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.

Upcoming Canadian Talks

Events at Calgary, McGill, and Queen’s

After my little tour of Western Canada in September, I am back for some more events.

I start tomorrow at the University of Calgary, with a discussion of section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a.k.a. the Notwithstanding Clause. While I can’t promise any new and brilliant ideas—I think everything that there is to say on section 33 has been said long ago—the issue has been, and is likely to remain, in the news, and there seems to be a good deal of interest in it, however puzzling I personally might find it. The event, organized by the Runnymede Society, is scheduled for 12 noon, at the Faculty of Law, in room MFH3320.

On November 21, at 1PM, Geoff Sigalet and I will be debating section 33 at McGill Law. Dr. Sigalet and I have done this before (on that occasion, alongside Joanna Baron and Maxime St-Hilaire respectively), but perhaps recent developments will add some interest to the discussion. This too is a Runnymede event.

Finally, on November 26, I will be at Queen’s, joining Grégoire Webber and Dr. Sigalet for a discussion on constitutional dialogue and Commonwealth constitutions, co-organized by Queen’s Law and Runnymede. This will take place in Queen’s Moot Court room (300) from 1 to 2:30PM. Constitutional dialogue isn’t exactly a novel topic either, but, for my part, I might have some news to report regarding a decision of the Supreme Court of New Zealand in the prisoner voting case, in which the Court of Appeal explicitly referred to the notion of dialogue, a decision on which I blogged here, and then published a paper questioning the relevance of the notion of dialogue in polities where the constitution is not the supreme law of the land.

I hope that some of my readers will be able to make it to one (or more!) of these events. As always, come say hi if you are there!

The Dead Intent of the Framers

The tragedy of Doug Ford looks less like a tragedy after all, with the Court of Appeal for Ontario staying the decision of Justice Belobaba that ruled Ford’s planned council cut unconstitutional. The use of the notwithstanding clause is off the table, for now. But it would be hasty to move on too quickly. How academics and lawyers spoke about the planned use of the notwithstanding clause provides a window into how we justify and critique the use of state power.

For example, some 80 law school faculty across Canada came out against the Ford government’s planned invocation  of s.33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in an open letter. The faculty, relying on a strong-form version of originalism (original intent, long outdated as a form of originalist reasoning), argue that Premier Ford transgressed the intention of the Charter’s framers:

The framers of the Constitution included the notwithstanding clause as a compromise to achieve consensus. But, they firmly believed that the notwithstanding clause would only be used in exceptional circumstances. This has indeed been the case since the Charter’s enactment in 1982.

If the excerpt above seems an insignificant part of the letter, the faculty use the original intent of the (yet undefined framers) to define a political norm that governs the frequency of use of the notwithstanding clause.

In 36 years, the notwithstanding clause has rarely been used. Liberal governments, NDP governments and Conservative governments at the federal and provincial levels have all been extremely reluctant to use the notwithstanding clause. Faced with judicial decisions declaring legislation unconstitutional, governments in Canada have sought alternative ways of bringing their laws into compliance with the Charter. This is precisely what the framers of the Constitution had hoped and predicted. The notwithstanding clause was only to be used in the most exceptional circumstances.

The faculty, to their credit, do not attack the legality of Ford’s planned use of the notwithstanding clause. So long as the form requirements are met, the notwithstanding clause can be invoked. Rather, they seek to define, using framers’ intent, the political boundaries that should govern this extraordinary power.

At first blush, I agree that the invocation of the notwithstanding clause should be subject to political norms and should be critically examined by citizens. There should be a justification of the use of the notwithstanding clause. This is different from the sort of legal restriction on statutory decision-making explained in Roncarelli v Duplessis. In an administrative law sense, state power is subject to the law, and the exercise of powers contemplated by statute are controlled by that statute.  That analogy is ill-fitting for a power unrooted to statute that exists in the text of Constitution itself. Nonetheless, one can meaningfully argue that a political norm of justification should accompany the use of the override. As I’ve said in this space before, Premier Ford has failed on this score.

The interesting part of the faculty letter, though, is not the substantive argument. Rather, it is the analytical footpath. The faculty seek to call up the live hands of Jean Chretien et al who “framed” the Charter to support their point of view. In fact, Chretien, former Ontario Attorney General  Roy McMurtry, and former Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow (the individuals who bartered the notwithstanding clause into the Charter through the famous Kitchen Accord) have come out to say that  the notwithstanding clause should only be used “in exceptional situations, and only as a last resort.”

