Thanks very much, Chair. Thanks for your support in getting this before members in a timely way.
Welcome, Tony Clement, to our committee.
This motion is before everyone. You will have received it. I sent a letter out on September 13, and then formally entered the motion on September 14.
It calls on the committee to undertake a study—nothing more, nothing less—into the potential for the routine use of section 33, or the so-called notwithstanding clause of the Constitution Act, 1982.
I've asked that constitutional experts and Attorneys General come to this committee to participate in a true dialogue about the nature of this clause under our Constitution and how Canadians should agree to deploy it in the future.
At the outset, Chair, I have four points to make about the motion.
First, I emphasize that this is not about a particular premier or event. The reason for the motion is that it now appears that some political leaders in our country may believe that the so-called notwithstanding clause can be used in a repeated and routine way, rather than as a tool of last resort to be reserved for very serious public policy matters. I believe that the founders of the charter intended it to be used sparingly, as Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed told his legislature in 1981.
Second, I recognize and acknowledge from the outset that the notwithstanding clause is an integral part of the charter. History will show that in 1981, it was inserted at the instigation of Premier Lougheed, and affirmed by B.C. Premier Bennett, as a compromise, in order that the rest of the charter could be enacted. It was truly the price of admission. I get that. I accept that it is every bit as much a part of the charter as other provisions that are better known and more frequently used.
Third, I'm not now arguing that this important debate needs to take place immediately. I understand that we are conducting a very important study of Bill C-75 right now. I also know that we're intending to study discrimination on the basis of HIV/AIDS. There are many other reasons of timing that may argue against proceeding right away with this study. I get that. I'm perfectly content to delay this conversation until later. All that I'm seeking is a clear commitment from this committee that we will undertake the study. Today all I want is a vote on this matter so that we have it on the record as to whether we are prepared to move forward or not.
Lastly, I believe there is no better forum for a critical conversation like this to take place than the justice and human rights committee.
Colleagues, I can't imagine a more important justice and human rights issue than the potential erosion, indeed trivialization, of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Members, what is my motion about, and what is it not about? This is not a partisan issue. It goes to the very basis of the constitutional arrangements that Canadians entered into in 1982, some 36 years ago. My motion concerns the possibility of any senior government—federal, provincial, territorial—routinely invoking section 33 of the Constitution Act.
As all members of this committee know, when a government invokes section 33, it passes a bill that suspends, for five years, a court decision relating to key charter rights. The notwithstanding clause overrules freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and freedom of association. It also deals with legal rights, like the right to life, liberty and security of the person, which was the foundation of a woman's right to choose. That was upheld in the Supreme Court of Canada, of course, in the Morgentaler case, and it was upheld more recently in the right to medical assistance in dying. It can override search and seizure rights and equality rights.
There are many decisions of Canadian courts that have made a difference to the LGBTQ2 community, from equality rights to same-sex couples in social benefits, from Nesbit and Egan all the way to same-sex marriage. These gains could be eroded at any time by a provincial or federal government. Indeed, the record will show, for example, that Alberta Premier Ralph Klein contemplated the use of this clause to override aspects of the same-sex marriage debate in his province.
I reiterate that my motion may have been prompted by, but is not about, a particular decision made in a particular province.
The context of my motion, of course, is well known: the decision by a premier in Ontario, for the first time in that province's history, to use the notwithstanding clause to deal with a dispute between the City of Toronto and the Province.
People may perhaps differ as to whether this kind of situation was what the framers of the charter intended with the notwithstanding clause.
As members know, the Ontario Court of Appeal made it unnecessary in this instance for the Ontario government to invoke the notwithstanding clause.
Again, that particular case is not in issue. However, it was a statement by the Premier that he would routinely and repeatedly use the notwithstanding clause that has caused constitutional lawyers across Canada such grave concern. The Ontario Premier's statement to use it repeatedly has been condemned by most constitutional lawyers and equality-seeking groups across Canada.
I don't know about you, Mr. Chairman, but I have been inundated by calls from prominent constitutional lawyers. I'd refer members to YouTube to see, for example, two colloquiums—one at the University of Ottawa, another at the University of Toronto—that were prompted by recent events and the fear that the Charter of Rights will be eroded.
The possibility of systematic recourse to the notwithstanding clause, and the erosion of the Canadian Constitution are extremely troubling for the generation of lawyers like myself who grew up and practised at the time when Canada adopted the Charter. I believe that over the last 36 years since it came into effect, the Charter was used only 15 times, and by only three Canadian legislatures. This bears witness to the fact that its exceptional use was the express intent of the provincial premiers and the Prime Minister of Canada at the inception of the Charter in 1982. It was meant to be a measure of last resort. The fact that it was only used 15 times in 36 years in only three legislative assemblies attests to that reality.
Both Prime Minister Chrétien and premiers Romanow and Davis, as well as the Honourable R. Roy McMurtry, energetically contended that that was not the intention at the outset. They knew, since they were there.
It is not sufficient to simply express one's disappointment to see the Premier of Ontario use clause 33 to systematically request that judicial decisions in connection with our constitutional rights be annulled, or simply to declare that we have to defend our Constitution. Former Prime Minister Martin swore to never use the notwithstanding clause in connection with federal laws. Former Prime Minister Mulroney is also firmly opposed to the use of this provision.
Could the committee recommend to the federal government that it respect the clear commitment made by two prime ministers, one from the Liberal party and the other from the Conservative party?
Let me be clear. Some have stated that the only two ways to address this issue are to either open up the Constitution and make an amendment to limit the inappropriate use of section 33, or to invoke something that most of us think is a constitutional dead letter, the so-called disallowance power. I want nothing to do with either of those options. I hope I've made that clear.
The reason for my motion is to see if experts and Attorneys General can generate other options. For example, is it now a “convention”—that is, part of our unwritten Constitution—that since the resort to section 33 has been so infrequent, and since the politicians who brought the charter to us have all confirmed the original intent, perhaps there is already a convention to that effect? Alternatively, perhaps Canadian leaders of goodwill could commit to limit its use, as I believe the framers of the charter intended.
Mr. Chair, I don't have all the answers. I don't pretend to. That is why I believe this committee is the appropriate place to show leadership and to try to come up with answers using the best expertise available to us.
In conclusion, thank you for your indulgence. I would ask that each of you consider this motion for what it is: an opportunity to begin an open-minded discussion with constitutional experts and others who may wish to join us, so that we might learn from them and evaluate options that could be employed to protect all Canadians' charter rights from the routine and systematic use of the notwithstanding clause.
I look forward to a vote today on this critically important issue.