Strange Property

Last week, a Conservative Member of Parliament proposed a constitutional amendment that would protect (some) property rights in Alberta. The amendment would add a section to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, providing that

In Alberta, everyone has the right not to be deprived, by any Act of the Legislative Assembly, or by any action taken under authority of an Act of the Legislative Assembly, of the title, use, or enjoyment of real property, or of any right attached to real property, or of any improvement made to or upon real property, unless made whole by means of full, just and timely financial compensation.

In the last Parliament, identically worded amendments were proposed for Ontario and British Columbia. Emmett Macfarlane has blogged about Mr. Hillyer’s proposal, explaining the uncertainty about the amending formula that would have to be used to add this provision to the Charter and suggesting that

 it would seem undesirable to have a patchwork of different rights in different provinces across the country. The Charter project itself was intended as a national unity project. If we started adding different, province-specific rights, what might that do to our conceptions of Canadian citizenship?

However, as prof. Macfarlane points out, s. 16.1 of the Charter is a province-specific provision, applicable only in New Brunswick; so is subs. 16(2), while pursuant to s. 59 of the Constitution Act, 1982, par. 23(1)(a) of the Charter does not (yet?) apply in Québec. The Constitution Act, 1867 also has some asymmetrical rights-protecting provisions (notably paragraphs 93(1)-93(4) and section 133). Differences between provinces, which we might call horizontal asymmetries, are already a feature of the rights landscape in Canada (quite apart from provincial rights-protecting legislation, such as Québec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms) ― which is not to say that it is a good idea to add to them.

Mr. Hillyer’s proposed amendment would create an asymmetry of another (and, if anything, more unusual) sort too, a vertical one, between the rights protected against the federal Parliament and a provincial legislature. The Charter generally protects rights equally against Parliament and provincial legislatures. The only exception again concerns language rights, which are only protected against Parliament (and the province of New Brunswick). I’m not sure there is any strong normative principle that would go against vertically asymmetrical rights protection, but thought the matter worth highlighting.

Mostly though, I want to raise some questions about the substance of the proposed amendment. You might think that, having lamented the absence of constitutional protections for property rights and economic liberty in Canada (most recently last week, here and here), I would be happy about an attempt to include property rights in the Charter. But I’m not happy about the way Mr. Hillyer’s proposal (and its predecessors) would do it.

The proposed amendment is very narrow: it would only protect real property from expropriation without compensation. In other words, while landowners would be assured of an indemnity for any interference with their property, those whose fortune, great or small, consists in property of other kinds (whether it is money in the bank, shares, or intellectual property rights) could be expropriated without compensation of any sort. This sort of protection for property rights would tend to benefit the well-off, while doing nothing at all for those to poor to own land, such as the offenders made to pay an arbitrary “victim surcharge” on top of other punishment imposed on them. Indeed, the proposed amendment would not even protect all the owners of real property equally. It does not limit the reasons for which property can be taken by the government, provided that compensation is paid. It allows, for instance, expropriations intended to transfer land to private developers, which ― at least in the United States ― tend to fall much more heavily on the poor than the well-off.

Property rights, and economic rights more generally, became the poor relation of Canadian constitutional law (and to a lesser extent even of the American constitutional law) in large part because of the perception that they were being or would be used to protect the rich and to prevent the state from helping the poor. I have been arguing that this perception is mistaken, and that we could help the marginalized members of society resist the encroachments of a state that typically serves the interests of the middle and upper classes by protecting their economic rights. Mr. Hillyer’s proposed property rights amendment would not do that. On the contrary, it would confirm the fears of those who resist the protection of economic rights, and thus set back the cause of inclusion and economic liberty for all.

A further important point here is that constitutional change ― whether it is Senate reform or the addition of a new right to the Charter ― deserves to be broadly debated, so that its implications can be worked out and understood. The 7/50 amending formula, for all its flaws, more or less guarantees that amendment will not happen without debate. Attempts at constitutional change through the path of least resistance, whether unilateral Senate reform or a province-by-province modification of the Charter risks being poorly thought through (quite apart from its other defects from the standpoints of constitutional law and/or political morality) because it is insufficiently debated. It is not a good idea.

H/T: Benjamin Oliphant

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