The Curious Case of Section 15 and Courts of First Instance: The Joint Asper Centre, LEAF and West Coast LEAF Intervention in Canadian Council for Refugees, et al. v. Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, et al 

by Caitlin Salvino

In the Fall of 2022, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) will hear the case Canadian Council for Refugees, et al. v. Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, et al.[1] The David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights, West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund (West Coast LEAF), and Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) have been jointly granted intervener status.[2] Their joint intervention focuses on the treatment of claims under section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Charter) by courts of first instance.

The Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States

In Canada, an individual can apply for refugee status at an official Port of Entry or at an Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada office. To qualify for refugee status the claimant must either: (1) have a well-founded fear of persecution or (2) are at risk of torture, or cruel or unusual punishment in their home countries.[3]

In Canada, the federal government has restricted Port of Entry asylum claims through the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) with the United States (US). The STCA bars refugee claimants that arrive at the Canadian border from the US, unless they meet a narrow category of exceptions.[4] The STCA expects refugees to make an asylum claim in the first safe country they enter, in this case the US. The Canadian government maintains that countries will only be recognised as a “safe third country” if they respect human rights and offer a high degree of protection to refugee claimants.[5]  The Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) requires the Government of Canada to continuously review the STCA with the US to ensure that it meets  four conditions listed in the IRPA.[6] The STCA with the US has been criticised by refugee and human rights organisations, based on increasing evidence of mistreatment of refugee claimants in the US.[7]

Challenging the Constitutionality of the Safe Third Country Agreement

In 2017, the STCA was jointly challenged by refugee claimants barred under the STCA, together with the Canadian Council of Refugees, Amnesty International and the Canadian Council of Churches. In addition to arguing that provisions of the STCA were ultra vires, the Applicants argued that the combined effect of sections 101(1)(e) of IRPA and 159.3 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations unjustifiably infringed sections 7 and 15 of the Charter.[8]

Under section 7, the Applicants argued that many asylum seekers rejected under the STCA are automatically imprisoned upon their return to the US as a form of punishment depriving the claimants of their section 7 rights to liberty and security of the person.[9] With respect to section 15, the Applicants argued that the STCA with the US has a disproportionate impact on female-identifying refugee claimants. This claim was supported by evidence of a narrower interpretation of gender persecution asylum claims in the US[10] and a one-year bar on all refugee claims in the US.[11] The one-year ban on refugee claims requires an individual to seek asylum within one year of experiencing persecution – a restriction that poses a barrier for women and 2SLGBTQQIA[12] individuals who experience gender persecution that involve unique forms of trauma that often result in delayed reporting.[13]

The Applicants succeeded at the Federal Court in 2020. The Federal Court declared that the provisions[14] enacting the STCA unjustifiably infringed section 7 of the Charter.[15] The Federal Court held that the STCA was intra vires federal authority and declined to address the arguments put forward on section 15 of the Charter.[16] As a remedy for the section 7 violation, the impugned provisions were declared to have no force or effect and the declaration of invalidity was suspended for six months.[17]

The Federal Court ruling was overturned by the Federal Court of Appeal in 2021.[18] The Federal Court of Appeal agreed with the lower court that the STCA is intra vires the federal authority[19] but disagreed with the findings with respect to section 7 of the Charter.[20] The Federal Court of Appeal, held that the two impugned provisions, which recognise the US as a safe third country, do not cause the harms being challenged under the Charter.[21] Instead, the Federal Court of Appeal held that section 102(3) of IRPA, which includes the criteria for safe third country designation, should have been challenged under judicial review in relation to the alleged harms under the Charter.[22] Regardless of the appropriate approach, the Federal Court of Appeal disagreed with the lower court’s factual findings on section 7, which the Federal Court of Appeal deemed insufficient and unrepresentative of the experiences of refugee claimants on the whole.[23] On section 15, the Federal Court of Appeal agreed with the Federal Court’s approach to judicial restraint and also declined to address the claim based on equality rights.[24]

Joint Asper Centre, LEAF and West Coast LEAF Intervention

In Canada, there is a growing recognition of the relevance of gender-related persecution in refugee asylum claims. Although it is not yet recognised as an independent ground to establish fear of persecution, if claimed, gender-related persecution must be assessed by the Refugee Division panel considering the claim.[25] The assessment of gender-related persecution claims requires an examination of the link between gender persecution and the enumerated grounds in the Refugee Convention.[26]

