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

[4] Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, “Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement”, (23 July 2020), online: Government of Canada

[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 <>; 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

[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:

[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 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.

R v Barton and the Role of Interveners in Criminal Litigation

By Keely Kinley

The Supreme Court released its highly anticipated decision in R v Barton on May 24, 2019.

In 2011, Cindy Gladue was found deceased in the bathtub of Bradley Barton’s hotel room with a fatal 11-cm gash in her vaginal wall. Barton admitted to accidentally causing Ms. Gladue’s death during what he characterized as rough but consensual sex and was acquitted by a jury on charges of first-degree murder and manslaughter. The trial was subject to much public criticism for the frequent reference to Ms. Gladue as a native girl and prostitute by counsel and the trial judge, and for the Crown’s introduction of a piece of Ms. Gladue’s preserved pelvic tissue as evidence. Feminist and indigenous groups, in particular, decried the discriminatory and dehumanizing manner in which Ms. Gladue was treated throughout the process.

On appeal (R v Barton, 2017 ABCA 216), the Alberta Court of Appeal found that the trial judge should have heard a section 276 application to determine whether evidence about Ms. Gladue’s sexual history was admissible and overturned Mr. Barton’s acquittal. Barton had paid Ms. Gladue $60 for sex the night before her death and testified that Gladue “knew what she was coming for” when she met him for sex again the following night. Section 276 of the Criminal Code, otherwise known as the “rape shield” law, prevents evidence of a complainant’s sexual history from being presented unless it is deemed relevant in a separate hearing without the jury present. Barton appealed to the Supreme Court.

Writing for the majority, Justice Moldaver found that a new trial was necessary because a section 276 hearing was never conducted. Such a hearing may have helped prevent Ms. Gladue’s previous sexual relations with Mr. Barton and history of sex work from being used to make her seem less credible or making Barton’s belief in consent seem more reasonable.

Moldaver J also emphasized that if an accused did not take reasonable steps to ascertain communicated consent to a particular sexual activity, “the defence of honest but mistaken belief [will] afford him no shelter” and should not be put to the jury. The Barton decision affirms that there is no defence of implied consent, an accused cannot point to a complainant’s sexual history to bolster a claim of belief in consent, an individual cannot consent to sexual activity in advance, and express consent must be given for each and every sexual act.

Ultimately, the court ordered a new trial on the charge of manslaughter. The majority was not convinced that the jury would have come to a different conclusion on the first degree murder charge even if the trial had been conducted properly. The dissent would have ordered a new trial on both charges.

In addition to questions about the meaning of consent and the proper application of s. 276, one of the issues raised at the Supreme Court concerned the role of interveners in criminal justice proceedings. In its decision to overturn Barton’s acquittal, the Alberta Court of Appeal drew extensively from an intervener factum submitted jointly by LEAF and IAAW. Barton objected to the weight that ABCA gave to the joint-interveners’ submissions. The Asper Centre intervened at the Supreme Court to comment on the role of interveners in public interest litigation.

In its factum, the Asper Centre pointed out that the Crown has a distinct obligation to represent and safeguard the general public interest in criminal cases,which sometimes overrides the interests of disadvantaged and marginalized members of society. Criminal proceedings should be open to the arguments of intervener groups to the extent that a case involves the interpretation of the Criminal Code or potential changes to the common law. The Barton proceedings themselves are evidence of the diverse array of interests that can be implicated in criminal litigation;  fifteen advocacy and special interest groups were granted leave to intervene at the Supreme Court. While Justice Moldaver devoted few words to the role of interveners in criminal appeals in his reasons (see paras 52-53), the critical role that interveners can – and do – play in such appeals is apparent in his decision.

Justice Moldaver took a feminist, Indigenous position on several key issues, urging judges to acknowledge and discourage prejudice against Indigenous women and girls in their instructions to juries, and emphasized that “everyone is equally entitled to the law’s full protection and to be treated with dignity, humanity, and respect.” Explicit recognition of the discrimination experienced by Indigenous women in the Canadian justice system may not have occurred without the submissions of Indigenous and feminist interveners highlighting the extent to which racist and sexist stereotypes about Indigenous women, particularly those involved in the sex trade, were at play in Barton’s original trial.

The Barton ruling should be considered a victory for interveners. While it would have been encouraging to see interveners’ contributions expressly acknowledged in the decision, as Dr. Emma Cunliffe commented shortly after the decision was released, Justice Moldaver’s “analysis of s. 276, reasonable steps and consent to the activity in question comes straight from LEAF and IAAW’s work;” the decision was “massively enriched and expanded by the work of Indigenous women’s organizations before the SCC, as well as Aboriginal Legal Services, [the Asper Centre], the Assembly of First Nations, the MMIWG Inquiry.”

Keely Kinley is the Asper Centre’s Summer Research Assistant.

Asper Centre at the Supreme Court of Canada Twice Next Month


The Asper Centre will be at the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) as an intervener in two separate cases next month: Gillian Frank v Attorney General of Canada and Spencer Dean Bird v Her Majesty the Queen.

First up on March 16, 2018 is our intervention in Bird, an important case about prisoners’ rights in Canada.  In this case, the appellant was sentenced to a penitentiary term followed by a period of long-term supervision. The Parole Board determined that this supervision would begin with the appellant residing at a community correctional centre. Upon completing his penitentiary term, the appellant arrived to the designated correctional centre to commence the period of long-term supervision but soon left. He was apprehended and charged with failure to comply with the conditions of his long-term supervision. He argued that the residency requirement was unlawful. The trial judge agreed, finding that his being forced to reside in penal institution after completion of his prison term violated his s. 7 Charter rights. The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal, ruling that the trial judge erred in permitting the appellant to collaterally attack the residency requirement.

The Asper Centre factum argues, with regard to the proper application of the collateral attack doctrine, that the Maybrun framework should consider constitutional and access to justice issues. Our factum can be found here.

Less than a week later, on March 21, 2018, the Asper Centre will be intervening in Frank, a case focused on the voting rights of Canadians residing outside of Canada. In Frank, the applicants are Canadian citizens residing in the United States for employment reasons, who intend to return to Canada if circumstances permit. Both applicants were refused voting ballots for the 2011 Canadian General Election since they had been resident outside Canada for five years or more. The applicants sought a declaration that certain provisions of the Canada Elections Act violated their Charter-protected right to vote. A judge of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice declared the impugned provisions of the Act unconstitutional by reason of violating the applicants’ right to vote under s. 3 of the Charter, and the violation was not justifiable under s. 1.

The Asper Centre factum addresses the “social contract” argument that has been used to support revoking a Canadian citizen’s right to vote if they do not live in Canada. Our factum can be found here.