Peter Lougheed and the Constitution, Notwithstanding

PDF version: Peter Lougheed and the Constitution, Notwithstanding

Commenting on: The legacy of section 33 of the Charter

I am not a conservative, as anyone who knows me or reads Rate My Professor is already aware.  But notwithstanding my political stripes, I was a fan of Peter Lougheed.  My kids were charmed when they heard him read Christmas stories at the Lougheed House many years ago, and my daughter and I once met him at an opera at the Banff Centre – again, we were charmed.  More pertinent to the law, he was the premier who repealed Alberta’s sexual sterilization legislation (the Sexual Sterilization Repeal Act, 1972, SA 1972, c 87) and brought in our first human rights act (the Individual’s Rights Protection Act, SA 1972, c 2), showing a strong commitment to the protection of individual rights.  But it is one of his contributions to constitutional law that I will comment on in this post.

Peter Lougheed was, of course, Alberta’s premier at the time the Constitution Act, 1982 was patriated.  It has been widely noted in recent tributes that he was one of the main drivers behind section 33 of the Charter (the nothwithstanding clause) and section 92A of the Constitution Act, 1867 (which broadened provincial powers over natural resources).  I will leave the legacy of section 92A to others; my interest here is the legacy of section 33.

Many books have been written about the negotiations leading to the Constitution Act, 1982, and I will only hit the highlights relevant to section 33 in this post.  A clause entrenching the power of legislatures to override Charter rights was first raised at the First Ministers’ Conference on the Constitution in September 1980 by Quebec.  This type of clause was seen as “a way to overcome the objections of those governments [all but Ontario and New Brunswick] that saw an entrenched charter as a threat to the parliamentary system of government.”  (Roy Romanow, John Whyte, and Howard Leeson, Canada…  Notwithstanding: The Making of the Constitution 1976-1982 (Toronto: Carswell / Methuen, 1984) at 200).  At that time, it was still unclear whether provincial consent to the patriation of the constitution, including the entrenchment of a bill of rights, was required.  In Re: Resolution to amend the Constitution, [1981] 1 SCR 753, the SCC decided that it was a matter of constitutional convention that patriation of the constitution required a substantial level of provincial consent.  At a subsequent First Ministers’ Conference in November 1981, where the provinces had more bargaining power, they raised again the possibility of a notwithstanding clause when the Charter was on the table.  There was intense debate about whether such a clause was necessary and what it should cover, with Peter Lougheed taking a strong position that provinces should be able to override fundamental freedoms as well as legal rights and equality rights (Romanow et al, supra at 208-9).  This is the position that ultimately prevailed in the agreement reached by the federal government and all provinces but Quebec on November 5, 1981: “in a classic example of raw bargaining, Trudeau was persuaded to accept the override on fundamental freedoms on the condition that the entire override mechanism be limited to a five-year period” (Romanow et al, supra at 211).  After the notwithstanding clause was agreed to, women successfully mobilized to have the sex equality guarantee in section 28 of the Charter exempted, which now provides that “Notwithstanding anything in this Charter, the rights and freedoms referred to in it are guaranteed equally to male and female persons” (See Penney Kome, The Taking of 28: Women Challenge the Constitution (Toronto: Women’s Press, 1983); Romanow et al, supra at 213-14).

As enacted in 1982, Section 33 of the Charter provides that:

33.(1) Parliament or the legislature of a province may expressly declare in an Act of Parliament or of the legislature, as the case may be, that the Act or a provision thereof shall operate notwithstanding a provision included in section 2 or sections 7 to 15 of this Charter.

(2) An Act or a provision of an Act in respect of which a declaration made under this section is in effect shall have such operation as it would have but for the provision of this Charter referred to in the declaration.

(3) A declaration made under subsection (1) shall cease to have effect five years after it comes into force or on such earlier date as may be specified in the declaration.

(4) Parliament or a legislature of a province may re-enact a declaration made under subsection (1).

