Episode 54 of the Ideablawg Podcast on the Criminal Code of Canada: The Self-Fulfilling Words of Sedition under sections 59 to 61 or Presuming the Worst (Text Version)

Sedition, as with treason and other offences under Part II of the Criminal Code, is an offence against public order. It is directed to expressive communication, verbal or written, which promotes unlawful violent upheaval of the government, akin to treason. There are a number of exceptions to this general concept of sedition to permit lawful criticism of governmental actions. The punishment for sedition is severe, attracting a maximum term of fourteen years incarceration. There are many issues arising from this section. The obvious one involves a discussion of the constitutionality of the section considering it engages Charter expression, albeit violent expression that would most likely be saved under a s. 1 argument (for further discussion see Boucher v. The King,1949, SCC and R v Keegstra, 1990, SCC). An additional issue stems from the ever-present public policy question as to why certain sections still remain in the Code when there many other sections which could capture the essence of this offence.

For the sake of keeping this podcast contained in time and space, I will not discuss the obvious issues but will concentrate on the “presumption” of having a seditious intention by proof of the speaking of seditious words, the publishing of seditious libel or being a party to a seditious conspiracy. The podcast may seem a tad esoteric as a result, but I believe the discussion will reveal a singular truth about this section as well as raise a doubt in our mind as to the efficacy of a “common sense” notion regularly relied upon in our courts. The circularity and the historical meaning of this presumption, suggests this section raises Charter issues, not on the basis of s. 2(b), but on the presumption of innocence under s. 11(d).

First, a little housekeeping on the background of the sections. The offence, as with many of the offences under Part II, came to Canada from the English common law. A version of the offence is found in the 1892Criminal Code under sections 123 to 124. The punishment for the various forms of sedition in 1892 was two years imprisonment, a marked contrast to the punishment found in the current Code. Except for the punishment, the 1892 version of sedition is similar to the current s. 61 and to section 59(1) to (3). The original sections also provided very similar exceptions to the meaning of seditious intention as found under the current section 60. However, the original sections did not describe “seditious intention” nor did it provide for a presumption as stipulated under the current s. 59(4). This addition was brought into the Code in 1936. 

It is in Burbidge’s Digest of the Criminal Law of Canada, which predates the Code, where we perceive a clearer understanding of the meaning of seditious intention and the use of the presumption. Article 123 of Burbidge’s defines seditious intention as:

A seditious intention is an intention to bring into hatred or contempt, or to excite disaffection against, the person of Her Majesty, her heirs or successors, or the government and constitution of the United Kingdom or of Canada, as by law established, or either House of Parliament, or the administration of justice, or to excite Her Majesty’s subjects to attempt, otherwise than by lawful means, the alteration of any matter in the State by law established,or to incite any person to commit any crime, in disturbance of the peace, or to raise discontent or disaffection amongst Her Majesty’s subjects, or to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different classes of such subjects.

This form of sedition is certainly broader than the now contemplated offence as it does not restrict the intention to a violent one or an unlawful one considering a seditious intention can be shown through the intention to “excite disaffection” against the Crown and state. There are cases discussing the implication of this definition of sedition, notably cases involving actions during war time. For instance, in Rex v Barron1918 CanLII 195 (SK CA),the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal considered sedition in relation to seditious words spoken during World War One as follows: “Everyone who gives to the Red Cross is crazy. If no one would give to the Red Cross the war would stop. The other country would beat this country if no one would give to the Red Cross.” The accused was found guilty of sedition by a jury. The issue on appeal was the admission of similar previous sentiments expressed by the accused. The conviction was affirmed with a dissent. The court discussed the difference between a merely disloyal statement and one which is “calculated to raise disaffection.” An expression of an opinion in a “chance conversation” was different than the seditious intention evinced by trying to persuade people not to contribute to the war effort “for the avowed purpose of enabling the enemy to win the war.” The conviction was upheld as the purpose of the Appellant’s comments, according to Saskatchewan Chief Justice Haultain, were “equivalent to raising disaffection” as the words would “stir up a spirit of disloyalty, even by a mercenary appeal, leading to action or inaction in favour of the enemy.”

The present offence is found under section 61 and reads as follows:

61 Every one who

(a) speaks seditious words,

(b) publishes a seditious libel, or

(c) is a party to a seditious conspiracy,

is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years.

There are three ways in which a person can be charged with sedition under this section. First, the accused can “speak” “seditious” words. Second, the accused can be charged for publishing “seditious libel” and thirdly the accused may be charged as a party to “seditious” conspiracy. 

All three modes of committing the offence require, as an element of the actus reusor prohibited act, proof of a “seditious” act as defined under section 59. Section 59 offers a cumbersome, layered definition of sedition. Section 59 (1) defines “seditious words” as “words that express a seditious intention.” The phrase “seditious intention” is a presumption based on conduct as enumerated, in a non-exhaustive manner, under s. 59(4). The conduct which gives rise to the presumption of “seditious intention” is teaching, advocating, publishing or advocating in writing, “the use, without the authority of law, of force as a means of accomplishing a governmental change within Canada.” Thus, actions are transformed into intentions. The actus reus becomes the mens rea

At first glance, this does not seem so radical. In crimes of “minimal intent” such as assault, Justice Wilson, in the 1988 Bernard case on the role of intoxication for general intent offences, suggested the mens rea can be inferred from the actus reus. In other words, the intention required under s. 265 – an intentional application of force – can be gleaned from the application of that force. This, however, is an inference which may be drawn, not must be drawn, and it does not relieve the Crown from its legal burden to prove the offence beyond a reasonable doubt. The problem with this circular relationship in sedition between the actus reus and mens rea is there is no inference to be made – the inference is self-made as a presumption.

