Still Keeping It Complicated

The Supreme Court tries to bring more rigour to constitutional interpretation and takes a step towards textualism, but won’t admit it

In my last post, I summarized the opinions delivered in Quebec (Attorney General) v 9147-0732 Québec inc, 2020 SCC 32. While the Supreme Court unanimously holds that corporations are not protected from cruel and unusual punishment by section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the majority (Justices Brown and Rowe, with the agreement of the Chief Justice and Justices Moldaver and Côté) and the principal concurrence (Justice Abella, with Justices Karakatsanis and Martin) strongly disagree about the proper approach to constitutional interpretation and to the role in this process of international and foreign legal materials.

As promised, in this post I present my thoughts on these opinions, primarily on their general approach to interpretation, though I’ll say something on the role of international and foreign materials too. I will, once again, begin with Justice Abella’s opinion, which in my view is representative of what I have described as “constitutionalism from Plato’s cave” ― the judicial creation of constitutional law out of abstract ideals favoured by the judges themselves rather than genuine interpretation of a constitutional text. I will then turn to the majority opinion, which repudiates constitutionalism from the cave, but also seemingly rejects what I regard as the best interpretive method, public meaning originalism. I will argue that there is less to this rejection than meets the eye.

One question on which I will say nothing, although the majority and the principal concurrence trade sharp accusations on it, is which of these opinions is more consistent with precedent. As Benjamin Oliphant and I have pointed out in our article on “Originalist Reasoning in Canadian Constitutional Jurisprudence”, the Supreme Court has never been consistent in how it interpreted the constitution, mixing and matching originalist and living constitutionalist approaches in any number of unpredictable ways. (Mr. Oliphant has developed this theme elsewhere too.) Justices Brown and Rowe are right to call for more rigour and consistency on this front; but they are wrong, as is Justice Abella, to suggest that has been any rigour and consistency in the past. Whatever their flaws, neither the majority nor the concurring opinion break with established law, because there is no real law to break with.


As mentioned in my last post, Justice Abella insists that her approach to interpretation is “contextual” and, above all, “purposive”. In truth, it might be better described as authorizing constitution-making by the Supreme Court. It is “the Court” ― following an American usage, Justice Abella does not bother specifying which one ― that “has, over time, decided who and what came within the Charter’s protective scope”. [49] The Supreme Court does not simply decide cases in which the question arose. No, it apparently ruled, as a matter of discretion, on whom the Charter will protect going forward.

Judicial rulings in constitutional cases are not, for Justice Abella, mere workings out of the constitution’s meaning. Indeed, the constitutional text plays no special role in interpretation for her. This is unsurprising, because Justice Abella embraces the view that co-blogger Mark Mancini recently described as “linguistic nihilism” ― the idea “that language is never clear, or put differently, hopelessly vague or ambiguous”, so that “the task of interpretation based on text is a fool’s game”. (Of course this is of a piece with Justice Abella’s commitments in administrative law.) It is also unsurprising, then, that her discussion of international materials suggests that text does not really matter at all, and a variety of differently-worded provisions all stand for the exact same principles, without any meaningful inquiry into the relevance, if any, of their language. In fact, Justice Abella is openly disdainful of the possibility that textual nuance ― such as “the presence of a comma” [75] ― might make a difference in interpretation.

Another reason for Justice Abella’s refusal to be bound by constitutional text is that this ” could unduly constrain the scope of [constitutional] rights”. [75] This reflects the conviction, common among living constitutionalists, that judicial re-writing of constitutions is a one-way ratchet unfailing causing rights to expand. This view is belied by experience. But, quite apart from that: “unduly” by what standard? If not by reference to text, how do we know what is the due scope of constitutional rights? This ambiguity is of a piece with Justice Abella’s insistence that section 12 “is meant to protect human dignity and respect the inherent worth of individuals. Its intended beneficiaries are people, not corporations.” [51] Is meant… by whom? Intended… by whom? And how do we know?

As Mr. Oliphant and I noted in the paper linked to above, “[m]arks on paper have no will or agency and thus can have no ‘purposes’ or ‘intentions’ that are independent of willful actors”. (537) One possibility, as we suggested, is that this language becomes an opening for an inquiry into the intentions of the Charter‘s framers. But Justice Abella isn’t very interested in that. Unlike the Supreme Court in some cases, she doesn’t consider the Charter‘s drafting history or the views of its framers, beyond a passing reference to Pierre Trudeau’s general comments about the Charter‘s raison d’être.

Justice Abella’s use of ambiguous language and the passive voice, like her refusal to be bound by text or to commit to any hierarchy of interpretive sources, suggest that she believes herself to have has complete discretion in deciding what the Charter is to mean. Her own sense of justice is the only standard of who is “due” protection under the constitution, and what protection they are “due”. This is unsurprising, of course, from someone who professes impatience with the Rule of Law and prefers a “rule of justice”. Constitutional purposes, as she conceives of them, are Platonic abstractions, which the wise ― she the wisest ― must interpret for the rest of us.

As I have said a number of times in the past, “constitutionalism from the cave” is not real constitutionalism. It is antithetical to the Rule of Law. Ultimately, it undermines the foundations of judicial review: if the constitution means whatever unelected judges preoccupied with international approval more than with the law or the commands of the constitution’s framers say it means, there is no particular reason why the political branches would comply with these judges’ musings. It is good that this view is dealt a defeat by the Supreme Court’s majority.


In contrast to Justice Abella, Justices Brown and Rowe emphasize the importance of constitutional text. It is not, I think, merely a matter of the text being chronologically the first consideration for a court engaged in constitutional interpretation: “constitutional interpretation” is “the interpretation of the text of the Constitution”. [9] The text is its focus and overriding constraint; it has “primacy” over other considerations. [10, citing Caron v Alberta, 2015 SCC 56, [2015] 3 SCR 511 at [36]]

One way in which the text matters is, of course, through the ordinary meaning of its words and the inferences that can be drawn from it. Here, since the word “cruel” refers to the infliction of human suffering, it stands to reason that section 12 does not protect corporations. But the significance of the text goes further. The history of the text and the changes it underwent are relevant too, as Justices Brown and Rowe show by pointing ― in language that, as I noted in my last post, closely mirrors that of my comment on the Court of Appeal’s decision in this case ― to the contrast between the language of section 12 and that of its predecessors in Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights 1688. Other provisions on the text are relevant too.

To my mind, this ― so far as it goes ― is a sound approach to constitutional interpretation, and I am happy to see it forcefully stated by a majority of the Supreme Court. If I were to put a label on it, it would be “textualism”. Consider the definition of textualism given by then-Judge, now Justice Amy Coney Barrett in a lecture I reviewed here:

Textualism … insists that judges must construe statutory language consistent with its “ordinary meaning.” The law is comprised of words—and textualists emphasize that words mean what they say, not what a judge thinks that they ought to say. For textualists, statutory language is a hard constraint. Fidelity to the law means fidelity to the text as it is written. (856; footnote omitted)

This is what Justices Brown and Rowe are doing: insisting that the object of interpretation is words, text, and focusing on their ordinary meaning, which is a hard constraint on interpretation.

Yet Justices Brown and Rowe reject the label of textualism. To their mind, what they are doing is purposive interpretation. Judge Barrett, as she then was, saw purposivism as the opposite of textualism, though in my post I cautioned that “many approaches to interpretation and construction, including ones that respect the primacy and constraint of the text, might properly be described as purposive”. Perhaps this is what Justices Brown and Rowe are advocating ― a sort of “purposivism”, if that’s what they prefer to call it, but one that has a great deal more in common with textualism as defined by Judge Barrett than with “purposivism” as defined by Justice Abella.

So maybe the moral of the story here is that we all should be less hung up on labels. But in my view there is a real cost to the lack of clarity that the labels used by the Supreme Court generate. I wrote about this here when I commented on R v Stillman, 2019 SCC 40. In that case, similarly to here, the majority and the dissent both claimed to be engaged in purposive interpretation. But the majority, I argued, was in effect following a public meaning originalist (and hence textualist) approach, while the dissent was doing constitutionalism from the cave. As I said then, to pretend that textualist interpretation is really purposive generates unnecessary detours. Here, the majority’s references to human dignity as the purpose of section 12 do no real work, and unnecessarily burden the reasoning with what is, by the Supreme Court’s own well-known admission in R v Kapp, 2008 SCC 41, [2008] 2 SCR 483, “an abstract and subjective notion”. [22] And, as I also said in my comment on Stillman, mislabeling an originalist or textualist interpretation as purposivist makes it possible for the partisans of an entirely different version of purposivism to invoke cases that go directly against their views as support for them. Justice Abella does precisely that here (at [73]).

Worse still, from my perspective, than the mere confusion about labels is the seeming rejection by Justices Brown and Rowe of the substance of public meaning originalism, under the label of “new textualism” which they borrow from Aharon Barak’s Harvard Law Review Supreme Court Term Foreword, “A Judge on Judging”, where it stands as a shorthand for Justice’s Scalia’s interpretive approach. This is the idea, as President Barak put it, “that that the Constitution and every statute should be understood according to the reading of a reasonable reader at the time of enactment”. (82; reference omitted) Justices Brown and Rowe claim that this approach is “not remotely consistent” [12] with theirs. If they are right, this would be the first rejection of public meaning originalism by the Supreme Court. As Mr. Oliphant and I have shown, until now, the only versions of originalism that had been clearly rejected were those, disfavoured by originalists themselves, that focus on original expected applications and outcomes.

Yet it will take more than this opinion of Justices Brown and Rowe to make me give up on originalism. Let me note, first, that Justice Brown himself was a co-author of the Stillman majority opinion (and that its other co-author was Justice Moldaver, who agrees with Justices Brown and Rowe here). I described that opinion as “perhaps the most originalist, and specifically public-meaning originalist, in a constitutional case since that of the majority in Caron“. And yes, Caron ― which Justices Brown and Rowe repeatedly cite ― was a public-meaning originalist judgment, as I explained here. Both Stillman and Caron focused on ascertaining the meaning of the constitutional provisions at issue there by reference to how they would have been understood by “a reasonable reader at the time of enactment”, over dissents that favoured, respectively a more policy-infused approach and one based on the alleged intent of the framers. If Justices Brown and Rowe really meant to reject public meaning originalism, would they be relying on these cases? That seems implausible.

No less importantly, consider what Justices Brown and Rowe say elsewhere in their opinion. When they discuss the use of international and foreign materials, they draw an “important distinction … between instruments that pre‑ and post‑date the Charter“. [41] The former “clearly form part of the historical context of a Charter right and illuminate the way it was framed”, whether or not they were binding on Canada. The latter, only matter if they bind Canada, and even then subject to only a presumption that Canadian constitutional law conforms to them, and to the principle that international law does not automatically become part of Canadian law. This isn’t quite originalism: an originalist would be warier still of materials that post-date the Charter, although, as I am about to explain, without necessarily rejecting their relevance in all cases. But it’s pretty close. Originalists believe that constitutional text must be interpreted in context as of the date of its enactment, and reference to international materials available to Canadian framers is certainly a legitimate part of ascertaining the context in which the Charter‘s original meaning should be established. The fact that Justices Brown and Rowe draw a dividing line at the moment of the Charter’s enactment suggests that they are, in fact, open to something like originalist thinking.

All in all, my point is not that Justices Brown and Rowe are originalists. However, they are textualists, which is a big part of originalism, and their approach has at least some significant affinities with public meaning originalism. It is unfortunate that their self-misunderstanding muddies the waters. But if we focus on what they do rather than on what they say about what they do we can see that their opinion, despite its flaws, is an important step in the right direction, and by far preferable to Justice Abella’s.