(5) Subsection (3) applies in respect of a re-enactment made under subsection (4).

Ford v A.G. Quebec, [1988] 2 SCR 712, was the first Supreme Court of Canada case to consider the constitutionality of the use of section 33 of the Charter.  The Court reviewed Quebec’s invocation of section 33 in a statute, An Act respecting the Constitution Act, 1982, SQ 1982, c 21, which re-enacted all Quebec legislation adopted before the Charter came into force, with the addition in each statute of a standard override provision.  This legislation was seen as a protest against the entrenchment of the Charter without Quebec’s support.  The Court held that section 33 imposes requirements of form, and its use could not be reviewed for substance.  In addition, while section 33 could be invoked in relation to multiple Charter rights and multiple enactments, it could not be used retroactively (at para 36).

Ford confirmed that section 33 was a potentially powerful tool for legislators.  Leading constitutional scholar Peter Hogg predicted that Ford’s ruling against the retroactive operation of section 33 might encourage its prospective use, as legislators might be inclined to include section 33 override provisions in legislation out of caution, to prevent the situation where legislation was struck down by the courts as contrary to the Charter but the judicial decision could not then be overridden retroactively (Peter Hogg, Constitutional Law of Canada, 5th ed. (Toronto: Thomson Reuters, looseleaf), Section 39.6).

However, section 33 has not been invoked very often outside of Quebec.  In fact, as noted recently by the Supreme Court, “resort to s. 33 by legislatures has been exceedingly rare” (see Ontario (Attorney General) v Fraser, 2011 SCC 20, [2011] 2 SCR 3 at para 141, per Rothstein and Charron JJ. in a concurring judgment).  This is rather surprising in light of the argument that the Charter has resulted in rampant judicial activism (see Ted Morton and Rainer Knopf, The Charter Revolution & The Court Party, Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2000).  Even the framers of the Charter apparently did not anticipate that the judiciary would play the kind of role in remedying unconstitutional legislation that they have played (see e.g. The Hon. Barry Strayer, Q.C., “The Constitution Act, 1982: the Foreseen and Unforeseen” (2007) 16 Constitutional Forum 51 at 60, citing as examples cases where courts have extended underinclusive benefits provided by government).  Morton and Knopf note that Peter Lougheed (amongst others) continued to advocate the use of section 33 in response to controversial court decisions even after his term as Premier ended (supra at 17, citing Robert Fife, “Ex-premiers call for use of Charter’s ‘safety-valve,” National Post, March 1999, A1).

Although it has been employed infrequently, section 33 has been used in Alberta.  In 1998, following Vriend v Alberta, [1998] 1 SCR 493 (in which the Supreme Court read “sexual orientation” in to Alberta’s human rights legislation after finding that its exclusion violated equality rights under section 15 of the Charter), the Alberta government under Premier Ralph Klein considered the use of section 33 to override this decision.  It ultimately rejected this option (see Morton and Knopf, supra at 164), although it did take the province several more years to explicitly amend the legislation (see Linda McKay Panos’ 2009 ABlawg post Proposed Amendments to Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act Off the Mark). Two years later, at the height of the debate about same sex marriage, the provincial government amended the Marriage Act, RSA 2000, c M-5, to define marriage as that “between a man and a woman” (section 1(c)) and added section 2, which provided that “This Act operates notwithstanding (a) the provisions of sections 2 and 7 to 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and (b) the Alberta Bill of Rights.” Section 2 of the Marriage Act expired in 2005, before there was an opportunity to challenge its validity. The Supreme Court’s decision in Reference re Same-Sex Marriage, 2004 SCC 79, [2004] 3 SCR 698, confirmed that the power to determine whether same sex couples have the capacity to marry belongs to the federal government under section 91(26) of the Constitution Act 1867, not to the provinces. While the Alberta government had tried to shield its definition of marriage by using section 33 of the Charter, that provision could not have saved the invalidity of the Act on division of powers grounds – there is no equivalent to section 33 under the Constitution Act, 1867.  Surprisingly, the current version of the Marriage Act still contains the same definition of marriage, but Alberta marriage commissioners have been performing same sex marriages in this province since 2005 regardless.

