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.
It is almost exactly one month to Election Day in Canada and the party leaders have been making all sorts of statements with a view to garnering sufficient votes to form the next government. Some of their statements, however, have had constitutional implications. In today’s Globe & Mail, Professor Eric Adams of University of Alberta has presented a quick summary of the leaders’ misconceptions as to who gets to form a government in the event there is no one party with a majority in the House of Commons. His article, “Minority Governments: The constitutional rules of the game” outlines how Conservative leader Stephen Harper, NDP leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau all get it wrong when it comes time to articulating the rules for formation of government.
On July 27, 2015, Prime Minister Stephen Harper named Mr. Justice Russell Brown of the Alberta Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. Justice Brown has been a judge for two and a half years. I am not going to comment on whether Justice Brown is or is not a good appointment. His track record as a judge is too short to be able to honestly answer that question. Only time will tell. But I am going to comment on the process, or more properly speaking – the lack of process, that the Prime Minister is following.
This week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that there would be no further Senate appointments on his watch – either the Senate will be abolished or there will have to be substantial reforms to the Senate before he alters this position. The Prime Minister says that it is up to the provinces to come up with a solution. This is apparently part of his election platform. The question has to be posed: is the Prime Minister acting unconstitutionally?
The Supreme Court of Canada recently pronounced on the appropriateness of a municipal council insisting on a prayer before holding its meetings. In Mouvement Laique Quebecois v. Saguenuay (City), 2015 SCC 16, Justice Gascon for the majority (Abella J dissenting on the question of the variable test for judicial review of administrative tribunals) held that City of Saguenay’s bylaw which provided for the use of such a prayer, even if it did not derive from any particular denomination, nonetheless offended the freedom of religion of atheists and agnostics (the freedom not to believe) and was therefore inoperative.
By a 5 to 4 margin, in Quebec (Attorney General) v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 14 (referred to as the Long Gun Registry case in this post), the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on March 27, 2015 that the Quebec government had no right to insist that, before destroying all data in the now defunct federal long gun registry, the federal government hand over to it the data relating to Quebec resident long gun owners. Two and a half weeks later, by a 6 to 3 margin, in R. v. Nur, 2015 SCC 15, the Court held that the mandatory minimum sentence for possessing prohibited firearms was contrary to s. 12 of the Charter and was not justified under s. 1. What is of interest, besides the result in these two cases, is how the Court divided and the basis for its division.
In a decision made in late 2014, the Quebec Court of Appeal affirmed the legal profession’s unique role in undertaking constitutional challenges. In a unanimous decision (Vezina, Savard, and Vauclair JJA), the Court upheld Justice Roy’s decision to reject the Government of Canada’s application to strike the claim of the Barreau du Quebec for want of standing. The relatively short decision, Canada (Procureur general) v. Barreau du Quebec, 2014 QCCA 2234, was released on December 4, 2014 and was a judgment “par la Cour”.
Photo of Future SCC Justice Suzanne Cote from Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt website
Prime Minister Harper announced late last week that his choice for replacing soon to retire Justice Louis LeBel was Suzanne Cote, a respected member of the Quebec bar and commercial litigator with the esteemed law firm of Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt. While his choice of judge cannot be faulted, the manner in which he is carrying out this nomination can be.
The constitutional principle respecting access to justice was given a major shot in the arm today. In what I consider to be a stunning decision, the Supreme Court of Canada has given real force and effect to this unwritten constitutional principle and ruled that British Columbia’s civil hearing fee regulations are unconstitutional. The Court is increasingly aware, it would seem. that the unwritten constitution may be as important and sometimes more important than the written one. The decision of Trial Lawyers Association et al v. British Columbia, 2014 SCC 59 is a game changer.