It is surprising that a fairly large contingent of the Canada law professoriate endorse the proposition that the intent of the framers should mean anything in this case. Others have written about the problems with original intent originalism—determining the class of relevant “framers,” determining how to mediate between different intents among these “framers,” determining the level of generality at which intent is expressed, and the list goes on. These practical problems underline a broader theoretical problem–why, in a normative sense, should the views of Jean Chretien et al bind us today? How can we be assured that these “framers” are speaking on behalf of the meaning adopted by Parliament and the legislatures?

Even if we should accept that this intent leads to the acceptance of the relevant political norms, there is no evidence offered in the letter that other potential “framers” of the Charter shared the view of Chretien, Romanow, and McMurtry as to the use of the notwithstanding clause. For example, Brian Peckford (former Premier of Newfoundland who apparently presented the proposal of the provinces to Prime Minister Trudeau), wrote a piece arguing that Premier Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause was perfectly appropriate. He made no mention of any understanding or political commitment on the part of any other Premiers or parties as to the expected use of the notwithstanding clause. In this sense, the framers’ intent means nothing; it is dead in terms of helping to interpret even the political norms surrounding the use of the notwithstanding clause.

This is a dangerous form of originalist reasoning adopted by the faculty, and should be used sparingly with appropriate caution. It is open to abuse. Lawrence Solum argues that theories of originalism have two features (1) fixation and (2) constraint. That is, the meaning of a constitutional provision is fixed at the time of framing; and in terms of original meaning originalism, the original public meaning of the constitutional text constrains the constitutional practice of courts. To my mind, the sort of originalism relied on by the faculty fails to both fixate and constrain constitutional meaning, precisely because there is at least an open question as to the expected legal and political practice of the notwithstanding clause. There is even a question as to who should fit into the relevant class of framers, and who should not. In this sense, the form of originalist reasoning invited by the faculty is not, in substance, different from living tree constitutionalism—unfixed and unconstrained. It is an invitation to dress up the desired political outcomes of its proponents with the imprimatur of a legal doctrine.

Putting aside the faculty focus on political norms, if framers’ intent is accepted as an appropriate doctrinal model, the debate in courts will focus on which particular framers support one side of a case or another. Will some lawyers introduce affidavit evidence from Jean Chretien? Another side, Brian Peckford? Rather than focusing on the meaning of words in their context—their original meaning—framers’ intent will incentivize lawyers to spin historical tales, told through the intent of those whose view may not actually represent the state of the law.

That said, we shouldn’t bristle at the opening provided by the faculty. There is, perhaps for the first time, a willingness to accept forms of originalism. If the faculty intended to fix the constitutional political practice of the notwithstanding clause at the time of framing, that intent is better vindicated by original meaning (to the extent it can be discerned) precisely because it fixes and constrains. Of course, a rational person would rather bet on a system of rules that prevents political hijacking of legal interpretation, because political power can be wielded in any direction. A safer gamble—a better methodology—is a form of doctrine less amenable to political reasoning. Given the faculty acceptance of some model along these lines, I look forward to seeing how a focus on fixation and constraint can influence other areas of the Charter.

Toronto v Ontario: A Remedy Seeking a Right

Constitutional politics and the notwithstanding clause

Yesterday, Justice Belobaba of the Ontario Superior Court released his decision on the Ford government’s plan (“Bill 5”) to cut Toronto City Council in half, deciding that it infringed the s.2(b) Charter right to freedom of expression. In response, Ford announced his government would reconvene the legislature and pass a bill to invoke the so-called “notwithstanding” clause of the Charter, under which Charter rights can be “overridden” (though this word isn’t used in the text) for a period of five years.

It was an eventful day all around, and there were many comments from people more qualified than I to speak on freedom of expression, the notwithstanding clause, and the interaction between the two. I will, however, comment on two points in this sordid saga: (1) the conflation of s.2(b) and s.3 of the Charter in Justice Belobaba’s decision; (2) the notwithstanding clause

Freedom of Expression in the Electoral Context

First, to the decision. Justice Belobaba began the analysis by properly noting that the question was “not whether Bill 5 is unfair. The question is whether the enactment is unconstitutional” [7]. But just as quickly, Justice Belobaba ultimately concluded that the province had “clearly crossed the line” [9] because (1) Bill 5 was enacted in the middle of an election campaign and (2) it doubled the population size of wards in the city, breaching a voter’s right to “effective representation” [20]. On the timing issue, Justice Belobaba concluded that the freedom of expression right was impacted because of “confusion” and “uncertainty” owing to Bill 5 [30]. The ultimate conclusion was that “…the candidate’s ability to effectively communicate his or her political message to the relevant voters” was impacted by Bill 5.