I turn, finally, to the issue of international and comparative materials. I agree with the majority’s calls for care and discernment in the way such materials are used. Partly this is a matter of legal and intellectual rigour. Partly, as Justices Brown and Rowe say, of “preserving the integrity of the Canadian constitutional structure, and Canadian sovereignty”. [23] Justice Abella’s concerns about whether foreign scholars and courts will pay attention to Canadian constitutional law are beside the point. Ultimately, the Canadian constitution means what it means, and not what some international treaty, let alone foreign constitutional text, might mean ― a matter on which Canadian courts often could not pronounce. I would, however, add two further observations, which I already made here in discussing similar issues that arose in the Supreme Court’s decision in Frank v Canada (Attorney General), 2019 SCC 1, [2019] 1 SCR 3.

First, international and foreign materials may be more relevant and persuasive to courts engaged in constitutional construction, and in particular (but not only) in the demarcation of reasonable limits on rights under section 1 of the Charter, than in cases such as this one, which concern the interpretation of the Charter‘s text. When courts develop legal doctrine, they have more reason to look to international experience ― including international experience post-dating the Charter‘s enactment ― than when they seek to discern the meaning of the Charter‘s words ― an exercise to which, as Justices Brown and Rowe recognize, international and foreign materials post-dating the Charter are unlikely to be relevant. The majority’s unwillingness to seriously engage with public meaning originalism causes it to seemingly lump all constitutional questions together and so to lose sight of this nuance.

Second, when and to the extent that international and foreign law is relevant, judicial consideration of it should, as I wrote in my comment on Frank, “not be partial ― either in the sense of having a pre-determined result in mind, or in the sense of being incomplete”. I’m not quite sure what Justices Brown and Rowe mean by saying that such materials should be kept to “providing support and confirmation for the result reached by way of purposive interpretation”. [22; emphasis in the original] But it would not be intellectually honest for a court to only consider materials that agree with its conclusions and deliberately discard others. If the court considers foreign and international sources, it should address those that it does not find persuasive.

The court should also be careful not to misunderstand or mischaracterize these sources. Justice Abella’s invocation of the “judges in the majority” in Furman v Georgia, 402 US 238 (1972), as having “definitively discussed” the purpose of the Eighth Amendment is an example of such dangers. There was no unified majority in Furman; the two judges whom Justice Abella quotes, Justices Marshall and Brennan, were in fact the only ones who took the position they took, which was that the death penalty was necessarily cruel and unusual punishment. Three others took a more limited view that opened the door to the re-imposition of the death penalty, which was given the green light in Gregg v Georgia, 428 US 153 (1976), in effect reversing Furman. If judges are to refer to foreign law, they need to understand and be honest about it.


Overall, the Supreme Court, and specifically the majority opinion of Justices Brown and Rowe, brings a welcome dose of rigour to the task of constitutional interpretation in Canada. The primacy of constitutional text as the object of interpretation is affirmed, while freewheeling discretion to make the constitution the best it can be in a judge’s opinion is rejected. There is also a more rigorous approach to the use of international and foreign materials in constitutional interpretation. Compared to the alternative vividly illustrated by Justice Abella, this is all very welcome (and all the more so if, as I hypothesized in my last post, Justice Abella’s opinion was originally intended to be the majority one).

But the majority opinion is very far from perfect, and it will perpetuate much of the confusion that afflicts constitutional interpretation in Canada. Even as it adopts the methods of textualism and is largely compatible with public meaning originalism it disclaims the former and purports to reject the latter. This messiness is the sad consequence of a lack of serious thought about constitutional interpretation in Canada. One can only hope that this gap will be filled in the years to come.

Immuring Dicey’s Ghost

The Senate Reform Reference and constitutional conventions

In its opinion in Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32, [2014] 1 SCR 704, the Supreme Court notoriously relied on a metaphor that had previously popped up, but played no real role, in its jurisprudence: “constitutional architecture”. Notably, the court was of the view that moves towards an effectively elected Senate would modify the constitution’s architecture, and such modifications required formal amendment under Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982, just as much as changes to the explicit provisions of the constitution’s text. Yet the court’s explanations of just what this architecture was were short and cryptic, and haven’t been elaborated upon ― judicially ― in the intervening years.

To fill in this void, an academic cottage industry sprang up to speculate about the meaning of the architectural metaphor and about what other constitutional reforms it might block. For example, Kate Glover Berger suggested that “action taken to dismantle or undermine the administrative state could be deemed unconstitutional” because the administrative state is built into the architecture of the Canadian constitution. Lorne Neudorf invoked architecture in the service of an argument to the effect that courts can read down or indeed invalidate vague delegations of legislative power to the executive branch. Michael Pal speculated that the first-past-the-post electoral system might be entrenched as part of the constitutional architecture.

All this while, I have been working on my own contribution to this genre, called “Immuring Dicey’s Ghost: The Senate Reform Reference and Constitutional Conventions”, which is finally going to be published by the Ottawa Law Review later this year. In a nutshell, I argue that “architecture” is really just code for “conventions” ― those supposedly non-legal but fundamentally important constitutional rules, arising out of political practice and morality, which courts have long said they could not possibly enforce. And I argue, further, that the Supreme Court should have squarely addressed the fact that it was relying on conventions, instead of playing confusing rhetorical games.

A draft is now available, for your reading pleasure. Here is the abstract:

Although the metaphor of “constitutional architecture” had appeared in some previous opinions of the Supreme Court of Canada, it took on a new importance in Reference re Senate Reform, where the Court held that amendments to constitutional architecture had to comply with the requirements of Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982. However, the Court provided very little guidance as to the scope of this entrenched “architecture”. As a result, the metaphor’s meaning and implications have been the subject of considerable scholarly debate.

This article contributes to this debate by arguing that “constitutional architecture” incorporates (some) constitutional conventions. It further takes the position that, instead of relying on this confusing metaphor, the Court should have candidly admitted that conventions were central to its decision by acknowledging that the text of the Canadian constitution cannot be fully understood without reference to conventions.

Part I reviews, first, the Supreme Court’s opinions in which the notion of constitutional “architecture” has been mentioned, focusing on this concept’s place in the Senate Reform Reference, and then some of the scholarly commentary that has endeavoured to make sense of it. Part II sets out my own view that constitutional “architecture”, as this concept is used by the Supreme Court, is concerned primarily if not exclusively with constitutional conventions. Part III considers whether it is possible to determine precisely which conventions are encompassed by the notion of constitutional architecture, examining the conventions’ importance, and their relationship to the constitutional text as possible criteria, and concluding that neither allows precise determinations. Part IV sets out what would in my view have been a less confusing way of addressing the significance of conventions to the questions the Court was facing in the Senate Reform Reference: frankly recognizing that conventions were relevant to the interpretation of the applicable constitutional texts. Part V examines two objections to the incorporation of conventions (via “architecture” or through interpretation) into the realm of constitutional law, arguing that this incorporation is not illegitimate, and that it will not stultify the constitution’s development. Part VI concludes with an appeal for greater transparency on the part of the Supreme Court.

The last thing I mention here is that this paper begins the project of bringing together two subjects on which I had mostly been writing separately: constitutional conventions on the one hand, and originalism on the other. As explained here, Canadian originalism has to grapple with the fact that some of our most important constitutional rules are unwritten. This paper, although it doesn’t make a case for originalism, begins to outline what that an originalist approach to conventions will look like.

Tout nouveau, tout beau?

Ce que dit, et ce que ne dit pas, l’arrêt Vavilov, pour nos lecteurs francophones

Ce billet est co-rédigé avec Mark Mancini

L’arrêt Canada (Ministre de la Citoyenneté et de l’Immigration) c Vavilov, 2019 CSC 65 de la Cour suprême a fait l’objet de nombreux commentaires, tant sur ce blogue qu’ailleurs, – mais dans la langue de Laskin, pas celle de Beetz. Nous nous proposons donc de combler ce vide. Ce billet ne saurait reprendre les analyses et les critiques détaillées que nous avons tous deux déjà publiées (dont la liste suit ci-dessous) et celles, peut-être, encore à venir. Il se limite plutôt, d’une part, à offrir à nos lecteurs francophones un résumé des points saillants de l’arrêt et, de l’autre, à attirer leur attention sur les enjeux que risque de soulever la mise en œuvre de celui-ci par les tribunaux.

Ainsi qu’elle l’avait annoncé dans son jugement accordant l’autorisation de pourvoi, la Cour suprême profite de l’affaire Vavilov pour ajuster le cadre d’analyse employé par les tribunaux lorsqu’ils révisent une décision administrative sur le fond. Si les normes de contrôle disponibles demeurent celles que les tribunaux canadiens ont appliquées depuis l’arrêt Dunsmuir c Nouveau-Brunswick, 2008 CSC 9, [2008] 1 RCS 190, et que la présomption de l’application de la norme de la décision raisonnable demeure en vigueur, tant les fondements théoriques de ce cadre d’analyse que les circonstances où la présomption est repoussée sont révisées. De plus, la Cour fournit des explications étoffées sur la façon d’appliquer la norme de contrôle de la décision raisonnable, qui seront sans doute un enseignement tout aussi important, et probablement plus difficile à appliquer, de cet arrêt.


Le principe qui guide le choix de la norme de contrôle appliquée lors de la révision d’une décision administrative est celui voulant que cette norme doit « refléter l’intention du législateur sur le rôle de la cour de révision, sauf dans les cas où la primauté du droit empêche de donner effet à cette intention » [23]. Selon la Cour, cela signifie généralement que, « [s]i le législateur a constitué un décideur administratif dans le but précis d’administrer un régime législatif […] on peut aisément présumer que le législateur a voulu que celui‑ci puisse fonctionner en faisant le moins possible l’objet d’une intervention judiciaire » [24]. Il s’ensuit que c’est la norme de contrôle empreinte de déférence, soit celle de la décision raisonnable, qui s’applique – en principe.

Il faut bien noter que c’est le seul choix du législateur qui dicte cette conclusion. L’expertise réelle ou présumée du décideur administratif n’y est pour rien, à la différence de ce qui a pu être le cas dans la jurisprudence (dont l’arrêt Edmonton (Ville) c Edmonton East (Capilano) Shopping Centres Ltd, 2016 CSC 47, [2016] 2 RCS 293 est un exemple particulièrement frappant). La notion d’expertise n’est pas tout à fait reléguée aux oubliettes – nous y reviendrons –, mais son exclusion de l’analyse quant choix de la norme de contrôle a des conséquences importantes, et pourrait en avoir d’autres, non moins significatives. Nous y reviendrons aussi.

La présomption voulant que la norme de contrôle d’une décision administrative soit celle de la décision raisonnable est repoussée dans deux cas. Le premier est celui où le législateur a lui-même indiqué qu’une autre norme de contrôle est applicable. Il peut le faire en légiférant directement sur le sujet. Il peut aussi, cependant, le faire en créant un droit d’appel – avec ou sans autorisation – à une cour de justice. Lorsqu’elle siège en appel d’une décision administrative, c’est la norme de contrôle qui s’appliquerait à une question équivalente dans un appel d’une décision judiciaire que la cour doit appliquer. Ainsi, « elle se prononcera sur des questions de droit, touchant notamment à l’interprétation législative et à la portée de la compétence du décideur, selon la norme de la décision correcte » [37]. Il s’agit là d’un changement important par rapport à la jurisprudence précédente qui, suivant l’arrêt Pezim c ColombieBritannique (Superintendent of Brokers), [1994] 2 RCS 557, recourait généralement, même en appel, à la norme de contrôle de révision judiciaire, en raison notamment de l’expertise supposée des décideurs administratifs. (Notons, cependant, « que ce ne sont pas toutes les dispositions législatives envisageant la possibilité qu’une cour de justice puisse contrôler une décision administrative qui confèrent dans les faits un droit d’appel » [51]. En particulier, l’arrêt Canada (Citoyenneté et Immigration) c Khosa, 2009 CSC 12, [2009] 1 RCS 339 et son interprétation, qui nous semble erronée, de la Loi sur les cours fédérales, ne semblent pas affectés par Vavilov.)

