

(1) Parliament or the legislature of a province may expressly declare in an Act of Parliament or of the legislature, as the case may be, that the Act or a provision thereof shall operate notwithstanding a provision included in section 2 or sections 7 to 15 (our emphasis).

(2) An Act or a provision of an Act in respect of which a declaration made under this section is in effect shall have such operation as it would have but for the provision of this Charter referred to in the declaration.

(3) A declaration made under subsection (1) shall cease to have effect five years after it comes into force or on such earlier date as may be specified in the declaration.

(4) Parliament or the legislature of a province may re-enact a declaration made under subsection (1).

(5) Subsection (3) applies in respect of a re-enactment made under subsection (4).

This text could mean that laws with notwithstanding provisions override Charter rights themselves, while on the other hand the text could indicate that such laws operate notwithstanding the duties and obligations that courts have attached to particular rights. In either case, a legislature would need no court response to invoke the notwithstanding clause. On either view, laws operate notwithstanding anything courts have said about the obligations and duties related to rights in the past, or anything they might say in the future within the renewable 5 year expirations of section 33 invocations. The identical legal effect of these interpretations suggests that the text of section 33 was designed to maximize legislatures’ ability to anticipate disagreements with courts about how Charter rights relate to public policy matters, and to actively disagree with judicial decisions about Charter rights.

Consider the counterfactual: if the clause was tied to uses responding to particular judicial decisions, then courts could have used this mechanism to restrict the legislature’s ability to anticipate disagreements with courts. Courts could deem uses of the clause insufficiently connected to prior judicial decisions to be invalid, and legislatures’ “dialogue” with courts about rights would likely be even more flat footed and defensive than is currently the case.

In our view, the text is capacious enough to cover both uses of the clause to disagree with courts about the relevance of Charter rights to particular policy matters and about the nature of their relevance. What that means is that there is no principled legal distinction to draw between pre-emptive or reactive uses of the notwithstanding clause. The text simply indicates that a particular law will operate notwithstanding certain provisions of the Charter—the text could accompany a “court-first” understanding of those provisions, or a pre-emptive legislative one.

Whether one such use is better than the other, though, is a matter for political or normative debate. We think that the real debate is not about pre-emptive or reactive uses of the clause, but rather about whether the clause is being used to override or express disagreements about Charter rights. There are normative reasons to be worried about pre-emptive and reactive uses of the notwithstanding clause that simply ride roughshod over the core meaning of Charter rights. Section 33 gives legislatures the broad power over the constitutionality of a particular legislative provision, and it shuts out the judicial resolution of those claims. This is compatible with uses of the clause meant to exclude any reasoned consideration of Charter rights tout court, as was the case with Quebec’s initial use of the section 33 to immunize all of its legislation from judicial review for compliance with the Charter rights to which notwithstanding provisions apply. Such uses do not facilitate the “dialogue” that, some would say, is at the core of Canada’s constitutional arrangements. Also, the pre-emptive use of the notwithstanding clause in this fashion could end up creating a culture of rights degradation, where courts rarely if ever have the final say on rights adjudication. This worry is attenuated to some extent by the expiration of notwithstanding provisions after 5 years, and if one accepts Prof. Webber et al’s argument that the notwithstanding clause does not shut out the possibility of judicial declarations.

These concerns are serious over the long haul, but we see no particular reason to be worried about a single pre-emptive use of the notwithstanding clause. This is because New Brunswick may not invoke the notwithstanding clause to simply run roughshod over rights. Leonid’s case against the clause purports to show that New Brunswick’s use of the clause joins Saskatchewan’s 2018 Bill 89, Quebec’s 2019 Bill 21, and Ontario’s 2018 threatened use of the clause in Bill 31. But it is a mistake to lump these uses of the notwithstanding clause together. Leonid cites his earlier argument that Saskatchewan’s use of section 33 to protect legislation allowing non-Catholics to attend constitutionally protected Catholic schools would inspire governments to use the clause “whenever they think their policy ends justify the means, without paying attention to the rights the constitution is supposed to protect.” But the preamble of Saskatchewan’s Bill 89 itself laid out reasons for protecting public funding for non-Catholic students at Catholic schools that were sensitive to the Charter right to religious freedom. The preamble claims that:

Whereas it is desirable and in the public interest that education funding should not be based on any religious affiliation of parents, guardians or pupils;

Whereas it is desirable and in the public interest that boards of education may, subject to this Act and The Education Act, 1995, determine their own policies respecting admitting pupils, and that education funding to boards of education not be limited due to religious affiliation of parents, guardians or pupils;

The first of these clauses of the preamble demonstrates a concern with the need for religious neutrality in the extension of historically privileged denominational right on equal terms to denominational and non-denominational students alike. This is akin to the reasoning of the U.S. Supreme Court in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris allowing Ohio parents to use state subsidized vouchers to send their children to religious schools, and unlike Canada, the U.S. Constitution features an explicit prohibition on the establishment of religion. The second clause shows a concern with the autonomy of religious institutions that has been echoed by the Canadian Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on religious freedom. Perhaps Leonid disagrees with this assessment of how religious freedom relates to extending denominational school funding neutrally: but Canada is a democracy where elected legislatures ensure that ordinary citizens have some say about these matters. Saskatchewan’s use of the clause provides an exemplar against which to assess New Brunswick’s Bill 11.

But we shouldn’t be too hasty in drawing comparisons and conclusions. The New Brunswick bill has only just been introduced, and as such it remains to be seen whether the government will offer rights-sensitive reasons for using section 33 in the spirit of Saskatchewan’s Bill 89, or else simply emphasize how the majority’s policy goals override Charter rights, as in the case of Quebec’s Bill 21. Clearly, the former case is normatively more desirable than the latter; but it is important to remember that, on either case, the New Brunswick legislature is accountable for its appraisal of the law and its relationship to the Charter rights at play. The expiration of notwithstanding provisions ensures that courts must eventually have a co-ordinate say to ensure the legal longevity of the legislature’s rights construction. Far from creating a one-way “shooting gallery”, the notwithstanding clause is subject to plenty of democratic channels of opposition. A government that treats section 33 like a weapon could find itself in a gunfight with its own constituents. The expiration of the clause subjects its use and renewal to elections, such that the best control on the use of the notwithstanding clause does not lay in a courtroom, but in the minds and hearts of the citizens of Canada. That seems quite justifiable in a free and democratic society.

