A Balancing Act: The Supreme Court of Canada and Testifying Behind The Veil

In two concurring reasons and one dissenting reason, the Supreme Court of Canada, in the N.S. decision, has continued the Charter discourse surrounding conflicting rights. Unsurprisingly, the majority message, written by Chief Justice McLachlin, is one of balance and accommodation on a case-by-case determination. The Trial judge must weigh the conflicting rights in the context of the case with due deference to Charter values. The values, however, are flexible, adaptable, and tolerant of each other. In the Charter arena, there is no room for immoveable values, which are fixed and unbending.

This approach does, on the face, appear to be consistent with the Charter itself, which guarantees rights and freedoms but not absolutely: they are subject to the reasonable limits of a free and democratic society. This, however, is a liberal concept, a concept born in the revolutionary times of the 18th century when religion was given a tempered view in favour of scientific and provable reasoning. As a result, the question remains whether the balancing act proposed by the SCC will provide enough protection to freedom of religion/belief in an age where having a belief system is not required in a free and democratic society.

On the other hand, the traditional concept of criminal law based on the presumption of innocence and fair trial, as values to be balanced, may very well be eroded by this balancing act as well. Critics of the SCC approach might properly ask: how can the very essential core concepts of criminal law ever be subject to accommodation? Some values, those critics would argue, should never give way or they will fail to stand on their own. Interestingly, these concerns form the basis of the concurring judgment of Justices Lebel and Rothstein.

Justice Abella’s dissent is not based on religious rights as a concept to be jealously guarded, but is based on Charter values flowing from earlier Charter cases on protecting the vulnerable members of our society such as children and women. Her dissent focuses on the very real issues of access to justice and the marginalization of those less powerful sectors of our society. This viewpoint becomes even more important in light of the recent release of Wally Oppal’s Report on missing women and the trend toward dismissing the rights, or even the existence of, prostitutes, the homeless, and Aboriginal women.

In the N.S. decision, we see a microcosm of Canadian society: differing viewpoints arising out of the same context, which reflect strongly held values, but which also reflect the true legacy of the Charter as a document that encompasses, and tolerates, all.