The constitutional notwithstanding clause1 set out in section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (hereinafter referred to as the Charter of Rights or the Charter) has been controversial since its emergence from a November 1981 Federal-Provincial Conference of First Ministers. The controversy became more pronounced at the time of the 15 December 1988 Supreme Court of Canada decisions in the Ford2 and Devine3 cases dealing with the signage provisions of Quebec’s Bill 101 (Charter of the French Language) and the subsequent adoption by the Quebec National Assembly of Bill 178 (An Act to Amend the Charter of the French Language). This legislation contained a section 33 override clause (in this case affecting Charter of Rights guarantees of freedom of expression (section 2(b)) and equality rights (section 15)).
After setting out the content of the section 33 notwithstanding clause, this paper will trace its development in 1981 and describe the potential use then ascribed to it by its drafters, parliamentarians and others. The paper will then go on to point out actual instances when the notwithstanding clause has been invoked. Finally, it will present a number of arguments for and against the use of the clause.4
Content of Section 33
Section 33(1) of the Charter of Rights permits Parliament or a provincial legislature to adopt legislation to override section 2 of the Charter (containing such fundamental rights as freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of association and freedom of assembly) and sections 7-15 of the Charter (containing the right to life, liberty and security of the person, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention, a number of other legal rights, and the right to equality). Such a use of the notwithstanding power must be contained in an Act, and not subordinate legislation (regulations), and must be express rather than implied.
Under section 33(2) of the Charter of Rights, on the invocation of section 33(1) by Parliament or a legislature, the overriding legislation renders the relevant Charter right or rights “not entrenched” for the purposes of that legislation. In effect, parliamentary sovereignty is revived by the exercise of the override power in that specific legislative context. Section 33(3) provides that each exercise of the notwithstanding power has a lifespan of five years or less, after which it expires, unless Parliament or the legislature re-enacts it under section 33(4) for a further period of five years or less.
A number of rights entrenched in the Charter are not subject to recourse to section 33 by Parliament or a legislature. These are democratic rights (sections 3-5 of the Charter), mobility rights (section 6), language rights (sections 16-22), minority language education rights (section 23), and the guaranteed equality of men and women (section 28). Also excluded from the section 33 override are section 24 (enforcement of the Charter), section 27 (multicultural heritage), and section 29 (denominational schools) – these provisions do not, strictly speaking, guarantee rights.
All rights and freedoms set out in the Charter are guaranteed, subject to reasonable limitations under the terms of section 1. This has the effect, in combination with section 32 of the Charter (making the Charter binding on Parliament and the legislatures) and section 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982 (making the Constitution, of which the Charter is a part, the supreme law of Canada), of entrenching the rights and freedoms set out in the Charter. The invocation of section 33, and especially of section 33(2), pierces the wall of constitutional entrenchment and resurrects, in particular circumstances, the sovereignty of Parliament or a legislature. Consequently, the Charter is a unique combination of rights and freedoms, some of which are fully entrenched, others of which are entrenched unless overridden by Parliament or a legislature.
Origins of Section 33
The establishment of a legislative override in a constitutional context appears to be a uniquely Canadian development with no equivalent in either international human rights documents or western democratic human rights declarations.5 There are a number of Canadian legislative precedents to section 33 in the notwithstanding provisions contained in the Canadian Bill of Rights,6 the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code,7 the Alberta Bill of Rights8 and the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.9 Each of these provisions says that the Bill of Rights, Code or Charter is to have primacy over conflicting legislation unless the overriding provision is invoked.