The Applicants argued that the STCA violated both sections 7 and 15 of the Charter. Under section 15, the Applicants argued that the STCA disproportionately impacts female-identifying refugees[27] and provide an extensive evidentiary record of gender discrimination under the STCA.  After determining that provisions of the STCA unjustifiably infringed section 7 of the Charter the Federal Court declined to address the section 15 claim.[28] In doing so, the Federal Court made no factual findings on the evidence of gender-based discrimination within the STCA legal regime. The Federal Court’s disregard of the section 15 claim was upheld by the Federal Court of Appeal who determined that lower courts are not required to consider all Charter claims because section 15 “does not enjoy ‘superior status in a hierarchy of rights’”.[29]

The joint Asper Centre, West Coast LEAF and LEAF intervention for the upcoming SCC hearing focuses on the Federal Court’s decision to not consider and make factual findings on all Charter issues raised that are supported by an extensive evidentiary record. The joint interveners argue that the Federal Court should have decided the section 15 claim and the refusal to consider the section 15 claim inappropriately applied the doctrine of judicial restraint.[30]

The joint interveners support their position with three arguments. First, a purposive interpretation of the Charter as a whole requires a ruling on all Charter claims raised with an extensive evidentiary record. The Federal Court’s decision to decline considering the section 15 issue altered the subsequent justificatory analysis of section 1 and the appropriate remedy.[31] Second, the lower court erred in its application of the principle of judicial restraint, which does not permit a court to favour one Charter claim over another.[32] This flawed interpretation of the principle of judicial restraint has the practical implication of creating a hierarchy of Charter rights, within which section 15 is relegated to the bottom.[33] Third, the Federal Court’s failure to address the section 15 claim minimises the issue of gender-based violence and historic disadvantage experienced by women and 2SLGBTQQIA individuals.[34]

Looking Ahead

The SCC hearings in Canadian Council for Refugees, et al. v. Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, et al. will be heard in Fall 2022.[35] The joint intervention by the Asper Centre, West Coast LEAF and LEAF argues that this case represents a unique opportunity for Canada’s highest court to send a directive to lower courts regarding the treatment of court cases with multiple Charter claims. This guidance on the treatment of multiple Charter claims in a single case is particularly relevant to equality rights under section 15 – a Charter provision that has been historically dismissed[36] and has experienced uncertainty based on its “continual reinvention” in the jurisprudence.[37]

The Asper Centre, West Coast LEAF and LEAF filed their joint intervention factum on June 15, 2022 and it can be read here

Caitlin Salvino is a JD Candidate at the Faculty of Law and is the Asper Centre’s 2022 summer Research Assistant.

[1] The date of the SCC hearings for Canadian Council for Refugees, et al. v. Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, et al. is October 3, 2022.

[2] Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) v Canadian Council for Refugees, 2021 FCA 72, leave to appeal to SCC granted, 2021 CanLII 129759. 

[3] Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, “How Canada’s refugee system works”, (27 November 2019), online: Government of Canada https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/services/refugees/canada-role.html.

[4] Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, “Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement”, (23 July 2020), online: Government of Canada https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/corporate/mandate/policies-operational-instructions-agreements/agreements/safe-third-country-agreement.html.

[5] Overview of the Canada–United States Safe Third Country Agreement Background Paper, 4, by Madalina Chesoi & Robert Mason, 4 2020-70-E (Library of Parliament, 2021) at 1–2.

[6] The four conditions that are evaluated in each review are: (1) if they are a party to the Refugee Convention and Convention Against Torture; (2) its policies and practices are in line with those two international treaties; (3) its human rights record and (4) whether they are party to an STCA agreement with Canada. See Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, supra note 3.

[7] “US as a Safe Third Country Infographic”, (June 2017), online: Canadian Council for Refugees <https://ccrweb.ca/en/us-safe-third-country-infographic>; Contesting the Designation of the US as a Safe Third Country, by Amnesty International & Canadian Council for Refugees (2017); “Refugees entering from US and Safe Third Country: FAQ”, (February 2017), online: Canadian Council for Refugees https://ccrweb.ca/en/refugees-entering-us-and-safe-third-country-faq.

[8] Canadian Council for Refugees v Canada (Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship), 2020 FC 770, at paras 82–83 [Canadian Council for Refugees FC].

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid at para 151.

[11]  Ibid at para 153.

[12] The acronym 2SLGBTQQIA refers to Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual.

