by Ainslie Pierrynowski
Does a provincial government have the authority to restrict interprovincial travel? Can limitations on mobility rights be justified in the name of public health? These timely issues were at the heart of Taylor v Newfoundland and Labrador, a September 17, 2020 decision from the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador.
On July 1, 2019, the Public Health Protection and Promotion Act, or the PHPPA, came into force in Newfoundland and Labrador. When the Minister declares a public health emergency under PHPPA, section 28(1)(h) of the PHPPA enables the Chief Medical Officer of Health (CMOH) to make orders restricting travel to the province.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CMOH issued such an order, effective May 4, 2020. This order limited entry to Newfoundland and Labrador residents, asymptomatic workers, and people with extenuating circumstances. On May 5, 2020, the CMOH made another order, which expanded the circumstances where a person would be exempt from the travel restriction.
When Kimberly Taylor’s mother passed away on May 5, 2020 at her home in Newfoundland and Labrador, Taylor sought an exemption from the travel restriction to attend her mother’s funeral. Taylor’s request was denied. Consequently, Taylor challenged section 28(1)(h) of the PHPPA. Taylor argued that this provision was beyond the legislative competence of the provincial legislature. In the alternative, Taylor contended that section 28(1)(h) infringed right to mobility and right to liberty pursuant to sections 6 and 7 of the Charter, respectively.
Is Section 28(1)(h) Beyond the Province’s Jurisdiction?
Justice Donald H. Burrage held that section 28(1)(h) fell within the province’s constitutional jurisdiction over matters of a local and private nature. At its core, the provision aimed at protecting and promoting the health of Newfoundland and Labrador’s population. Any impact on federal spheres of power, such as interprovincial undertakings, was merely incidental.
Furthermore, Justice Barrage noted, “[i]n the public health response to COVID-19 there is plenty of room for both levels of government…an effective public health response demands the cooperative participation of each [emphasis in the original].”
Does Section 28(1)(h) infringe the Charter?
Justice Burrage determined that section 28(1)(h) did not engage Taylor’s right to liberty. A finding that Taylor’s right to liberty was engaged because of the travel restriction would effectively make section 6 mobility rights synonymous with the section 7 right to liberty. This conclusion would produce incoherence in the Charter, since section 7 applies to anyone “physically present in Canada and by virtue of such presence amenable to Canadian Law” and is subject to the principles of fundamental justice, whereas section 6(1) only applies to Canadian citizens and is subject to section 1 of the Charter. Alternatively, Taylor’s decision to attend her mother’s funeral does not amount to a “fundamental personal choice” and therefore does not attract Charter protection.
On the other hand, Justice Burrage concluded Taylor’s mobility rights had been infringed. Justice Burrage found that the right to remain in Canada under section 6(1) of the Charter included the right to move within Canada.
In this case, however, the violation of section 6(1) could be justified under section 1 of the Charter. According to Justice Burrage, the travel restriction related to a pressing and substantial objective: namely, protecting the province’s population from illness and death due to imported COVID-19 cases.
In terms of whether the travel restriction was rationally connected to this purpose, mathematical modelling presented in evidence showed that the travel restriction was an effective means of containing COVID-19. The model indicated that if non-resident travel to the province resumed at typical levels, the number of COVID-19 infections would rise to twenty times that of a scenario where the travel restriction remained in place and 1000 exempt non-residents entered the province every week.
As for the requirement that the impugned legislation must impair the protected right no more than necessary to achieve the desired objective, Justice Barrage found that limiting interprovincial travel was integral to containing COVID-19 in Newfoundland and Labrador. Overall, Justice Barrage concluded that the travel restriction’s benefit to the public outweighed its harms.
“While restrictions on personal travel may cause mental anguish to some, and certainly did so in the case of Ms. Taylor,” Justice Burrage wrote, “the collective benefit to the population as a whole must prevail.”
Ultimately, Taylor’s challenge to section 28(1)(h) was dismissed. Justice Barage held that the province’s travel restrictions were consistent with the Constitution. The implications of this decision, however, stretch beyond the borders of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Across Canada, government responses to COVID-19 have forced legal advocates to grapple with the balance between individual rights and public health. For instance, a group of Yukon contractors have initiated a lawsuit challenging the territory’s COVID-19 restrictions. Similar to the challenge in Taylor, the applicants argue that the travel restrictions fall outside of the territory’s jurisdiction and that the travel restrictions infringe section 6 of the Charter. Meanwhile, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms released a report claiming that the Saskatchewan government’s COVID-19 response infringed the Charter and exceeded the province’s legislative jurisdiction. Echoing the basis for the Constitutional challenge in Taylor, the report contends that the Saskatchewan government’s COVID-19 response violates sections 6 and 7 of the Charter. Unlike Taylor, the report also draws on section 2 of the Charter, alleging that the Saskatchewan government’s actions have limited Saskatchewanians’ freedom to practice their faith, assemble, and associate.
The outcome of Taylor suggests that the courts may ultimately consider these measures Constitutional. While the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms introduces a novel argument related to section 2 of the Charter, it remains to be seen whether this argument will eventually be raised in court.
Moreover, Justice Barrage concluded that PHPPA travel restrictions can operate alongside the federal Quarantine Act, as the latter deals with travel into Canada, not travel within Canada. Yet, Justice Barrage noted that “[i]t may well be the case that the Quarantine Act displaces s. 28(1)(h) of the PHPPA where international travel is concerned.” Justice Barrage declined to expand on this point, as the case was concerned with domestic travel. Nevertheless, future cases might pick up this thread if federal and provincial travel restrictions ever come into conflict.
Overall, this case offers insight into the scope of provincial powers in the context of a public health emergency. This decision is significant—and not only due to the gravity of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. After all, as Newfoundland and Labrador’s Minister of Health and Community Services said when the PHPPA was introduced in the House of Assembly, “We are living in a world with SARS and Ebola. You are one plane flight away from a significant public health problem…” As new public health concerns continue to emerge, the relationship between the Charter and provinces’ efforts to safeguard the health of their population seems poised to evolve and develop in tandem with these new challenges.
Ainslie Pierrynowski is a 2L JD student at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.
 2020 NLSC 125 [Taylor].
 Public Health Protection and Promotion Act, SNL 2018, c P-37.3, s 67.
 Public Health Protection and Promotion Act, SNL 2018, c P-37.3, s 28(1)(h).
 Taylor v Newfoundland and Labrador, 2020 NLSC 125 at para 290.
 Singh v Canada (Minister of Employment and Immigration), (1985) 1 SCR 177 at 202.
 Section 6(2) applies to Canadian citizens and permanent residents.
 Taylor, supra note 1 at para 292.
 Taylor v Newfoundland and Labrador, 2020 NLSC 125 at para 277.
 “Bill 37, An Act Respecting The Protection And Promotion Of Public Health,” Newfoundland and Labrador, House of Assembly Proceedings, 48-3, Vol XLVIII No 44 (20 November 2018) at 2616.