Since the recollections of both participants in and observers of the 1980-1982 constitutional patriation process differ on this issue, the origins of section 33 can be described only in general terms.10 All the participants were probably familiar with the legislative human rights notwithstanding provisions then in existence at both the federal and provincial levels. It appears that a notwithstanding provision for the Charter was first proposed by Saskatchewan in the summer of 1980 during the deliberations of the Federal-Provincial Continuing Committee of Ministers Responsible for Constitutional Affairs. It was seen as a compromise between those for and those against an entrenched Charter of Rights. The differences in view at that time, however, were too wide to be breached by this proposed compromise.11
The idea of a notwithstanding clause next surfaced during the Federal-Provincial Conference of First Ministers in Ottawa, 8-13 September 1980. On 11-12 September 1980, the Government of Quebec circulated to the other provinces a document entitled “A Proposal for a Common Stand of the Provinces.” This discussion paper attempted to find common positions on a number of issues. In relation to the Charter of Rights, the proposal was to entrench fundamental and democratic rights, and to make legal and non-discrimination rights subject to a notwithstanding provision. This discussion paper, which came to be known as the “Chateau consensus,” was never really agreed to by all the provinces; eventually, even Quebec backed away from it.12
Once the September 1980 Federal-Provincial Conference of First Ministers had broken down, activity continued in the parliamentary, judicial and diplomatic arenas. Finally, on 28 September 1981, the Supreme Court of Canada rendered its decisions on three constitutional reference cases that had come to it from the Courts of Appeal of Manitoba, Newfoundland and Quebec. The Supreme Court concluded that the federal government had the strict legal right to engage in unilateral constitutional patriation but that, according to convention, it would need some degree of provincial support – less than unanimity but more than two provinces – to proceed.
Consequently, throughout October 1981, a number of meetings took place among federal and provincial officials and ministers in preparation for a Federal-Provincial Conference of First Ministers to be held during 2-5 November 1981. One measure proposed at different times and in different forms by Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan was the possibility of a notwithstanding provision.
November 1981 First Ministers' Conference
The First Ministers’ Conference seemed to be at a stalemate on the afternoon of 4 November 1981 when the federal Minister of Justice, Jean Chrétien, and the Attorneys General of Ontario and Saskatchewan, Roy McMurtry and Roy Romanow, worked out a possible compromise. The text of the agreement ultimately drafted by officials, overnight and without Quebec’s participation, included entrenchment of a Charter of Rights with a notwithstanding provision applicable to fundamental freedoms, legal rights and equality rights. On the draft’s submission to the ministers and First Ministers, Mr. Chrétien said the federal government had agreed only that legal and equality rights could be overridden. Ultimately, Prime Minister Trudeau was persuaded to agree to the extension of the notwithstanding provision to fundamental freedoms, but only on condition that the provision as a whole be subject to a five-year sunset and re-enactment clause. Consequently, in public session on 5 November 1981, all governments, except that of Quebec, signed the constitutional accord containing the notwithstanding provision.13
The matter was not finished, however. In its form at that time, section 33 would have allowed for an override not only of section 15 equality rights, but also of section 28, which guaranteed the equality of men and women. As a result of a massive pressure campaign organized by feminist and human rights groups across Canada, both federal and provincial governments agreed to withdraw any reference to section 28.14
The injection of the section 33 notwithstanding clause into the Charter of Rights in 1981 aroused great controversy at the time, which has not abated. Yet acceptance (reluctant in some cases) of the clause by all the participants in the November 1981 First Ministers’ Conference, except Quebec, allowed the impasse to be broken and the Charter of Rights, among other constitutional changes, to become reality.
Many participants in the First Ministers’ Conference, as well as parliamentarians and commentators, recorded how they believed the notwithstanding provision would be used.
On the day the constitutional agreement was reached and made public, Richard Hatfield, then Premier of New Brunswick, said:
I am concerned about the fact that there are provisions for opting out in important areas. I want to give you an undertaking that I will do everything possible to urge the Legislature of New Brunswick not to use that opportunity, consistent with my firm view that if we are going to have rights, they must be shared by all Canadians, regardless of where they live.15
G. W. J. Mercier, Attorney General of Manitoba at the time, stated that:
… the rights of Canadians will be protected, not only by the constitution but more importantly by a continuation of the basic political right our people have always enjoyed – the right to use the authority of Parliament and the elected Legislatures to identify, define, protect, enhance and extend the rights and freedoms Canadians enjoy.16
Allan Blakeney, then Premier of Saskatchewan, described how he believed the notwithstanding clause would be used by Parliament and the legislatures:
It contains a Charter of Rights which protects the interests of individual Canadians, yet in several vital areas allows Parliament and Legislatures to override a court decision which might affect the basic social institutions of a province or region and this is fully consistent with the sort of argument we have put forward that we need to balance the protection of rights with the existence of our institutions which have served us so w[e]ll for so many centuries.17
These public statements by participants illustrate the tension inherent in the diversity of views in the debate over the entrenchment of rights and the possibility of their being overridden.