While I won’t dwell on the point, this seems a stretch. Section 2(b) is broad and the Supreme Court rightly affirms the particular importance of political speech (see Libman, at para 31). But it doesn’t guarantee a right to expression in perfect circumstances—nor does it proscribe government conduct that could make political speech “ineffective.” The fundamental question under s.2 is whether a government law “limits” speech. There is a distinction between effectiveness of speech and freedom of speech; the latter is a necessary condition, the former is not. If courts begin to delve into the messy business of striking down government laws that merely affect the effectiveness of speech, the Charter could end up restricting the marketplace of ideas in ways that are typically repugnant to a liberal order. Practically, it also means that in some cases the court will need to determine whether a law renders speech “ineffective,” which would require some fairly metaphysical evidentiary standards, not to mention a voyage into the content of the speech. It is even more difficult to prove an infringement in cases where, as here, the purported restriction speaks only to the environment (confusion and uncertainty) in which candidates campaign, not to legal restrictions on the political campaigns and voters themselves, such as in the typical s.2(b) electoral cases: BC FIPA, Thomson Newspapers, Libman.

I’m more concerned with the second finding in the decision—the essential application of s.3 of the Charter concerning voting rights in a case where it does not apply. Section 3 textually reads that it applies to voting for federal and provincial representatives. Under the purposive approach to constitutional interpretation, the purpose of s.3 is to guarantee “effective representation” (Reference Re Prov Electoral Boundaries) in these fora. Mathematical parity is not the test, but what constitutes effective representation appears to be a fraught question. But in this case, against the backdrop of one affidavit, Justice Belobaba concluded that the expressive right to vote for effective representation had been breached because the ward population size had been doubled [51, 60]. This is fundamentally the language of s.3, not s.2(b). Justice Belobaba, to his credit, is alive to this concern. He ultimately concludes that voting is a form of expression rendered ineffective by Bill 5, and whether or not it is rooted in s.3, it can be transposed to the s.2(b) context [43 et seq]. But here again we get into the business of effectiveness—especially what constitutes an effective vote. The language is striking, calling to mind a category mistake; should we be in the business of assigning value to votes based on resulting effectiveness?

Regardless, s.2(b) and s.3 are distinct Charter guarantees. They have distinct purposes, with “effective representation” being the purpose of s.3. While these purposes may sometimes overlap, it seems to me that the purposive approach to Charter interpretation has to insist on some analytical distinction between the rights to be of any use. If rights are to be interpreted in their “historic, political, and philosophic” context, surely that purposive context changes with the right in question. This has particular implications for the relationship between Charter rights and s.1 of the Charter. As Peter Hogg notes in his important article, how we construe Charter rights at the infringement stage has implications for the s.1 stage. If a right is construed broadly at the first stage (the purpose is construed broadly), then we leave s.1 for more work to do. Similarly, a right that is characterized with a narrow purpose may leave less work for s.1. This is a rough-and-ready purposive analysis, but it means that regularly mixing and matching Charter rights can have consequences for the evidence required to prove a Charter breach, the evidence required to sustain one, and the intensity of review that courts apply to particular infringements.

There is also the obvious problem here of essentially applying a Charter guarantee where it doesn’t apply to municipalities (despite Justice Belobaba’s comments regarding Haig, I think he fundamentally imported s.3). I call this “constitutional substitution.” It means that a court, seeking to vindicate a result that seems unfair or unjust in the abstract, massages a chosen constitutional right that will best achieve that result. It is perhaps an uncommon phenomenon, but it is present in this decision—s.3 does not apply, s.2(b) does. While I’m alive to the idea that the s.2(b) electoral cases could implicate s.3, those cases dealt with different legislative schemes that, again, directly impacted/limited the ability of participants in the political system to participate (ie) through financial restrictions.