According to Hogg (supra, section 39.2), the only other uses of section 33 outside of Quebec have occurred in the Yukon (in legislation that never came into effect – see the Land Planning and Development Act, SY 1982, c 22, section 39(1), concerning nominations to boards by the Council of Yukon Indians) and in back to work legislation in Saskatchewan (see the SGEU Dispute Settlement Act, SS 1984-85-85, c 111, section 9).

Although it has been used infrequently, this is not to say that section 33 has been largely irrelevant.  It has often been used as an interpretive tool, for example to support the argument that Charter rights which are not subject to the notwithstanding clause are particularly important.  In Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 SCR 217 at para 65, the Court noted that the principle of democracy was “affirmed with particular clarity” in the Charter, in that the requirement for regular elections in section 4 was not made subject to section 33.

Similarly, in Sauvé v Canada (Chief Electoral Officer), 2002 SCC 68, [2002] 3 SCR 519 at para 11, a case involving the voting rights of federal prisoners, it was noted that the “special importance” of section 3 of the Charter, which guarantees the right of every citizen to vote, was “signaled … not only by its broad, untrammeled language, but by exempting it from legislative override under s. 33’s notwithstanding clause” (at para 11, per McLachlin CJ for the majority).  The dissenting justices disagreed with this interpretive approach, stating: “There is little evidence of the intention behind excluding democratic rights (along with mobility rights, language rights, and enforcement provisions) from the ambit of s. 33, nor has this Court ever seriously considered the significance of such exclusion.  The Chief Justice’s conclusion … requires examination before it can be used as support for nearly insulating the right to vote from s. 1 limitations.”  (at para 96 per Gonthier, J., L’Heureux-Dubé, Major and Bastarache JJ. concurring).

The Court later clarified its position in Figueroa v Canada (Attorney General), [2003] 1 SCR 912, 2003 SCC 37, stating that “limits on s. 3 require not deference, but careful examination…  .  As the Court observed in [Sauvé], s. 3 is one of the Charter rights that cannot be overridden by the invocation of s. 33 of the Charter.  This highlights the extent to which s. 3 is fundamental to our system of democracy and indicates that great care must be exercised in determining whether or not the government has justified a violation of s. 3”  (at para 60 per Iacobucci, J. for the majority).

In an oft-quoted passage, the Supreme Court also explained how section 33 interacts with section 1 of the Charter in R v Oakes, [1986] 1 SCR 103 at para 63:

It is important to observe at the outset that s. 1 has two functions: first, it constitutionally guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in the provisions which follow; and, second, it states explicitly the exclusive justificatory criteria (outside of s. 33 of the Constitution Act, 1982) against which limitations on those rights and freedoms must be measured.  Accordingly, any s. 1 inquiry must be premised on an understanding that the impugned limit violates constitutional rights and freedoms — rights and freedoms which are part of the supreme law of Canada.

This passage confirms that governments need not justify violations of Charter rights which are the subject of declarations under section 33.  Nor is a government’s usage of section 33 itself subject to section 1 review, as the requirements of section 1 – “reasonable” limits “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society” – would entail the sort of substantive review rejected in Ford.

The Supreme Court has also noted that Aboriginal rights are not subject to section 33, as they fall outside the Charter in Part II of the Constitution Act, 1982 (See e.g. R v Sparrow, [1990] 1 SCR 1075 at para 47).  This exclusion has not translated into a lack of power or in fact any particular burden on the part of governments to justify violations of Aboriginal rights.  The burden on governments to justify such violations was found in Sparrow to flow from the Crown’s fiduciary obligations rather than from section 1 of the Charter or the exclusion of section 35 from the section 33 override (at para 62).