[13]  Canadian Council for Refugees FC, supra note 8 at para 153.

[14] Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, SC 2001, c 27, s 101(1)(e), 159.3.

[15] Canadian Council for Refugees FC, supra note 8 at para 162.

[16] Ibid at paras 151–154.

[17] Ibid at para 163.

[18] Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) v Canadian Council for Refugees, 2021 FCA 72, at para 179 [Canadian Council for Refugees FCA 2021].

[19] Ibid at para 179.

[20] Ibid at paras 132–168.

[21] Ibid at paras 46–47.

[22] Ibid at paras 92–93.

[23] Ibid at paras 132–168.

[24] Ibid at paras 169–174.

[25] Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Chairperson Guidelines 4: Women Refugee Claimants Fearing Gender-Related Persecution, online: https://irb.gc.ca/en/legal-policy/policies/Pages/GuideDir04.aspx.

[26] The enumerated grounds under the Refugee Convention are having a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. See UN General Assembly, Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 28 July 1951, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 189, p. 137, 1951.

[27] Canadian Council for Refugees FC, supra note 8 at para 151.

[28]  Ibid at para 154.

[29] Canadian Council for Refugees FCA 2021, supra note 19 at para 172 citing Gosselin, supra note 25 at para 26.

[30] Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) v Canadian Council for Refugees, 2021 FCA 72, leave to appeal to SCC granted, 2021 CanLII 129759 (Factum of Joint Interveners Asper Centre, West Coast LEAF and LEAF, at para 3).

[31] Ibid at para 4.

[32] Ibid at para 18.

[33] Ibid at para 4.

[34] Ibid at para 26.

[35] The date of the SCC hearings for Canadian Council for Refugees, et al. v. Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, et al.is October 3, 2022.

[36] Bruce Ryder & Taufiq Hashmani, “Managing Charter Equality Rights: The Supreme Court of Canada’s Disposition of Leave to Appeal Applications in Section 15 Cases, 1989-2010” (2010) 51 SCLR 505; Jonnette Watson Hamilton & Jennifer Koshan, “Adverse Impact: The Supreme Court’s Approach to Adverse Effects Discrimination under Section 15 of the Charter” (2014) 19 Rev Const Stud 191.

[37] Jennifer Koshan & Jonnette Watson Hamilton, “The Continual Reinvention of Section 15 of the Charter” (2013) 64 UNBLJ 19.

Introducing our Summer 2021 Research Assistants!

 

The Asper Centre is excited to welcome eight new research assistants for Summer 2021, three of whom who are working directly through the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. This year’s research assistants will be taking on many new and existing projects, including an upcoming podcast series and a ground-level Charter challenge to Canada’s voting age.

2021 Asper Centre Summer Research Assistants

Leila Far Soares

Leila will be entering her 2L year at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Toronto, where she double-majored in criminology and ethics, society & law. During her 1L year, Leila was an associate editor at the University’s Law Review as well as a member of the Asper Centre’s Prisoners’ Rights Working Group. She continues to work with the Centre this summer and her research focus is on the judicial treatment of the open court principle in the context of administrative tribunals as well as the Centre’s Law Foundation of Ontario-funded police accountability project. Additionally, she is assisting on the constitutional challenge to Canada’s voting age. In her free time, Leila enjoys reading, travelling, and watching movies.

 

Wei Yang

Wei will be entering his 2L year at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. He completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto, majoring in Political Science and Ethics Society & Law. In addition to his research role on many upcoming Asper Centre projects, he will also be working with the Centre on the ground-level constitutional challenge to Canada’s voting age. The Charter declares that all Canadians have the right to vote (s. 3) and to equality and non-discrimination (including on the basis of age) (s. 15). The current voting age of 18 years old thus infringes the Charter rights of young Canadians and weakens our democracy. In 1L, Wei was a member of the Asper Centre’s Refugee and Immigration Law Working Group. He is also the Co-President of UofT Law’s Asia Law Society for the 2021 – 2022 academic year.
 

Alison Schwenk

Alison just completed her 1L year at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. She graduated from McGill University, majoring in Political Science. Alison will be focused on long-term projects with the Asper Centre, and is currently working with Executive Director Cheryl Milne on Clinic training responsibilities and the “Children, Youth and the Law” course at the Faculty of Law. During 1L, Alison was a member of the Asper Centre’s Indigenous Rights Working Group, where she conducted research on civil oversight of law enforcement and its impact on Indigenous peoples. She loves completing jigsaw puzzles, crosswords and sudoku (Alison also still plays the 2048 puzzle game!)
 