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.

The Rule of Law All the Way Up

Introducing my recently-published chapter on the Rule of Law and Canadian constitutional law

LexisNexis Canada recently published (if I understand correctly, as a standalone book as well as a dedicated issue of the Supreme Court Law Review (2d)) Attacks on the Rule of Law from Within, a collection of essays co-edited by my friends Joanna Baron and Maxime St-Hilaire. The publisher’s blurb gives a concise summary of the project’s background and contents:

This volume is a collection of six papers developed from the Runnymede Society’s 2018 national conference by a community of legal experts in response to Supreme Court of Canada Justice Rosalie Abella’s comment that “the phrase ‘rule of law’ annoys her”. 

Grounded on the intuition that the legal profession supports the rule of law, the papers examine the historical perspective on threats to the rule of law, the sufficiency of the current Canadian legal framework to support this ideal and how the principle of stare decisis as observed by the Supreme Court of Canada undermines the spirit of the rule of law. The volume also discusses how the law relating to Aboriginal title and the duty to consult fails to adhere to the Rule of Law standards … to the detriment of indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians alike.

I am honoured to have contributed to this volume, with an essay called “The Rule of Law All the Way Up”, which focuses on what I see as the lack of commitment to the Rule of constitutional Law in by scholars, judges, and politicians. Here is the abstract:

Canadian constitutional law is seldom criticised for its failure to live up to the ideal of the Rule of Law. This article argues that it should be so criticised. A number of widely accepted or uncontroversial Rule of Law requirements―the need for general, stable, and prospective rules, the congruence between the “in the books” and the law “in action, and the availability of impartial, independent courts to adjudicate legal disputes―are compromised by a number of ideas already accepted or increasingly advocated by Canadian lawyers, judges, and officials.

This article describes four of these ideas, to which it refers as “politicization techniques”, because they transform what purports to be “the supreme law of Canada” into a set of malleable political commitments. These are, first, deference to legislatures or the application of a “margin of appreciation” and the “presumption of constitutionality” in constitutional adjudication; second, constitutional “dialogue” in which courts not merely defer, but actively give way to legislative decisions; the substitution of political for legal judgment through the application of the “notwithstanding clause” of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; and the rewriting of constitutional law by the courts under the banner of “living tree” constitutional interpretation.

The article concludes with an appeal to those who profess commitment to the Rule of Law in relation to the Constitution not to embrace or endorse the means by which it is subverted.

The entire chapter is available to download on SSRN. It builds on many of the themes developed on my posts here ― the rejection of judicial deference on constitutional issues, whether to legislatures or to the administrative state; the imperative to renounce the use of the Charter‘s “notwithstanding clause”; and the perils of “living constitutionalism”. Some of these, notably the issue of deference to administrative interpretations of constitutional law and constitutional interpretation, I will also be pursuing in future work. (Indeed, the first of these is the subject of the paper I will be presenting at the Journal of Commonwealth Law symposium next month.)

I am very grateful to Ms. Baron and Professor St-Hilaire for having given me the opportunity to present these thoughts, and write them up for publication. I am also grateful to Justice Bradley Miller, of the Court of Appeal for Ontario, who gave me thoughtful comments when I presented my chapter (then still very much in draft form) at the 2018 Runnymede Society conference, as well as to Kerry Sun, who was a very helpful editor. And I am looking forward to reading the other contributions in the volume, once I am done preparing the talks I am about to give in the coming weeks.

Concurring Opinion

Does the Charter’s “notwithstanding clause” exclude judicial review of legislation? Not quite!

Earlier this month, Grégoire Webber, Eric Mendelsohn, and Robert Leckey published an interesting challenge to what they termed “[t]he faulty received wisdom around the notwithstanding clause” over at Policy Options. Professor Webber, Mr. Mendelsohn, and Dean Leckey argue that the invocation of section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the notorious “notwithstanding clause”, by a legislature that enacts a statute does not fully insulate that statute against judicial review. Only the consequences of such review, not its availability, are affected. A court can still declare a statute protected by the “notwithstanding clause” to be contrary to the Charter ― albeit that the statute will continue to apply. This is an intriguing argument, and I think that it is correct.

Section 33(2) of the Charter provides that “[a]n Act or a provision of an Act in respect of which a declaration made under this section is in effect shall have such operation as it would have but for the provision of this Charter referred to in the declaration.” Professor Webber, Mr. Mendelsohn, and Dean Leckey point out that “The word ‘override'”, often used to describe section 33, “appears nowhere and there is no mention of ‘judicial review’. Rather, the text of section 33 focuses on shielding a law’s ‘operation’.” It excludes the application section 52(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982, which would normally render a provision or statute inconsistent with the Charter “of not force or effect to the extent of the inconsistency”. But this does not prevent a court from declaring that an inconsistency exists in the first place.

I agree, and would add a further textual point. Section 33(1) authorizes the enactment of legislation that will “operate notwithstanding a provision included in section 2 or sections 7 to 15 of this Charter”. One provision that is not subject to section 33 is section 24, the Charter‘s internal remedial provision. Pursuant to section 24(1),

[a]nyone whose rights or freedoms, as guaranteed by this Charter, have been infringed or denied may apply to a court of competent jurisdiction to obtain such remedy as the court considers appropriate and just in the circumstances.

Normally, if one’s rights are infringed by legislation, the “remedy that is appropriate and just in the circumstances” is a declaration of invalidity pursuant to section 52(1). The invocation of section 33 of the Charter changes “the circumstances”, however, so that ― for as long as it applies ― it is no longer constitutionally “appropriate” for a court to issue a remedy that affects the “operation” of the statute protected by the “notwithstanding clause”. But it would be wrong to make the leap from that incontrovertible truth to the much broader ― and textually unsupported ― proposition that no judicial remedy is “appropriate … in the circumstances” that include an operating “notwithstanding clause”. Rather, a court faced with a challenge to a statute protected by the “notwithstanding clause” must still strive to issue a “just” remedy within the constraints of section 33; that is to say, a remedy that addresses the violation of claimant’s rights (if any) without purporting to affect the operation of the statute.