Section 33 has also been used to explain and justify the scope of judicial review under the Charter, as well as to illustrate the notion of a dialogue between the courts and legislatures.  For example, in Vriend, Justice Iacobucci stated that:

a great value of judicial review and this dialogue among the branches is that each of the branches is made somewhat accountable to the other.  The work of the legislature is reviewed by the courts and the work of the court in its decisions can be reacted to by the legislature in the passing of new legislation (or even overarching laws under s. 33 of the Charter).  This dialogue between and accountability of each of the branches have the effect of enhancing the democratic process, not denying it.  (at para 139, citing Peter Hogg and Allison Bushell, The Charter Dialogue between Courts and Legislatures (Or Perhaps the Charter of Rights Isn’t Such a Bad Thing after All) (1997) 35 Osgoode Hall L. J. 75).

Justice Major also cited section 33 in his dissenting opinion on the remedy in Vriend.  He was of the view that although the omission of sexual orientation under Alberta’s human rights legislation was discriminatory, the Court should not read that ground in to the law.  Instead, it should be left to the legislature to decide whether to add sexual orientation to the legislation or invoke the notwithstanding clause (at para 197).

What about the role of section 33 in the debate about whether we have moved from a state of parliamentary supremacy to one of constitutional supremacy?  In R v Newfoundland Association of Provincial Court Judges, 2000 NFCA 46, the Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal stated that: “While theory can be advanced that parliamentary supremacy was not really tempered by the Charter‘s advent because the Charter, itself, rests on parliamentary consent and authority, or because of the notwithstanding provision in s. 33 of the Charter, there is no need to venture into that avenue here” (at para 571).  Section 33 is, of course, part of the constitution, so to the extent it allows a measure of parliamentary supremacy to continue, this is itself an aspect of constitutionalism.

Section 33 may not have been used as often as Peter Lougheed and the other Gang of Eight premiers expected when they advocated the inclusion of this provision in the Charter.  And they may not have foreseen that it would underpin the courts’ view of their strong role in reviewing legislation for compliance with the Charter to the extent that it has.  Some might argue that, in spite of allegations of judicial activism, the courts have been rather timid in giving Charter rights their full force (particularly redistributive / social and economic rights), so that governments have not found the need to resort to section 33 very often.  Others might say that the deployment of section 33 powers would be politically risky, although if used rarely, such a deployment might also provide an important opportunity for public debate on contentious issues (see Hogg, supra, section 39.8).  Another view is that if governments are not using section 33 to the extent they could, it may be because the Charter is exerting a strong normative force on law making, regardless of the power to opt out of some sections (for an example of this sort of argument see John Whyte, “Sometimes Constitutions are made in the Streets: the Future of the Charter’s Notwithstanding Clause” (2007) 16 Constitutional Forum 79).  Whichever way you look at it, section 33 is much more than an artifact of our constitutional history, and the passing of one of its advocates provides a sad, but important opportunity to reflect on its significance.


About Jennifer Koshan

B.Sc., LL.B (Calgary), LL.M. (British Columbia). Professor. Member of the Alberta Bar. Please click here for more information.
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3 Responses to Peter Lougheed and the Constitution, Notwithstanding

  1. The Ballad Of Peter And Pierre

    By Donald W. MacFarlane*

    Author’s Note: In 1973 and 1974 following OPEC’s sudden increase in world oil prices the federal Liberals froze Canada’s domestic oil prices and imposed the now infamous crude oil export tax. This is a humorous chronicle of the events which ensued as Peter Lougheed, Alberta’s premier, addresses Merv Leitch, his Attorney-General. Bill Dickie, the former Liberal leader was Alberta’s Minister of Mineral Resources, and Allan Blakeney was the premier of Saskatchewan.

