Canada’s Constitutional Legacy: ‘Notwithstanding’ its framers?

October 19, 2018

Written by guest blogger, Ben Gilding.


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It is timely, even more so than I could have possibly intended, that my article emphasising the role of the British Colonial Office in defining the features of Canadian Confederation should be published in the Canadian Historical Review at a time when the constitution—albeit a newer section of it—is once more making headlines. I am, of course, referring to Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s decision to invoke the ‘notwithstanding’ clause in order to push through his reform of Toronto’s municipal elections. The Ontario Superior Court ruled that Ford’s bill violated freedom of expression under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which was entrenched in the constitution during its repatriation in 1982. To combat the Court’s ruling, Ford invoked the ‘notwithstanding’ clause, which allows governments (provincial or federal) to temporarily override rights and freedoms outlined in sections 2 and 7-15 of the Charter. These include freedoms of religion, association, and expression, among others. Since then, it has been revealed that the new Premier-designate of Québec, François Legault is threatening to make use of the same clause to ban the wearing of religious symbols by provincial civil servants, leading the Premier of B.C. to remark on the appearance of a ‘domino effect’ on the use of the controversial clause.[1]

Constitutional debates pitching courts against politicians are, of course, nothing new in Canadian history. This is not to say that the current case involving Ontario’s use of the ‘notwithstanding’ clause is in any way justified by historical constitutional jurisprudence. Rather, it is simply to point out that the courts have decisively intervened at various stages in Canadian history through the interpretation of key clauses of the constitution.[2] This, of course, gave rise to the disputes between originalist and ‘living tree’ interpretations of the Canadian constitution which have oftentimes been falsely perceived as dichotomous. Originalists, in short, attempt to uncover the original meaning of the constitution through the intentions of its framers. The advocates of the ‘living tree’ doctrine, on the other hand, argue that the constitution ought to be seen as an organic structure that is adaptable over time. That these are not mutually exclusive attributes of a written constitution with a formula for amendment is not only self-evident but also admitted by Lord Sankey, the founder of the ‘living tree’ metaphor. In 1931, he declared that, ‘[i]nasmuch as the [British North America] Act embodies a compromise under which the original Provinces agreed to federate…the process of interpretation as the years go on ought not to be allowed to dim or whittle down the provisions of the original contract upon which the federation was founded.’[3]

Ontario’s recent controversial use of the ‘notwithstanding’ clause has prompted a response from several of the framers of that provision (former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow, and former Chief Justice of Ontario, Roy McMurtry). These three, famously involved in the so-called ‘kitchen accord’, argued that the ‘notwithstanding’ clause “was designed to be invoked in exceptional situations, and only as a last resort after careful consideration.”[4] The assumption behind the release of this joint statement, and much of the commentary in the press and on social media surrounding this controversy suggests that the intentions of the framers matter in constitutional jurisprudence. Not that they ought to rule supreme and fossilize archaic notions into the structure of what would thereby become an increasingly obsolete document; but that they ought to be considered and accounted for in a rational debate concerning the principles that define the national character and the institutions of state.

Upon this assumption—that the intentions of the framers matter in constitutional jurisprudence—my article examines the ideas and motivations of what I term ‘the silent framers’ of Canada’s original constitution. These were the political and permanent staff of the British Colonial Office who, alongside the already-familiar “Fathers of Confederation,” drew up the provisions of the British North America Act that continue to shape politics today. Notwithstanding the Confederation debates, the recent furore surrounding Ontario’s use of the Charter’s overriding clause suggests that Canada’s constitutional legacy is still far from settled, 151 years after its inception.

 

[1] Richard Zussman, “B.C. premier surprised by ‘domino effect’ of use of notwithstanding clause.” Global News, 5 October 2018, https://globalnews.ca/news/4518008/bc-premier-horgan-notwithstanding-clause/

[2] See John T. Saywell, The Lawmakers: Judicial Power and the Shaping of Canadian Federalism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002).

[3] Privy Council Appeal No. 38 of 1931, p. 7. <http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKPC/1931/1931_93.pdf>

[4] “Chretien, Romanow and McMurtry attack Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause.” Maclean’s, 14 September 2018, https://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/chretien-romanow-and-mcmurtry-attack-fords-use-of-the-notwithstanding-clause/


Ben Gilding is a PhD candidate at Christ’s College, Cambridge. His research currently focuses on domestic responses to imperial crises in the British Empire in the “age of revolutions” (circa 1765–95). His article “The Silent Framers of British North American Union: The Colonial Office and Canadian Confederation, 1851–67 ” is free to read in the latest issue of the Canadian Historical Review. Read it here!

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