Eunwoo Lee

Eunwoo is an incoming 3L student at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. He studied political science at York University, Glendon Campus. Eunwoo will be researching recent case law citing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Given that judicial citations of the UNCRC is a relatively new phenomenon, Eunwoo hopes to discover trends and themes across the case law and how the Convention is being applied across Canada. This research will be used to develop presentable content at the National Judicial Institute Conference in 2022. Eunwoo loves to spend his free time playing jazz and funk guitar.

 

Szymon Rodomar

Szymon will be entering his 3L year at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. He studied international development, politics and sociology at Trent University. Szymon is laying the groundwork for the Asper Centre’s Podcast Project. He is currently conducting research on constitutional law cases that the Asper Centre and Faculty of Law alumni have been involved in, brainstorming possible topics and case law to discuss in each new episode. Szymon also volunteers with Law in Action Within Schools (LAWS), a education program hosted by the University of Toronto Faculty of Law and Osgoode Hall Law School that provides students from four Toronto-area high schools with a variety of extracurricular opportunities related to law and justice. Szymon is an avid runner and enjoys cooking (although he also enjoys running to visit new restaurants as well!).

Toolkit for Evidence-Based Child Protection Research Assistants (at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work)

Alina Valachi

Alina is currently completing her dual JD/MSW degrees at the University of Toronto. She received her B Eng from McGill University and BSW from Dalhousie University. Alina is working at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work as the Project Manager of the Toolkit for Evidence-Based Child Protection Practice project. This project is a Law Foundation of Ontario-funded collaboration between Dr Barbara Fallon at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and the David Asper Centre. This project aims to synthesize legislation, case law and social science literature in key areas of child protection practice to ensure that decisions made in the justice system reflect the best interests of children and families involved in the child welfare system. She is also the Project Lead of the Pro Bono Students Canada (PBSC) Trans ID Clinic at Friends of Ruby. In her free time, Alina enjoys mountain biking with her children and reading philosophy.

David Baldridge

David is an incoming 2L student at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. He completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto, majoring in Economics and Political Science. David is also working at on the Toolkit for Evidence-Based Child Protection Practice project this summer at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, where he is primarily focusing on researching relevant case law. During his 1L year, David was a member of the Prisoners’ Rights Working Group at the Asper Centre. He was also involved in the Faculty of Law’s Privacy and Cybersecurity Law Group. Outside of law school, you will see David playing trumpet in orchestras, jazz ensembles and chamber groups.
 

Alison Gillanders

Alison is a graduate of McGill University, majoring in International Development Studies and minoring in Philosophy. She is a research assistant for the Toolkit for Evidence-Based Child Protection Practice project at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. Alison will be expanding upon the project by creating new templates on matters such as openness in adoption, legislation and the case law. As part of the project, Alison will be focusing on research in the social science literature. At McGill, she was a Director of Sponsorship for McGill Women in Leadership. She eagerly awaits Toronto’s gradual reopening so she can continue biking and exploring new parks and other destinations around the city.

Fraser v. Canada: What’s the Point of S. 15?

by Jeffrey Wang

On October 16th, 2020, the Supreme Court of Canada released the landmark decision of Fraser v Canada, clarifying how adverse effect discrimination fits into the s. 15 framework. Adverse effect discrimination can be defined as when a facially neutral law has a disproportionate impact on members of a group. This is distinct from direct discrimination where a law makes a facial distinction among groups based on an enumerated or analogous characteristic.

Fraser is a significant development in Charter jurisprudence since the Court has rarely allowed adverse effect discrimination claims. Although the Court has repeatedly proclaimed that s. 15 does cover both types of discrimination and has recognized numerous adverse effect discrimination cases under human rights codes, the SCC has only affirmed one case of adverse effect discrimination under s. 15 prior to Fraser. In Eldridge v British Columbia, the Court found that a hospital that did not provide sign-language interpreters discriminated against people with hearing loss, even though the lack of sign-language interpreters applied neutrally to both hearing and non-hearing individuals.[1] Other adverse effect discrimination cases have come across the Court but have all been rejected for a variety of reasons.