As Professor Webber, Mr. Mendelsohn, and Dean Leckey suggest, a bare declaration of inconsistency, which does not purport to render the inconsistent statute “of no force or effect”, would seem to be a remedy that is (however minimally) just, and constitutionally appropriate in circumstances that include an operating “notwithstanding clause”. As they note, the New Zealand Supreme Court recently came to a similar conclusion in Attorney-General v Taylor, [2018] NZSC 104. In Taylor (about which I wrote here), the majority held that a declaration of inconsistency was an appropriate remedy that can serve to vindicate the rights affirmed by the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 within the constraints imposed by section 4 of that Act, which prevents the courts from invalidating or refusing to apply inconsistent legislation. Even when no particular consequence flows from the declaration, it is still of value to the claimant, and granting it is in keeping with the courts’ role of saying what the law is.

This point is particularly apposite in the Canadian context, since the Charter ― even when section 33 is invoked ― is part of what section 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982 describes as “the supreme law of Canada”. As Professor Webber, Mr. Mendelsohn, and Dean Leckey point out, the courts have always stressed their responsibility for setting out the meaning of this law (well, always except when they follow Doré v Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 SCR 395). This is so even in cases where, for one reason or another, the courts consider that their remedial powers do not reach as far as their power to articulate the law. Professor Webber, Mr. Mendelsohn, and Dean Leckey mention Canada (Prime Minister) v Khadr, 2010 SCC 3, [2010] 1 SCR 44, which is one such case; Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 SCR 217 is another well-known example. The Canadian constitutional framework, even more than the New Zealand’s, is different from the Australian one, where the High Court held, in Momcilovic v The Queen, [2011] HCA 34, that the making of bare declarations of inconsistency was not a judicial function or even incidental to a judicial function, and so not something that the courts could constitutionally be asked to do.

Another point worth taking away from Taylor is that declarations of inconsistency should not be regarded as addressed to the legislature. Rather, they are vehicles by which the courts point out that the legislature has abused its powers, and the courts are prevented to do more about that fact than simply acknowledge it. The courts should not be thinking in terms of a dialogue with the legislature; it doesn’t matter whether the legislature is of a mind to take the courts’ judgment seriously. Professor Webber, Mr. Mendelsohn, and Dean Leckey suggest that ,”[i]nformed by the reasoned, evidence-based judgment of an impartial, independent court, the government might amend its policy or decide to allow section 33’s protection to lapse”. I suspect that this is a too optimistic ― certainly the New Zealand Parliament appears to be in no mind to remedy the inconsistency with the Bill of Rights Act identified in Taylor (which concerned the disenfranchisement of prisoners serving short sentences). But this doesn’t matter. It is the courts’ duty to say what the law ― and a fortiori the supreme law ― is, Parliamentary indifference be damned.

Professor Webber, Mr. Mendelsohn, and Dean Leckey’s argument that the invocation of section 33 of the Charter does not exclude judicial review, but only limits the consequences that can result from such review is novel, but I think that it is correct. They are right that, by its terms and within its constitutional context, “[s]ection 33 secures a law’s operation; it does not open a Charter black hole”. Given the Canadian provinces’ newfound penchant for relying on section 33, which I fear is only the start of a sinister trend, we may well soon find out what the courts will make of their idea.

Devaluing Section 33

What happens to “Charter values” when a statute invokes the “notwithstanding clause”―and what this might mean for Québec’s Bill 21

Here is a little puzzle I have thought of when reading an intriguing Policy Options post by Grégoire Webber, Eric Mendelsohn, and Robert Leckey. Their argument, in a nutshell, is that the invocation of section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the notorious “notwithstanding clause” by a legislature ― for example, by Québec’s legislature enacting
Bill 21, an anti-religious dress code ― does not prevent the courts from pronouncing the statute to which it applies contrary to the Charter. The “notwithstanding clause” does not insulate the statute from judicial review, but merely means that the statute continues to operate regardless of that review’s outcome. I am tentatively inclined to agree, and may have more to say on this soon. But for now, I want to raise a somewhat different issue.

If Bill said that public servants guilty of wearing religious symbols are to lose their jobs, or that overtly religious persons cannot be hired for the positions to which clause 6 applies, then that rule would be protected by the “notwithstanding clause”, and so would be its straightforward application. But in fact Bill 21 does not itself specify what happens if its prohibition, in clause 6, on “wearing religious symbols” is disregarded. Rather, clause 12 merely provides that “[i]t is incumbent on the person exercising the highest administrative authority” over those to whom that prohibition applies “to take the necessary measures to ensure compliance”. The taking of those necessary measures would presumably be an administrative decision, subject to judicial review. And this is where things get interesting, in the sordid way in which anything having to do with judicial review of administrative decisions is interesting.

In a sane system of judicial review of constitutionally suspect administrative decisions ― like the one set out in Slaight Communications v Davidson, [1989] 1 SCR 1038 ― a decision to discipline, and eventually to dismiss, a public servant for breaching the prohibition on wearing religious symbols would, I think, have to be valid, so long of course as Bill 21 is protected by the “notwithstanding clause”. Such a decision is impliedly authorized by the statute, so to challenge its constitutionality one would need to challenge the statute itself, and the “notwithstanding clause” means that, whatever other consequences that challenge may have, the statute continues to operate.

But we no longer have a sane system of judicial review of administrative decisions that raise Charter issues. (I should make clear that I have grave misgivings about Slaight‘s correctness on the merits; it is only its approach to judicial review that I approve of.) What we have, instead, is the approach first set out in Doré v Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 SCR 395, under which the issue is not whether an administrative decision is authorized by a statute interpreted so as to comply with the Charter, but whether it gives as full an effect to “Charter values” in light of the statute’s objectives. How the “notwithstanding clause” fits into this scheme is not at clear.

The question is, does the application of the “notwithstanding clause” to a statute suspend the application of “Charter values” to decisions authorized by that statute? And the answer to that question is by no means obvious. Doré itself, of course, is silent on the matter, as are its successors Loyola High School v Quebec (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 12, [2015] 1 SCR 613 and Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, [2018] 2 SCR 293. So too is the text of section 33 of the Charter, which speaks of legislation “hav[ing] such operation as it would have but for the provision of th[e] Charter” (emphasis mine) in respect of which section 33 is invoked. The Charter says nothing about “values”.

