Supreme Court breathes new life into the Charter in SFL

On the heels of its recent decision in Mounted Police Association of Ontario,[1] and with more distant roots in its judgments in BC Health Services[2] and Fraser,[3] the Supreme Court of Canada has breathed new life into section 2(d) of the Charter as it relates to the Canadian workplace. The Court’s decision marks a historic moment, not only for workers, but for the continued vitality of the rights protected by the Charter.

In Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v Saskatchewan (“SFL”), the unions challenged legislation granting public employers in the province the unilateral right to declare workers as performing “essential services”, meaning that they could not participate in an otherwise lawful strike. The Supreme Court found that this legislation violated workers’ freedom of association under 2(d) of the Charter: writing for the majority, Justice Rosalie Abella held that the right to strike is an essential part of meaningful collective bargaining and is protected by 2(d), and further held that the essential services regime in Saskatchewan could not be saved under section 1 of the Charter because, among other things, there was no independent check on employers’ unilateral right to prevent workers from striking.

In reaching this conclusion, the Court expressly overruled its prior holding in the Alberta Reference,[4] nearly 30 years earlier, that freedom of association did not protect the right to strike. The analysis of the Court in SFL relies heavily on the dissenting reasons of Chief Justice Dickson in Alberta Reference, adopting his conclusion that “effective constitutional protection of the associational interests of employees in the collective bargaining process requires concomitant protection of their freedom to withdraw collectively their services, subject to s. 1 of the Charter.”

The Court’s wholesale endorsement of Chief Justice Dickson’s dissent shows that the Charter is indeed a “living tree”, and the Court is not afraid to permit it to grow and develop over time. In her majority reasons, Justice Abella writes that, in now including the right to strike, “s. 2(d) has arrived at the destination sought by Dickson C.J. in the Alberta Reference”. This language—likening section 2(d) to a kind of traveller—is a bold affirmation that Charter rights are not stagnant and will be interpreted to give effect to their underlying values, even as our understanding and acceptance of those values evolves over time.

In this way, the judgment in SFL can be seen as further validation of the approach in BC Health Services and Canada (Attorney General) v Bedford:[5] when the Court is faced with compelling arguments supported by a strong evidentiary record, it is prepared to revisit its past conclusions in order to give life to the fundamental rights enshrined in the Charter.

[This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice, which cannot be given without consideration of your individual circumstances.]

[1] Mounted Police Association of Ontario v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 1

[2] Health Services and Support — Facilities Subsector Bargaining Assn. v. British Columbia, 2007 SCC 27

[3] Health Services, Ontario (Attorney General) v. Fraser, 2011 SCC 20

[4] Alberta Reference (Reference re Public Service Employee Relations Act (Alta.), [1987] 1 S.C.R. 313)

[5] Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford, 2013 SCC 72



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