Fraser

The Eldridge case is a stark contrast from Fraser’s complex fact-scenario. In Fraser, three female RCMP officers challenged a policy that reduced pension benefits for officers who took part in a job-sharing program. This job-sharing program was created so that RCMP employees did not have to take unpaid leaves of absence in order to balance childcare responsibilities. However, officers taking such a leave would not see reduced pension benefits unlike those participating in job-sharing. The evidence showed that a vast majority of the participants in the job-sharing program were women that balanced childcare with work. The appellants thus argued that the policy reducing pension benefits for job-sharers discriminated against women.

Writing for the majority of the Court, Abella J agreed with the appellants and clarified the law on adverse effect discrimination. She asserted that adverse effect discrimination claims can fall within the existing s. 15 test. Under step one, claimants must show that a law creates a distinction based on an enumerated or analogous ground. To satisfy this step in adverse effect discrimination claims, Abella J posited that claimants must prove that the impugned law has a disproportionate impact on members of a protected group.[2] She suggested that this can be established “if members of protected groups are denied benefits or forced to take on burdens more frequently than others” and Courts should specifically assess the result of the law and the social situation of the claimant group.[3] Abella J further notes that there is no need to prove that all members of the claimant group are identically affected, that the law is responsible for the social situation of the claimant group, the law’s discriminatory intention, or any element of causation.[4] There is also no “universal measure for what level of statistical disparity is necessary to demonstrate that there is a disproportionate impact.”[5]

In the second step of the s. 15 test, the claimants must prove that the law perpetuates or reinforces disadvantage. Abella J cautioned that under adverse impact discrimination cases, the Court should not assess the objectives of the law at this stage but should rather leave this analysis to s. 1.

Applying this test to the case, Abella J found that the RCMP pension scheme in relation to job-sharers disproportionately impacted women due to their childcare responsibilities and that this perpetuated the economic disadvantage of women. In addition, she found that this law was not justified under s.1 since there was no pressing objective in denying the pension benefits for job-sharers. Therefore, the majority of the Court struck down the law.

Implications for Future Cases

The majority’s decision in Fraser is a welcome development in the fight for substantive equality. Adverse effect discrimination claims have long been recognized in human rights code cases, and the Fraser decision finally brings this uncontroversial understanding of equality into s. 15 jurisprudence with a paradigmatic adverse impact fact-scenario.

However, while the overall conclusion in Fraser undoubtedly moves the law in a positive direction, there are issues with Abella J’s reasoning. In our current heterogenous society, it is likely that most laws have a disproportionate effect on one group of people. For example, many human rights code cases have explored whether the lack of funding for prostate cancer testing is discriminatory against men[6]; whether a municipal policy limiting the number of garbage bags per family picked up by waste disposal discriminates against larger families[7]; and whether the lack of coroner’s inquests for migrant workers’ deaths discriminates on the basis of race[8]. Under the Fraser majority, many of these difficult cases would pass the s. 15 test for adverse effect discrimination. All that is required under step one of the test is a law’s disproportionate impact without proof of intention, causation, or statistical significance and step two merely requires historical disadvantage.

This is the problem with the Fraser decision – it does not precisely define the boundaries of adverse effect discrimination. Under direct discrimination, the requirement that a law creates a distinction based on a protected ground is meaningful, since there are many laws that do not facially distinguish between groups. However, the Fraser majority decision could render this first step of the s. 15 test meaningless by simply allowing evidence of a law’s disproportionate effect which is rife in society. Additionally, with Abella J’s comment that the objectives of the law should not be analyzed under the second step of the s. 15 test, historical advantage would similarly be easy to establish by looking to social science evidence. In effect, the Fraser majority has watered down the s. 15 analysis and pushed the bulk of the legal reasoning to s. 1. But if everything violates s. 15, nothing violates s. 15. This cannot be the state of our equality jurisprudence. S. 15 must include meaningful internal limits that filter out laws that incidentally or reasonably have disproportionate impacts on one group without being discriminatory. Otherwise, what’s the point of s. 15 at all?

Jeffrey Wang is a 3L JD Candidate at the Faculty of Law, and a former Asper Centre Clinic student. 

[1] Eldridge v British Columbia (Attorney General), [1997] 3 SCR 624.

[2] Fraser v Canada (Attorney General), 2020 SCC 28 at para 52 [Fraser].

[3] Fraser at para 55.

[4] Fraser at paras 69-72.

[5] Fraser at para 59.

[6] Armstrong v British Columbia (Ministry of Health), 2010 BCCA 56.

[7] Harrington v Hamilton (City), 2010 HRTO 2395.