Are these values the same as Charter rights, in which case they might be ousted along with the “provisions” muted by the invocation of the “notwithstanding clause”? The cases at least suggest otherwise. In particular, in Loyola, the majority spoke of “Charter protections” as a category encompassing “values and rights” [35; emphasis mine], suggesting that values and rights are different. It added that “Charter values [are] those values that underpin each right and give it meaning”. [36] And so, one might at least make a serious argument to the effect that the values remain intact regardless of the temporary inapplicability of the Charter‘s provisions (and rights), and that Doré‘s injunction that “administrative decisions are always required to consider fundamental values” [35; emphasis in the original] remains in full force, notwithstanding the “notwithstanding clause”.

The reluctance of the framers of Bill 21 to spell out, in the legislation itself, the unpalatable consequences they presumably intend, combined with the perverseness of the administrative law doctrines endorsed by the Supreme Court, may thus result in the nullification of one of the bill’s most significant features ― its attempt to exclude judicial scrutiny. I hope that no one doubts my distaste for Bill 21. I have denounced its illiberalism here, arguing that Quebeckers ― and the rest of us ― need to stop fearing “the way in which others might use their liberty if we do not preemptively coerce them”. And I have myself defended what some might think of as a workaround designed to challenge the constitutionality of Bill 21 despite its invocation of the “notwithstanding clause”. And, more broadly, I have long argued that the “notwithstanding clause” would be best left untouched. But I cannot say I find the idea of relying on “Charter values” to subvert the invocation of the “notwithstanding clause”, even one as distasteful as Bill 21’s, especially satisfactory either. The whole concept of “Charter values” is a figment of the judicial imagination, and it usually serves, no matter the protestations of the TWU majority, to water down constitutional rights and to subvert the authority of the supreme law more broadly.

One should note, also, that even if the argument that Charter values continue to apply despite the “notwithstanding clause” is successful, there would remain the issue of weighing these values against statutory objectives. I will not say much about this here, beyond observing that there is glaring conflict between the ostensible aims of Bill 21 as a whole, stated in its clause 4, which are “(1) the separation of State and religions; (2) the religious neutrality of the State; (3) the equality of all citizens; and (4) freedom of conscience and freedom of religion”, and its real aims, and in particular, the aim of the ban of wearing religious symbols. I am not sure how a court would deal with this, but here again the reluctance of the framers of of Bill 21 to forthrightly admit that they are trying to simply purge Québec’s officialdom of overtly religious individuals may well open a space for judicial subversion.

It may yet be, then, that the story of Bill 21 will turn out to have something that will look, from the standpoint of the protection of individual rights, more or less like a happy ending. But we should not let ourselves be deceived. Two wrongs do not make a right. One can hardly make up for the Québec legislature’s unwillingness to be bound by constitutional law by exploiting similar unwillingness on the part of the Supreme Court. And maybe, just maybe, the court would in fact recoil before the prospect of following the implications of the Doré line of cases all the way to the nullification of section 33 of the Charter. Who knows ― they might even seize the opportunity for getting rid of Doré and restoring some sanity to the Canadian law of judicial review.

To be honest, I’m not sure which outcome is more desirable. On the one hand, I want to see Bill 21 undone. On the other, although the Québec legislature would have no cause for complaint if it is tripped up by its own cowardice, those of us who care about the Rule of Law could not happy by its further subversion, even if we like the immediate results. But then again, I have the luxury of worrying about the Rule of Law from a distance. Those personally affected by Bill 21 may feel differently about this.

Nothing to Celebrate

Québec’s irreligious dress code proposal isn’t an opportunity to extol democracy, or to do away with judicial review of legislation

In a recent post at Policy Options, Joanna Baron and Geoffrey Sigalet argue that the invocation of section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the notorious “notwithstanding clause”, to insulate Bill 21, Québec’s proposed legislation making irreligion the province’s official creed from judicial scrutiny “is an opportunity for democratic renewal” in discussions about matters constitutional. In doing so, they come another step closer to overtly taking a position that has always been implicit in the arguments of many of section 33’s fans: that the enactment of the Charter was a mistake. Indeed, they go further and, intentionally or otherwise, make the same suggestion regarding the courts’ ability to enforce the federal division of powers under the Constitution Act, 1867. It is brave of Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet to make this argument with Bill 21 as a hook. Yet courageous though it is, the argument is not compelling.

Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet dismiss claims to the effect that, while section 33 prevents the scrutiny of Bill 21 for compliance with the Charter’s guarantees of religious freedom and equality, other constitutional arguments remain available. (I have presented one such argument, building on Maxime St-Hilaire’s work, here.) To them, they are no more than a “legalistic … distraction”. Opponents of Bill 21 should, rather, be “making the democratic case for protecting religious freedom”. Indeed, we should be celebrating “the legislative process … with its tradition of active debate”, which allows Québec to take a “collaborative approach to fleshing out important rights”. We should also be celebrating street protests, open letters, and even threats of disobedience issued by some of the organizations that will be responsible for applying Bill 21 when it becomes law. After all, letting the courts apply the Charter “can wind up overriding rights in ways similar to Bill 21”, while causing “an atrophying of the democratic process as a forum where rights are debated, articulated and enacted”. In short, “rights should not be taken for granted, nor left to judges. They require the thoughtful participation of the people themselves.”

I agree with this last point. Rights are unlikely to enjoy much protection in a political culture in which they are seen as something of concern to the courts alone. In one way or another ― whether through judicial acquiescence or through legislative override ― whatever constitutional protections for rights might exist in such a society will be cast aside. Québec is an excellent example of this. And, for my part, I have made a political, as well as a legal, case against Bill 21 here. The two can, and should, coexist.

And this is where Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet go badly wrong. In their headlong rush to praise politics, they denigrate the law. Without seriously addressing their merits, their dismiss plausible (albeit, to be fair, not unassailable) legal arguments as mere legalism. This applies not only to an argument based on the Charter, but also to one based on federalism. Presumably, we should count on the political process to sort out which of two different but equally democratic majorities should have the ability to impose its religious views on Canadians ― or any other issues about which order of government has the ability to legislate with respect to a particular subject. Similarly, Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet appear to see no harm in state institutions, such as school boards, threatening to act lawlessly, the Rule of Law be damned.

Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet also take a remarkably optimistic view of the political process. They say not a word of the fact that the “active debate” for which the praise Québec’s legislature may well be curtailed by the government. They call for democratic persuasion in the face of a law that is designed to impose few, if any, burdens, at least in the way in which it is likely to be enforced, on Québec’s lapsed-Catholic majority, and great burdens on a few minority groups that have long been subjects of suspicion if not outright vilification. A thoughtful advocate of democratic control over rights issues, Jeremy Waldron, at least worried in his “The Core of the Case against Judicial Review” about the possibility that political majorities will put their interests above the rights of minority groups. “Injustice”, he writes, “is what happens when the rights or interests of the minority are wrongly subordinated to those of the majority”, (1396) and we may legitimately worry about the tyranny of the majority when political majorities dispose of the rights of minority groups without heeding their concerns. Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet show no sign of being so worried, or of entertaining the possibility that the Québec society’s commitment to religious liberty is fundamentally deficient.

To be sure, Professor Waldron (rightly) reminds us that minorities “may be wrong about the rights they have; the majority may be right”. (1397) He also insists that, in societies genuinely committed to rights, it will rarely be the case that questions of rights will provoke neat splits between majority and minority groups. Still, we should be mindful of his acknowledgement that it is in cases like Bill 21, where majorities focus on their own preoccupations and are willing to simply impose their views on minorities, that the arguments in favour of judicial enforcement of constitutional rights are at their strongest. There is also a very strong argument ― and a democratic argument, too ― to be made in support of judicial enforcement of the federal division of powers, which serves to preserve the prerogative of democratic majorities to decide, or not to decide, certain issues.

Ms. Baron and Dr. Sigalet do not recognize these arguments, which leads me to the conclusion that they see no room for (strong-form) judicial review of legislation, under any circumstances. I believe that this position, at least so far as the Charter is concerned, is implicit in most if not all of the recent attempts to rehabilitate section 33. If one argues that we should trust legislatures to sometimes come to views about rights that deserve to prevail over those of the courts, indeed perhaps to correct judicial mistakes, then why trust them in some cases only, and not in all? The application of this logic to federalism isn’t as familiar in the Canadian context, but in for a penny, in for a pound, I suppose.

Yet in my view, this is a mistake. As the circumstances surrounding Bill 21 show, politics is often little more than the imposition of the preferences of one group on another by brute force. This is as true in a democracy as it is under any other political regime. Democracy makes it more likely (although it does not guarantee) that the triumphant group will be a majority of the citizenry, which may or may not be a good thing. Democracy means that governmental decrees are, in principle (although not always in practice) reversible, and this is most definitely a good thing, and the reason why democracy is the least bad form of government. But I see no basis for pretending that democratic politics is somehow wise, or that it fosters meaningful debate about rights or other constitutional issues. Yes, there are some examples of that, on which opponents of judicial review of legislation like to seize. But these examples are few and far between and, more importantly, nothing about the nature of democratic politics makes their regular occurrence likely.

And of course it is true that strong-form judicial review of legislation, or judicial enforcement of rights (and of federalism) more broadly, sometimes fails to protect rights as fully as it should. I’m not sure that Dr. Sigalet and Ms. Baron’s chosen example, Alberta v Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, 2009 SCC 37, [2009] 2 SCR 567, is especially compelling ― I think the case was wrongly decided, but the majority’s position at least rested on the sort of concern that can in principle justify limitations on rights. The more recent decisions in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, [2018] 2 SCR 293 and the companion Ontario case are much worse in this regard, and provide compelling examples of an abject judicial failure to enforce the rights of a (rightly) maligned minority against an overbearing majority. Judicial review provides only a chance that what the political or administrative process got wrong will be set right, not a guarantee. But there is no compelling reason to think that the (usual) availability of judicial review causes the political debate about rights or other constitutional issues to atrophy. After all, as I have argued here, politicians are just as wont to ignore the constitution when they know or think that their decisions are not judicially reviewable as when they know that they are.  

In short, I am all for making the case for rights, and even federalism, outside the courtroom, and in ways that do not only speak to those carrying the privilege, or the burden, of legal training. I am all for making submissions to legislatures to try to prevent them from committing an injustice ― I’ve done it myself. And I’m all for protest, and even for civil disobedience by ordinary citizens when the politicians won’t listen ― though I have serious misgivings about officials declining to follow the law, partly for the reasons co-blogger Mark Mancini outlined here, and partly due to concerns of my own. But if the legally-minded among us should not neglect the political realm, then the politically-inclined should not disparage the law. The would-be prophets of popular sovereignty ought to remember Edward Coke’s words in his report of Prohibitions del Roy :

the law [is] the golden met-wand and measure to try the causes of the subjects; and which protect[s] His Majesty in safety and peace: with which the King was greatly offended, and said, that then he should be under the law, which was treason to affirm, as he said; to which I said, that Bracton saith, quod Rex non debed esse sub homine, sed sub Deo et lege.

This is no less true of today’s democratic sovereign, though it be no less apt to stand on its own dignity as James I.

Can an agency choose not to enforce Bill 21?

Last week, the English Montreal School Board [EMSB] announced that it is refusing to to implement Bill 21, introduced by the Quebec government. The law would ban workers in the public sphere in positions of authority from wearing “religious symbols” while at work. The government, apparently cognizant of the challenges this could raise under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, signalled its intention to invoke the notwithstanding clause to immunize its law from constitutional scrutiny by the judiciary.

In pre-emptively declining to implement the law, the EMSB invoked constitutional objections under the Charter against the ban:

Vice-Chair Joe Ortona, who drafted the resolution, said that the EMSB believes this proposed legislation would be contrary to paragraph 2 (a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees everyone’s right to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion and contrary to paragraph 2 (b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees everyone’s right to freedom thought, belief, opinion and expression.

Furthermore Mr. Ortona said that the EMSB believes this proposed legislation would be contrary to subsection 15 (1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees that everyone is equal before and under the law and guarantees the right to equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on religion and contrary to section 3 of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms which guarantees freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of opinion, and freedom of expression.

Quite aside from the merits of the issue, there is a legitimate question of administrative law, here: can an administrative agency like a school board, empowered by statute, simply decline to enforce a law that it believes is unconstitutional? More specifically, can the agency decline to enforce the law if the law invokes the notwithstanding clause? Whatever the answer is, should agencies be able to come to their own determinations of constitutional law?