Le second cas où la présomption de l’application de la norme de la décision raisonnable est repoussée est celui où son application serait contraire à la primauté du droit. Vavilov enseigne que celle-ci exige une réponse correcte, et non seulement raisonnable, à trois types de questions. Il s’agit, en premier lieu, de questions de validité constitutionnelle; en deuxième lieu, de « questions de droit générales d’une importance capitale pour le système juridique dans son ensemble » [53]; et, en troisième lieu, de celles concernant « la délimitation des compétences respectives d’organismes administratifs » [63]. D’autres types de questions pourraient, en principe, s’ajouter à cette liste, mais la Cour semble plutôt sceptique à ce sujet.

Trois observations s’imposent ici. Premièrement, s’agissant de questions constitutionnelles, Vavilov ne remet pas en cause – à première vue en tout cas – l’arrêt Doré c Barreau du Québec, 2012 CSC 12, [2012] 1 RCS 395. La Cour souligne expressément qu’elle ne se prononce pas sur la validité du cadre d’analyse qui y a été établi. Deuxièmement, s’agissant de « questions d’une importance capitale », cette catégorie se trouve possiblement élargie en comparaison avec le cadre d’analyse de l’arrêt Dunsmuir, puisqu’elle ne dépend plus d’une évluation de l’expertise relative du tribunal et du décideur administratif. Troisièmement, la catégorie de « véritables questions de compétence », retenue dans Dunsmuir et préservée, en ne serait-ce qu’en théorie, dans la jurisprudence subséquente, est abolie par Vavilov, du moins au stade du choix de la norme de contrôle.


Ces ajustements au choix de la norme de contrôle apportés, la Cour se tourne vers la norme de la décision raisonnable. Elle explique que « le contrôle selon la norme de la décision raisonnable a pour point de départ la retenue judiciaire et le respect du rôle distinct des décideurs administratifs » [75]. Ce contrôle vise néanmoins à s’assurer que le décideur administratif tienne compte des « contraintes juridiques et factuelles auxquelles [il] est assujetti » [85] et qu’il explique sa décision à ceux et celles qu’elle affecte.

Les motifs du décideur administratif occupent donc une importance centrale dans le contrôle judiciaire – et ce, même si la Cour suprême reconnaît qu’un décideur n’est pas toujours tenu de les rédiger. C’est le raisonnement du décideur administratif, tel que représenté dans les motifs, qui fait l’objet d’examen :

Une cour de justice qui applique la norme de contrôle de la décision raisonnable ne se demande donc pas quelle décision elle aurait rendue à la place du décideur administratif, ne tente pas de prendre en compte l’ « éventail » des conclusions qu’aurait pu tirer le décideur, ne se livre pas à une analyse de novo, et ne cherche pas à déterminer la solution « correcte » au problème. [83]

La cour de révision ne doit pas, non plus, « élabore[r] ses propres motifs pour appuyer la décision administrative » ou encore « faire abstraction du fondement erroné de la décision et […] y substituer sa propre justification du résultat ». [96] Cependant, les motifs ne sont pas tenus à la perfection et peuvent, le cas échéant, être lus à la lumière du dossier. Les motifs peuvent également permettre au décideur de démontrer son expertise et d’ainsi justifier « un résultat qui semble déroutant ou contre‑intuitif à première vue » comme étant « néanmoins conforme aux objets et aux réalités pratiques du régime administratif en cause » [93].

Appliquant la norme de la décision raisonnable, la cour de révision s’intéresse donc à la fois au raisonnement du décideur et au résultat auquel celui-ci a abouti. Les deux doivent être justifiables et justifiés. La Cour suprême propose une liste, qui se veut non-exhaustive, « de questions qui peuvent révéler qu’une décision est déraisonnable » [101]. Certaines concernent la cohérence du raisonnement du décideur administratif. Une décision irrationnelle, entachée de paralogismes, dont « la conclusion […] ne peut prendre sa source dans l’analyse effectuée » [103] ou celle dont « il est impossible de comprendre, lorsqu’on lit les motifs en corrélation avec le dossier, le raisonnement […] sur un point central » [103] doit être traitée comme déraisonnable.

Tel est aussi le cas d’une décision qui ne tient pas compte du contexte juridique et factuel dans lequel elle est rendue. La Cour souligne que

le régime législatif applicable est probablement l’aspect le plus important du contexte juridique d’une décision donnée. Le fait que les décideurs administratifs participent, avec les cours de justice, à l’élaboration du contenu précis des régimes administratifs qu’ils administrent, ne devrait pas être interprété comme une licence accordée aux décideurs administratifs pour ignorer ou réécrire les lois adoptées par le Parlement et les législatures provinciales. [108]

D’une part, même lorsque le décideur administratif jouit d’un pouvoir discrétionnaire, « tout exercice d’un [tel] pouvoir […] doit être conforme aux fins pour lesquelles il a été accordé » [108]. De l’autre, « un organisme administratif ne saurait exercer un pouvoir qui ne lui a pas été délégué ». [109] La porté du pouvoir délégué ou l’étendue des raisons de cette délégation varie selon le texte législatif applicable. Le contrôle en vertu de la norme de la décision raisonnable exige donc de la cour de révision « de déterminer si […] le décideur a justifié convenablement son interprétation de la loi à la lumière du contexte. Évidemment, il sera impossible au décideur administratif de justifier une décision qui excède les limites fixées par les dispositions législatives qu’il interprète ». [110]

La marge de manœuvre du décideur administratif dépend, en outre, des autres lois ou règles du droit prétorien qui peuvent s’appliquer à la décision. La décision administrative doit, notamment, tenir compte des règles d’interprétation législative, sans pour autant forcément « procéder à une interprétation formaliste de la loi » [119]. Le décideur administratif peut tenir compte de ses connaissances et de son expertise spécialisées, mais « il [lui] incombe […] de démontrer dans ses motifs qu’il était conscient [des] éléments essentiels » [120] de l’interprétation législative, et il ne lui est pas loisible d’ « adopter une interprétation qu’il sait de moindre qualité — mais plausible — simplement parce que cette interprétation paraît possible et opportune » [121].

Par ailleurs, une décision administrative doit aussi se justifier au regard de la preuve, des arguments des parties et de la pratique administrative. Elle doit aussi refléter, le cas échéant, son importance pour la personne visée : « Lorsque la décision a des répercussions sévères sur les droits et intérêts de l’individu visé, les motifs fournis à ce dernier doivent refléter ces enjeux. […] Cela vaut notamment pour les décisions dont les conséquences menacent la vie, la liberté, la dignité ou les moyens de subsistance d’un individu » [133].

Un dernier enseignement en matière de l’application de la norme de la décision raisonnable sur lequel nous voudrions attirer l’attention du lecteur concerne les réparations que peut accorder une cour de révision. La Cour suprême explique que « lorsque la décision contrôlée selon la norme de la décision raisonnable ne peut être confirmée, il conviendra le plus souvent de renvoyer l’affaire au décideur pour qu’il revoie la décision, mais à la lumière cette fois des motifs donnés par la cour ». [141] Cependant, et il s’agit, dans une certaine mesure, d’une nouveauté, la Cour précise qu’ « il y a des situations limitées » [142] où la cour de révision doit elle-même trancher le différend, pour éviter de le prolonger inutilement. C’est notamment le cas lorsqu’une seule réponse est possible a une question d’interprétation, mais d’autres facteurs, y compris ceux concernant les coûts, tant pour les parties que pour l’administration et le système de justice, doivent aussi être pris en compte.


L’arrêt Vavilov promet – pas pour la première fois en droit administratif canadien – « d’apporter une cohérence et une prévisibilité accrues à ce domaine du droit ». [10] Cette promesse sera-t-elle tenue? À certains égards, les enseignements de la Cour suprême sont prometteurs. Notamment, la nouvelle approche au choix de la norme de contrôle, qu’on soit ou non d’accord avec la présomption du choix de la norme de la décision raisonnable ou encore avec l’abolition de la catégorie de questions de compétence, promet du moins une certaine simplification par rapport à l’état du droit avant Vavilov. L’insistance de la Cour sur l’importance des motifs et du respect du cadre législatif par les décideurs administratifs est elle aussi plus que bienvenue.

Plusieurs questions importantes restent toutefois sans réponse. Les cours de révision, et éventuellement la Cour suprême elle-même, devront y répondre pour que l’on puisse véritablement affirmer que le droit administratif canadien est simple est prévisible. En voici quelques unes.

Quelle sera la portée réelle des catégories de questions où la primauté du droit exige l’application de la norme de la décision correcte? En particulier, quel avenir réserve la Cour à l’arrêt Doré?

Comme nous l’avons souligné ci-dessus, l’arrêt Vavilov semble élargir quelque peu la catégorie de questions « d’une importance capitale pour le système juridique », en raison de l’abolition de la référence à l’expertise dans sa délimitation. Or, si la Cour résume la jurisprudence existante à ce sujet et dit que celle-ci « continue de s’appliquer essentiellement telle quelle » [143], ce résumé ne fournit que des exemples, et non de véritables lignes directrices. L’incertitude risque de persister à ce sujet.

Plus grave encore, mais peut-être susceptible d’une résolution plus rapide, est l’incertitude quant à l’avenir du cadre d’analyse posé dans l’arrêt Doré et raffiné ou modifié dans École secondaire Loyola c Québec (Procureur général), 2015 CSC 12, [2015] 1 RCS 613 et Law Society of British Columbia c Trinity Western University, 2018 CSC 32, [2018] 2 R.C.S. 293. La Cour, nous l’avons déjà dit, se garde de se prononcer explicitement à ce sujet. Pourtant, les fondements de cette jurisprudence, qui repose en bonne partie sinon entièrement sur la volonté de respecter l’expertise – réelle ou supposée – des décideurs administratifs, nous semblent incompatibles avec l’exclusion de l’expertise de l’analyse quant au choix de la norme de contrôle dans Vavilov. De plus, nous sommes sceptiques face à l’idée que le législateur puisse dicter, implicitement ou même explicitement, le choix de la norme de contrôle en matière constitutionnelle, qu’il s’agisse de questions de validité ou des celles concernant la constitutionnalité de décisions particulières. La Cour suprême le dit fort bien dans Vavilov : « si un législateur peut choisir les pouvoirs à déléguer à un organisme administratif, il ne peut déléguer des pouvoirs dont la Constitution ne l’investit pas. Le pouvoir constitutionnel d’agir doit comporter des limites définies et uniformes, ce qui commande l’application de la norme de la décision correcte » [56].

Les questions de compétence sont-elles véritablement à oublier?

La catégorie de « véritables questions de compétence » est écartée de l’analyse quant au choix de la norme de contrôle. Pourtant, en affirmant que « certaines questions touchant à la portée du pouvoir d’un décideur […] ne sauraient commander qu’une seule interprétation », et qu’ « [é]videmment, il sera impossible au décideur administratif de justifier une décision qui excède les limites fixées par les dispositions législatives qu’il interprète », [110] la Cour semble tout simplement utiliser une nouvelle étiquette pour la décrire. Par ailleurs, les tribunaux pourraient être appelés à décider une question en est une de compétence en disposant d’appels autorisés par des dispositions législatives qui y font référence.

Comment la norme de la décision raisonnable sera-t-elle appliquée en l’absence de motivation adéquate par le décideur administratif?

