What to Make of the Constitution

I have written a post on the Senate Reference hearings for I-CONnect, the blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law. In large part, it follows up on and develops some of the ideas I had in my first impressions post last week, with a bit more context. I am cross-posting it below.

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Over the course of three days last week, the Supreme Court of Canada heard submissions from the federal government, the ten provinces, two territories, two ami curiae, and several interveners on the constitutionality of the federal government’s proposals for reforming the unelected upper house of the Parliament of Canada, the Senate. Beyond the obvious importance of possible Senate reform, which has been discussed almost as long as Canada has existed, this case is potentially of great significance because it is the first time the Court considers the meaning of Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982, which includes Canada’s plethora of procedures for constitutional amendment.

The questions the Court is called upon to answer concern four possible reforms. First, the limitation of the terms of a senator’s office, currently held until a retirement age of 75, to a fixed number of years (possibly 9 or 10) or to the life of two Parliaments (about 8 years under normal circumstances, but shorter in the case of minority governments). Second, the creation of a system of consultative elections to be held in the provinces that desire it, the winners of which the Prime Minister would be required to “consider” recommending to the Governor General for appointment to the Senate. Third, the removal of the “property qualification” of $4000 to hold senatorial office, a considerable sum in 1867, meant to ensure the Senate’s position as the House of privilege, but by now a somewhat comical relic of an age long gone and little lamented. And fourth, the outright abolition of the Senate.

The first three of these reforms, the federal government argued, could be implemented by Parliament acting unilaterally, either under s. 44 of the Constitution Act, 1982 (for term limits and the property qualification) or under the residual “peace, order and good government” power of s. 91 of the Constitution Act, 1867 (for consultative elections). As for abolition of the Senate, the federal government took the position that it could be done under the “general” amending formula of the Constitution Act, 1982, requiring the consent of 7 provinces representing at least 50% of Canada’s population (the “7/50 formula”). Most provinces, as well as the interveners, however, are of the view that the instauration both of term limits and of consultative elections can only be done under the 7/50 formula, and that abolishing the Senate requires the provinces’ unanimous consent.

Legally, the reasons for these disagreements come down to differences over the proper way of interpreting Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982. Part V applies to changes to “the Constitution of Canada,” and provides several different amending formulae, ranging from unilateral action to agreement between the federal Parliament and all the provinces, depending on the subject of the proposed amendment. The trouble is that the subjects singled out for special amending formulae are described in confusing terms, making it unclear under which provision of Part V a proposed amendment falls. But the confusion goes even deeper, because the very definition of “the Constitution of Canada,” to the amendments to which Part V applies, is unclear and incomplete.

Over the course of arguments before the Supreme Court, there emerged three interpretive approaches that the Court might adopt. The federal government’s preferred approach is―its denials notwithstanding―literalist. On this reading, the “powers of the Senate” entrenched by s. 44 do not include any senatorial independence that might be compromised by shortened term limits. The expression “method of selecting senators,” in the same provision, refers only to the formal appointment by the Governor General, and not to the fact that Senators are understood to be appointees lacking electoral legitimacy. And, since the list of constitutional changes requiring unanimous agreement of the provinces in s. 41 of the Constitution Act, 1982, does not specifically mention the abolition of the Senate, it does not cover it.

A second approach, championed by Québec, might be called originalist, in that it focuses on preserving the bargain struck at confederation in 1867. The Senate was, all agree, a central element of that bargain, so it is not to be touched without the consent of the parties to that bargain―that is to say, the provinces as well as the federal government. And even if some of the expectations of these parties, such as those regarding senatorial independence, have not been fulfilled, they must be upheld “regardless of reality.”

Most provinces, however, as well as the interveners and the amici curiae, urged the Court to take what was often described as the “living tree” approach, focusing not so much on the words of the constitutional text or the historical compromises that gave birth to it as on what matters most for its present and future operation. So the “method of selecting senators” is not only the part of the selection process described in the constitutional text (i.e. the appointment by the Governor General); “the powers of the Senate” include its independence, whatever exactly that might be (since it is clear that the Senate is, in fact, a political, partisan body); and the requirement of unanimous consent applies not only to the changes listed in s. 41, but also to other fundamental changes to the constitution.

In reality, however, interpretive approaches are not so neatly distinct. In what an intervener described as a dangerous application of the living tree approach, the federal government urged the Court to allow Parliament to bring the Senate into the 21st century, and not to require unrealistic levels of political agreement, condemning the country to another “135 years of talks.” Conversely, those opposed to the federal government’s proposal made much of the fact that the abolition of the Senate was simply not contemplated when the amending formula was being drafted in 1981, arguing that this, rather than the relative unimportance of such a change, explained its conspicuous absence from s. 41. As a bemused Justice Rothstein put it to Manitoba’s lawyer, “whatever works?” “Welcome to the law,” she replied.

What works, and what doesn’t, are questions that will weigh heavily on the Court’s collective mind. What works with an amending formula which, although drafted merely a generation ago, seems to reflect a very different country than the one in which we now live? A country where constitutional negotiations were not being described as the opening of a “can of worms,” and where agreement on substantive constitutional change seemed within reach; a country much preoccupied by the then-Prime Minister’s suspected republicanism, but not all by the prospect of the abolition of the Senate; a country that thought nothing of ruling its northern territories like colonies, and its First Nations like subject peoples, whose views on constitutional change could safely be ignored. What sort of authority can a constitutional text drafted under such circumstances have? Yet saying that this text is insufficient to meet the needs of today―never mind those of the years and decades to come―only forces one to confront the question of what sort of authority the Supreme Court has effectively to re-write it.

Yet the Supreme Court of Canada has not been shy about intervening in constitutional reform in the past. It stopped possible Senate reform in its tracks with the in 1979, prevented unilateral Patriation of the constitution in 1981, and ruled that a unilateral secession of Québec would be illegal in 1998. In none of these cases was it relying on explicit constitutional provisions. In all of them, it ruled that constitutional change required a broad agreement between the federal government and the provinces, and could not result from unilateral action. Although it is, of course, dangerous to make such predictions on the basis of questions asked at oral argument, insofar as it concludes that Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982 does not clearly reflect this preference for consensus, the Court did not seem very likely to heed the federal government’s call for it not to treat the constitutional text as a mere “suggestion box.”

2 thoughts on “What to Make of the Constitution

  1. Pingback: Senate Reference Notes | Double Aspect

  2. Pingback: The Façade and the Edifice | Double Aspect

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