Shortly after the First Ministers’ Conference, Prime Minister Trudeau expressed his less-than-enthusiastic acceptance of the notwithstanding clause when he said:
He went on to say later in the same interview:
I must be honest and say that I don’t fear the notwithstanding clause very much. It can be abused as anything can, but the history of the Canadian Bill of Rights Diefenbaker had adopted in 1960, it has a notwithstanding clause and it hasn’t caused any great scandal (sic). So I don’t think the notwithstanding clause deters very significantly from the excellence of the Charter.18
… it is a way that the legislatures, federal and provincial, have of ensuring that the last word is held by the elected representatives of the people rather than by the courts.19
Roy McMurtry, who participated in the First Ministers’ Conference as Attorney General of Ontario, has written:
The fact is that the clause does provide a form of balancing mechanism between the legislators and the courts in the unlikely event of a decision of the courts that is clearly contrary to the public interest. On the other hand, political accountability is the best safeguard against any improper use of the “override clause” by any parliament in the future.20
Other participants in the 1981 First Ministers’ Conference have also indicated their views. Thomas S. Axworthy said:
… the non-obstante clause will not be employed lightly; the 1960 Federal Bill of Rights had a similar override provision and it was only employed once in two decades (in 1970 with the Public Order Temporary Measures Act), and the provinces have shown a similar disinclination to use the override provisions contained in their provincial human rights legislation.21
Jean Chrétien, then Minister of Justice, said:
What the Premiers and Prime Minister agreed to is a safety valve which is unlikely ever to be used except in non-controversial circumstances by Parliament or legislatures to override certain sections of the Charter. The purpose of an override clause is to provide the flexibility that is required to ensure that legislatures rather than judges have the final say on important matters of public policy.
It is important to remember that the concept of an override clause is not new in Canada. Experience has demonstrated that such a clause is rarely used and when used it is usually not controversial.
It is because of the history of the use of the override clause and because of the need for a safety valve to correct absurd situations without going through the difficulty of obtaining constitutional amendments that three leading civil libertarians have welcomed its inclusion in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.22
A number of other commentators also subsequently indicated how they expected Parliament and the legislatures to use section 33. Gérard V. La Forest, then of the New Brunswick Court of Appeal and later of the Supreme Court of Canada, made the following comment in 1983:
My guess is that this provision will rarely be used. The political unpopularity of making declarations contrary to the Charter will militate against this. That certainly has been the experience with the Canadian Bill of Rights and with Quebec’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I am aware, of course, of Quebec’s general attempt not to be bound by the Charter, but this was done in the context of a transcendent political situation that is not in its essence centred on questions of human rights.23
Professor Peter Hogg has said:
Presumably, the exercise of the power would normally attract such political opposition that it would rarely be invoked…
…the necessity of re-enactment every five years will force periodic reconsideration of each exercise of the override power, at intervals which (in some jurisdictions at least) will often yield a change of government. This reinforces the already powerful political safeguards against an ill-considered use of the power.24
And finally, Professor Paul C. Weiler had this to say about the notwithstanding clause:
All the above comments on the expected use of section 33 have a number of elements in common. Section 33 was seen as a safety valve to be used only on rare occasions, and it was expected that it would be used in relation to “non-controversial issues.” It was anticipated that resort to section 33 would be to preserve basic social and political institutions and enable legislatures to overcome unacceptable judicial determinations where there was popular support for doing so.
