Constitutional Conventions

The recent nomination of Justice Rowe and the new approach that the Liberal government has taken to the appointment of members of the Supreme Court of Canada has invoked a lot of discussion around constitutional conventions. In this post we are going to examine the nature and usage of constitutional conventions in Canada with an eye toward their historical development.

Our Constitution: Written and Unwritten

From a legal perspective, the constitution of Canada does not encompass any one or two documents but a host of documents spanning from the Royal Proclamation, 1762 to the Canada Act, 1982 (the latter of which repatriated our constitution from the United Kingdom and established the Charter of Rights and Freedoms). The Constitution Act, 1982 provides for a list of documents to be considered as “constitutional documents” including the Canada Act, 1982 and the Constitution Act, 1867. However, the Supreme Court has maintained that several pre-Confederation acts (include the Quebec Act, 1774) and other acts (provisions of the Elections Canada Act, for example) ought to be considered with similar weight as specifically listed documents in the schedule of the Constitution Act, 1982. It is worth noting that even in the application and understanding of what documents ought to be considered of a constitutional nature and what documents should not includes forces from both the written and unwritten (or blended) parts of our state structure.

The preamble of the Constitution Act, 1867 calls for a parliament similar in nature to that of the United Kingdom. Ironically, writing down such a provision within a document to be considered the new country’s constitution was actually a departure from British parliamentary tradition. In the United Kingdom, the constitution is entirely unwritten and only recently have written documents such as provisions for the devolvement of state powers within the realm been given the weight of the unwritten provisions of the constitution (similar to how we have arranged ourselves in Canada). At any rate, however, the Dominion of Canada was founded on the premise that the state and the government within parliament be executed in similar fashion to that of the Mother Parliament. For this reason, unwritten provisions of our constitutional fabric were adopted from the United Kingdom. Provisions such as the formation of government visa a vise a Prime Minister and cabinet and the inherent privilege of Members of Parliament, including Senators, in order to properly execute their functions as representatives of Canadians. None of these provisions are mentioned in any constitutional documents, and they did and do not have to be because Canada does function in similar nature to that of the United Kingdom and our early leaders understood how the government of the UK functioned (and if they slipped, the Queen’s Privy Council was not very far). This is markedly different from the positive law of the United States or, even more so, that of Germany. In those systems, it would be impossible to enforce unwritten rules because the entire structure of law is based on the premise that the law must be made clear for citizens. Which begs the question, why do we still have unwritten portions of our constitution?

Conventions: Constitutional Mortar

Lawyer Aziz Alani points out that the gov't is avoiding acknowledging the relevance of the convention concerning SCC appointments.
Lawyer Aziz Alani points out that the gov’t is avoiding acknowledging the relevance of the convention concerning SCC appointments.

There are serious advantages to having constitutional conventions and it can even be argued that no state truly functions without at least some unwritten portions of their governing documents. There are significant conventions which dictate the democratic nature of our government, such as the convention of responsible government which is executed when the Governor-General invites the leader with the plurality of seats in the House of Commons to form government and for the executive to be drawn from the ranks of parliamentarians (primarily the House of Commons). There are mundane conventions that keep the government running smoothly and, most importantly, predictably in the interest of Canadians. An easy way to understand the importance of conventions is to think of an agreement that you have made between you and a friend over a repayment of some money. You agree to pay your friend five dollars each week until your twenty dollar owed balanced in paid in full. You write down this agreement clearly and you both sign the document. What you did not include in the document was that weeks consider to start on Monday, you get paid on Thursdays so you expected to provide payment each Thursday and if you did not pay you would have to renegotiate a new agreement or your friend could ask for the full money back immediately. These unwritten understandings between you and your friend are similar to that of conventions within the formation of the state. They have a strong benefit in that they can be changed without having to reopen the original agreement (say, for example your employer starts to pay you on Monday rather than Thursday half way through the payment period). This is important in a national sense, especially in a federation, because grand agreements of the state (i.e. the constitutional documents) are usually agreed upon at a certain time and place and it would represent near-chaos to reopen discussion on amendments at a particular time (this is especially true in Canada given the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords).

Constitutional conventions, interestingly enough, are not enforceable in the courts (although they will acknowledge their existence and function in our governing system). This is important. A key element of constitutional conventions is that they exist so long as the parties involved believe them to be relevant and applicable. Who these “parties” are can vary but will almost always include the government and the official opposition. Canada would be outraged if the Governor-General refused to invite the duly elected leader of the party with a plurality of seats in the House of Commons to form government. And this would not change the convention regardless of the fact that the Governor-General, by written law, has the right to appoint who-ever they wish to form government, it would incite a constitutional crisis on the merits of the violation of the convention. However, take for example the recent announcement of the Trudeau government to look beyond the regional convention pertaining to the appointment of members of the Supreme Court. This is a convention that the government claims is weak and has no relevance in Canada because it ought to be the most qualified (albeit and apparently functionally bilingual) candidate who should be selected. The convention could very well be changing before us, and this is how they do change, especially when the general public does not raise a stink about the issue being changed (and in this case they actually seem to strongly support the Trudeau government position in the Supreme Court matter).

The Inevitable Unwritten

An appropriate closing is the reflection and observation that it is impossible to truly have a pure written constitution with all functions of the government being entrenched in mandated law. There will always be agreements or what some might call “common sense” and “obvious” functions of the state and government that will go beyond what is written but will not violate it. Additionally, each provision of the constitution calling on a particular state actor to act would require unwritten elements regardless the nature of the conduct of this act. It would certainly be burdensome and inappropriate to list each and every aspect of a certain function of state within the constitution documents.

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