The place to start is probably the Martin and Conway line of cases. The core issues in those cases were the conditions under which an administrative agency can choose not to apply statutory provisions in its enabling statute that it considers to be unconstitutional—and if so, whether there is a power to issue personal remedies under the Charter. So these cases go, if an agency has the express or implied power to decide questions of law under the challenged provision (see Martin, at para 37), then it presumptively has the power to determine questions of constitutional law. The implied inquiry looks to a number of considerations (see Martin at para 41):

Relevant factors will include the statutory mandate of the tribunal in issue and whether deciding questions of law is necessary to fulfilling this mandate effectively; the interaction of the tribunal in question with other elements of the administrative system; whether the tribunal is adjudicative in nature; and practical considerations, including the tribunal’s capacity to consider questions of law. Practical considerations, however, cannot override a clear implication from the statute itself, particularly when depriving the tribunal of the power to decide questions of law would impair its capacity to fulfill its intended mandate. As is the case for explicit jurisdiction, if the tribunal is found to have implied jurisdiction to decide questions of law arising under a legislative provision, this power will be presumed to include jurisdiction to determine the constitutional validity of that provision.

The presumption can be rebutted by the party seeking to dislodge the Charter jurisdictional presumption, by pointing to an express or implied withdrawal of authority to decide constitutional questions: the concern is discerning whether there is an intention to “exclude the Charter, or more broadly, a category of questions of law encompassing the Charter, from the scope of the questions of law to be addressed by the tribunal (Martin, at para 42).

So the question at the outset for the EMSB is whether it has been conferred the ability to decide questions of law, either explicitly or impliedly. The enabling statute for the EMSB is the Education Act. Under s.111 of that statute, the province of Quebec is divided into “two groups of territories,” with one group constituting English school boards, like the EMSB. The EMSB, under the statute, is “a legal person established in the public interest” (s.113). There is at least some reason (even if weak) to believe under the Education Act the EMSB has the power to decide questions of law, but only a limited one pertaining to its particular mission under the Education Act. For example, under the statute, the EMSB has the power to “ensure that the basic school regulation established by the Government is implemented” (s.222) and can exempt students from that basic regulation “[f]or humanitarian reasons or to avoid serious harm to a student” (s.222). Assume for now that these rather vague and limited provisions confer a general power to decide questions of law: that general power, interpreted in light of the text, context, and purpose of the Education Act as it relates to school boards, would probably only relate to the organization of quality educational services (s.207.1), although one could argue that the same concern could apply to the context of Bill 21.

Even if this could be seen as an implicit signal of constitutional jurisdiction under the Education Act, it is a bit orthogonal to the core interpretive question. Martin, the key case on point, says that the real question is whether the EMSB has power to decide questions of law under the challenged provision in its enabling statute (see paras 27-28, 35). But here, there is not only no challenged provision yet, but it is not the EMSB’s enabling statute. This presents two further problems: can agencies issue prophylactic constitutional rulings? And even if they can, can they do so by choosing not to apply a statute that is not their enabling statute?

It would seem odd, in light of the Supreme Court’s cases, to suggest that an administrative agency can prophylactically choose not to apply a law that otherwise applies to it. Administrative agencies are creatures of statute, and so are subject to the statutory conditions that the legislature imposes on them. Under Bill 21, the terms of the statute clearly apply to school boards (see Schedule I, (7)). Short of some dispute arising within the confines of the statutory regime created by the Education Act, there does not seem warrant for the EMSB to go out on a limb and refuse to apply a statute that has yet to have created any particular problems within its statutory jurisdiction. This seems to be what Abella J suggested in Conway, where she concluded that tribunals could “have the authority to resolve constitutional questions that are linked to matters properly before them” (Conway, at para 78).

More important than this issue, though, is the idea that the EMSB can choose not to apply a statute that is not its enabling statute. The main Supreme Court cases dealing with this issue, even the ones that predate Martin, involve the enabling statute of the decision-maker under consideration (Conway, at para 49: “These cases dealt with whether administrative tribunals could decide the constitutionality of the provisions of their own statutory schemes.” Consider the cases on this point: in Cuddy Chicks, the issue was whether the Ontario Labour Relations Board could determine the constitutionality of a provision in the Labour Relations Act. In Martin, the question was whether the Nova Scotia Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal could decide a s.15 Charter claim under the Workers’ Compensation Act and associated regulations. All of these cases involved claims tied to the regime under which the decision-maker was established, with cases “properly before them.” And this makes sense: it would be odd for Parliament to delegate power to an administrative agency, confined by a statutory scheme, to pass on the constitutionality of other statutory provisions that may only tangentially be related to the part of the Education Act (for example) that the EMSB must apply.

Even if none of this were true, the notwithstanding clause effectively limits any independent choice an agency could have about the constitutionality of the statute under which it is invoked. For one, even if one could impute an intention to the legislature that presumptively allows the EMSB to make constitutional determinations, the notwithstanding clause is a good reason to say that the legislature has rebutted that presumption with respect to the particular category of question at issue here: this is the upshot of Martin and Conway. More fundamentally, a use of the notwithstanding clause cannot be legally questioned by any actor in the system, including the judiciary. The EMSB cannot legally second-guess the choice of the provincial government (its master) to insulate legislation from constitutional scrutiny. The invocation of the notwithstanding clause flows down the entire machinery of the state, and whether we like it or not, its use is legally justifiable by the fiat of the legislature.

To my mind, the use of the notwithstanding clause also renders null any arguments that one could make that the EMSB is justified in its prophylactic ruling because of an abstract notion of “Charter values.” Despite the fact that the spectre of Charter values is increasingly being called into question, and the precedential force of cases like Trinity Western should be questioned because of the lack of reasoning on the point (see, embarrassingly for the TWU majority, para 59), the notwithstanding clause is a legislative command that compels executive actors to ignore the Charter when implementing the law in question. There would be no point in invoking the notwithstanding clause if administrative actors could choose to “independently” opine on the constitutionality of laws in the face of it. The lightning rod for a consideration of Charter values is discretion, and the notwithstanding clause neutralizes any discretion at all on the constitutional question.

To my mind, there is little warrant for the EMSB to prophylactically say it will not enforce Bill 21, given its limited statutory domain and the use of the notwithstanding clause. And this is likely how it should be. It is one thing for an administrative agency, when implementing a statute in the context of a concrete dispute, to have to pass on the constitutionality of a statutory provision—in its own statute—in order to resolve the dispute. In that case, there are at least colourable reasons why the agency should have the power to do this: if one believes in the idea that agencies have expertise on matters arising within the confines of their statute, one could say that they could also have expertise on Charter matters arising in relation to that same statute. One could also say that the legislature delegated to the agency the power to make Charter determinations, even through the imperfect proxy of a general power to decide questions of law. These same justifications lose their force when considering statutory provisions outside the enabling statute. While Bill 21 certainly does affect the realm of the EMSB, the EMSB is not conferred a general power to make constitutional determinations arising under other statutes.

