Let’s Talk About: Property Rights & The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

The Alberta election is heating up and is soon to be decided as Albertans go to the polls on Monday, April 23, 2012. One of the many controversial issues raised by the Wildrose leader, Danielle Smith, is on property rights and the absence of such rights guaranteed in the Charter. Smith, on her Wildrose website, suggests the “fundamental role” of government is the “protection and preservation of property rights.” As part of her platform on this “fundamental” issue is the promise her government would “entrench property rights.” She would do this by implementing an Alberta Property Rights Preservation Act, entrenching “basic property rights in the Alberta Bill of Rights” and spearheading “a national initiative to add property rights to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” 

Really? Are we really to believe that this “pressing” issue of property rights should be shoulder to shoulder in our Charter along with our fundamental freedoms such as freedom of expression, freedom of conscious, and equality rights. Should our preoccupation with individual, political, and democratic rights take a back seat to issues of ownership and possession? What will this mean for our criminal law and the ability of the government to reasonably search and seize property for a criminal investigation? Does the corporeal trump the spirit? Is property, which not everyone has the ability to own, require the special attention and protection of our most Supreme laws? Why should property rights, which were specifically and deliberately left out of the Charter, now be placed back in?

Not that we would ever see the unanimous agreement to do so that is required before the Charter could be amended. Do we need the kind of property rights litigation, which occurs in the United States, where property rights were specifically enshrined in their Constitution and viewed as sacred as life itself? And if we feel we do want this protection, are we prepared for the result. For a good discussion on the history of American Constitution property rights, read the SCC decision in Reference re ss. 193 and 195.1(1)(C) of the criminal code (Man.).

Danielle Smith may have taken a page from her namesake, Adam Smith’s, Wealth of Nations, with a call to protect life, liberty and property but fails to recognize the positive obligation protecting property would place on the government. Thus, we would need a robust and interventionist government, willing to step into the property rights fray. Entrenching property rights would mean not less government but more government, as the Courts would be busy reviewing the government’s ability to regulate and protect the national interest in the name of the economy. Take for instance the issue of natural resources and the role ownership of such resources would play under a property Charter rights scenario.

Canada does in fact have some experience with protection of property rights as section 1(a) of the Canadian Bill of Rights, 1960, the statutory, quasi-constitutional precursor to the Charter, protects “the right of the individual to life, liberty, security of the person and enjoyment of property, and the right not to be deprived thereof except by due process of law.” While this still enacted statute can still be used to “protect” property rights, the legal interpretation of this right has not provided the protection the Wildrose maintains they can provide if elected. 

But would such entrenchment of property rights really “protect and preserve” an individual’s right to their property as touted by the Wildrose? It is instructive perhaps to look at the case law on property rights in the Bill of Rights. This passage of the Bill of Rights was considered by the Supreme Court of Canada rather recently in the 2003 Authorson case, in which disabled veterans attempted to require the federal government to pay past interest on pension funds despite legislation minimizing Crown liability. The end result of the decision, dismissing the veterans’ claim, was to uphold Parliament’s right to expropriate property without compensation.

Legally, an “entrenchment” of property rights does not in and of itself suggest an individual’s right to property would be absolutely guaranteed. Indeed, considering all of our rights under the Charter are not absolutely protected, any “new” Charter rights would be treated similarly. According to s. 1, all of the Charter rights are subject to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.  In addition, both Parliament and each provincial legislature, including Alberta, have the authority to enact legislation contrary to the rights guaranteed in the Charter through the Charter notwithstanding provision contained in s. 33.

Therefore, the Wildrose is promising, in a very heated election, something they cannot themselves guarantee. Undoubtedly these are the best promises to make: no one can take them to task for merely promising to try. Interestingly, the Authorson case was written by the then Alberta appointment to the SCC, Justice Major, who is now trying to sort out the MLA compensation debacle. Of course, the proponents of property rights would suggest it is the poor wording of the Bill of Rights, offering property protection in accordance with due process, which is the problem and which can be easily fixed.

But even if the Charter was amended and property rights were absolutely protected as desired by the Wildrose, the question still remains whether or not protecting property rights is in the best interests of Canadians. If we say “yes” to property rights, then we must be prepared for all kinds of litigation overrunning our justice system such as: litigation on the right of the government to tax individuals; litigation on the government’s right to make decisions on natural resources; litigation on intellectual property rights including copyright and access to information; and litigation regarding criminal law and search warrants as discussed in the SCC case of Quebec (Attorney General) v. Laroche. We could even see spill-over litigation in the area of economic rights, which traditionally has been unprotected by the Charter as discussed in the SCC Gosselin case, which could put Canada’s economic health at risk by promoting the financial sovereignty of the individual at the expense of a strong economy and healthy society.

Thus, in the end, we must decide if property rights are worth protecting in our country knowing the possible legal pitfalls, which may ensue. Let’s ensure the next thirty years of Charter litigation promotes our fundamental freedoms as individuals of choice and free will, entitled to respect and dignity, instead of a document weighed down by possessory rights and self-interest.