Si l’on peut se réjouir du fait que la Cour suprême semble souhaiter mettre un frein à la tendance, qui s’est parfois manifestée dans la jurisprudence, de l’écriture rétroactive des motifs de décision administrative par les cours de révision, on peut se demander jusqu’où sa détermination ira en pratique. La Cour insiste, d’une part, pour dire qu’une décision administrative qui doit être motivée mais ne l’est pas ou ne l’est pas adéquatement sera déraisonnable, mais, d’autre part, elle souligne « qu’une cour de révision doit examiner le dossier dans son ensemble pour comprendre la décision et qu’elle découvrira alors souvent une justification claire pour la décision » [137]. L’équilibre entre ces deux exigences ne nous semble pas évident à trouver.

De la déférence à l’égard du décideur administratif et de la vigilance quant au respect du cadre législatif, laquelle va l’emporter de l’application de la norme de la décision raisonnable?

La Cour offre, à ce sujet, des enseignements qui peuvent sembler contradictoires. Elle affirme, notamment, dans un seul et même court paragraphe, que « [l]e contrôle selon la norme de la décision raisonnable […] tire son origine du principe de la retenue judiciaire », mais aussi que « [c]e type de contrôle demeure rigoureux ». [13] Comment la cour de révision s’y prendra-t-elle pour exercer son pouvoir avec retenue et vigueur à la fois? Comment va-t-elle déterminer si un décideur administratif a respecté les contraintes que la loi lui imposait sans pour autant tenter de délimiter l’ « évantail » des solutions possibles, ou encore vérifier s’il a respecté les principes d’interprétation législative tout en gardant à l’esprit que « La ‘‘justice administrative’’ ne ressemble pas toujours à la ‘‘justice judiciaire’’ » [92]?

Le fondement théorique de l’arrêt Vavilov, soit le respect de la volonté du législateur (circonscrit par le principe de la primauté du droit, mais déterminant dans les limites que celui-ci impose), ne permet pas de résoudre cette tension. S’il est vrai que le législateur confie l’application et donc la première interprétation de la loi au décideur administratif, c’est aussi le législateur qui choisir de limiter le pouvoir discrétionnaire de ce dernier par le texte de loi qu’il adopte. Il faudra donc voir comment les tribunaux, y compris la Cour suprême elle-même, appliqueront la norme de contrôle de la décision raisonnable, et s’ils parviendront à résoudre les tensions présentes dans les motifs de la Cour. Ce n’est qu’en cas de succès, qui n’est pas acquis d’avance, que l’on pourra affirmer que l’arrêt Vavilov a véritablement réglé les problèmes de cohérence et de prévisibilité du droit administratif auxquels la Cour suprême s’y attaquait.


L’arrêt Vavilov sera, évidemment, un jalon important dans le développement du droit administratif canadien. Cependant, ses silences et ses contradictions pourraient s’avérer tout aussi importants que ses enseignements. Aussi important ce jalon soit-il, il est loin de marquer la fin du parcours souvent tortueux de ce domaine du droit.


Voici la liste, mentionnée ci-dessus, de billets que nous avons publiés sur l’arrêt Vavilov et ses conséquences, en ordre chronologique:

Day 10: Bruce Ryder

Riding the waves of ascendant normative currents

Osgoode Hall Law School, York University

All judicial opinions are directed to adjudicating disputes and to the clarification and development of the law. Majority and dissenting opinions reach different conclusions of course; they also speak to different points in time. Dissenting opinions imagine and bring into view more distant legal futures. The dissenter hopes to have an impact on the development of the law further down the road, when anticipated injustices fostered by the majority’s position have been revealed.

Because the value of a dissent emerges over time, we ought to be cautious about lauding or condemning dissents early in their lifetimes. After a few decades have passed, we can ask: what impact has the dissent had on the development of the law? has the dissent shifted or ignited professional, judicial and scholarly debates about what the law ought to be?

The best dissents expose flaws in majority opinions and where they will take us. They deftly catch and ride the waves of ascendant normative currents in the law. They pose better questions, open new debates, and expand our critical imaginations about what a just future might look like. They invite us to dissent, not just from the majority, but also from the dissent itself. And by doing so they remind us that the best dissents are the ones that have not yet been written.

The three dissents I have chosen to highlight in the Supreme Court of Canada’s public law jurisprudence are Justice Beetz’ in the Anti-Inflation Reference, [1976] 2 SCR 373 , Justice La Forest’s in the Provincial Judges Reference, [1997] 3 SCR 3, and Justice McLachlin’s in Shell Canada Products Ltd v Vancouver (City), [1994] 1 SCR 231. Each has had an important impact on the subsequent development of the law, has advanced debates in professional and scholarly circles, and has invited us to pursue further critique beyond where the dissents themselves ventured.

Justice Beetz and the POGG Power

In his dissent in the Anti-Inflation Reference, Justice Beetz began by explaining in precise detail why the federal Anti-Inflation Act interfered with provincial jurisdiction “in a frontal way and on a large scale”. His concerns about federal interference with provincial autonomy resonated with the times – the Parti Québécois would be elected for the first time four months later. He explained why inflation was not a subject-matter that could be allocated to the national concern branch of POGG. To do so, he wrote, would “destroy the equilibrium of the constitution” since inflation lacked “a degree of unity that made it indivisible, an identity which made it distinct from provincial matters and a sufficient consistence to retain the bounds of form”.

Justice Beetz then turned to the emergency branch of POGG, describing its distinct contours, as he had with the national concern branch, with new conceptual clarity. The emergency power, he wrote, temporarily accords to Parliament all legislative powers necessary to deal with a crisis, including “concurrent and paramount jurisdiction” over matters that fall within (ordinarily exclusive) provincial jurisdiction. Resort to the emergency power, he said, “amounts to a temporary pro tanto amendment of a federal Constitution by the unilateral action of Parliament.”

The majority judges were willing to allow Parliament to rely on the emergency power despite the absence of any indication in the legislative history that it was doing so. Justice Beetz stood firmly against sanctioning such a cavalier approach to federalism and democratic deliberation. He insisted that “Parliament cannot enter the normally forbidden area of provincial jurisdiction unless it gives an unmistakable signal”. In the absence of such a signal, “[i]t is the duty of the courts to uphold the Constitution, not to seal its suspension”.

The Court has not had an opportunity to revisit the emergency power since 1976. Justice Beetz’ opinion on the required form of its exercise remains the dissenting view. But the force of his position is undeniable. It is, like all the best dissents, a law in the becoming, an imminent law set to bloom. It would be foolhardy for Parliament to attempt to invoke the emergency power by stealth ever again.

Justice Beetz’ comments on the national concern branch of POGG were powerful obiter dicta that later became the law when they were adopted by the Court in R v Crown Zellerbach Canada Ltd, [1988] 1 SCR 401 (1988) a decade later. The criteria Justice Beetz articulated – and whether those criteria need to be adjusted to give greater weight to the importance of national responses to problems of the scale and urgency of global warming – will be at the heart of the references on the validity of the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act to be heard by the Supreme Court in March 2020. The new emphasis Justice Beetz gave to provincial autonomy in 1976 will continue to shape the evolution of the POGG power and Canadian federalism jurisprudence more generally.

Justice La Forest and Unwritten Constitutional Principles

Chief Justice Lamer’s extended obiter dicta in the Provincial Judges Reference, locating a guarantee of judicial independence applicable to all courts in the preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867, were a startling and self-serving expansion of judicial power.

Justice La Forest’s dissenting opinion was a lacerating critique of the majority’s overreaching dicta. He emphasized that if judicial review is not grounded in the provisions of the text of the constitution, the courts lack a democratically legitimate basis for placing limits on the powers of the executive and legislative branches of government. “The express provisions of the Constitution are not, as the Chief Justice contends, ‘elaborations of the underlying, unwritten, and organizing principles found in the preamble”, he wrote. “On the contrary, they are the Constitution.  To assert otherwise is to subvert the democratic foundation of judicial review.”

Remarkably, Justice La Forest’s powerful critique failed to pry any of his colleagues loose from the majority opinion. The Court has adopted Chief Justice Lamer’s dicta in a series of rulings on judicial independence. Nevertheless, Justice La Forest’s dissent has had a large influence. Much of the scholarship commenting on the Court’s use of constitutional principles has echoed his concerns. Apart from the Secession Reference, [1998] 2 SCR 217], the Court over the last two decades has rebuffed many attempts to use unwritten principles to fill gaps in the constitutional text. In British Columbia v Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd, 2005 SCC 49, [2005] 2 SCR 473, for example, Justice Major wrote that “protection from legislation that some might view as unjust or unfair properly lies not in the amorphous underlying principles of our Constitution, but in its text and the ballot box”.

The opinions in the Provincial Judges Reference and the Secession Reference stand, but otherwise the Court appears to have drawn a line in the sand on the gap-filling deployment of unwritten principles. The power of Justice La Forest’s dissent has played an important role in halting any further reliance on a methodology that raised serious questions about the legitimacy of constitutional judicial review.

Justice McLachlin, Racism, and Municipal Government

At issue in Shell Canada Products Ltd v Vancouver was the validity of a resolution of the Vancouver City Council refusing to do business with Shell until the company “completely withdraws from South Africa”. The municipal boycott of Shell was motivated by “moral outrage against the racist apartheid regime in South Africa”. Justice Sopinka’s majority opinion found that the resolution was not adopted for municipal purposes and also amounted to unauthorized discrimination against Shell. For these two reasons, he concluded that the resolution was beyond the scope of the city’s statutory powers.

Justice McLachlin’s dissent rejected the majority’s parochial approach to local government. She aligned herself instead with “the weight of current commentary” that supports “a more generous, deferential approach” to the exercise of municipal powers. A healthy respect must be given, she wrote, to “the democratic responsibilities of elected municipal officials and the rights of those who elect them”. The welfare of the city’s residents included their moral welfare. Moreover, the city’s power to enter into transactions necessarily entailed a power to discriminate between companies. She thus departed from the majority’s perverse expression of greater concern about discrimination against Shell than it did about the oppression of African peoples.

While the majority’s insistence on a strict separation of municipal purposes and global concerns has yet to be overruled, the approach outlined in Justice McLachlin’s dissent has had a strong influence on the development of municipal law over the past quarter century. Citing her opinion on multiple occasions, the Court has embraced a broad and purposive approach to the interpretation of municipal powers.

The opinions in Shell participated in a long-standing Canadian tradition of managing to say nothing about racism in cases about racism. Neither opinion mentioned the inter-relationships between forms of colonialism and racism across the British Commonwealth. Nor did the Vancouver resolutions have anything to say about the connections between racism at home and abroad, and the need to address the impacts of racism and settler colonialism on Indigenous peoples in the city. Future dissents – and majority opinions – are less likely to leave these issues unspoken.

Day Nine: Leonid Sirota

The Roads Not Taken

Sometimes, as other contributors to the symposium have discussed, dissenting opinions chart the law’s future course. But at other times, they are only signposts for alternative paths which the law passes by, perhaps for the better. And sometimes, they point to the lost straight road, from which the law tragically deviates, never to return. The three dissents below belong to this last category.


1. Justice Beetz in Slaight Communications v Davidson, [1989] 1 SCR 1038

Slaight was an unjust dismissal case, in which a labour arbitrator sided with the former employee. The issue at the Supreme Court was the arbitrator could, consistently with the Charter, require the former employer to provide the employee with a recommendation letter bearing the employer’s signature but actually entirely dictated by the arbitrator, and further to refrain from saying anything else about the former employee. The majority held that he could. After all, there was a power imbalance between employer and employee that needed to be rectified, and anyway the employer was only required to state true facts, as established by the arbitrator.

