The Charter Circle Game


Convivium, 21 June 2018

Some argue the Supreme Court left the Charter a wreck and a tangle with last week’s Trinity Western decision. But our Editor in Chief Father Raymond de Souza has a former Justice tell him it’s all part of making equality Canada’s concentric centre.

A Supreme Court Justice told me how the Trinity Western law school case was going to turn out. So, while very disappointed, I was not entirely surprised by last Friday’s verdict. 

Convivium writers more learned in the law than I will explain in due course what specifically all this will mean. Our publisher Peter Stockland last week highlighted what was at stake. I might simply recall here how we got to where we are. And I know, because a Supreme Court Justice told me. 

Not one currently on the Court, for that would be improper. And he did not tell me privately, otherwise I would be violating confidences to report it here. It was Justice Louis LeBel, who retired from the Supreme Court in 2015, when he answered a question I put to him at an academic conference. 

First some background. The Canadian Charter is not like other historic declarations of rights. It was passed only recently, in 1982, and so it is not the broad sweeping document that one might expect that asserts the rights of a free people. It was added to the Constitution of a country already 115 years old, with quite a bit of constitutional history behind it. It also was written in the era of a large State, with all the attendant legal complexity that brings. Thus, the Charter is rather full of limiting clauses, and explanatory bits, and technical clarifications. 

For example, section 6 deals with mobility rights, which are so important to the national union that they come before “life, liberty and security of the person” in section 7. Section 6 begins clearly enough, simply stating that “every citizen of Canada has the right to enter, remain in and leave Canada” and “every citizen of Canada and every person who has the status of a permanent resident of Canada has the right to move to and take up residence in any province; and to pursue the gaining of a livelihood in any province.”

That a bit of a mouthful but seems clear enough. Canadians can live where they like. But hang on, what about my government health insurance? That’s covered down in Section 6.3b: “the rights specified … are subject to … any laws providing for reasonable residency requirements as a qualification for the receipt of publicly provided social services.”

It doesn’t sing, but it does mean that provinces are permitted to make you wait a few months before qualifying for medicare.

Not so fast. What about “affirmative action” – as the charter put it in 1982, using language that everyone stopped using by the time the Charter was two decades old?

Section 6.4 includes this helpful clarification: “Subsections (2) and (3) do not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration in a province of conditions of individuals in that province who were socially or economically disadvantaged if the rate of employment in that province is below the rate of employment in Canada.”

Talk about Canadian exceptionalism! What other Charter includes comparative rates of unemployment?

The Supreme Court found that the religious liberty of Trinity Western University was violated when professional associations of lawyers refused to accredit it because of its religious beliefs and practices. That is a violation of those “fundamental freedoms” listed in Section 2. Indeed, “freedom of conscience and religion” is first on the list.

But there is the qualifying, limiting language of Section 1: “The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

So, if the Court thinks that parliament – or in this case a professional association of lawyers – limits your rights in a reasonable and justified way, then the Charter is cool with that. 

It seems, though, that with all the rights in the Charter, and all the attendant limitations and modifications and exemptions, there must be some ranking of rights in order to figure it all out. For example, if the fundamental freedom of religion at the top of Section 2 comes into apparent conflict with equality rights down in Section 15, what is to be done?

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