I don’t mean to advocate for a “watertight compartments” approach to Charter rights, in part because I think the reality of constitutional facts makes this difficult. That said, as Mike Pal very aptly noted, we have no real doctrinal means to deal with overlap of constitutional rights as opposed to the reconciliation of rights. We should start from the premise that the Charter lists distinct guarantees that the Supreme Court has insisted should be interpreted with distinct purposes. From there, we deal with the hard cases that arise where rights overlap, such as in the case of s.2(b) and s.3. And this isn’t the only area of the Constitution where rights can overlap—the recent Ktunaxa ruling demonstrates a contested area between the freedom of religion guarantee and Aboriginal rights under s.35. While each overlap may have to be resolved differently, some unified principles would be helpful.

Brief Comments on the Notwithstanding Clause

I can’t do much to add to the already booming discussion on the notwithstanding clause. I for one accept its legitimacy as part of the constitutional order, in part because of the evidence that it formed a part of the pact leading to the Charter, adopted itself by our elected representatives and because one part of the Constitution cannot be breached by another. The notwithstanding clause is a power that can be used by elected officials assuming they follow the form requirements set out in the Ford case (no relation).

I will venture two points. First, simply because the notwithstanding clause is legitimate itself doesn’t mean that it can’t be misused illegitimately. The exercise of state power—even a constitutionally entrenched power—does not operate in a vacuum. We should expect a duty of good-faith in a constitutional democracy to attach to the use of such powers; put differently, and without entering the foray into constitutional conventions, we should expect elected officials to abide by constitutional norms as they are defined.

Part of this norm, given the atrophied s.33, should be a public justification for the use of the extraordinary override. The populist justification put forward by Premier Ford is lacking for this reason. No one says that the seminal Ford case compels Premier Ford to do anything but pass a properly formed bill. But in a deliberative, representative democracy, we should expect leaders to justify their use of extraordinary state power, especially as it applies to the override of constitutional rights, themselves adopted by legislative actors. As James Madison wrote in the Federalist No. 10, we expect in a representative democracy that our leaders will not appeal to factions (as in a direct democracy) but to the highest ideals of the legal order.

A second point about the notwithstanding clause, especially on constitutional substitution. The effect of Justice Belobaba’s ruling is to open the door to the use of the notwithstanding clause on s.3 of the Charter, the essence of his legal findings. Yet this is doubly prohibited by the Constitution. As I say above, s.3 only applies to Parliament and the legislatures and at any rate cannot be overridden by the notwithstanding clause. Though Justice Belobaba framed his findings under s.2(b), his ultimate conclusion was framed in the right to effective representation that would be infringed by having councilors who cannot respond to voter complaints [57]. He was most concerned with being able “to cast a vote that can result in meaningful and effective representation” [59]. This is in substance a finding under s.3. Yet by framing the finding under s.2(b), Justice Belobaba opens the door both to the application of s.3 to municipalities and to the use of the notwithstanding clause against, in essence, a s.3 finding. If we accept that the right to effective representation is infringed, we should worry about the notwithstanding clause’s use here.

Vote ‘em out

I offer these comments tentatively, largely because we are in unchartered waters. At the same time, two final points. First, I disagree with those who say this is a constitutional crisis. Constitutions are meant to be durable, to withstand pressure by those seeking to break constitutional norms, or even the inadvertent pressure of complacence. In some ways (putting aside the constitutional substitution concern) this is a textbook case of the court issuing a ruling and the government responding.

Second, I think the best way to understand Justice Belobaba’s ruling is to conclude that he saw a wrong, fashioned a remedy, and hooked it to a right. On most accounts, though the duty of procedural fairness does not attach to acts of the legislature, there was something unfair about the way in which Bill 5 was introduced and the context of the Premier’s contentious relationship with Toronto Council. Most likely this was an arbitrary decision by the Premier. In the face of this unfairness, Justice Belobaba found a way to get around the problem of s.3 by applying s.2(b) and by stretching the meaning of s.2(b) itself. I do not see this as a proper response to legislative unfairness. The best responses are for PC MPPs to oust Ford, or for the voters to do so.

Things I Dislike about the Constitution

10 problems with the Canadian constitution (according to its original meaning)

In an interesting Volokh Conspiracy post, Ilya Somin provides a “list of several areas where … the Constitution [of the United States] gets important issues badly wrong”. This is in response to concerns that (American) originalists, most of whom tend to be conservatives or libertarians, come to their position on how to interpret (their) constitution because they think that originalism yields results consonant with their political views. As Professor Somin notes, “[s]imilar charges, of course, are often made against living constitutionalists, who have long been accused of just coming up with ways to constitutionalize their (mostly liberal) political views”. But, even if one’s work is focused on those areas where one’s political and constitutional views are aligned, for any principled person there are likely to be areas where this alignment break down.