Since the Canadian polity had shown itself sufficiently enamoured of fundamental rights to enshrine them in its Constitution, invocation of the non obstante clause was guaranteed to produce a great deal of political flak. No government can risk taking such a step unless it is certain that there is widespread support for its position.…
…Canadian judges are given the initial authority to determine whether a particular law is a “reasonable limit [of a right] … demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”. Almost all of the time, the judicial view will prevail. However, Canadian legislatures were given the final say on those rare occasions where they disagree with the courts with sufficient conviction to take the political risk of challenging the symbolic force of the very popular Charter. That arrangement is justified if one believes, as I do, that on those exceptional occasions when the court has struck down a law as contravening the Charter and Parliament re-enacts it, confident of general public support for this action, it is more likely the legislators are right on the merits than were the judges.25
Experience so far has shown at least three situations where section 33 was used in a way not foreseen by those participating in the 1981 First Ministers’ Conference or by commentators: the omnibus, routine invocation of section 33 by the Quebec National Assembly between 1982 and 1985; the preventive use of section 33 by Saskatchewan in relation to back-to-work legislation;26 and the adoption of Bill 178 by the Quebec National Assembly following the 15 December 1988 Supreme Court of Canada decisions in Ford and in Devine. In this last case, it might be argued that a government claiming to be in agreement with a court ruling enacted a legislative measure said to be consistent with the spirit of that court ruling but, for greater certainty and to avoid future litigation, included a section 33 override clause.
Section 33 Invocation
Events surrounding Quebec language law stimulated vigorous debate on section 33 of the Charter. In the 1981 constitutional accord, the federal government and all the provinces except Quebec agreed upon the terms of constitutional change. The Quebec government expressed its strong opposition to those terms by including a notwithstanding clause in every piece of legislation put before the National Assembly between 1982 and 1985. It also caused every Quebec law in place at the time the Charter came into force to be amended with like effect.
This practice largely ceased after 1985: section 33 has been used only occasionally by both Liberal and Parti Québécois governments since that time. Quebec resorted to the notwithstanding clause after the Supreme Court of Canada, in the Ford and Devine cases on the language of commercial signs, ruled that an outright prohibition of the use of languages other than French was an unreasonable limitation on the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Charter. The Quebec government thereupon introduced an amendment to the language law that would maintain unilingual French signs outside premises while permitting the use of bilingual signs inside. To ensure that the amendment would not become the object of another legal challenge, the amending legislation invoked the legislative override authority of section 33 and the similar provision in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. This marked the first time that the override had been used in direct response to a Supreme Court of Canada decision, rather than in anticipation of litigation. The debate that followed was more intensive than it would have been in the latter case, perhaps because the Court had already ruled on the issue, and had identified the rights and freedoms at stake. Moreover, minority language rights have long been an emotional issue in Canada; there are few subjects where the use of the override would invite more controversy.
In 1993, when the notwithstanding clause reached the end of its five-year life, the Quebec National Assembly lifted the ban on English language signs and amended the law to require only that French be “markedly predominant.”27 The amended legislation was not protected by a notwithstanding clause.
Outside Quebec, it would appear that the notwithstanding clause has been used only three times.28 The first such use was in Yukon’s Land Planning and Development Act,29 assented to in 1982 but never proclaimed in force; it therefore hardly qualifies as an example. The statute provides in section 39 that the provisions of the Act relating to the nomination of persons to be members of the Land Planning Board (established under section 3 of the Act) or Land Planning Committees (established under section 17) by the Council of Yukon Indians operate notwithstanding the Canadian Bill of Rights and section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The second use was by the Province of Saskatchewan to protect back-to-work legislation30 of a kind that the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal had earlier held was contrary to the freedom of association in section 2(d) of the Charter.31 At the time the provincial government enacted the notwithstanding clause, it was in the process of appealing the Court of Appeal decision to the Supreme Court of Canada. The Supreme Court of Canada subsequently allowed the appeal, upholding the provincial government’s view that the back-to-work legislation did not violate the Charter.32 Hence, the use of the notwithstanding clause was not necessary.
