How Do Judges Think About Identity? The Impact of 35 Years of Charter Adjudication.

Author:Wagner, Richard
 
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THE KEYNOTE SPEECH OF the Honourable Justice Richard Wagner, Supreme Court of Canada, delivered at the Constitution 150 Conference in Ottawa on March 9, 2017.

LE DISCOURS LIMINAIRE DE l'honorable juge Richard Wagner de la Cour supreme du Canada, prononce a la Conference Constitution 150, a Ottawa, le 9 mars 2017.

CONTENTS How Do Judges Think About Identity? The Impact of 35 Years of Charter Adjudication The Honourable Mr. Justice Richard Wagner Introduction 45 I. Identity is Contextual, Not a Catalogue of Personal Characteristics 49 II. Identity and Perspective 52 III. Identity, Equality, and Democracy 54 Conclusion 56 INTRODUCTION

Thank you, Professor Oliver, for the kind introduction. Thank you also, Professor Dodek, for the invitation to speak at this important conference. You have gathered a truly impressive group of panelists doing innovative work. It is a privilege for me to participate. I hope that I can make a contribution to some of the new lines of inquiry that I have no doubt will emerge from these sessions.

This conference invites us to reflect on 150 years of constitutional history--and 35 years of Charter (1) history--with an eye to the challenges and possibilities to come. Where have we been, and where are we going? If there is one thing that has been a constant in our constitutional experience, I think that it is identity. So many of the most monumental and even divisive questions that this country has faced touch on what it means to bear a personal characteristic, to belong to a group, to speak a language, or to come from a place. Deliberation on these issues has unfolded in the courts alongside the broader public sphere. Struggles over rights--including legal struggles--are part of how identities have come to be defined.

In constitutional cases, judges are occasionally called upon to define the breadth and limits of identities in law. I am thinking of cases like Powley, which established "indicia" of Metis identity. (2) Judges must also weigh in on whether differential treatment on the basis of identity is justifiable in a free and democratic society. When it comes to identity, judicial reasoning has evolved considerably. Questions of language, gender, religion, and sexual orientation have passed in and out of the constitutional spotlight. Along the way, judges have come to recognize that our decisions have a profound effect on how Canadians see and relate to each other and to themselves.

I think it is fair to say that the Supreme Court of Canada has not always acted with a full appreciation of that impact. When reflecting on the historical place of our Court in the currents of Canadian identity politics, what else comes to mind but Edwards. (3) Recently, I re-read Edwards, which is, of course, the 1928 "Persons" case. In it, our Court decided that summoning "qualified persons to the senate" meant summoning only "men." (4) In light of the Court's modern approach to identity and constitutional interpretation, Edwards is remarkable as much for its refusal to consider context as its short-sightedness. Last year's decision in Daniels (5) offers a striking contrast. The Court was tasked with delineating the scope of the word "Indian" in section 91(24) of the Constitution, (6) deciding whether it included Metis and non-status Indians. It did so with reference to the entire historical, philosophical, and linguistic context. (7) This context included the shared experience of the horrific Indian Residential Schools. (8) Indeed, the decision began with an acknowledgement of the Court's place in the trajectory of reconciliation. (9)

Thirty-five years of Charter adjudication have driven a fundamental change in how judges think about identity generally. Both Edwards and Daniels illustrate the kind of line-drawing that the Court is sometimes called on to do when legal decisions touch on identity. It is not surprising that the Court's approach would evolve over decades of adjudicating Charter claims! Of course, the advent of the Charter is not the only thing that has changed in the nearly nine decades since Edwards.

It might be a little unfair to pick on Edwards. Au cours des annees qui ont suivi, la Cour supreme a developpe ce a quoi nous referons maintenant comme etant la [beaucoup moins que]jurisprudence de la declaration ou de la charte des droits implicite[beaucoup plus grand que]. Dans ces decisions, la Cour utilisait n'importe quel outil a sa disposition, que ce soit le federalisme ou une notion vague de la primaute du droit, pour proteger les libertes individuelles. A titre d'exemple, dans les arrets Saumur c City of Quebec (10) et Roncarelli c Duplessis (11), la Cour a invalide un reglement et l'action administrative en decoulant, jugeant qu'ils brimaient les minorites religieuses. Ces arrets faisaient partie des premieres tentatives de la Cour de s'assurer que tous, peu importe la religion ou l'identite, puissent jouir du droit a l'egalite et leur participation au sein de la societe.

Cela dit, ces arrets n'ont pas directement et clairement souleve la question de l'identite comme telle. Faute d'une charte ou d'une declaration des droits de la personne explicite, la Cour ne pouvait se prononcer sur les effets de ces lois sur des individus en particulier. Certains ont, a tort ou a raison, alors qualifie d'activiste cette jurisprudence de la declaration ou de la charte des droits implicite (12). Or, depuis l'adoption de la Charte canadienne des droits et libertes, il n'y a plus aucun doute. Les juges n'agissent pas alors de facon antidemocratique en intervenant lorsque des actions legislatives ou executives ne respectent pas les dispositions de la Charte (13). Ce sont les citoyens qui ont choisi, par le biais de leurs representants elus, de se lier a un ensemble de normes fondamentales qui sont censees refleter les valeurs morales de la societe canadienne. La Cour a la responsabilite et le devoir d'interpreter la Charte d'une maniere a proteger les droits et libertes des Canadiens, incluant le droit de participer pleinement a la societe, independamment de l'identite de ses citoyens. Si je suis accuse d'activisme judiciaire en respectant mon serment d'office, alors je n'ai aucune difficulte a plaider coupable.

The Court's current thinking about identity is undoubtedly the cumulative effect of these and other factors. Nevertheless, I propose to trace what I see as an evolution in judicial reasoning about questions of identity.

Earlier, I mentioned that the Court sits squarely in the currents of Canadian identity politics. For example, in Cunningham, the Court decided that those with overlapping Aboriginal identities will sometimes have to choose between them. (14) The human impact of these types of decisions is partly measured in how people see themselves and each other. With our expanding means of communication, this human impact becomes immediate and more direct. There has never been a time when the media has been more involved in covering judicial affairs. Social media, too, has fostered a growing engagement with the Court's decisions. In fact, many panelists here wield a great deal of clout in the Canadian twitterverse. I am told that Adam Dodek is a Canadian Twitter celebrity, which is very famous indeed. But he has a long way to go to catch up to his colleague Michael Geist's followers...

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