Here are some of mine (for the Canadian constitution of course, not the American one). It is a very tentative list. That’s partly due to my ignorance in some areas, especially that of Aboriginal law, and partly because there simply hasn’t been enough work done on the originalist interpretation of the Canadian constitution. There is still less written on the correct originalist approach to non-textual constitutional rules (notably constitutional conventions and principles) and also to provisions that are spent or obsolete and yet have never been excised from the constitutional text (notably sections 55-57 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which provide for the intervention of the UK government in the Canadian legislative process, and which I have simply ignore here).

Anyway, this is a start. The list, after the first two items, is more or less in the order in which things come up if you read the Constitution Acts 1867 and 1982.

* * *

1. What is the constitution of Canada?

Let’s us start with the most conceptually fundamental problem. Section 52(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 provides that “[t]he Constitution of Canada includes” a number of legislative instruments, notably the Constitution Acts, 18671982. The word “includes”, as the Supreme Court has correctly recognized, means that the list it introduces is not exhaustive. So what else is part of the “Constitution of Canada”? I doubt that the term “constitution” has an unambiguous original public meaning, given its fluidity in the Westminster tradition, which the existence of constitutional texts in Canada only compounds.

This is a big problem, because it is “the Constitution of Canada” that, by virtue of section 52(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982, “is the supreme law of Canada”, invalidating any other inconsistent law, and by the (self-referential) terms of section 52(3) can only be amended “in accordance with the authority contained in the Constitution of Canada”? Section 52(2) fails to provide useful guidance on an issue of fundamental importance in our constitutional law. Ideally, it should be amended to clarify what is, and what is not subject to sections 52(1) and 52(3), in particular among Imperial legislation such as the Bill of Rights 1688, as well as “unwritten” constitutional rules and principles.

2. Parliamentary sovereignty

My biggest philosophical problem with the Canadian constitution is that, subject to the federal division of powers and the specific restrictions on legislative power found mostly in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, it is underpinned by the traditional view of Parliamentary sovereignty.  As much as I would like the constitution to include something like a Barnettian “presumption of liberty“, and whether or not such a presumption exists under the Constitution of the United States, correctly interpreted, it is a thing alien to the Westminster tradition as it evolved in the 18th and 19th centuries. I don’t think there is or can be any serious dispute about that.

Under the Canadian constitution, subject to the aforementioned limitations, Parliament and the legislatures are free to enact laws that benefit some people at the expense of others or are otherwise  not rational means to advance the public interest. Now, these limitations are not insignificant. They would be more important still if the courts interpreted them correctly, instead of letting their pro-regulatory bias dictate their decisions, as the Supreme Court recently did in R v Comeau, 2018 SCC 15, and if they adhered to the original requirement of exclusivity in the federal division of powers. Nevertheless, the scope of legislative power under the Canadian constitution is much too broad.

Parliamentary sovereignty is also pernicious because it is, paradoxically, the constitutional foundation of the administrative state. While I would not yet concede the constitutionality of judicial deference to administrative decision-makers, Parliamentary sovereignty is the best argument for it. And there is no doubt that Parliamentary sovereignty is the justification for the delegation of considerable legislative and adjudicative powers to administrative decision-makers in the first place. Whatever limits on such delegation might exist as a matter of the constitution’s original public meaning ― a subject that I would love to see explored ― I strongly suspect (based notably on decisions made by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, whose outlook was more or less originalist), that any such limits are pretty broad. Thus, even if constitution, properly understood, is more constraining than the courts now recognize, Parliamentary sovereignty means that Canadian legislatures are entitled to create an extensive administrative state ― and that’s bad  for the liberty of the subject, the accountability of government, and the Rule of Law.

3. Lack of proportional representation of the provinces in the House of Commons

Proportional representation of the provinces was one of the key aims of Confederation, and it is seemingly enshrined in sections 52 of the Constitution Act, 1867, and 42(1)(a) of the Constitution Act, 1982. Yet this principle is qualified by sections 51 and 51A of the Constitution Act, 1867 and 41(b) of the Constitution Act, 1982, to ensure that the representation of small provinces is not reduced. The result is that small provinces are over-represented, and also that the size of the House of Commons keeps increasing, and will likely have to keep increasing in perpetuity, since this is the only way to dilute this over-representation. I do not particularly like either of these things, but there they are, doubtless a necessary if unprincipled political compromise.