    Said Peter to Merv, “We have need
    From these meddlesome feds to be freed.
    We’ve really been screwed
    By their tax on our crude,
    Now draft me a “law” they must “heed.”
    Said Mervin to Peter, “I will,”
    As he reached for his inkpot and quill.
    After pondersome thought
    He said, “See what I’ve wrought,
    The Petroleum Marketing Bill.”
    The caucus was quickly convened
    So the Bill could be thoroughly screened.
    They concluded as fact
    That their BNA Act’s
    Jurisdiction was not contravened.
    But Bill Dickie still said, with a frown,
    “As a Grit I once gained some renown,
    So I quake at the thought
    That we all may get caught
    With our pants constitutionally down.”
    But the premier would not be denied
    As he plaintively, proudly replied:
    A man of the Crown
    With his pants fully down,
    Would really have nothing to hide.
    Though Interprovincial trade
    Is an area we cannot invade.
    Still its true in reverse
    That the province’s purse
    Isn’t subject to federal raid.
    The caucus agreed with a roar;
    There was nothing for Pete to say more
    He’d make it quite clear
    To each federal ear
    That he’d fight them till hell freezes o’er.

    So the Court will soon have to decide
    No longer the fence can it stride
    Will Peter’s Commission
    Yet come to fruition
    Or its orders be all set aside?
    Now we shift to Saskatchewan’s scene
    The land from which thousands have been;
    Where some N.D.P.
    Like their own pastures free
    But the other guy’s field seems too green.
    Trudeau’s tax, Alan Blakeney moans,
    Is on oil which Saskatchewan owns,
    He’s stolen the meat
    We’re entitled to eat
    And left just a big “pile of bones.”
    So Blakeney’s concocted an Act
    Which he says cannot now be attacked.
    Pierre’s Pirates, he swears,
    Will really get theirs
    If again his resources are sacked.
    But Alan has problems in store
    For his Act may have loop-holes galore,
    The first, we suspect,
    Will be quite indirect,
    When ninety-two (two) hits the floor.
    But Alan, like Peter, has hope
    That the blanket-like comforting scope
    Of one hundred and nine
    Will help to confine
    Those sections the feds may invoke.
    But to shore up his Bill, he has found
    That the freehold must also be bound
    And so every lease
    He now will police
    And the surcharge applies all around.
    But the story remains to be told
    Will his take-over legally hold
    When on this clear ploy
    Freehold rights to destroy
    Their Lordships are finally polled.
    For the surcharge may yet be a tax
    If Bora’s inclined to relax
    Past judicial design

    The feds to confine
    So look out Al, here comes the axe.
    Though these Lochinvars out of the West
    May do their political best
    No doggerel meter
    Can help Al or Peter
    To feather their provinces’ nest.
    For if federal attempts all should fail
    These provincial statues to nail
    There’ll be nothing to do
    Failing ninety-one (two)
    But let Otto Lang carry the mail.
    For this Minister once made a vow
    That this federal-provincial row
    Had angered him so
    And also Trudeau
    That these Acts they might well disallow.
    It’s a general advantage we know
    To have several strings to one’s bow
    But Otto’s large quiver
    Makes all of us shiver
    Lest he finally declare where we’ll go.
    But if we’re judicially conned
    And the feds with the spoils still abscond
    Perhaps even yet
    The west may still get
    Its rewards in the oil patch beyond.

    Now we come to 1980 and once again the federal provincial energy confrontation has been renewed…

    Six years ago Peter decreed
    That from the feds he had need to be freed
    He’d no longer be screwed
    By their tax on his crude
    And he’d push through a law they must heed.
    And Blakeney, you’ll likewise recall,
    When the feds had his back to the wall
    Said: “I’ll too pass an Act
    Which can’t be attacked.”
    But it was, and the courts had a ball.
    Then along came High River’s Joe Clark