The third use was by the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, which adopted a private Member’s bill in March 2000 amending that province’s Marriage Act to define marriage as exclusively heterosexual and to insert a notwithstanding clause for purposes of overriding the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.33 The widely held view was that these amendments had little legal effect because of federal jurisdiction over the capacity to marry.34
A subsequent Supreme Court of Canada ruling on 8 December 2004 confirmed that the federal government has sole jurisdiction to decide who is eligible to marry in Canada.35 Alberta’s Minister of Justice and Attorney General, Ron Stevens, responded to the ruling by stating that if the federal government enacted legislation codifying same-sex marriage, his province would not invoke the notwithstanding clause in order to retain the one-man one-woman definition of marriage in Alberta. Referring to the Supreme Court decision, he stated in part:
What this means now, is that the Federal Government has the full ability to make uniform law through parliament allowing for same-sex unions. Alberta does not have the ability to invoke the notwithstanding clause in relation to federal legislation. Since the court ruled the authority over same-sex marriage falls to the federal government, it is only the federal government who can invoke the notwithstanding clause to maintain the traditional definition of marriage. We understand it’s likely the federal government will introduce legislation that would allow marriage to be defined as a union of two people.36
Subsequently, in July 2005, Parliament adopted the Civil Marriage Act,37 which, for the first time, codifies a definition of marriage in Canadian law, expanding on the traditional common-law understanding of civil marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution. It defines marriage as thus extending civil marriage to conjugal couples of the same sex. It states, among other things, in its preamble that
Apart from the above uses of the notwithstanding clause in Quebec, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and the Yukon, it would appear that it has not been used elsewhere in Canada.
Arguments For and Against Section 33
Arguments have been made both in favour of and against allowing legislatures to override constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms. Those who argue in favour of section 33 do not see it as inconsistent with entrenched rights and freedoms and contend that it provides a mechanism whereby, in exceptional circumstances, the elected legislative branch of government may make important policy decisions and isolate them from review by the unelected judicial branch of government. They argue that the threat to individual rights is not great because there is a five-year limit on any use of the notwithstanding power. Any such legislative override will be subject to public debate at the time of its first enactment and at the moment of any subsequent re-enactment. They also point out that only some, not all, rights are subject to a possible legislative override.
Supporters of section 33 further maintain that, while it is useful and, indeed, very valuable for the courts to play a role in the elaboration of the rights and freedoms that Canadians should enjoy, it is not proper for them to act as legislators. Judges may remain in office for many years after their appointment, long after the government that appointed them has left. That they do so now is not questioned; however, if they had a greater “political” role, their non-accountability to the electorate might well be a source of controversy. Closely linked to this is the assertion that a policy-making role would compromise the independence and impartiality of the courts and would hasten their politicization.
It may thus be argued that a legislative override, by allowing final political decisions to be made by the elected representatives, mitigates the politicization of the courts. In the United States, where the courts interpret and apply a constitution that has no equivalent to section 33, judicial decisions about the constitution have a greater finality and the stakes are correspondingly higher. The significant political element in the selection of judges, particularly at the United States Supreme Court level, has been openly acknowledged; indeed, the president’s power to nominate the judges of federal courts means that the composition of those courts is quite regularly an issue in presidential election campaigns. A president may have the opportunity to name ideologically compatible judges who will continue to exercise a great deal of power long after he or she has left office.
In contrast, in Canada, there has been little evidence that judges are selected according to how they would rule in various cases. If, however, the Charter did not contain a notwithstanding clause and the courts were the final arbiters of social values, it seems safe to speculate that this situation would be vulnerable to change.
Closely linked to the submission that legislators, and not judges, should have the final word on public policy matters is the “safety valve” or “unintended consequences” argument. Simply put, this suggests that the notwithstanding clause is needed where a judicial decision based on Charter guarantees might result in a threat to important societal values or goals. Because the Charter rights and freedoms are generally stated and are susceptible to varying constructions and interpretation, the courts may render judgments that the drafters did not anticipate (“unintended consequences”).