Is Québec’s Dress Code Unconstitutional?

There is a serious argument to be made that Québec’s ban on religious symbols infringes the federal division of powers

Back when a previous Québec government sought to impose a dress-code on the province’s employees, I suggested here and here that, should the province seek to insulate its legislation from review based on its manifest violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Québec’s own Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms by invoking these Charters’ respective “notwithstanding clauses”, the question of constitutionality could still be raised. That is because such legislation may well infringe not only the constitutional guarantees of religious liberty, but also the federal division of powers, to which the “notwithstanding clauses” do not apply. 

The idea of a dress code for (some) public employees is back, in the shape of a bizarrely named Bill 21, An Act respecting the laicity of the State. (Pro tip for the legislative draughtsman: “laicity” is not a synonym of “secularism”.) And as Bill 21 invokes the “notwithstanding clauses”, the issue of its consistency with the federal division of powers must be addressed.


Fortunately, Maxime St-Hilaire has posted a thorough review (en français) of the relevant case law over at À qui de droit. With his kind permission, a (very slightly shortened and re-formatted) translation follows:

Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in no way allows Parliament or a legislature to suspend the federal division of legislative powers. Only the federal emergency power makes it possible to do this, temporarily.

Recall that, in 1852, before Confederation, the legislature of the United Province of Canada enacted a Freedom of Worship Act. In 1867, the protection of religious freedom was not, as such, assigned to either Parliament or the legislatures. The Freedom of Worship Act remains purportedly valid as a law of Québec.

However, in Saumur v City of Quebec, [1953] 2 SCR 299, which involved a by-law subjecting the distribution of any literature in the city’s streets to the approval of the chief of police, four of the nine judges took the position that religious freedom was outside the scope of provincial jurisdiction, and within that of Parliament. In somewhat different ways, the four took the position that, being a restriction on freedom of religion, the by-law could not be justified as an exercise of the provincial power over “Property and Civil Rights in the Province” provided by section 92(13) of the Constitution Act, 1867, or that over “Municipal Institutions in the Province”, or any other provincial power, including that over “Matters of a merely local or private Nature in the Province”, provided by section 92(16). Rather, religious freedom was a matter within the scope either of the federal criminal law power (section 91(27)), or of the section 91 residual federal power over “Peace, Order, and Good Government of Canada”. Two other judges were content to raise this argument without either endorsing or rejecting it: “It may well be that Parliament alone has power to make laws in relation to the subject of religion as such”. (387; per Cartwright J). Only three of the nine judges took the position that freedom of religion fell within the scope of the provincial power over “Property and Civil Rights” or, perhaps, “Matters of a merely local or private Nature”.

Saumur was ultimately decided on the basis of the by-law’s interpretation, rather than its validity. Two years later, in Henry Birks & Sons (Montreal) Ltd v City of Montreal, [1955] SCR 799, the Supreme Court unanimously held that a Québec statute specifically allowing municipalities to prohibit the opening of shops on designated Catholic holidays was ultra vires the province, because in pith and substance it was colourable criminal law. Justice Kellock (with the agreement of Justice Locke), went so far as to suggest that 

[e]ven if it could be said that legislation of the character here in question is not properly “criminal law” within the meaning of s. 91(27), it would, in my opinion, still be beyond the jurisdiction of a provincial legislature as being legislation with respect to freedom of religion dealt with by the [Freedom of Worship Act]. (823)

This was also the view of Justice Rand, for whom “legislation in relation to religion the provision is beyond provincial authority to enact”. (814)

In Dupond v City of Montreal, [1978] 2 SCR 770, Justice Beetz, for the majority, argues that the freedom of religion belongs partly to the federal criminal law power, so far as the imposition of religious observance is concerned, and partly a matter of provincial competence over purely local matters (similarly to the “freedoms of speech [and] of the press”). (796-97)

This was confirmed in R v Big M Drug Mart, [1985] 1 SCR 295, where Justice Dickson, for the majority, held that

Parliament’s legislative competence to enact the Lord’s Day Act depends on the identification of the purpose of the Act as compel­ling observance of Sunday by virtue of its religious significance. Were its purpose not religious but rather the secular goal of enforcing a uniform day of rest from labour, the Act would come under s. 92(13), property and civil rights in the province and, hence, fall under provincial rather than federal competence. (354)

Since the freedom of religion includes the freedom of conscience, and thus the freedom not to believe, it is tempting to argue that any law that imposes either a form of religious belief or non-belief falls under Parliament’s exclusive power over criminal law. However, as explained in Reference re Assisted Human Reproduction Act2010 SCC 61, [2010] 3 SCR 457, to belong to the realm of criminal law, a law must “suppress an evil, … establish a prohibition, and … accompany that prohibition with a penalty”. [233]

However, it seems settled that both Parliament and the legislatures are able to protect or to justifiably limit, within the meaning of section 1 of the Charter, the freedom of conscience and religion, through the use of their ancillary powers. The power over religion is thus a shared one within the federal division of powers. The Supreme Court has confirmed this, for example in R v Edwards Books and Art Ltd, [1986] 2 SCR 713. Justice Dickson, uncontradicted on this point, expressed the following view:

[T]here exist religious matters which must similarly fall within provincial competence. … It would seem, therefore, that the Constitution does not contemplate religion as a discrete constitutional “matter” falling exclusively within either a federal or provincial class of subjects. Legislation concerning religion or religious freedom ought to be characterized, I believe, in light of its context, according to the particular religious matter upon which the legislation is focussed. … 

Applying the above principles to the appeals at bar, it is, in my opinion, open to a provincial legislature to attempt to neutralize or minimize the adverse effects of otherwise valid provincial legislation on human rights such as freedom of religion. (750-51)

There is nothing impossible about a Québec statute on secularism enacted notwithstanding the Charter being held invalid as a violation of the federal division of powers. The outcome will depend largely on the evidence and arguments related to the (real) purpose of the law. If those challenging the law were able to persuade the court that the purpose of (and not only the means taken by) the statute is religious in the legal, that is to say broad, sense of the term, and restrictive, the court could strike it down in whole or in part, notwithstanding its use of the notwithstanding clause.