Justice Beetz saw things differently. To force a person to state “facts in which, rightly or wrongly, he may not believe” is tantamount making him “tell a lie”. The outcome of an official fact-finding process cannot be equated with an objective, all-purpose truth, let alone be elevated into a dogma everyone must believe in. The state has no more authority to make a person proclaim what it, but not he, believes to be true facts than to make him proclaim what it, but not he, believes to be true opinions. Such an order “is totalitarian in nature and can never be justified under s. 1 of the Charter. It does not differ, essentially, from the command given to Galileo by the Inquisition to abjure the cosmology of Copernicus.”

Justice Beetz also rejected the arbitrator’s order that the former employer not say anything other than what the arbitrator required about the former employee. He pointed out that “one should view with extreme suspicion an administrative order or even a judicial order which has the effect of preventing the litigants from commenting upon and even criticizing the rulings of the deciding board or court”. Finally, while condemning the former employer, Justice Beetz pointed out that “under the Charter, freedom of opinion and freedom of expression are guaranteed to ‘everyone’, employers and employees alike, irrespective of their labour practices and of their bargaining power.”

All these points are important, and Canadian law is the worse for not having taken them more seriously. Most disturbingly, of course, we have seen in recent years recurring attempts to impose official dogma on dissenting individuals, whether by the Law Society of Ontario or by the governments of Canada and Ontario. But we also now have an asymmetrical Charter jurisprudence, notably in the realm of freedom of association, against which Justice Beetz correctly warned. And, while fortunately we have not seen attempts to stifle criticism of the judiciary or the administrative state by law, too many Canadian lawyers are intolerant of critiques of their judicial heroes.

2. Justice McLachlin (as she then was) in R v Keegstra, [1990] 3 SCR 697

Before she became, allegedly, the “Conscience-in-Chief” of Canada, or at least of the Central Canadian establishment, and a Chief Justice somewhat notorious for strong-arming colleagues into consensus, Justice McLachlin, as she once was, authored a number of important dissents. Famously, the one in Rodriguez v British Columbia (Attorney-General), [1993] 3 SCR 519 eventually, in effect, became Supreme Court’s unanimous position. The one in Keegstra did not. Even Chief Justice McLachlin, as she became, eventually resiled from it. That’s too bad.

In Keegstra, the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of the Criminal Code‘s proscription of hate speech. The four-judge majority upheld it as a reasonable limit on the freedom of expression. Justice McLachlin wrote for three (on the freedom of expression issue) dissenters. Her opinion is, perhaps, a little fastidious, and contains little in the way of memorable language, but it is thoughtful and deserves to be considered even by those who do not ultimately agree with her. Indeed, having argued the substantive case against the criminalization of hate speech elsewhere on this blog (and Emmett Macfarlane having discussed them in his contribution to this symposium), it is the more general or procedural points that I would like to highlight here.

For one thing, Justice McLachlin was fundamentally skeptical of content-based regulation of speech, and much sympathetic to the American approach, the views all such regulation with great suspicion. For another, Justice McLachlin firmly rejected the attempt to equate hate speech with violence. Violence, she stressed, involved the use of physical force, not words, even hurtful words. Furthermore, Justice McLachlin refused to read down the Charter‘s protection of freedom of expression in the name of equality: “it seems a misapplication of Charter values to … limit the scope of that individual guarantee [of freedom of expression] with an argument based on s. 15, which is also aimed at circumscribing the power of the state”. Compare this to the use of “Charter values” to impose egalitarianism on private actors and eviscerate religious freedom in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, [2018] 2 SCR 293!

Last but not least, consider Justice McLachlin’s insistence on the need for evidence to justify limitations on the freedom of expression. While acknowledging the appropriateness of some deference to the government on this issue, Justice McLachlin nevertheless wrote that, in order to avoid trivializing the justification of limitations on rights, “in cases … where it appears that the legislation not only may fail to achieve its goal but may have a contrary effect, the Court is justified in finding that the rational connection between the measure and the objective is absent”. Good intentions are not enough ― nor is the sort of ill-informed speculation, camouflaged as “common sense”, that has all too often sufficed in subsequent Supreme Court decisions.

Had just one vote gone the other way, and this opinion become the law, our constitution may well have been in much better shape than it is, far beyond the narrow issue of hate speech. As things stand, Keegstra has to count as one of the more significant missed opportunities in the Charter‘s history.

3. Justice Moldaver in Reference re Supreme Court Act, ss 5 and 6, 2014 SCC 21, [2014] 1 SCR 433, a.k.a. l’Affaire Nadon

In l’Affaire Nadon the Supreme Court was asked to opine on the eligibility of the judges of federal courts for appointment to the Supreme Court itself, and especially that of judges of the federal courts from Québec for appointment to one the Supreme Court’s Québec seats. It was, as readers will recall, a very high-profile and controversial case (more on which in a forthcoming book by Michael Plaxton and Carissima Mathen). The sort of case, in other words, in which the Supreme Court not infrequently issues unanimous opinions “by the court”. But Justice Moldaver’s dissent prevented the majority from giving itself this ultimate institutional imprimatur.

The majority held that, while judges of the federal courts were, as former lawyers, eligible for non-Québec seats on the Supreme Court, only current lawyers or current judges of the Québec’s superior courts could take one of the Québec seats. In doing so, the majority relied heavily on the idea that judges from Québec had to be not only experts in the civil law, but also representatives of Québec’s “social values”. This, they could not do without being current, not merely former, judges of Québec’s courts or members of the Québec bar.

For his part, Justice Moldaver dissected each of the majority’s arguments, and found them empty. In particular, as a matter of text, the two provisions governing eligibility for appointment ― the general one requiring judges to be or to “ha[ve] been” judges or lawyers of at least 10 years’ experience, and the specific one providing that Québec judges are to be chosen “from among the judges of the Court of Appeal or of the Superior Court of the Province of Quebec or from among the advocates of that Province” ― are “inextricably linked”. If the 10-year rule applies to Québec seats, as the majority accepted, so must the eligibility of former lawyers.

As for purpose, Justice Moldaver rejected the majority’s claim that the eligibility criteria had anything to do with the representation of Québec’s alleged “social values”. Indeed, “[i]mporting social values — 140 years later — is unsupported by the text and history of the [Supreme Court] Act”. The majority’s interpretation leads to the absurd result that judges not only of the federal courts, but also of Québec’s provincial court, are ineligible for appointment, while a lawyer who has done no more than pay his fees to the Québec bar while not engaging with the law at all could be appointed; so could a former judge who rejoined the Québec bar for a single day. While Parliament might have chosen such absurd criteria for eligibility and said so, “when interpreting a statute to determine what the relevant criteria are — i.e. what Parliament intended them to be — absurd results are to be avoided”.

As I have said here before, the majority opinion was not only wrong but pernicious; in particular, its linchpin, the concept of “social values”, was just self-important twaddle. Justice Moldaver deserves credit for exposing its vacuity. Rumour has it that he did it at some cost to himself. His fortitude, then, is to be commended as much as his legal acumen.


Honourable mentions: Justices Brown and Côté in Law Society of British Columbia v. Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, [2018] 2 S.C.R. 293, which I described here as “probably the best opinion to come out of the Supreme Court in a long while”, and Justices Martland and Ritchie in Re: Resolution to amend the Constitution, [1981] 1 SCR 753, a.k.a the Patriation Reference, which I plan on discussing further in a post on unwritten constitutional principles in a not-too-distant future.

Day Eight: Anna Su

University of Toronto

There are many reasons for judges (especially at the highest court) to write separate dissenting opinions. The first, in my view, is that it sets forth clear positions on the major legal issues of the day, ready to be taken on anew in a future judgment. In that sense, it is the Supreme Court that becomes the venue for important legal debate, especially for novel constitutional questions. It should not only be the task of academics to recognize and reflect on these significant controversies and to lead the intellectual discussion. A second, more canonical, reason for dissents is that some judge might perceive its truth somewhere down the road and it becomes law in the future. Of course, it might not always happen. But at the very least, at that moment, the possibility that judges can dissent can somewhat improve the majority opinion. Or at least one would hope. I chose these three opinions because they 1) clearly identify a recurring debate in constitutional law, and 2) I hope they could be a prompt for future justices to reconsider how they look at cases in that particular subject.

Justices Binnie and Lebel in Chaoulli v Quebec (Attorney General), 2005 SCC 35, [2005] 1 SCR 791

“This does not mean that the courts are well placed to perform the required surgery.”

In their joint dissent in Chaoulli, Justices Binnie and Lebel emphasized a minimalist role for the judiciary in deciding the question of whether the prevailing single-tier health care system in Quebec was compliant with the s.7 guarantee under the Charter. Both justices would have upheld the Quebec prohibition on private health insurance as they questioned the appropriateness of the court passing judgment on what constitutes “reasonable health services”. The dissent is persuasive in holding the dispositive effect of the phrase “principle of fundamental justice” – the bread and butter component of s.7 litigation – under close scrutiny. Indeed, as the dissent went, a legislative policy cannot be deemed arbitrary just because we may disagree with the decision. The dissent acknowledged that the existence of waiting times is certainly a public concern and that a two-tier health care system would have a negative impact on the integrity, functioning and viability of the public system, but it expressed skepticism that this is within the purview of courts to evaluate.

Over the course of its s.7 jurisprudence, the SCC has given the phrase “principles of fundamental justice” substantive content by defining them as principles against arbitrariness, vagueness, overbreadth and gross disproportionality. Arbitrariness in particular, refers to the relationship between the means adopted and the policy objective. The dissent shows the indeterminacy of this standard. In contrast to the characterization of the majority, the dissent showed an equally plausible and clear relation between the prohibition against private health insurance and the preservation of access to a health system based on need.

There will be many more cases to be litigated under s.7. A prominent one in the offing is the recently filed suit by minors against the federal government for violating their s.7 rights to life, liberty and security of the person for, among others, its failure to curb greenhouse gas emissions that is incompatible with a stable climate system. The question of whether courts are the right venues to seek relief thus remains evergreen. The broad themes of the Chaoulli dissent illustrate the limitations and possibilities of s.7 case law.

Justice Abella in Alberta v Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, 2009 SCC 37, [2009] 2 SCR 567

Justice Abella’s spirited dissent began with a succinct encapsulation of what the s.2(a) doctrinal framework is about. Freedom of religion is an important constitutional value. Accordingly, there is a high threshold to be met by any infringing measure. It is a very good illustration of what it means to take freedom of religion seriously in a pluralistic society, regardless of the final outcome. In this case, the controversy was whether the Hutterites were entitled to an accommodation from the mandatory photo requirement in drivers’ licenses on the grounds that their religion forbade them from having their photos willingly taken. Justice Abella laid out the drastic harm to the constitutional rights of the Hutterites, absent such exemption, since it would not allow them to maintain the autonomous and insular nature of their communities without any driving privileges.

This point is greatly appreciated especially in juxtaposition with how the majority opinion disposes of this argument, which suggested that the Hutterites could avail of third-party transport for necessary services. In his landmark essay Nomos and Narrative, the late legal scholar Robert Cover wrote about the jurispathic function of courts—that is, their ability to quash other commitments and forms of interpretation when they are incompatible with national norms. Religious freedom cases brought before courts often highlight this ability. In such cases, courts assert one law, often the state’s, to the rejection of all others. I am always reminded of this when I read opinions that make short shrift of the constitutional promise to celebrate pluralism and its guarantee to protect religious liberty. Justice Abella’s dissent in Hutterian is not one of them.

The dissent also fleshes out what proportionality stricto sensu in the Oakes test looks like. As the majority points out, this stage has not often been used in Charter cases.