In short, section 33 has been justified on the grounds that it preserves the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. As well, legislators, unlike judges, are electorally accountable. Section 33 also makes it possible for Parliament or a provincial legislature to correct any unfortunate judicial interpretation of the Charter.
In 1989, a number of respected constitutional authorities were asked whether section 33 represented a threat to Canadians’ basic rights and whether it should be repealed. Professor Wayne MacKay of the Faculty of Law at Dalhousie University spoke in favour of retaining the section:
The notwithstanding clause should be kept, at least for the present. It permits debate about which rights are fundamental in Canadian society and which should prevail when rights are in conflict. In a democratic society steeped in the tradition of parliamentary supremacy, it is proper to give our elected legislators the final word.
But isn’t the point of entrenching rights in a charter that you protect those rights by making the courts the final arbiters rather than the legislatures? Yes, it is, and despite the notwithstanding clause, that is what has happened and will continue to happen in all but a few situations.38
Professor MacKay went on to say that, until the notwithstanding clause is abused “by some thwarting of the legitimate aspirations of a truly dispossessed or marginalized group in our society,” we should give our legislators and our Constitution the benefit of the doubt.39
Professor François Chevrette of the Faculty of Law at the Université de Montréal was opposed to the Quebec government’s use of section 33, since he did not think that the French language was really in jeopardy. Even so, he, too, spoke out in favour of retaining the clause. He pointed out that in Canada the balance between political power and judicial power is very delicate, and that in this regard we are different from the Americans, who do not share our tradition of parliamentary supremacy. In Canada, political power can override a judicial decision on an important or sensitive issue, and there is then an opportunity for national debate. People would reflect, he said, and the politicians might change their minds when a particular use of the notwithstanding clause came up for renewal.40
Section 33 is considered by critics to be inconsistent with the entrenchment of human rights and freedoms. The basic argument is quite simply that, in the words of former Quebec cabinet minister Clifford Lincoln, who resigned in protest against the language law amendment, “rights are rights.” In this view, the rights and freedoms in the Charter are subject to judicial interpretation but must be protected against legislative transgression. It is generally true that governments do not violate rights in defiance of public opinion; rather, it is precisely when the majority of the public is in favour of, or at least not opposed to, the limitation or elimination of the rights of a minority that constitutional constraints are needed. Moreover, the Charter does not create absolute rights and freedoms that must be applied literally; section 1 of the Charter provides that the rights and freedoms guaranteed are subject to “such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” This, say opponents of the notwithstanding clause, should permit the courts enough flexibility to accommodate legislative goals that infringe a guaranteed right or freedom.
Another contrary argument is that, because the legislative override is applicable to only the fundamental freedoms and legal and equality rights, it creates a hierarchy of rights. Other rights are not subject to the override (see above, “Content of Section 33”).
Another argument that has been raised against section 33 is that the “rights and freedoms that can be overridden are so significant as to raise questions about the nature of the freedom that remains.”41
Morris Manning expresses it as follows:
If our freedom of conscience or religion can be taken away by a law which operates notwithstanding the Charter, if our right to life or liberty can be taken not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice, what freedom do we have?42
It has been argued that the mere existence of the override power can entice governments to use it. For instance, the Government of Saskatchewan might have relied on section 1 of the Charter when enacting the Saskatchewan Government Employees Union Dispute Settlement Act had it not been able to use section 33. The Canadian Bar Association, at its 1984 annual meeting in Winnipeg, concluded that section 1 of the Charter provides ample protection for legislative authority,43 and therefore recommended that section 33 be repealed. Even if the section were not repealed, the Association felt that the use of the override power should at least be subject to guidelines.44
Many people are concerned that the notwithstanding clause might be used in cases where rights and freedoms are most in need of protection. In 1985, Herbert Marx, who was then the Liberal Opposition Justice Critic in Quebec, stated that “the danger of having a ‘notwithstanding clause’ will become evident when we need protection most – we will not have it.” In support of his argument, Mr. Marx referred to the October crisis of 1970, when the federal government set aside the Canadian Bill of Rights (which had a notwithstanding clause) by enacting the Public Order (Temporary Measures) Act.45
Senator and parliamentary expert Eugene Forsey also spoke out against section 33:
The notwithstanding clause is a dagger pointed at the heart of our fundamental freedoms, and it should be abolished. Although it does not apply to the whole Charter of Rights, it does apply to a very large number of the rights and freedoms otherwise guaranteed. …
Clearly, then, it gives federal and provincial legislators very wide powers to do as they see fit in limiting or denying those rights and freedoms. The Charter would not have protected the Japanese-Canadians who were forcibly interned during World War II. Nor will it protect anyone advocating an unpopular cause today.
