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!