Constitutional protection of a collective exercise of freedom of expression: Alberta v. UFCW


The Supreme Court has now clearly determined that the collective and social exercise of the fundamental freedoms enumerated by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is worthy of constitutional protection and scrutiny. This was not always so.

The 1987 trilogy – limiting the scope to that of individual exercise 

In 1987, a trilogy of cases (Reference re Public Service Employee Relations Act (Alberta), [1987] 1 SCR 313, PSAC v. Canada, [1987] 1 SCR 424; RWDSU v. Saskatchewan, [1987] 1 SCR 460] severely limited the scope of the fundamental freedom of association. The Supreme Court ruled in those cases that freedom of association could not encompass the activity of collective bargaining because an individual could not, on his or her own, bargain collectively. The logic was then that freedom of association belonged to individual persons only and that this freedom of association could not be enlarged in scope simply by the individuals acting in concert. Since an individual could not bargain collectively, individuals acting together could not claim that their freedom of association extended to an action that they could not individually carry out. This unfortunate (in my respectful opinion) determination knocked the stuff out of freedom of association for a quarter century.

Dunmore 2001 and the move to undo the tie to individual exercise

Starting in 2001, the Court began to erode away the underpinnings of the 1987 trilogy’s constitutional legacy. In 2001, Bastarche J, speaking for the Court, breathed new life into the s. 2(d) freedom of association. He dispensed with the argument that freedom of association had to be limited to those activities that an individual could conduct individually:

“As I see it, the very notion of “association” recognizes the qualitative differences between individuals and associations. It recognizes that the press differs qualitatively from the journalist, the language community from the language speaker, the union from the worker. In all cases, the community assumes a life of its own and develops needs and priorities that differ from those of its individual members….”

Of interest is the fact that Bastarache J had already started to recognize the communal, collective or social quality of important aspects of the fundamental freedoms (expression, association). In other words, it is not just freedom of association that is important from a collective perspective but also freedom of expression (and logically and necessarily, freedom of religion –though not expressly noted by Bastarache J in the examples given). Indeed, in the example of the press differing qualitatively from the journalist, Bastarache J expressly acknowledges that that aspect of the s. 2(b) freedom has important uniquely collective characteristics. The “press” as it has evolved in its current forms has many collective qualities – from the joint editorship and control over publication to the mass readership and dissemination of the product.

Perhaps, due to Canada’s constitutionalized bilingualism and recognition and protection of collective linguistic and aboriginal rights, the Court had become more accustomed to concept of collectively exercised rights. Maybe this was why Bastarache J. was led to refer to the example of the language community differing from the language speaker.

In any event, certainly by 2001, the Court was leaving behind the rigid philosophy that individual rights and freedoms could have no greater scope than the scope carved out by the exercise of such rights or freedoms by an individual. By the time of Dunmore, the Court was already flagging its inclination to accept that the human condition has certain fundamental components that are communal, social or collective in nature and that fall within the ambit of the constitutionally protected rights and freedoms.

2013 Alberta v. UFCW – the union’s freedom of expression

Enter the Court’s decision in Alberta (Protection of Information and Privacy Commissioner) v.UFCW, 2013 SCC 62 released on November 15, 2013. While many may consider that the importance of this case was the fact that the privacy of the individual was held to be secondary in importance to the union’s interests (which is undoubtedly a matter of great importance), what caught my eye was the Court’s reference to the “union’s freedom of expression”. Justices Abella and Cromwell gave the reasons for judgment for the Court. In the opening paragraph of their reasons for judgment, the Justices explained what issue was being determined in the appeal:

“This appeal requires the Court to determine whether Alberta’s Personal Information Protection Act unjustifiably limits a union’s right to freedom of expression in the context of a lawful strike. At issue is whether the Act achieves a constitutionally acceptable balance between the interests of individuals in controlling the collection, use and disclosure of their personal information and a union’s freedom of expression.”

(emphasis added)

In paragraph 25, the Justices state: “the Act does not include any mechanisms by which a union’s constitiutional right to freedom of expression may be balanced with the interests protected by the legislation” (emphasis added). Later, at paragraph 30, they quote with approval from the International Labour Organization that “[t]he exercise of freedom of association and collective bargaining is dependent on the maintenance of fundamental civil liberties, in particular…. freedom of opinion and expression”: Report of the Director-General: Freedom of association in practice: Lessons learned (2008), para. 34.

Thus, a right that is conferred by the Charter on “everyone” has become a constitutional right of a union, an entity that by its very definition is a collectivity. The express recognition by the Court of the importance of the collective exercise of some of the fundamental freedoms, including freedom of association and freedom of expression has far-reaching implications.

Ramifications and implications

Concepts are not “expressed” in a vacuum. They are expressed by one person to one or more other persons. They are discussed among people in groups in communities, formal and informal. Ideas and concepts and thoughts are shared, shaped, moulded and adapted by individuals and groups of persons, individuals and groups whose membership is constantly shifting. This has always been a core element of human expression. Now the Court has clearly confirmed that it is worthy of constitutional protection.

The significance of this development must be appreciated in the context of the world we now find ourselves in. Marshall McLuhan’s concepts of a global community have been realized through the advent of the Internet and world wide communication systems. The term “Friends” has taken on new significance with communities built on Facebook.  With a click of a computer key, people can share their ideas, their thoughts, their photos, their music, their videos with hundreds or thousands or millions of people. “Viral” used to be something only with negative connotations. Now, if you launch a video that goes viral, that may be a fantastic development.

In a future post, I will outline what I think the ramifications of this “collective”, “social” or “communal” constitutional protection are.  For now, I will say simply that the world is a different place today and the Court apparently is adapting its jurisprudence to reflect that condition.

Until then, I remain

Constitutionally yours

Arthur Grant

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