Perhaps none of our legislatures will use the notwithstanding clause again. But it is there. And if this dagger is flung, the courts will be as powerless to protect our rights as they were before there was a Charter of Rights.46
In short, there are a number of compelling arguments both in favour of and against section 33. Its inclusion in the Charter was, and remains, controversial. The debate over the clause will undoubtedly continue.
† Library of Parliament Background Papers provide in-depth studies of policy issues. They feature historical background, current information and references, and many anticipate the emergence of the issues they examine. They are prepared by the Parliamentary Information and Research Service, which carries out research for and provides information and analysis to parliamentarians and Senate and House of Commons committees and parliamentary associations in an objective, impartial manner. [ Return to text ]
SASKATOON – On Jan. 30, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down parts of Saskatchewan’s Essential Service Act, saying there is a right-to-strike under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Story continues below
On Wednesday, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall suggested he would look at invoking the Charter’s notwithstanding clause if an agreement could not be worked out on amending the essential service legislation, which the court gave the province one year to do.
READ MORE: Wall open to overiding Supreme Court labour ruling
So what is the Charter’s notwithstanding clause?
Under section 33, parliament and provincial legislatures can override the fundamental freedoms, equality and legal rights that are entrenched in the Charter for a period of no more than five years. Here is the exact wording:
(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.
(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 the 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).
How did the “notwithstanding clause” come to be?
Although there are differing opinions, the notwithstanding clause came about following a meeting in 1981 between the justice minister Jean Chrétien and Roy Romanow and Roy McMurtry, the attorney general’s of Saskatchewan and Ontario.
The trio met on the night of Nov. 4 after the first ministers constitutional conference being held at the time appeared to be at a stalemate.
Chrétien, Romanow and McMurtry worked out a compromise which was then drafted by officials without the participation of anyone from Quebec. The result was the “notwithstanding clause” along with the constitution’s amending formula.
Without the notwithstanding clause, Chrétien would later say, “Canada probably wouldn’t have had any Charter.”
Who has used the notwithstanding clause?
Only three provinces – Quebec, Saskatchewan and Alberta – and the Yukon have used the notwithstanding clause.
Although Quebec never agreed to the constitutional accord, the notwithstanding clause wording was placed into every piece of legislation passed by the National Assembly between 1982 and 1985. It also enacted legislation to amend every Quebec law in place at the time to be amended with the notwithstanding clause. The practice ceased in 1987 when a new liberal provincial government was elected.
Quebec also used the clause in 1988 after the Supreme Court found a law prohibiting the use of any language other than French on outdoor commercial signs violated freedom of expression. It was the first time the notwithstanding clause had been used in response to a high court ruling. The Quebec government did not re-enact it when it lapsed five years later.
Saskatchewan used the notwithstanding clause in 1986 after the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal ruled the province’s back to work legislation violated freedom of association. The Supreme Court of Canada later found the law to be consistent with the Charter stating, interestingly enough at that time, that the Charter “does not include a guarantee of the right to bargain collectively and the right to strike.”
In Alberta, a private members bill passed in 2000 amending the province’s Marriage Act to define marriage as heterosexual couples only, which also included the notwithstanding clause. The Supreme Court later ruled that the definition of marriage was the exclusive domain of parliament.
The Yukon was the first Canadian jurisdiction to use section 33. It was part of the territory’s Land Planning and Development Act, which, although assented to, was never proclaimed into force.