[8] Peart v Ontario (Community Safety and Correctional Services), 2014 HRO 611.

 

LEAF and the Asper Centre welcome the Ontario Court of Appeal’s Decision in R. v. Sharma

 

A majority of the Ontario Court of Appeal has struck down Criminal Code provisions which made conditional sentences unavailable for certain offences. The ruling comes in response to Cheyenne Sharma’s constitutional challenge to these provisions, and explicitly acknowledges and draws on the arguments and information provided by LEAF and the Asper Centre in their joint intervention.

Ms. Sharma – a young Indigenous woman, an intergenerational residential school survivor, and a single mother – faced financial hardship and potential eviction for her and her young daughter. She acted as a drug courier, importing 2 kg of cocaine into Canada, and then pleaded guilty to importing drugs.

As an Indigenous person, Ms. Sharma is entitled to the use of the Gladue framework. The Gladue framework is an individualized approach to sentencing that requires judges to consider the impact of systemic factors such as intergenerational trauma of residential schools and the harms of colonial oppression, and to consider alternatives to incarceration when sentencing Indigenous offenders. These options include conditional sentences, a community-based alternative to a custodial sentence.

However, 2012 amendments to the Criminal Code made conditional sentences unavailable for offences with a maximum penalty of 14 years or life in prison, and for offences involving the import, export, trafficking, or production of drugs, with a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. As a result, Ms. Sharma was not eligible for a conditional sentence. Ms. Sharma argued that the provisions violated her rights under section 15 of the Charter, but the trial judge did not accept these arguments and imposed a custodial sentence.

LEAF and the Asper Centre intervened before the Ontario Court of Appeal to argue that the constitutionality of the provisions needed to be assessed in the context of systemic discrimination against Indigenous people, especially Indigenous women, in the administration of criminal justice.

This discrimination is clearly evident in the overwhelming overincarceration of Indigenous people, particularly Indigenous women, in Canada. In 2017/2018, Indigenous persons represented approximately four percent of the adult population in Canada, but accounted for 30 percent of admissions to provincial or territorial custody, and 28 percent of admissions to federal custody. The crisis of overincarceration has worsened over time. Between 2007/2008 and 2017/2018, for example, the number of admissions of Indigenous women to provincial/territorial custody increased by 66 percent.

The majority’s decision means that conditional sentences will now be an available option for trial judges to consider in sentencing Indigenous offenders for a wide variety of offences, provided other requirements are also met (including that the sentence is less than two years, and serving the sentence in the community will not endanger the community).

Ms. Sharma will not get to see the direct benefit of her victory, having already served her jail sentence before the appeal. The decision, however, will help to ensure that, moving forward, Indigenous offenders receive the benefit of the different approach to sentencing enshrined in the Gladue framework. It will also serve as a small step towards reducing the overincarceration of Indigenous people and in particular Indigenous women.

The majority’s decision represents an important articulation of substantive equality under section 15 of the Charter. Section 15, despite its potential for advancing equality, remains complex and under-applied. The majority’s analysis provides a clear example of how to apply section 15 where an applicant argues that a law appearing neutral on its face is discriminatory in its effect – and illustrates the potential of section 15 to be used as tool for addressing the overincarceration of Indigenous people, and Indigenous women in particular.

“We are extremely pleased with the decision in R. v. Sharma,” said Cheryl Milne, Executive Director of the David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights.The Court’s decision affirms our position that substantive equality requires a different approach to criminal justice for Indigenous people. Allowing judges to consider conditional sentences in these cases should help contribute, incrementally, to reducing the overincarceration of Indigenous people.”

“This decision is a breakthrough in how courts think about section 15 of the Charter and criminal law, and affirms the substantive equality rights of Indigenous women in the criminal justice context.” said Megan Stephens, Executive Director and General Counsel of LEAF. “The majority decision is remarkable for both its analytical rigor and its compassion concerning the devastating consequences of the overincarceration of Indigenous women, and the ongoing intergenerational harms to Indigenous women caused by colonialism, sexism, and racism.”

Case Committee and Counsel

LEAF and the Asper Centre’s arguments were informed and supported by a case committee composed of academics and practitioners with expertise in the relevant issues. The committee members for this intervention are (in alphabetical order): Emma Cunliffe (Allard School of Law, University of British Columbia), Gillian Balfour (Department of Sociology, Trent University), Martha Shaffer (University of Toronto Faculty of Law), Mary Eberts OC, Naiomi Metallic (Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University), Rakhi Ruparelia (Faculty of Law – Common Law Section, University of Ottawa), and Renée Pelletier (Olthius Kleer Townshend LLP).