I would only add a few comments. To begin with, following up on Professor St-Hilaire’s conclusion, it is important to note (as I already did in my original posts) that what might, to some, feel like a runaround to avoid the effects of the invocation of section 33 of the Canadian Charter is nothing of the sort. Some runarounds have been proposed in the last couple of days, for example by Louis-Philippe Lampron and Pierre Bosset, who suggest that unwritten constitutional principles can be invoked to impose limits on the legislature’s ability to invoke section 33. This is just not plausible. In British Columbia v Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd2005 SCC 49, [2005] 2 SCR 473, the Supreme Court made it clear unwritten principles cannot be used to make up perceived shortcomings in the scope of the Charter’s protections. This logic must apply to the “notwithstanding clause” as much as to the gaps in the Charter‘s substantive rights. By contrast, however, the limits on a provincial legislature’s legislative power that pre-existed the Charter remain intact and enforceable. Section 31 of the Charter itself tells us as much. It provides that “[n]othing in this Charter extends the legislative powers of any body or authority.” 

Next, I would argue that the purpose of Bill 21 is quite clearly religious, or rather anti-religious. These two things, as Professor St-Hilaire points out, are equivalent for constitutional purposes. The bill’s preamble proclaims that “it is incumbent on the Parliament of Québec to determine the principles according to which and manner in which relations between the State and religions are to be governed in Québec” and that “it is important that the paramountcy of State laicity be enshrined in Québec’s legal order”. Clause 1 provides that “The State of Québec is a lay State”. (Pro tip for the legislative draughtsman: “lay” is not a synonym of “secular”; this is another calque, just like “laicity”.) Clause 2 sets out “principles” on which “[t]he laicity [sic] of the State is based”, including “the separation of State and religions” and, supposedly, “the religious neutrality of the State”. (This is a rather transparent lie, since the bill would exclude religious individuals from a variety of functions within the purportedly neutral state.) And Bill 21’s centrepiece is, of course, Clause 6, which provides that various public employees and some contractors “are prohibited from wearing religious symbols in the exercise of their functions”. Only “religious symbols” ― not political ones, or those that have to do with any other aspect of people’s identities ― are targeted. This is a regulation of religion, and nothing else.

Consider, then, the arguments that the Québec government might make in defence of its legislation. The authority for it, if it exists at all, presumably comes from section 45 of the Constitution Act, 1982, or section 92(4) of the Constitution Act, 1867. The former provides that, subject to limitations that are not relevant here, “the legislature of each province may exclusively make laws amending the constitution of the province”. The latter grants the provinces power over “The Establishment and Tenure of Provincial Offices and the Appointment and Payment of Provincial Officers”. The scope of section 45’s predecessor provision, section 92(1) of the Constitution Act, 1867, was explained by Justice Beetz in his majority reasons in Ontario (Attorney General) v OPSEU, [1987] 2 SCR 2. To determine whether an enactment qualifies as an amendment to the constitution of the province, one must first ask:

is the enactment in question, by its object, relative to a branch of the government of Ontario … ? Does it for instance determine the composition, powers, authority, privileges and duties of the legislative or of the executive branches or their members? Does it regulate the interrelationship between two or more branches? Or does it set out some principle of government? (39)

However, even if the answer to this first question (or set of questions) is in the affirmative, one must keep in mind the restrictions on the provinces’ legislative authority imposed by the federal division of powers, and other limits imposed by the constitution of Canada as a whole. One can certainly argue that Bill 21 imposes duties on members of the three branches of Québec’s government, and sets out a “principle of government”. But if its true purpose is not so much to regulate the functioning of the provincial government as to compel religious non-observance, then it is still not valid legislation amending the provincial constitution. And I would add that, although the government might claim that it is not trying to prevent anyone from being religious outside of their working hours, religiosity is not something that can be switched off from 9AM to 5PM and then back on again. 

Indeed, Justice Beetz’s comments in OPSEU on section 92(4) are suggestive here. Justice Beetz wrote that limitations on civil servants’ political activity at both the federal and the provincial level “constitute a term or condition of tenure of provincial office, enforced by compulsory resignation or dismissal. Their object is to ensure in this respect, not partial virtue, but global political independence for provincial officers.” (48) One can certainly say that Bill 21’s limitations on religious expression are a term or condition of tenure of provincial office. But if the government argues that their object is to ensure not partial, but global irreligion on the part of its employees, then the proposition that Bill 21 is not aimed at banning religious observance should be a tough sell.


Quite apart from constitutional issues, Bill 21 is a disaster from the standpoint of political morality. It is a massive violation of religious liberty of those who already are, or might in the future like to become, employed by the Québec government or hold provincial office. While less discriminatory on its face than Québec’s previous attempts at a dress code, in that it purports to ban all religious symbols and not just “ostentatious” ones (i.e. the hijab, the kippah, and the turban, but not the cross worn by Catholics, lapsed or otherwise, who constitute the majority of Québec’s population), it still transparently invites discrimination. It seems unlikely, to say the least, that anyone will be looking for crosses under civil servants’ shirts. Hijabs, kippahs, and turbans, on the other hand… But the constitution, despite the Québec government’s attempt to shove it aside, might yet stand in the way of this iniquity.

Vancouver Event Next Week

Announcing another talk

As I noted earlier, I have been and will be speaking at a few Canadian law schools ― I did an event in Calgary 10 days ago, and will be doing a couple of joint appearances with Geoff Sigalet, a debate on the “notwithstanding clause” at McGill this Wednesday at 1PM and a discussion (with Grégoire Webber) on constitutional dialogue and Commonwealth bills of rights at Queen’s next Monday, also at 1PM. 

As it turns out, I will be doing another event (I hadn’t previously realized that it would be public) ― this one at UBC, on Wednesday, November 28, at 12:30PM, in the Fasken Classroom (room 122). I’ll be speaking about the undermining of the Rule of Law in Canadian constitutional law, and its consequent politicization, by such ideas and techniques as judicial deference and “constitutional dialogue”, the re-legitimation of the use of the “notwithstanding clause”, and “living tree” constitutional interpretation.

I am grateful to my friend Régine Tremblay and to her colleagues at UBC who have organized this talk, which I am very much looking forward to. Come along if you are able to, and please say hello if you do.