Justice L’Heureux-Dubé in R v Van der Peet, [1996] 2 SCR 507

The dissent by Justice L’Heureux-Dubé in Van der Peet offers an explanation of why the ideal of legal reconciliation (one of the many dimensions of reconciliation) between Canada and its indigenous population remains an aspiration, rather than reality. Professor John Borrows, for instance, still criticizes the originalist framework for proving aboriginal rights that Van der Peet has ushered in and urges lawyers and academics to reject history as the sole determinant of legal analysis under s.35. But in 1996, Justice L’Heureux-Dubé already rejected the frozen rights approach she saw the majority opinion to be taking, and emphasized that “the notion of aboriginal rights must be open to fluctuation, change and evolution, not only from one native group to another, but also over time.”

In particular, her approach to interpreting aboriginal rights rejects the reliance

on the proclamation of sovereignty by the British imperial power as the “cut-off” for the development of aboriginal practices, traditions and customs overstates the impact of European influence on aboriginal communities. Taking British sovereignty as the turning point in aboriginal culture assumes that everything that the natives did after that date was not sufficiently significant and fundamental to their culture and social organization.  This is no doubt contrary to the perspective of aboriginal people as to the significance of European arrival on their rights.

Moreover, “crystallizing aboriginal practices, traditions and customs at the time of British sovereignty creates an arbitrary date for assessing existing aboriginal rights”.

And finally, Justice L’Heureux-Dubé writes:

the “frozen right” approach imposes a heavy and unfair burden on the natives: the claimant of an aboriginal right must prove that the aboriginal practice, tradition or custom is not only sufficiently significant and fundamental to the culture and social organization of the aboriginal group, but has also been continuously in existence, but as the Chief Justice stresses, even if interrupted for a certain length of time, for an indeterminate long period of time prior to British sovereignty. This test embodies inappropriate and unprovable assumptions about aboriginal culture and society. It forces the claimant to embark upon a search for a pristine aboriginal society and to prove the continuous existence of the activity for “time immemorial” before the arrival of Europeans.


Dissents in Canadian constitutional law opinions are far from being nasty “body slams,” as Dahlia Litwick describes dissenting opinions in the US Supreme Court, but they fulfill similar functions. At the very least, they enhance the legitimacy of judicial institutions since they reinforce the impartiality and independence of judges. There should be more of them.

Day Five: Matthew Harrington

Religious dissent

Université de Montréal

One of the most disappointing trends in Supreme Court jurisprudence is the increasing tendency to treat religion as a purely individual, private matter. In hindsight, Syndicat Northcrest v Amselem, 2004 SCC 47, [2004] 2 SCR 551 and Multani v Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys, 2006 SCC 6, [2006] 1 SCR 256, which seemed at the time to open up a wide range of new claims based on freedom of religion, appear to have been a short-lived detour. Since those decisions, the Court has had difficulty attempting to define the extent and breadth of religion claims in the public square, especially when those claims involve the rights of religious groups. Three dissents, in particular, show how the Court is moving away from the traditional notion of freedom of religion and slipping into a mindset that privileges irreligion rather than neutrality.

Justice Abella in Alberta v Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, 2009 SCC 37, [2009] 2 SCR 567

Hutterian Bretheren marks a significant turning point in the Supreme Court’s approach to the protection of religious liberty under Section 2(a) of the Charter.  The case involved a challenge to Alberta’s requirement that persons seeking a driver’s licence submit to having their photo taken. The Wilson Colony objected on the grounds that taking a photo would violate the Second Commandment prohibition on the making of “graven images”. The majority rejected the claim, asserting that the deleterious effects on the Hutterites’ ability to practise their religion were minimal. This is because the law in question did not deprive the Hutterites of a meaningful choice concerning the religious practises at issue.  Instead, all the law did was “impose a cost” on their choice. In a rather shocking passage, the majority then cavalierly asserted that the Hutterites could simply hire people to drive them to doctor’s appointments or contract with commercial trucking firms to transport their supplies and produce.  After all, what was at issue was “not a right, but a privilege”.

In one of two separate dissents, Justice Abella rightly took the majority to task for failing to give adequate respect to the religious interests involved. Abella J rightly chided the majority for failing to adequately balance the competing interests. Her main focus was on the harm to the Hutterite community. She noted that the photo requirement deprived the Wilson Colony of any meaningful choice because it forced them into a position of either giving up their beliefs regarding the Second Commandment or give up the self-sufficiency of the community. In effect, the majority’s solution (“hire drivers”) forced them to abandon their independence. There was no choice: they either violate the Second Commandment and get photos, or violate their beliefs about community independence and hire drivers. Of equal significance was Abella J’s observation that the majority was essentially adopting a hierarchy of law when it described the issuance of driver’s licences as a “privilege”. Abella J rightly noted that Section 1 of the Charter knows no difference between laws that are compulsory and those that merely grant privileges. Thus, she correctly dismissed the suggestion that the government’s granting of a privilege (whatever that is) is somehow subject to some lesser form of scrutiny.

Justice Deschamps in Bruker v Marcovitz, 2007 SCC 54, [2007] 3 SCR 607

Brucker involved a claim for damages by a wife against her husband for his failure to grant her a religious divorce as stipulated in the civil divorce settlement agreement. The Supreme Court dismissed the husband’s religion claim on the grounds that he was being insincere, and that performing the religious act in question would impose only a non-trivial burden upon him.

Justice Deschamps’ dissent begins with the very basic observation that Canadian courts should not be in the business of determining whether religious obligations are valid or not. In this case, Mrs. Bruker was not seeking compensation for an inability to remarry under the civil law; on the contrary, she wanted to be paid for not being able to get a religious marriage. How could a civil court possibly assess damages for not being able to obtain the benefits of a religious rite? Closely related to this point is Deschamps J’s observation that a contract to perform a religious right is no contract at all. This is because a contract in Québec requires that it concern the performance of a “juridical act”, which is effectively something the civil courts can supervise. A religious divorce cannot be a juridical act since the granting of it requires the cooperation of religious authorities over whom the courts have no power.

Justice Deschamps clearly has the better argument, and one that is more consistent with the then-existing precedent. Under any other circumstances, it is hard to imagine a Canadian court requiring a person to take Holy Communion or even say the Lord’s Prayer against his will. After all, in Amselem, the court would not even require the claimant to honour a real estate contract. Yet, here, the court seemed oddly content to penalise a man for not participating in a religious divorce. In order to reach this result, the majority took upon itself to make a judicial determination of what Judaism required in the process of getting a divorce. Justice Deschamps was on firm ground in warning that the courts should stay far away from this type of entanglement.

Justices Côté and Brown in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, [2018] 2 SCR 293

The TWU case may be the most unfortunate decision ever rendered by the Supreme Court. Couched in the language of diversity, the various opinions making up the majority reek of intolerance. It is clear from the outset that seven of the justices have no time for those who hold to the traditional view of marriage, and were willing to constrict the public square in such a way as to evict those who refuse to conform to current notions of equality. As in Bruker, the majority took upon itself to determine the appropriate content of a religious belief or practice.

The dissent by Justices Coté and Brown is an eloquent statement of what true diversity in a multicultural and multi-religious state entails. It reminds us of that real tolerance lies in ensuring that everyone has access to the public square — even those who hold opinions others might find offensive. Brown and Coté JJ correctly point out that a secular state is not one which enforces irreligion, but rather, which permits both the believer and the areligious to go about their business without hindrance or favour from the state. Thus, neither courts nor administrative agencies ought to be concerned with the “public perception” of what freedom of religion entails. On the contrary, the role of courts in these cases is “not to produce social consensus, but to protect the democratic commitment to live together in peace”. The fact that some people are offended by the TWU community’s beliefs should be of no concern to either the Law Society or the courts. The role of government is not to produce social consensus, but to protect the democratic commitment to live together in peace, even with people who have the temerity to hold opinions which we find reprehensible. Consequently, the result in TWU is to drive those who hold unpopular opinions from the public square.

Another significant aspect of the dissent is the criticism of Doré/Loyola framework. While the dissent notes that TWU was not a proper vehicle for reconsidering the Doré, it nonetheless criticised the majority for the deference it showed to the Law Society. In the view of the majority, an administrative decision-maker need only show that its decision “gives effect, as fully as possible to the Charter protections at stake given the particular statutory mandate”.  This effectively means that Charter rights are guaranteed only so far as they are consistent with the objectives of the enabling statute. Or, as Côté and Brown JJ noted, “[w]hen push comes to shove, statutory objectives — including, presumably, unconstitutional statutory objectives — trump the [Charter] right”.

Similarly, the dissent rejected the idea that “Charter values” are deserving of independent protection. More importantly, the dissent rightly rejected the idea that Charter values could be used to trump a specific Charter right. The obvious reason for this is that “values” are highly contested, so that allowing judges to decided cases on “shared” or “fundamental” values is an utterly specious exercise. As the dissenters write, “[i]t is therefore not open to the state to impose values that it deems to be ‘shared’ upon those who, for religious reasons, take a contrary view. The Charter protects the rights of religious adherents, among others, to participate in Canadian public life in a way that is consistent with their own values.” One hopes that a future Supreme Court will reconsider and abandon the Doré framework in its entirety, and reverse this intolerant decision.

Day Two: Kerri A. Froc

The Power of Saying No

University of New Brunswick

The ability to reject traditional reasoning, to say “no”, is a central part of feminist critique and practice. Student groups introduced the “no means no” campaign into popular consciousness over two decades ago to emphasize the importance of sexual consent. While it lost purchase because of its seeming implicit burden imposed on women to communicate non-consent, the original idea behind it was to shift cultural values. Women’s “no” could no longer be devalued as meaningless, or a challenge to be overcome, worse yet, as a disingenuous way of saying “yes”. 

Feminists often have to say “no” a lot, in terms of positively asserting that they reject inequitable, conventional understandings and refuse to go along. In a patriarchal culture, that becomes read as “sex negative”, as overly sensitive, or as biased (as the Chief Justice of the Quebec Court of Appeal recently discovered). While saying “no” is often powerful and sometimes a moral imperative, it wears on you.  As Ahmed says:

[A] no can still be dismissed as impertinent in the sense of rudely bold or boldly rude and can be judged as an act of political vandalism. So many refusals are dismissed in these terms; you might be free to say no but your no is heard as destructive; hearings have consequences (becoming a killjoy is a consequence)… For feminism: no is political labour.

So, in the dissents I want to talk about, I celebrate the refusal to “go along” in favour of what might be professionally risky for the judge or simply a great deal of effort wasted or ignored.  They represent ways of thinking that deserve another look.

Justice Frank Iacobucci in Little Sisters Book and Art Emporium v Canada (Commissioner of Customs and Revenue), [2000] 2 SCR 1120

In Little Sisters, federal customs officials, under the auspices of holding back material they deemed “obscene” under the Customs Act, targeted a lesbian bookstore for discriminatory treatment. While the majority found that there was discrimination in application, this could not be attributed to the Act itself, as “Parliament is entitled to proceed on the basis that its enactments ‘will be applied constitutionally’ by the public service.” This was notwithstanding that customs officers were ill-trained to identify obscene material, and that the process for challenging improper decision-making was lengthy and cumbersome. The multipart, legalistic Butler regime to determine obscenity was deemed sufficient to guide officers – the problem was not that the Act but the individuals applying its rules.

By contrast, Iaccobucci refused this characterization – he saw the problems as systemic and “baked into” the regime established by the Act, leading to lack of training, turnover of officers, lack of procedural fairness for importers, as well as “superficial and context-insensitive” review of materials. He found accordingly that the Act “practically invites” violations of s.2(b) freedom of expression.  The framework needed to be completely rethought from the perspective of expressive rights. 

