This last year has seen surprising developments throughout the Western world. Probably none is more surprising than the changes that have been the consequences of the election of American President Donald Trump. His daily Tweets (his preferred means of communicating White House policy it would seem) are often confusing, contradictory, and,…, well…, frankly concerning. Like many, I have found many of President Trump’s pronouncements troubling. They demonstrate to any who have the most basic comprehension of the proper functioning of western democracies that he does not understand or appreciate the importance of basic constitutional norms. Like freedom of the press. Or worse, like rule of law.
Today marks the 150th anniversary of the date that Canada’s constitution came into effect. While many are saying that today is Canada’s 150t birthday, it is more accurate to say that it is the “150th birthday” of Canada’s written federal constitution. On July 1, 1867, the British North America Act, now named the Constitution Act, 1867, came into force and the fledgling federation known as Canada was created. But Canada and her constitution existed long before that, Even in the political and legal sense of the word, “Canada” was a concept or an entity in one form or another well before 1867. There was the united Province of Canada, Upper and Lower Canada, and, of course, the indigenous nations that spanned the territories of what is now Caanda for long before 1867. But today, I would like to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Canada’s BNA Act (let’s use the former name today for old time’s sake). I would also like to take notice of what transpired recently in British Columbia to underscore that Canada and her constitution are much, much older than 150 years.
Today, in an 8:3 split ruling in R. v. Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, 2017 UKSC 5, the United Kingdom Supreme Court held that Parliament must first authorize the exercise of Article 50’s triggering of the notice for exiting the European Union. While this blog focuses on Canadian constitutional law, what I found of interest was the discussion by the majority on the role of royal prerogative under the Constitution. Much of that discussion is applicable in the Canadian context.
Yesterday, I did two things of note. First, I listened with interest to a webinar sponsored by our Constitutional and Human Rights Law Section of the Canadian Bar Association entitled “Access to Information at a Crossroads: Implications of the Long-gun Registry Case”. Second, I watched the televised returns of the American election.
Notwithstanding its title, the webinar was about rule of law and how access to information is inextricably interwoven with that concept. Its speakers were Suzanne Legault, Information Commissioner of Canada, and Dr. Vincent Kazmierski, Department of Law and Legal Studies of Carleton University. Using the Long-gun Registry case as an example, the speakers illustrated how the rule of law was involved and perhaps even imperilled from various perspectives. Dr. Kazmierski presented a thesis that postulated that the government of the day abused its powers to overwhelm legitimate rights to access to information and that, in so doing, disrespected essential elements of the principle of rule of law. (You can probably still listen to the excellent webinar by contacting the CBA Professional Development at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
This is just a quick post to note that Bill C-14 in the more restricted format passed by the House of Commons – for the second time – was just approved by the Senate by a 44 to 28 vote. Earlier, the Senate had returned the Bill to the House of Commons with a substantial majority of Senators agreeing that the House of Commons’ version was too restricted, especially considering the requirement that a person seeking medical assistance in dying (“MAID”) be at the point where his or her natural death was “reasonably foreseeable”. Constitutional experts had testified before the Senate to the effect that this version of the Bill was unconstitutional because it stripped away rights from a group of persons that the Supreme Court of Canada had expressly determined were theirs. So what next?
Government ministers and opposition leaders were in a flap this last week. The Senate dared to amend Bill C-14, the bill on physician-assisted dying and strike out one of the qualifications that the House of Commons had insisted on – namely, that natural death be reasonably foreseeable. Opposition Leader Rona Ambrose stated in response on June 9, 2016:
“We have the courts making laws in this country and now we have an unelected Senate changing the laws of an elected House….”
Minister of Health Jane Philpott stated that the government was “concerned” about the amendments to a bill that “has been supported by a vote in the House of Commons”. Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould called the amendment a “significant one” and said that it would “broaden the regime of medical assistance in dying in this country and we have sought to ensure that we, at every step, find the right balance that is required for such a turn in direction.”
On June 3, 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada yet again upheld the constitutional principle in support of professional secrecy between legal advisors and their clients. Justices Wagner and Gascon, rendering reasons for the Court in Canada (Attorney General) v. Chambre des notaires du Québec, 2016 SCC 20, underscored the importance of solicitor-client privilege, not only in the judicial system, but also in the legal system. Accordingly, in Chambres des notaires, as well as in Canada (National Revenue) v. Thompson, 2016 SCC 21, released contemporaneously, the Court held that the right to professional secrecy trumped the need of the government to be able to obtain accounting records of legal advisors in so far as they related to clients.
On February 16, 2016, the Quebec Superior Court upheld the Succession to the Throne Act, 2013, an Act of the federal Parliament that gave Canada’s assent to an Act before the Parliament of the United Kingdom that changed the rules of succession for the British monarchy such that the system of male preference primogeniture under which a younger son could displace an elder daughter in the line of succession was to be ended and also such that the rule that rendered anyone who married a Catholic became ineligible to succeed to the Crown was similarly removed. In Motard v. Procureur general du Canada et al., 2016 QCCS 588, Justice Claude Bouchard examined the question as to whether the amendments to the royal succession, and Canada’s assent to them, were changes to Canada’s constitution and, if so, whether Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982 was therefore engaged.
I do not think that anyone forecast a Liberal majority of the magnitude that swept the country last night. Sixty-eight and a half percent of eligible Canadian electors voted last night. Prime Minister-elect Justin Trudeau said that Canadians wanted “change – real change”. I think he is right. But what sort of change will that include and will it involve constitutional issues? The answer I think is “yes”. I will touch upon only four issues which require constitutional review or involves constitutional values.
On October 19, 2015, Canada goes to the polls. The hurly burly of the Canadian version of democracy has been on display since early August when Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked the Governor General to dissolve Parliament and to call this election. What many of us do not appreciate is that this spectacle is probably one of the best examples of our constitution at work.