4. Lack of recognition of municipal institutions

While the Constitution Act, 1867 has served us well ― for the most part, as noted below ― in maintaining a robust division of powers between the Dominion and the provinces, but this is probably not enough. The kerfuffle about the imposition by Ontario of a downsizing on Toronto’s municipal council, which I take it has the support of pretty much nobody in the city, is only the latest evidence for the proposition that municipal self-government ought to enjoy at least some constitutional protection from provincial interference. While I do not know just what this protections should take, and do not argue that municipalities ought to be recognized as a full-blown third order of government, the situation in which they can be interfered with at will, for good reasons, bad reasons, and no reasons, seems undesirable. Yet as things stand, municipalities are subject to the provinces’ plenary power under section 92(8) of the Constitution Act, 1867, and the right to vote in municipal elections is not protected by section 3 of the Charter, which by its clear terms only applies to “election[s] of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly” of a province. The ongoing litigation between Toronto and Ontario may yet see the courts accept some of the city’s strained constitutional arguments, but I do not think that there is any serious claim that the constitution’s original public meaning prevents the province from doing what it did, however unwise its decision was.

5. Taxation provisions

My thoughts here are  tentative, because I am by no means an expert on tax law, or even on just its constitutional aspects. I take it, however, is that the distinction between “direct” and “indirect” taxes that forms the basis of section 92(2) of the Constitution Act, 1867 and is ― as decisions of both the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and the Supreme Court recognize ― based on economic views prevailing at the time that legislation was enacted, is obsolete. The Supreme Court is right to try to stick with the original meaning of the constitution taxation provisions, but it would probably be a good thing if these provisions were amended to reflect more up-to-date economic concepts ― and, ideally, provide a clearer distinction between the respective sources of income of the federal and provincial governments.

6. Trade and commerce

Here too my thoughts are somewhat tentative, but there are ways in which the federal power over trade and commerce inmight be both too broad and too narrow. For one thing, like Professor Somin, I lament the indubitable constitutionality of tariffs. Professor Somin writes that “[a] well-designed Constitution would at the very least make it far more difficult to enact trade barriers than ours does” ― but the Canadian constitution, by this standard, is no better than the American one. Section 122 of the Constitution Act, 1867 clearly authorizes Parliament to enact “Customs and Excise law”. At the same time,  section 91(2) of the Constitution Act, 1867 is arguably too narrow in that, read together with section 92(13), it leaves securities law, to provincial jurisdiction (as the Supreme Court correctly found in Reference re Securities Act, 2011 SCC 66, [2011] 3 SCR 837). Again I am no expert, but I take it that federal power in this area is widely regarded as desirable. It is worth noting that on the whole Canada has been well served by the decentralized division of powers embodied in sections 91 and 92 of the Constitution Act, 1867. But, while generally sound, this division is not perfect.

7. Lack of protections for judicial independence

The Canadian constitution has relatively little to say about judicial independence. The Judicature provisions of the Constitution Act, 1867 incorporate the rule of the Act of Settlement 1700 that the judges of the superior courts can only be removed by the Crown on address of the two houses of Parliament, and it is at least arguable that the convention that no such address would be moved except on grounds of misbehaviour or incapacity is part of the context in which this provision must be understood. The Constitution Act, 1867 also provides for the payment of these judges by Parliament, but seems to provide no protection against the reduction of judicial salaries, let alone any requirement for salaries to be set through some non-political process. Of course it does not apply to the judges of federal or provincial courts. Section 11(d) of the Charter provides a right to trial by an “independent and impartial tribunal” to persons “charged with an offence”, but does not specify what this means; nor does it guarantee the independence of judges who do not exercise criminal jurisdiction.

I would like to see more research into the original public meaning of the term “independent tribunal” as it is used by the Charter and into its good faith construction, but I am pretty skeptical that the Charter requires the sort of independent commissions for setting judicial salaries that the Supreme Court’s opinion in the Provincial Judges Reference, [1997] 3 SCR 3, demands. I am still more skeptical of the appropriateness of reading extensive protections for judicial independence, including for courts not covered by the Charter, into the constitution through the unwritten principle of judicial independence. Yet I also think that such protections are highly desirable. If I were re-writing the Canadian constitution, I would provide such protections for all courts ― superior, federal, and provincial alike. The weakness of existing constitutional provisions in this respect is somewhat embarrassing.