We are grateful to pro bono counsel Adriel Weaver and Jessica Orkin of Goldblatt Partners LLP, who acted for LEAF and the Asper Centre in this important case.

About Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF)

The Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) works to advance the substantive equality rights of women and girls through litigation, law reform, and public education. Since 1985, we have intervened in landmark cases that have advanced equality in Canada—helping to prevent violence, eliminate discrimination in the workplace, provide better maternity benefits, ensure a right to pay equity, and allow access to reproductive freedoms.

To support our work to protect the equality rights of women and girls, please consider donating today.

About David Asper Centre

The David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights is devoted to realizing constitutional rights through advocacy, research and education. The Centre aims to play a vital role in articulating Canada’s constitutional vision to the broader world. The cornerstone of the Centre is a legal clinic that brings together students, faculty and members of the bar to work on significant constitutional cases and advocacy initiatives. The Centre was established through a generous gift from U of T law alumnus David Asper (LLM ’07). For more information please visit www.aspercentre.ca.

For media inquiries, contact:

Megan Stephens, Executive Director & General Counsel
Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF)
T: 416-317-4440
E: m.stephens@leaf.ca

Cheryl Milne, Director
The David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights
T: 416-540-7619
E: cheryl.milne@utoronto.ca

Young Climate Activists Attempt to Hold Province Accountable for Inadequate Emissions Target

By Amy Chen

In late 2019, Ecojustice and Stockwoods LLP initiated a constitutional challenge (“the Application”) against Ontario’s greenhouse gas reduction target on behalf of seven young climate activists (the “Applicants”). Ontario responded with a motion to strike. Mathur et al v Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Ontario was heard via teleconference on July 13, 2020, with judgment reserved.  The Applicants were represented by Nader Hasan, the Asper Centre’s upcoming constitutional litigator-in-residence, and Justin Safayeni.

Background

In 2018, the Ford provincial government passed the Cap and Trade Cancellation Act (“CTCA”), repealing the Climate Change Mitigation and Low-Carbon Economy Act (“old Climate Change Act”). Under s. 3(1) of the CTCA, the provincial government “shall establish targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in Ontario and may revise the targets from time to time”. The new target is set out in the province’s new Environmental Plan: “Ontario will reduce its emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030”.  In comparison, the old target (when calibrated) was to reduce the emissions by about 45%.

The public interest Applicants (Sophia Mathur, Zoe Keary-Matzner, Shaelyn Wabegijig, Shelby Gagnon, Alex Neufeldt, Madison Dyck, Beze Gray) in the present case are climate activists between the ages of 13 and 24. The Applicants argue that the new target, as well as the repeal of the old Climate Change Act, violates the rights of Ontario youth and future generations under ss. 7 and 15 of the Charter. Ontario is exacerbating the current climate emergency and threatening the lives of all Ontarians by weakening the province’s target. Canada has an international obligation, under the Paris Agreement, to limit global warming to 1.5 oC above pre-industrial levels and prevent the effects of climate change from becoming irreversible. Ontario’s greenhouse gas emission levels will be too high to meet this obligation even if the target is fulfilled, making the target arbitrary and irrational. The Applicants seek mandatory orders requiring Ontario to set a “science-based” greenhouse gas reduction target for 2030 and to revise its climate action plan accordingly.

Summary of Motion Hearing

The issue of the motion was whether the Application should be struck for disclosing no reasonable cause of action.  The hearing primarily revolved around three issues: (1) whether the Application is justiciable, (2) whether the claims within the Application are “inherently speculative in nature”, and (3) whether the Application requires the recognition of positive rights, and if so, whether the Application can be struck on that basis.

(1) Whether the Application is Justiciable

Ontario’s first argument was that the Application is non-justiciable, or that the courts do not have the institutional capacity or legitimacy to adjudicate on this case. Ontario relied on Tanudjaja v Attorney General of Canada, a Charter challenge against the “social conditions” created by the federal and provincial governments that perpetuate homelessness and inadequate housing. The Ontario Court of Appeal found the case to be non-justiciable because there was “no judicially discoverable and manageable standard for assessing… whether [the governments’] housing policy is adequate”. Ontario argued that this Application, like Tanudjaja, asks the Court to assess the soundness of public policy, which is beyond its institutional capacity. The target is a piece of public policy that outlines Ontario’s “aspirations” regarding climate action, not a legally binding commitment.  The Applicants are asking Ontario to establish a “science-based” target that would allow for a “stable climate system”; these are not concrete, legal parameters that could be judicially reviewed.

