A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Pipeline…

The Rule of Law need not be exclusively the rule of courts. But in order for a society to be governed by the Rule of Law, even those who advocate a “thick” conception of the Rule of Law say that we need an impartial system of courts (see Tom Bingham, “The Rule of Law”; and relatedly, Trial Lawyers, at para 38). Concomitantly, the Rule of Law is not simply Rule by Law; I posit that the Rule of Law also requires a culture of respect for the law by those engaging in the court system. What happens when litigants try to, in service of their own goals, get around orders of a court?

A saga in the Federal Court of Appeal is showing the results. The Trans-Mountain expansion project is a controversial pipeline expansion project that has caused a great deal of consternation among environmental and Aboriginal groups. A number of these groups challenged the legality of the government’s decision to approve the expansion project in the Federal Court of Appeal. In Raincoast Conservation Foundation v Canada (Attorney General), 2019 FCA 224 [Raincoast Conservation I],the Court granted leave to some of these groups to launch a judicial review of the Governor in Council’s approval only on certain issues; other groups were denied leave altogether. The order in Raincoast Conservation I was clear.

And yet, some groups sought to get around the order. Namely, Tsleil-Waututh First Nation tried to raise issues that were not included in the “permissible issues” that Raincoast Conservation I allowed. Tsleil-Waututh explained that it was attempting to appeal Raincoast Conservation I (on restricted issues) to the Federal Court of Appeal, even though the decision in Raincoast Conservation I was rendered by a judge of that same court (Stratas JA). In Ignace v Canada (Attorney General), 2019 FCA 239, Stratas JA held that appeals cannot be made from the Federal Court of Appeal to the Federal Court of Appeal, because there was no statutory mechanism to allow for such appeals.

But Raincoast attempted to appeal Raincoast Conservation I (on denial of leave) in the face of Ignace, to the Federal Court of Appeal. In Raincoast Conservation Foundation v Canada (Attorney General), 2019 FCA 259 [Raincoast Conservation II], the Court (sitting in a panel of three) rebuffed Raincoast’s attempt to basically relitigate issues already decided by the Court.

The Court rested its conclusions on three main premises. First, the appellants argued that the Federal Court of Appeal, as a statutory court, has all the powers necessarily implied in order to exercise its jurisdiction. This, said the appellants, entitled the Federal Court of Appeal (a statutory court) to hear an appeal from itself. But the Court rejected this somewhat bizarre assertion, holding that the Federal Court of Appeal, as a statutory court, would have to be vested with “some statutory language to support an implication that this Court can somehow hear an appeal from itself…” [8]. There was no such language. Second, the Court chastised the appellants for attempting to bring its own policy views into the appeal [10-12]. Namely,

 In their representations, the appellants set out policy views, some of which they unsuccessfully asserted in Raincoast Conservation, above, and urge them again upon us, perhaps in the hope that we might depart from Ignace. They want the National Energy Board’s environmental reports to be brought to court immediately by way of judicial review rather than waiting for the Governor in Council’s overall decision on approval. They want the standards in the Species at Risk Act, S.C. 2002, c. 29 and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012, S.C. 2012, c. 19, s. 52 to foreclose the Governor in Council from approving a project, rather than to be just factors the Governor in Council weighs in its public interest decision. They want to appeal from this Court to this Court because the Supreme Court seldom grants leave to appeal. They want the decision of a single judge “in a case of this importance” to be fully reviewable, not “immunized from appeal”.

To the Court, none of these policy views “are the policies Parliament has chosen to implement in its law. We must apply Parliament’s law, not the personal policy views urged by the parties or our own personal views…” [11]. As the Court said, “[t]he policy choices expressed by Parliament in its 2012 law no doubt frustrate the appellants and others. But they should express their frustration in at the ballot box or by other lawful and democratic means—not by relitigating points already decided” [16].

Finally, the Court sensibly tied all of this to the Rule of Law:

I appreciate that the appellants and others are passionate about their causes and dedicated to them. But passion and dedication can never justify disrespect for the rule of law. The rule of law requires those seeking the judgment of the Court to accept the judgment of the Court even when it is not to their liking.

The Court, for these reasons, terminated the appeal.

Why does any of this matter? I think there are a number of reasons why the Court’s order here is important. For one, it is an important statement about creative arguments that attempt to add-on to powers that are statutory in nature. Indeed, it is true that the Supreme Court has said that statutory actors such as the Federal Courts require certain powers “beyond the express language of its enabling statute” to perform its intended functions: see Bell Canada, [1989] 1 SCR 1722. This is just common sense. Courts require certain implied powers to manage process, for example. But this does not entitle the appellants in this case to say that a right of appeal—a statutory creation—exists where it clearly and simply does not in the relevant statutes. To make this argument invites courts to supplement clear statutory omissions with whatever the Court might feel is right and proper. This is an unwelcome twist on the basic hierarchy of laws—especially since the Supreme Court has held that a right of appeal is purely a matter of parliamentary will (Kourtessis, at 69: “Appeals are solely creatures of statute”), not a constitutional requirement of the Rule of Law: see Medovarski, at para 47.

Second, the Court sensibly rebuffed arguments by the appellants that would, in essence, replace Parliament’s law governing pipeline approvals with an alternative system. Such a system would permit, among other things, (1) early challenges to environmental reports, rather than the current system, which only permits judicial review of the Governor-in-Council’s final decision to approve; and (2) the introduction of standards set out in other statutes as mandatory considerations that could “foreclose the Governor-in-Council from approving a project” [10]. These might all be good ideas. But all of these proposals run counter to the law Parliament chose to instantiate the approval process for pipelines. The remedy for the appellants is not a collateral attack on Parliament’s process, but the ballot box, where they can vote in people who wish to make their preferred policy proposal a reality.

One could argue that the Federal Court of Appeal’s own jurisprudence permits the appellants’ preferred approach. In Alberta Wilderness, the Court apparently held that environmental reports “should be seen as an essential statutory preliminary step required by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.” More to the point, Tsleil Waututh 2018 apparently held (according to the linked ablawg post cited above) (at para 189) that a reference in Gitxaala Nation (paras 119-127) that environmental reports cannot be judicially reviewed was misconceived.

With respect, Stratas JA dealt with this matter in Ignace, at para 36. The fact that the appellants were trying to relitigate this point speaks to the issue overriding this entire saga: a respect for orders of the court duly issued. But even on the merits, this argument is somewhat misconceived. Reading Tsleil-Waututh 2018 in whole and in context, it seems that the Court, relying on Gitxaala, ultimately concluded that “the report of the Joint Review Panel constituted a set of recommendations to the Governor in Council that lacked any independent legal or practical effect. It followed that judicial review did not lie from it” (Tsleil Waututh 2018, at para 180). And this would find accord with basic administrative law principles, to the effect that only final decisions of administrative authorities are judicially reviewable (Budlakoti, at paras 56 et seq in the context of the doctrine of exhaustion).

Finally, a note on the Rule of Law. One might argue—quite ambitiously–that attempting to relitigate an order of a Court is justified by the policy proposals that a particular litigant seeks to advance. The weight of this argument is dependent, indeed, on how much one identifies the Rule of Law with the rule of courts. To some, court orders may not represent the totality of the Rule of Law. But a system of the Rule of Law is dependent on the respect owed to neutral arbiters of the law and their orders. Those neutral arbiters, in a system of courts, are components of the Rule of Law. They should be owed respect.

That said, we can and should criticize court decisions that we find undesirable. But as litigants acting in the system, there are defined ways to legally change the effect of a decision: by appeal, rather than relitigation.