Historically, the presumption relating to seditious intention was specifically described and articulated under Article 124 of Burbidge’s Digest of the Criminal Law of Canada as follows: 

In determining whether the intention with which any words were spoken, any document was published, or any agreement was made, was or was not seditious, every person must be deemed to intend the consequences which would naturally follow from his conduct at the time and under the circumstances in which he so conducted himself.

This presumption reads very similar to what is the permissive inference the trier of fact may draw that a person intends the natural consequences of their actions. This “common sense” inference, as Justice Moldaver will later call it in the 2012 Walle decision, sounds similar to the “minimal intent” comment made by Justice Wilson in the context of intoxication. In fact, intoxication was a factor in the Walledecision. The significant difference is the directive – “must” for a presumption – rather than a permissive in the “may” for an inference. The 'mandatory’ presumption is a legal construct in which a trier of fact mustinfer the presumed fact upon proof of an underlying fact. Presumptions are rebuttable but in being so, the party opposing the application of such presumption has the burden to displace it. In other words, the directive used for presumptions is the status quo or the default position, whilst the permissive does not suggest or contemplate a position, other than what is required in the legal burden and standard of proof of the burden on the Crown to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. 

 The difference is not puerile but real. In the 1969 Ontario Court of Appeal decision of R v Ortt, the court clarified that this “common-sense” notion of a person intending the consequence of their actions, was not a presumption or a “must infer” but was a permissive inference only. Making such an inference permissive was needed to ensure the burden on the Crown did not shift onto the accused in a criminal case. Such a shift of the burden of proof would be contrary to another more well-known presumption, the presumption of innocence. Of course, the presumption of innocence, as I have discussed in earlier podcasts here, is a fundamental expression of our societal values, and as constitutionalized under s. 11(d) must be preserved in the face of other presumptions which may run contrary to that core concept. 

It is all well and good to turn this “common sense” notion into a permissive concept in order to preserve the sentiment from Charterscrutiny, however, to merely flip a switch from Chartercaution to Charterfriendly causes concern. That concern is most evident when faced with the statutory presumption in sedition. In sedition, the very same notion – as defined under Burbidge’s Article 124 - is deemed a permissive inference under Walle. Which is it? Is it permissive and constitutional? Or, is it presumptive and contrary to s. 11(d)? Can a change of words, change the weight of such a “common sense” notion? One could argue that the concept relied upon with this presumption for sedition, that people mean what they do, is such a pernicious idea that labelling this notorious fact as a “permissive inference” is not only counter-intuitive but false. By not labelling this inference for what it is, as a presumption, the court is preserving the constitutionality of the concept in form yet permitting the presumption to live in content. This lends weight to in my previous blog posting on the Walle decision that the inference found in common law – that a person intends the natural consequence of their actions - imports an objective dimension into subjective mens rea offences, specifically murder.  

There are exceptions to the presumption, where, under s. 60, certain acts would not “deem” a person to have seditious intention. Even that term “deem,” strengthens the argument that we are working in a legal doctrine or construct, which is mandating a substitution of the actus reus for the mens rea upon proof of certain acts. A substitution, not an inference. This, I suggest, goes further than a violation of s. 11(d) and becomes a violation of s. 7, similar to the concern raised in R v Daviault in 1994, where the act of self-induced intoxication was used as a substitute for mens rea. This elimination of a need for a fault element runs contrary to the principles of fundamental justice as found in R v Vaillancourt and R v Martineau. An accused could still be convicted despite a reasonable doubt the accused intended to commit the sedition.

Those exceptions do permit healthy political dissent. Thus under s. 60:

... no person shall be deemed to have a seditious intention by reason only that he intends, in good faith,

(a) to show that Her Majesty has been misled or mistaken in her measures;

(b) to point out errors or defects in

(i) the government or constitution of Canada or a province,

(ii) Parliament or the legislature of a province, or

(iii) the administration of justice in Canada;

(c) to procure, by lawful means, the alteration of any matter of government in Canada; or

(d) to point out, for the purpose of removal, matters that produce or tend to produce feelings of hostility and ill-will between different classes of persons in Canada.

The s. 60(d) exception could use further explanation. I take this oddly worded exception as a provision for a public good argument.  This except brings the Buzzanger and Durocher case to mind, an Ontario Court of Appeal decision written by Justice G. Arthur Martin, who allowed the Appellants' appeal against conviction for wilfully promoting hatred under the now s. 319(2) of the Criminal Code. There, the Appellants did not have the requisite high level of intention required to commit the offence "wilfully" as their intention in publishing the pamphlet railing against the Francophone community was not to promote hatred but to highlight the absurdity of hatred through the use of satire. Often, in eradicating professions of hatred against others or against government initiatives, the message must reference those abhorrent sentiments to show the fallacy and harm of those repugnant behaviours. To do so, this subsection clarifies, is not seditious. Indeed, through this exception, we are not presuming the worst of people. 

The sedition sections are, as I said at the start of this podcast, an example of the kind of public behaviours we deem worthy of punishment through our criminal law. However, what was worthy in 1892 may not be as much of a concern now where we have many other tools at our disposal in other sections of the Code. The emphasis of this offence should be on the potential violence propounded by the offence and not on the words of dissent, which is protected and accepted in any healthy democracy. If violence is the key, then the section fails to resonate with that concept as a result of the poor wording of the section and the choice to rely on a mandatory presumption of intent. Here is yet another criminal offence to add to the list of Code reform.