8. Lack of protections for economic liberty

The Charter does not protect property rights, freedom of contract, or the right to earn a living by lawful means of one’s choosing ― except the latter against discrimination “among persons primarily on the basis of province of present or previous residence”. As I’ve argued in the past (here and here), this is very unfortunate. As Professor Somin, among others, often points out, the absence or weakness of constitutional protections for property rights or economic freedom often causes the poorest and most politically disfavoured or excluded members of society to be disproportionately targeted by the state or by private interests who are able to use their political connections to put its coercive power at their own service. It is most unfortunate that the framers of the Charter failed to understand this. Indeed, if I had to rank my objections to the constitution in order of their practical signifiance, this one would probably be at the top of the list.

9. Protection for affirmative action

Section 15(2) of the Charter insulates affirmative action or positive discrimination programmes from scrutiny based on the Charter‘s equality guarantee. This is not the place for a full argument, but I don’t like this one bit. Discrimination is still discriminatory even if its present targets belong to groups that historically were perpetrators rather than victims. If exclusion based on innate characteristics is demeaning, then job postings that say that straight white men need not apply are demeaning. The framers of the Charter were wrong to tolerate such practices.

10. The “Notwithstanding Clause”

I’ve written a good deal about this one already: see here, here, here, and here. In a nutshell, I don’t think that allowing politicians to set aside constitutional protections for fundamental rights is a good idea. Of course, courts can err by expanding these protections beyond their original scope, or by failing to recognize the reasonableness of legislative limitations. But in my view the expected costs of legislative error are much higher than those of judicial error. Yet there is no question that section 33 of the Charter, which permits Parliament and legislatures to legislate “notwithstanding” some of the rights the Charter normally protects is part of the law of the constitution, and I don’t think that there is yet a convention against its use, even at the federal level, let alone in some of the provinces.

* * *

This is a fairly lengthy list, and some of the items on it reach deep into the constitutional structure ― rather deeper, I think, than Professor Somin’s objections. Why, then, should I, or anyone, be an originalist, and insist that our flawed constitution is to be applied by the courts in accordance with its original public meaning, instead of urging the courts to make it just? Because, as Jeffrey Pojanowski argues, we should not be too demanding of constitutions. It is unrealistic to expect perfection, even if we believe that such a thing is conceptually possible. We should set our sights lower:

even if one has moral qualms about particular provisions of the constitution, any constitutional regime that passes a threshold of moral respectability has a moral claim to our support and respect. (586)

But for a morally respectable constitutional regime to serve as a law capable of guiding the expectations and conduct of citizen and government alike, its terms

must be known and reasonably durable. Were the constitution’s legal norms treated as merely good advice, a polity would not enjoy the moral benefits that positive law exists to provide in the first place … If one does not seek to identify and treat the original law of the constitution as binding, one imperils the moral benefits constitutionalism exists to offer the polity. We are back to square one, adrift in a sea of competing, unentrenched norms. (586-87)

The Canadian constitution is imperfect but, despite the shortcomings identified in this post, I think it easily passes the moral respectability threshold. So it deserves to be treated as law and not just as advice, good or bad according to the whims of the Supreme Court.

Chekhov’s Gun

Why Dwight Newman’s defence of the Charter’s notwithstanding clause is unpersuasive

Anton Chekhov liked to say that “one must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off”. And conversely, once the rifle is part of the set, then go off it must. But must this theatrical directive apply to constitutional law? Some evidently think so―at least when it comes to the “notwithstanding clause” of the Canadian  Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Dwight Newman in a National Post op-ed, and Gerard Kennedy in a post for Advocates for the Rule of Law, are the latest of those who have ventured this opinion in the wake of Saskatchewan’s decision to invoke the “notwithstanding clause” to continue funding the education of non-Catholics at Catholic “separate” schools, despite a court finding that this is unconstitutional. Their arguments are no more persuasive than those I considered in my previous post on this topic.

Professor Newman notes that “[t]he notwithstanding clause was a vital part of the constitutional negotiations that led to the Charter being adopted in 1982. Without it, some provinces were unwilling to come on board.” In his view, “[t]hose who argue that the notwithstanding clause is somehow illegitimate actually bear the onus of explaining how the rest of the Charter would be legitimate without it”. But the fact that the existence of a legal power was a necessary part of a constitutional compromise does not justify the use of such a power. The federal power of disallowance over provincial legislation was a necessary part of the compromise that made Confederation possible, yet using it now would violate a firm constitutional convention. Does Professor Newman think that opposing the use of this power involves thinking that sections 91 and 92 of the Constitution Act, 1867 are illegitimate too?