    The somnolent Tories to spark
    He defeated Trudeau
    And the East were a’glow
    That they now wouldn’t freeze in the dark.
    But Lougheed’s reaction to Joe
    Was not much improved from Trudeau
    And Bill Davis, still stunned
    By the Heritage Fund
    Concluded that Joe too must go.
    So it was that this neophyte lad
    Who thought that he couldn’t be had
    Was politically axed
    By the gas that he taxed
    And the West once again became sad.
    And Trudeau who’d threatened to quit
    When he lost to Joe Clark, in a snit,
    Was raised from the dead
    And his Liberals he led
    Like a Carterized “born again” Grit.
    So they’re squabbling and scrapping once more
    As they were back in ‘74
    But it’s not quite the same
    For Peckford’s new game
    Is to claim all resources offshore.
    Joe Clark had been kind and benign
    And agreed these reserves to assign
    To the Newfoundland crew
    Without much ado
    But the Grits will not toe such a line.
    Says Trudeau to Peckford, my friend
    We feds will fight on to the end
    If you think its a bluff
    We can really get tough
    And the case to the courts we will send.
    And back in Alberta, meanwhile
    There isn’t a grin or a smile
    There’s no friendly bond
    With Trudeau’s Lalonde
    And Peter has walked his last mile.
    For Lougheed thinks Marc has his brass
    To suggest that the export of gas
    Should be taxed by the fed
    Though they’re deep in the red

    So six guns will blaze at the pass.
    But what of our friend from Quebec
    The notorious Rene Levesque
    Though he lost his own vote
    It’s worthy of note
    We have saved his political neck.
    Though we thought that this separatist theme
    Was wholly a Francophone scheme
    It’s alarming of late
    That a separatist state
    Seems more like a Westerner’s dream.
    Yes, the signal’s abundantly clear,
    For all who are able to hear
    That the country’s a mess
    And it’s anyone’s guess
    If we’ll still be Canucks come next year.
    But perhaps with some luck we’ll connive
    As a country and somehow survive,
    For comparing the gain
    To the loss we’d sustain
    We’d best keep the effort alive.

    *The late Donald MacFarlane was a veteran Calgary oil patch lawyer.

  2. Robert Janes says:

    The neglect of s. 33 by politicians (who now seem to view it as illegitimate and suspect) and by more recent court decisions has had a negative effect on the modern interpretation, or rather application, of s. 1 of the Charter. In recent years the courts seem to have given greater force to s. 1 as a means of giving deference to the legislative will of Parliament and the legislatures. This is, I would suggest, most easily seen by the courts’ reluctance to test the evidentiary basis for interference with Charter rights in the legislative context (see Newfoundland (Treasury Board) v. N.A.P.E., 2004 SCC 66, [2004] 3 SCR 381 as an example of this trend). This puts to much weight on s. 1 as a device for limiting rights as opposed to affirming rights particularly if courts gave greater consideration to the fact that if the legislatures really wanted to override rights because of an emergency or for a reason that appeared irrational or to do so without having to face a searching consideration of the evidence supporting a proposition it could do so by means of s. 33. The fact that s. 33 has in practice fallen into a form of desuetude has actually had the unfortunate effect of making s. 1 as much the protector of parliamentary sovereignty as a protector of rights, a result that I doubt any of the drafters actually believed was intended.

  3. Jennifer Koshan says:

    Thanks for your comment Robert. I think you make a good point about section 1. People often lose sight of the fact that section 1 both affirms rights and allows reasonable limits. The SCC highlighted this in Oakes, of course, but that case is usually cited for the reasonable limits test alone. Another example of this kind of deference to government under section 1 without requiring much evidentiary support is in the majority judgment in Alberta v. Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, 2009 SCC 37.

    For an alternative approach to section 1, ABlawg readers might be interested in the Women’s Court of Canada “judgment” in NAPE, available here: Your argument that the Nfld / Labrador government could have used s.33 in that so-called emergency is also well taken (and see the WCC judgment for a critique of the finding that there was a “fiscal crisis”).

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