The Applicants argue that the target is a policy made in pursuant to a statutory mandate (the CTCA), which falls under the definition of “law” for the purposes of a Charter challenge (Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority v. Canadian Federation of Students). The Applicants are challenging actual laws, not merely “social conditions”, and seeking relief defined by scientifically knowable standards. These standards can be judicially determined and have been judicially determined by courts in international jurisdictions. Neither complexity nor novelty can justify striking the claim.

(2) Whether the Application is “Inherently Speculative In Nature”

Section 7 Charter claims cannot be premised on speculations about the effects of government action (Operation Dismantle v. The Queen).  Ontario’s second argument was that the Applicants’ section 7 claims are speculative and incapable of being proven – the claims assume that the target determines actual emissions, that the target will not change, and that federal policy will not have an effect on Ontario’s emissions.

The Applicants argue that they fully intend to prove their claims based on expert evidence, and whether they would be successful in doing so should be determined at a hearing on its merits. As per Bedford v Canada and Canada v PHS Community Services Society, Charter applicants only have to establish a “real and substantial connection” between the impugned government conduct and the alleged harm. The Applicants are allowed to seek relief for potential future harms even if the government is not the dominant cause of these future harms.

(3)The Issue of Positive Rights

Ontario’s final arguments concerned the government’s positive obligations. First, Ontario does not have any constitutional obligations to keep the old Climate Change Act. Unless there was a constitutional obligation to enact the old legislation, the Ontario legislature is free to repeal and replace it (Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic v. Canada). Second, the Applicant is asking Ontario to take positive steps to combat the adverse effects of climate change, even though neither ss. 15 or 7 of the Charter gives individuals positive rights. Although Gosselin v. Québec left open the possibility that there may be “special circumstances” where positive rights could be recognized, many appellate cases have declined to recognize these positive rights. The lower courts are therefore bound by precedent until the Supreme Court of Canada changes the law (Tanudjaja, trial decision).

The Applicants argue that this case does not require the recognition of positive rights. This case is not merely challenging the repeal of legislation or government inaction, but directly challenging government action. The Ontario government regulates, authorizes, and incentivizes dangerous levels of greenhouse gas emissions through the CTCA and the target. The law is clear that this authorization and regulation is enough to constitute a reasonable cause of action (Dixon v. Director, Ministry of the Environment). The Applicants do not seek a declaration regarding HOW the target is to be achieved, and hence are not demanding any positive obligations from the government. They are merely demanding that the target and the climate action plan be constitutionally compliant.  Even if this Application requires the recognition of positive rights, many courts have relied on Gosselin to deny motions to strike. To strike the claim at this stage would freeze section 7 rights in a manner that is contrary to the “living tree” constitutional interpretive principle.

What Next?

The outcome of this motion will serve as a critical turning point in the fight for climate justice by answering one key question:  Can the provincial government be held legally accountable for its inadequate climate action plan? In an interview with the Asper Centre, Mr. Hasan posited that there could be positive outcomes for climate justice whether the claim is struck or not. If the claim is struck, the Applicants would likely appeal the decision; such an outcome would give the appellate courts an opportunity to consider the complex legal issues involved and set a precedent for climate change litigation in Canada. If the claim proceeds, the Applicants would be permitted to present their evidentiary record. A judge would hear “striking and chilling” testimonies regarding the catastrophic effects of climate change and the fact that these effects will become irreversible if drastic action is not taken. As stated by Mr. Hasan: “I feel quite confident that, if we ever get the evidentiary record in front of a judge, the judges are going to want to do the right thing.”

Additional arguments were raised in the parties’ written submissions. Ontario’s arguments are stated in their notice of motion to strike. The Applicant’s arguments can be found in their factum and on their website.

For more information regarding our governments’ ss. 7 and 15 constitutional obligations to address  climate change, see the Asper Centre’s UTEA working group publication- “Give our Children A Future: The Moral and Legal Obligations of the Government of Canada to Act on Climate Change”.

Amy (Jun) Chen is a 1L JD Candidate at the Faculty of Law and is the Asper Centre’s current summer Research Assistant.