His seems to be an eminently appropriate approach where a regime is so flawed that it can be reasonably anticipated that its operation will very likely result in rights violations.  In the same way, manufacturers cannot avoid tort liability completely where they make products with built-in design flaws, notwithstanding that harm could be avoided if those using them did so perfectly (rather than like typical human beings). Surely, fundamental constitutional rights demand at least as much protection (especially as those affected cannot avoid the state’s “product”). History proved Iacobucci J. right – Little Sisters continued to be targeted notwithstanding government promises in the Supreme Court appeal that it had improved the administration of the Act.  Nevertheless, I have tried in vain to find any court decisions where his dissent on this point has been taken up and applied.

Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dubé in Thibaudeau v Canada, [1995] 2 SCR 627

To borrow a phrase, Thibaudeau is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad equality decision, and the split amongst the judges is telling: the two female judges on the Court wrote separate dissents, with the male majority rejecting the section 15 claim. At issue was the treatment of child support under the Income Tax Act: it was taxable in the hands of custodial parents (98% of which were women) and a tax deduction for payors. Both justices analyzed the income tax regime through a gender lens, one that accounted for the realities of women raising children alone. The male judges relied on abstractions and legal fictions. 

The majority and concurring decisions found that there was no negative distinction, because in most cases there was a net tax benefit to the “family unit” (which no longer existed).  They thereby deemed egalitarian distribution of benefits to exist in families (even defunct ones!). This would notionally occur in separated families through “gross-ups” of child support to take into account tax consequences. If this version of “trickle down economics” did not occur and women had less money for their children, this inequality was “peculiar to specific cases” – the fault of individual judges or fathers not passing along tax benefits – and not the Income Tax Act. The justices refused to consider the unequal impact on custodial parents in their own right. 

In Thibaudeau, L’Heureux-Dubé J. gestures to the doctrine of coverture in underscoring how using the couple as the unit of analysis for adverse effects of the taxation rules obscures inequality.  She recognized the Act as the source of detrimental treatment because its “default” is that the benefit accrues completely to the non-custodial spouse and the detriment to the custodial spouse. The onus is on the custodial spouse to “wage an unremitting and costly battle, both emotionally and in the family law system,” if the family law system was to remedy the inequality completely through the gross-up mechanism.  Not only did this require judges to perform repeated calculations perfectly, it also did not consider the practical realities of separated family life with custodial parents – women – having less money for legal fees and needing to avoid antagonizing non-custodial spouses. Despite her reasons not carrying the day in court, Parliament was persuaded: child support became non-deductible, non-taxable in 1997.

This case is emblematic of the justice’s emphatic “no” to an analysis of a woman’s Charter case that is degendered and abstracted to the point of absurdity.  Constance Backhouse in her oeuvre, Claire L’Heureux-Dubé: A Life, documents the cost L’Heureux-Dubé J. pays for her rejections, including a fractious relationship with Justice (later Chief Justice) Antonio Lamer and a public, gendered attack by an appellate court judge following a sexual assault appeal popularly referred to as the “no means no” case, R v Ewanchuk, [1999] 1 SCR 330.

Her call to recognize the detrimental impact of default regimes that confer benefits to the more advantaged spouse would take nearly 20 years to be finally be recognized, in Quebec v A, 2013 SCC 5, [2013] 1 SCR 61.  Even then, the majority voted to justify provincial family law legislation excluding common law spouses under section 1 because it prioritized autonomy and “choice” of couples.   An approach that fully attends to conditions of subordination in which such “default” legislation operates has therefore yet to be fully embraced.

Justice Bertha Wilson in R v Morgentaler, [1988] 1 SCR 30

I wrestled with selecting the last “dissent”: do I adhere to the letter of these blog posts (dissents = a decision that is directly contrary to the majority on outcome) or the spirit (dissents = minority opinions that should have carried the day but didn’t)?  There are several other decisions in which I agree with the dissenters on outcome, but their reasons are not completely compelling. In the end, I decided to keep with the spirit and discuss an opinion that technically is a concurrence. 

At the time of Morgentaler (1988), Madam Justice Wilson was the only woman in a court that was not hospitable to women members, which makes her opinion even more remarkable for her refusal to “go along.” Relatively well known by now is that Justice Wilson departed from the majority by ruling that not only did the Criminal Code therapeutic abortion committee regime violate women’s security of the person due to its imposition of psychological trauma and unnecessary physical risk, any restrictions on abortion violated women’s right to liberty. She redefined liberty to include the right to make fundamental decision over one’s own life free from state interference, which included the decision as to whether to carry a pregnancy to term. In doing so, she created a more inclusive and objective conception of liberty over that gendered male. She remarked that the history of human rights had been “the history of men struggling to assert their dignity and common humanity against an overbearing state apparatus”, to the exclusion of “women’s needs and aspirations are only now being translated into protected rights”. Her conception of liberty came to inform majority decisions of the Court in cases like Blencoe v British Columbia (Human Rights Commission), [2000] 2 SCR 307.

Less cited, however, is how she found that the regime violated the principles of fundamental justice. She noted that Justice Lamer referred to other rights in sections 8-14 in interpreting fundamental justice in BC Motor Vehicles, thus leading her to surmise that the concept means not only procedural fairness but also consistency with other Charter rights and freedoms. Accordingly, “a deprivation of the s. 7  right which has the effect of infringing a right guaranteed elsewhere in the Charter  cannot be in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.” The abortion regime also infringed women’s freedom of conscience given that the state sought to override women’s own moral decision-making. Consideration of other rights violations as a breach of fundamental justice is profound – it recognizes that the Charter as a whole is an embodiment of what is just. In an article called “Constitutional Coalescence”, I argued this does not necessarily mean that one does, e.g. a mini-s.2(a) or s.15 analysis within section 7, but that an interpreter views the former rights through a different (potentially wider) lens, one that goes beyond a hyper-individualized and procedurally-based notion of justice to one that considers systemic structures of subordination. This is in stark contrast to other cases in which the Court has been at pains to keep rights conceptually separate and has declined to consider all rights in multiple rights claims. This led to what I refer to in my earlier work as a “watertight compartments” approach to the Charter leading to complete rejection of claims involving multiple rights. Despite its potential enrichment to our understanding of Charter rights, Wilson J’s innovation has not explicitly been taken up by other judges.


As Carissima Mathen has written in relation to equality,  a divided decision “that is the result of failure to reach agreement on ‘deep’ issues is preferable to one that, as the price of unanimity, remains ‘shallow.’”  The dissents that I have highlighted reflect the potential depth of dissenting decisions, and into which I hope future justices will mine for their wealth. 

It’s That Time of the Year

Announcing the second edition of Double Aspect’s 12 Days of Christmas symposium

Last year, Double Aspect celebrated yuletide by reviving the tradition of festive subversion that used to accompany this once-rowdy season and hosting, for the 12 days of Christmas, a symposium featuring Canadian legal scholars’ least favourite Supreme Court decisions of the last half-century. We had a lot of fun doing it, and so, we believe, did our participants. Most of our readers seem to have enjoyed it too; indeed, one of them wrote a lengthy blog post of his own to say so. But some were not so happy. They thought our little party was a bit too noisy; that court decisions, and the judges themselves, are not to be criticized too harshly, and that we needed to be more positive about our judicial betters.

Be that as it may, Christmas is coming (indeed, it already has arrived here in New Zealand, but Double Aspect still runs on North American time), and so is the second edition of the Double Aspect 12 Days of Christmas Symposium! This time, we’ll throw our critics a bone, in a sense. We will be celebrating (some) judges and their opinions. But we will be celebrating them for having had the courage, and the wisdom, to stand up to their colleagues, and to dissent.

Dissents are fun! Judges have more freedom in writing them, not having to accommodate as many, if any, colleagues, and of course the choice to dissent already reflects a certain independence of mind, a willingness to be, if only for the purposes of this one case, an unconventional thinker and someone who will, very publicly, not go along to get along. But, for the same reason, highlighting dissents also has a serious point for us: they involve criticism, sometimes implicit and sometimes very explicit and quite harsh, of judges and judicial majorities. Criticism by (gasp!) other judges!

Yes, whatever the upholders of the courts’ authority might tell us, judges themselves think that their colleagues are sometimes wrong. Indeed, saying so once in a while is, I would argue, one of the most important jobs appellate judges have. A dissent keeps the majority honest by pointing out what might be the fudges or the weaknesses in its arguments; it charts an alternative course for the law, which the law may yet take in the future; and it alerts the rest of the legal community to the need to reflect on the outcome of the case, because reasonable people can and already do disagree about it. All this is for the good of the law, and all this deserves a little celebration here.

So we are grateful to friends and colleagues who have taken time out of their merrymaking to join ours. In no particular order, we are pleased to welcome:

  • Dwight Newman
  • Kerri Froc
  • Jonathan Maryniuk
  • Bruce Ryder
  • Carissima Mathen
  • Emmett Macfarlane
  • Chantal Bellavance
  • Matthew Harrington
  • Anna Su
  • Howie Kislowicz

And of course Mark and I will be taking part as well. We are also very grateful to Constitutional Forum/Forum Constitutionnel, and to its editor, Patricia Paradis, because they will be publishing the collected contributions as a special issue in the coming months.

We have asked the contributors to list and briefly describe three dissents from Supreme Court judgments in constitutional or administrative law, explaining why they are significant or interesting. Some, I take it, have adopted a rather large and liberal interpretation of the notion of dissent, and perhaps even of that of the Supreme Court, but we are looking forward to celebrating disagreement, critique, and misrule with them, and with you!

Not Good Enough

The Supreme Court re-writes the law of judicial review in Canada, but not nearly well enough.

In a return to its sometime tradition of releasing high-profile decisions in the run-up to Christmas, the Supreme Court yesterday rendered its long-awaited judgment in the Great Administrative Law Do-Over, Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65. Co-blogger Mark Mancini has already written about it, but while his post is very good, I disagree with him, and with the Court’s majority, on a number of fundamental issues. Hence the need for this post. In my view, while well-intentioned and an improvement on the status quo, the majority opinion (jointly authored, ostensibly, by the Chief Justice and Justices Moldaver, Gascon, Brown, Côté, Rowe, and Martin) rests on weak theoretical foundations, and is open to future manipulation by courts that do not share its spirit or find it inconvenient in a given case.


The majority holds that when the courts review decisions made by decision-makers in the executive branch of government and other bodies acting pursuant to authority delegated by statute (for example municipal institutions, professional regulators, etc), there is “a presumption that reasonableness is the applicable standard in all cases. Reviewing courts should derogate from this presumption only where required by a clear indication of legislative intent or by the rule of law.” [10] (The presumption also doesn’t apply for issues having to do with the fairness of the procedure followed by the decision-maker.) The majority explains that “[r]easonableness review … finds its starting point in the principle of judicial restraint and demonstrates a respect for the distinct role of administrative decision makers”, [13] but nevertheless goes on to point to a number of “constraints” on administrative decision-makers that such review must enforce, thus ensuring, in the majority’s view, that they do not exceed the bounds of the authority delegated to them.

The presumption of reasonableness applies to most questions of law that administrative decision-makers must resolve. According to the majority, this is because

[w]here a legislature has created an administrative decision maker for the specific purpose of administering a statutory scheme, it must be presumed that the legislature also intended that decision maker to be able to fulfill its mandate and interpret the law as applicable to all issues that come before it. Where a legislature has not explicitly prescribed that a court is to have a role in reviewing the decisions of that decision maker, it can safely be assumed that the legislature intended the administrative decision maker to function with a minimum of judicial interference. [24]

Conversely, however, a legislature might in fact have “prescribed that a court is to have a role in reviewing” administrative decisions, either by legislating a specific standard of review or by providing a statutory right of appeal from these decisions (rather than relying on the background constitutional requirement that judicial review of administrative decisions be available). In such cases, its prescription is to be obeyed. The standard of review on appeal from an administrative decision is to be the same as on appeal from the decision of a court, which means that, on questions of law, decisions are reviewed for correctness, rather than reasonableness.

