The Supreme Court of Canada will hold its first-ever hearings in Quebec City this week, including one on whether Quebeckers can legally own and grow cannabis plants. The nine judges will also meet with young people and the legal community, and invite the public to ask them questions in person at a community event.
The road show, created by Chief Justice Richard Wagner, a Quebecker, is the second in the court’s history. The first was to Winnipeg three years ago, where the Chief Justice donned a Jets hockey jersey and dropped the puck for a ceremonial faceoff. Chief Justice Wagner says the purpose is to make the court more accessible to Canadians with an eye to building confidence in the judicial process.
The visit to the Palais de justice de Québec comes in the midst of a provincial election campaign and at a fraught time for the court in the province. Premier François Legault and his government have called into question the Supreme Court’s role in determining the constitutionality of Quebec laws in recent years. His government has pre-emptively applied the notwithstanding clause to its most controversial pieces of legislation – Bill 21 and Bill 96 – shielding them from parts of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette has argued the Charter lacks legitimacy in the province because Quebec never approved the 1982 Constitution Act.
Sovereigntists like to quote former premier Maurice Duplessis on the Supreme Court being like the Tower of Pisa – leaning always in one direction, Ottawa. René Lévesque echoed the comment after a 1978 ruling in which a majority found Ottawa to have exclusive legislative authority over the regulation of cable TV. (All three Quebec judges dissented.)
Citing that comment, University of Montreal law professor Daniel Turp said the visit has political, not educational, aims.
“I personally do not believe that a court should do this,” he said.
“In order to increase the legitimacy of his court in Quebec, the Chief Justice seems to want to engage in a judicial marketing exercise that is not appropriate and whose cost I would really like to know,” he said, adding that the test of its leanings will come when the province’s laws on religious symbols (Bill 21) and language (Bill 96) reach the court.
The court said the cost is expected to be less than $200,000, with the biggest expenses being travel and accommodation, including for 15 support staff; audiovisual and interpretation services; and security. The court did not request extra funding for the trip, according to Renée Thériault, executive legal counsel to the Chief Justice.
“It was decided that this visit and related expenses were worth making, as they were for Winnipeg, to bring the court closer to people who would not otherwise have the opportunity to visit the courthouse in Ottawa, let alone speak with a justice of the Supreme Court,” Ms. Thériault said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail.
“This is especially important to ensure people continue thinking and talking about the role of the Supreme Court – and the justice system as a whole – in maintaining the rule of law and democracy in these challenging times.”
Renée-Maude Vachon, a lawyer in Quebec City, said in an interview that the visit is “a great opportunity, not only for the judicial community but for the people as well, to meet with the Supreme Court of Canada.”
Johanne Poirier, a McGill law professor who holds a chair in federalism, said that while visiting the province during an election may seem peculiar, that seems to be an accident caused by delay related to the pandemic. She said the court is “coming out of its box in Ottawa, making it more visible across the country, not just in Quebec.”
Former prime minister Brian Mulroney, a Quebecker, said in an interview that the people of the province hold the Supreme Court in very high regard. “I think Chief Justice Wagner is extremely wise in making decisions like this because it helps Canadians – all Canadians – understand the importance of the Supreme Court in their lives.” As for the court leaning to one side, he said that assertion is “demonstrably false.”
The judges began their visit by meeting with young people in several high schools. On Tuesday, the court held its annual retreat, discussing court operations and other issues, in a monastery, Le Monastère des Augustines. On Wednesday, it holds a hearing on drinking and driving, a case that will decide whether an individual may be criminally charged for refusing to take a breath test, even where a screening device is not immediately available. Afterwards, judges will meet with the public at the Musée de la civilisation.
On Thursday, a case will unfold that has implications for federalism and for getting high. The federal government passed a law in 2018 allowing people to own and grow up to four cannabis plants for personal use. Quebec then banned private ownership of cannabis plants. The question is whether it exceeded provincial jurisdiction in doing so. The week’s events end on Friday when the judges meet privately with law students and professors at Laval University’s law school.