AuthorRobert J. Sharpe; Kent Roach
The guarantee of equality contained in section 15 of the Charter of Rights
and Freedom s states:
(1) Every indiv idual is equal be fore and under the law and ha s the
right to the equal prote ction and equal benef‌it of t he law without
discri mination and, in p articula r, without discrim ination base d on
race, national or eth nic origin, colour, religion, se x, age or mental or
physical d isability.
(2) Subsection (1) does not preclude any law, program or activ-
ity that has a s its object the ameliorat ion of conditions of disadva n-
taged individua ls or groups including t hose that are d isadvantaged
because of race, nat ional or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or
mental or phy sical di sability.
The equality rights jur isprudence under the Charter is complex,
and it def‌ies any attempt at a quick and accurate summar y. This is
hardly surpr ising. Equality i s a fundamental value in a democr atic so-
ciety, and yet its precise meaning is elusive in political and legal dis-
course. As a legal concept, it includes the notion that every ind ividual
is entitled to dignit y and respect and that the law should apply to all in
an even-handed manner. Equality t hus involves comparisons between
individuals or groups, but there is considerable debate about proper
comparisons — who should be equal to whom, and what constitutes
equal treatment? Should there be absolute equality, with everyone tre at-
ed identically? How should differences be taken into account? Should
Equalit y 355
advantaged groups be able to enjoy the benef‌it of equality right s? Are
aff‌irmative action measures that favour dis advantaged individual s and
groups acceptable? Some theories of equality emphasi ze equal oppor-
tunity; others emphasize equality of outcomes.1 These are value-laden
issues that cannot be simply resolved by the mechanical application of
any test.
Equality right s claims are challenging because they frequently pres-
ent controversial moral, social, or politica l issues that many argue
should not even be before the courts. For example, can equ ality rights be
invoked to protect the rights of children not to be spanked?2 Does sec-
tion 15 give same-sex couples the right to mar ry?3 Equality rights ca ses
are also contentious when used as a vehicle to extend legislative benef‌its
such as pensions, social assistance, or healt h-care coverage. Such cases
inevitably have signif‌ic ant policy or budgetary implications, making
them the kinds of ca ses with which court s are the least comfortable.
These are complex and diff‌icult issue s, and the search for appropriate
responses continues. Thi s chapter begins by t racing the pre-Charte r ori-
gins of equal rights protection in Canada. It next di scusses t he Supreme
Court’s efforts to come to grips with a general framework of the analysis
of equality rights under the Charter. Finally, it discusses how the court s
have dealt with particular kind s of discrimi nation under section 15.
In order to understand the scope of the Charter’s equality guarantee, it
is useful to consider brief‌ly t he Supreme Court of Canada’s treatment of
equality under section 1(b) of the Canadian Bill of Rights, which guar-
anteed “the right to equality before the law and the protection of the
law.” As noted in Chapter 1, the Court’s performance under the Bill of
Rights was generally regarded as a disappoint ment. The most expansive
1 For further di scussion of the debate about equal ity, see M Schwarzschild, “Con-
stitutional L aw and Equality” in D Patter son, ed, A Companion to Philosophy of
Law and Legal Theory (Cambr idge: Blackwell, 1996) at 156; L Smith, & W Black,
“The Equality R ights” in E Mendes & S Beaulac, ed s, The Canadian Char ter of
Rights and Fre edoms, 5th ed (Markham, ON: Lexi sNexis Butterworth s, 2013) at
2 Canadian Founda tion for Children, Youth and the Law v Canada (Att orney Gen-
eral), [2004] 1 SCR 76 [Canadian Foundation for C hildren].
3 Reference Re Same-Sex Mar riage, [2004] 3 SCR 698 [Same-Sex Marriage Reference].
interpretation of the equalit y guarantee was re ached in R v Drybones,4
the 1969 decision where the Court found inoperative a section of the
Indian Act that made it an offence for an Indian to be intoxicated off a
reserve. The Indian Act provision was held by the Court to deny racial
equality because it imposed more onerous constraints on Aborig inal
people than did the general liquor ordinance of the Northwest Territo-
ries, which merely prohibited drunkenness in a public place.
While Drybones was widely applauded as an import ant aff‌irma-
tion of the equality principle, the Supreme Court quickly retreated. In
Lavell,5 the Court upheld a provision of the Indian Act depriving of sta-
tus an Indian woman who m arried a non-Indian whi le not imposing
a similar di sability on Indian men who ma rried non-Indian women.
Despite the blatantly di scrimin atory nature of this l aw, a majority re-
fused to f‌ind that it violated the equality gua rantee of the Bill of Rights.
Similarly, in Canard,6 t he Court upheld a provision preventing an In-
dian from acting as t he administrator of the estate of a deceased Indi an,
leaving that role to a federal off‌icial. In the Court’s view, this was not
a form of racial discr imination. In Bliss,7 the Court upheld limitations
on the rights of pregnant women to unemployment-insurance benef‌it s,
f‌inding that discrimination on the basis of pregnancy was not sex dis-
crimination and holding that, since the legislation conferred a benef‌it,
it could not be challenged. In these and other ca ses, the Court used
a variety of rationales to uphold legislation — describing the law as
designed to meet a valid federal objective, character izing it as benef‌i-
cial rather tha n burdensome, and focusing nar rowly on the question of
whether the law was equally applied in the courts without regard to its
substantive effect.8
In the debates about the appropriate wording of the equality prov ision
of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, there was a signif‌icant
4 [1970] SCR 282, 9 DLR (3d) 473 [Drybones].
5 Canada (Attorney General) v Lavell, [1974] SCR 1349, 38 DLR (3d) 481 [Lavell].
6 Canard v Canada (AG), [1976] 1 SCR 170, 52 DLR (3d) 548 [Canard].
7 Bliss v Canad a (AG), [1979] 1 SCR 183, 92 DLR (3d) 417 [Bliss]. The benef‌it lay
in the fact th at pregnant women, unlike other u nemployment-insurance clai m-
ants, did not have to prove t hey were available for work.
8 A good overview is found in WS Tarnopol sky, The Canadi an Bill of Rights, 2d
rev ed (Toronto: McClelland and Stewar t, 1975) c 8.

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