The other cases where the correctness standard will be applied are those where it is required by the principle of the Rule of Law, which according to the majority are questions of constitutional validity, “general questions of law of central importance to the legal system as a whole”, and questions of jurisdictional conflict between two administrative decision-makers. The first category remains as it was prior to Vavilov. In particular, the majority pointedly refuses to comment on the implications of its decision for the line of cases originating in Doré v Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 SCR 395, which have urged deference to administrative decisions applying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to particular disputes (as opposed to the validity of legislative provisions). By contrast, the second category expands, because it was previously supposed to limited to cases outside the administrative decision-maker’s expertise. Here and elsewhere, the majority rejects the role of expertise in determining the standard of review. (More on this below.) The majority also holds, however, that the Rule of Law does not require jurisdictional questions to be reviewed on a correctness standard.

With reasonableness thus asserted as the presumptive and dominant standard of review, the majority goes on to explain what it means. In cases where reasons are given by the administrative decision-maker, these become the focus of the analysis, which must be concerned not only with the outcome the decision-maker reached, but also with the reasoning process that led to it. The reasons must be read in context, however (notably “in light of the record” [96]). At this stage, contextual elements excised from the initial standard of review analysis, such as expertise, re-appear. While the majority insists that “reasonableness remains a single standard”, [89] of review, it also seeks to

account[] for the diversity of administrative decision making by recognizing that what is reasonable in a given situation will always depend on the constraints imposed by the legal and factual context of the particular decision under review. These contextual constraints dictate the limits and contours of the space in which the decision maker may act and the types of solutions it may adopt. [90]

In any case, however, the majority emphasizes the importance of the justification for the administrative decision being apparent from the reasons (and perhaps record) that support it. The justification cannot simply be added later, on judicial review.

The majority suggests that there are two main ways in which an administrative decision can be so flawed as to deserve to be qualified as unreasonable: “a failure of rationality internal to the reasoning process”, or “a decision … in some respect untenable in light of the relevant factual and legal constraints that bear on it”. [101] The first category points to requirements of logic and coherence. The second, to the principle that “[e]lements of the legal and factual contexts of a decision operate as constraints on the decision maker in the exercise of its delegated powers”. [105] These include, but are not limited to,

the governing statutory scheme; other relevant statutory or common law; the principles of statutory interpretation; the evidence before the decision maker and facts of which the decision maker may take notice; the submissions of the parties; the past practices and decisions of the administrative body; and the potential impact of the decision on the individual to whom it applies. [106]

Without fully summarizing the majority’s explanations of these points, I will note that it insists that administrative interpretations of law must not be permitted to “disregard or rewrite the law as enacted by Parliament and the provincial legislatures”. [108] The discretion permitted by these laws might be narrow in some cases and broad in others, but never unlimited: “[r]easonableness review does not allow administrative decision makers to arrogate powers to themselves that they were never intended to have, and an administrative body cannot exercise authority which was not delegated to it”. [109] Moreover, administrative decision-makers, no less than courts, are required to follow the “modern principle of statutory interpretation”, because

[t]hose who draft and enact statutes expect that questions about their meaning will be resolved by an analysis that has regard to the text, context and purpose, regardless of whether the entity tasked with interpreting the law is a court or an administrative decision maker. [118]

At the same time, the majority insists that reasonableness review on questions of law remains deferential; indeed it is no different from review “reviewing questions of fact, discretion or policy”, [115] and one should not expect “administrative decision makers … to apply equitable and common law principles in the same manner as courts in order for their decisions to be reasonable”. [113] Even “questions relating to the scope of a decision maker’s authority may support more than one interpretation”, [110] although this will not always be so.


To repeat, I do not share the widespread view that the majority opinion represents a great achievement for Canadian administrative law. To me, it is a dubious compromise that can and likely will be applied in contradictory ways. Justice Stratas has compared Canadian administrative law to “a never-ending construction site where one crew builds structures and then a later crew tears them down to build anew, seemingly without an overall plan”. (1) The latest structure is built on theoretical sand, and I would not bet on its long-term stability.

Most fundamentally, the majority’s justification for doubling down on the “presumption of reasonableness” that emerged over that last decade is weak. As I explained here, in Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190, the Court had articulated three rationales for deference: legislative intent, the expertise of administrative decision-makers, and the absence of determinable answers to legal questions. The Vavilov majority explicitly repudiates expertise as a justification for judicial deference, and renounces the (always implausible) claim that legal questions always lack determinate answers that courts can discover. It is left with, and doubles down on, legislative intent.

But its understanding of legislative intent is essentially made up. There is no actual evidence that legislatures intend the courts to defer to administrative decision-makers, at least in the absence of privative clauses which often purport to oust judicial review completely, and to which Canadian courts have long refused to give full effect, treating them instead as signals for deference. The majority doesn’t even discuss privative clauses, or any other indications (short of enacting standards of review by statute) that a legislature actually intended the courts to defer, including on questions of law. It just assumes it knows what the legislatures want. Yet legislatures might delegate powers to administrative tribunals for any number of reasons, ranging from a confidence in their technical expertise, to a desire to politicize a particular area of the law, to rank protectionism. It’s far from obvious to me that all of these entail a presumption of deference. Besides, although it commendably chooses to give way to legislative intent in holding that statutory appeals must be treated as, well, appeals, the majority doesn’t quite give up on imposing its own view of statutory language, insisting that section 18.1 of the Federal Courts Act is nothing more than a procedural provision that tells the courts nothing about the standard of review. This perpetuates the misbegotten holding of Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) v Khosa, 2009 SCC 12, [2009] 1 SCR 339, which Mark quite understandably listed as one of the worst decisions of the last half-century.

It would be much better to start with non-deferential correctness review as a default, and put the onus on the legislatures to indicate otherwise, ideally by legislation specifically addressing the standard of review or, perhaps, by privative clauses. That’s assuming that such indications are even constitutional, of course. I am yet to be persuaded that this assumption is warranted. I’m not persuaded of the contrary either, but I have my doubts. As I have explained here, Joseph Raz’s analysis of the Rule of Law seems to imply that administrative decision-making must be founded on correct application of stable legal rules by officials and, in order to ensure such correct application, review of their decisions by independent courts. In Vavilov, the majority (rightly, I think) implies that the principle of the Rule of Law can override legislative intent. That’s why constitutional and other centrally important questions trigger correctness review, whatever a legislature’s wishes. But the majority does not give nearly enough consideration to what the Rule of Law requires in the context of judicial review of administrative decisions.

In particular, while pretty much everyone from Justices Abella and Karakatsanis in the concurrence to Mark in his post cheers the abolition of the category of jurisdictional questions, I find it puzzling. Jurisdictional questions are supposed to be hard to identify and therefore a source of unnecessary confusion. Yet the truth is, everyone knows that such questions exist. The Vavilov majority itself mentions “questions relating to the scope of a decision maker’s authority”, [110] which is a plain-language definition of jurisdiction. In the companion case, Bell Canada v Canada (Attorney General), 2019 SCC 66, there was a statutory appeal right “on a question of law or a question of jurisdiction”. The concern really seems to be not so much that questions of jurisdiction are elusive and mysterious, but that, properly understood, this category is much broader than most people are comfortable with. It arguably includes most question of law. But that’s not a reason for pretending such questions don’t exist. If anything, it’s another reason for making correctness the default, if not the sole, standard of review on questions of law. The Rule of Law cannot permit the administrative state to expand its power just because courts shy away from the task of policing its boundaries.

The majority thinks it can address the concerns about the expansion of administrative power to which its embrace of reasonableness review gives rise by providing guidance on what such review requires. And there are genuinely commendable statements there, as Mark has observed. It is good that the majority recognizes, as some recent cases such as West Fraser Mills Ltd v British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal), 2018 SCC 22, [2018] 1 SCR 635 did not, that the powers or discretion of administrative decision-makers cannot be unlimited. It is good that it recognizes, contrary to Dunsmuir, that questions of law can, at least in many cases, be given definitive answers. And it is good that the majority instructs courts to be skeptical of the gaps in administrative decision-makers’ reasons, instead of filling them with “reasons that could be given” in support of their decisions.

I must admit, though, that I am puzzled by the attempt to square this recognition with the insistence on reasonableness review. Back in Dunsmuir, the Supreme Court said

[t]hat Reasonableness is a deferential standard animated by the principle that … certain questions that come before administrative tribunals do not lend themselves to one specific, particular result. Instead, they may give rise to a number of possible, reasonable conclusions. [47]

And of course in Vavilov itself the majority speaks of reasonableness being grounded in judicial restraint, which points to the same understanding of this concept. To me, talk of reasonableness review with only one reasonable outcome is blank prose. But perhaps that’s just an idiosyncratic understanding that I have.

More seriously, in addition to their conceptual problems, I think the reasons of the Vavilov majority contain a number of contradictions that undermine their attempt, if that’s what it is, to confine the excesses of the administrative state. For example, for all its insistence on a “robust” reasonableness review, the majority starts from the position that it is grounded in judicial restraint. Quite apart from my doubts about the usefulness of the term “judicial restraint”, I struggle to see how a standard of review can be robust and restrained at the same time. Or consider the majority’s warning that “[a]dministrative decision makers cannot always be expected to deploy the same array of legal techniques that might be expected of a lawyer or judge” and that “‘[a]dministrative justice’ will not always look like ‘judicial justice'”. [92] This seems to contradict the majority’s acknowledgment, elsewhere in its reasons, that the Rule of Law is undermined when the outcome of a legal dispute depends on the identity of the person resolving it.

Perhaps most fundamentally, the insistence that administrative decision-makers cannot “arrogate powers to themselves that they were never intended to have” [109] is not easily reconciled with the refusal to impose correctness review on jurisdictional questions. The majority holds that, subject to a requirement of justification, “a decision maker’s interpretation of its statutory grant of authority is generally entitled to deference”. [109] To my mind, this means that the administrative state is still the arbiter of its own authority, whenever a legislature fails to use sufficiently precise language ― or where a court thinks that a legislature has so failed.

Much will depend, then, on which strand of the somewhat schizophrenic majority opinion future judges decide to implement when they follow Vavilov. This is, I suppose, the price to pay for cobbling together a seven-judge majority (and getting all seven to not only agree but also sign on to this majority’s reasons), but I’m not sure that the result was worth it.


No doubt, Vavilov is an improvement over the status quo ante. Some of the wildest excesses of judicial deference to the administrative state, for example the refusal to give effect to statutory appeal provisions and the practice of making up reasons not actually given by administrative decision-makers the better to defer to them have been condemned. Some of the theoretical problems of the previous jurisprudence, notably its reliance on a fictional account of administrative expertise, have been overcome.

At the same time, the future is still difficult to predict. For one thing, Vavilov leaves some questions unanswered. For example, its guidance on questions of central importance, a seemingly expanded category of correctness review, doesn’t amount to much more than “you know it when you see it”. Perhaps more importantly, there is contradictory language in the majority opinion that can be pressed in the service of more or less deferential review, and it remains to be seen what future courts will do with it.

And, fundamentally, Vavilov is still unsatisfactory because, like the pre-existing administrative law jurisprudence, it is built on foundations that mix a fictional account of legislative intent with a tendency to favour, if not as much as before, the power of the administrative state at the expense of the judiciary. The responsibility of the courts, which are independent and whose sole commitment is supposed to be to law, not policy-making, to say what the law is is an essential safeguard for freedom and the Rule of Law. By perpetuating judicial abdication, covered up as “restraint” and deference”, in the face of the administrative state, Vavilov fails to live up to the judiciary’s constitutional role.