Professor Newman adds wants to bolster the propriety of using the “notwithstanding clause” by pointing out that “[i]t tracked a similar clause in the 1960 Canadian Bill of Rights … and was an important clause in bringing together different constitutional traditions”. Yet although they are worded similarly, section 33 of the Charter and section 2 of the Canadian Bill of Rights have very different functions. The Charter‘s notwithstanding clause makes it possible to deny some of its provisions the status of Supreme Law that they would otherwise have by virtue of subsection 52(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982. By contrast, the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Bill of Rights serves to protect it against implied repeal by subsequent legislation, and thus to elevate what would otherwise be an ordinary statute to what has been described as “quasi-constitutional” status. Though they can both be described as reconciling the protection of individual rights with Parliamentary sovereignty, the two notwithstanding clauses are thus motivated by opposite concerns. That of the Canadian Bill of Rights is rights-protecting; the Charter‘s is legislation-protecting.

Professor Newman makes some substantive criticisms of the court decision Saskatchewan wishes to override. I hope that I will be able to return to them later on. Suffice it to say that I am still of the view, expressed here, that the decision on the issue of religious freedom was quite obviously correct. Professor Newman also claims that those who criticize Saskatchewan’s use of the notwithstanding clause “miss the realities of governing”―notably the need to prevent the uncertainty about the eventual application of the court decision, indeed the “chaos” that would result from its application. Of course, uncertainty is not eliminated, but merely postponed by invoking the notwithstanding clause, which has to be renewed every five years. More importantly though, as I have already explained, the government has a way to avoid creating “chaos” while complying with the constitution. It only needs to fund all non-public schools equally, without discrimination in favour of Catholic ones.

More importantly still, the “realities of governing” objection, and the concern about uncertainty, could be applied to any number of Charter decisions. Uncertainty has followed the Supreme Court’s decisions declaring unconstitutional the blanket ban on assisted suicide and extreme trial delays, for instance, to name only two. If uncertainty, or public concern, is enough to set aside a judicial decision about rights, then we should drop the pretense of having a judicially enforced Charter of Rights, and go back to the good pre-1982 days of Parliamentary sovereignty. Mr. Kennedy is perhaps more forthright about this, arguing that anyone “who seeks to have a court expand”―or simply declare―”the meaning of Charter rights must be prepared to have the scope of those rights subsequently narrowed by the legislature”.

This is really the heart of the debate. Do we want a judicially enforced constitution, or should we go back to Parliamentary sovereignty? I’m not saying, by the way, that turning the clock back to 1982 would be some sort of catastrophe. Canada was a free country in 1982―albeit a free country where the Lord’s Day Act was good, unassailable law. New Zealand, which does not have rights protections enforceable against Parliament, is a free country, freer than Canada in some ways, though not in others. I think that abandoning judicially enforced rights would be a step backwards, which is why I am so critical of those who want to do it, but it would not be a step into the abyss.

But even though it would not be a crazy thing to do, giving up on judicial enforcement of constitutionally guaranteed rights would involve a substantial change to our constitutional arrangements. Professor Newman claims that those opposed to the use of the “notwithstanding clause” “may be wedded to a different vision of Canada—one oriented only to individualistic rights”. But in truth, however exactly we count them, uses of the “notwithstanding clause” have been a marginal phenomenon for 29 years, ever since Québec gave in to nationalist protests to prevent the use of English in advertising. Professor Newman’s individualistic dystopia is actually our reality. It is he and his fellows, not Andrew Coyne or I, who are “wedded to a different vision of Canada” from that in which we live.

Ostensibly, Professor Newman and Mr. Kennedy might not see themselves as advocating a complete de facto reversal of the 1982 constitutional settlement as it has been implemented by political actors as well as courts over 35 years. They might think that they are only defending occasional uses of the notwithstanding clause in response to particularly problematic judicial decisions. But as I’ve explained before, I do not think there is a 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.

As Chekhov knew, placing a loaded rifle on the stage creates an unstable situation. A good dramatist will resolve the instability with a bang―and probably some casualties. But 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. As for constitutional critics, they should not be cheering for the most theatrical resolution. They might enjoy a drama, but when the shots are fired, they are likely to be aimed at the audience.