The Supreme Court of Canada is seen at sunset in Ottawa, Tuesday September 1, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of the Liberal government’s carbon tax

The main question is whether the provinces or Ottawa have jurisdiction to regulate greenhouse gases

Supreme Court justices pushed lawyers from Saskatchewan and Ontario hard Tuesday, demanding to know how Canada can help stop climate change if any single province chooses not to help.

Two days of hearings have begun in Ottawa to decide three separate appeals related to the federal government’s national carbon tax. Since 2019, Ottawa has imposed a federal carbon price on any province that doesn’t have an equivalent system of its own.

In 2019, appeals courts in Saskatchewan and Ontario determined the policy was constitutional, while in February of this year the Alberta Court of Appeal said it was not.

The main question is whether the provinces or Ottawa have jurisdiction to regulate greenhouse gases. The environment was not a specific power assigned to provinces or the federal government when the Constitution was signed in 1867, and climate change had not even been contemplated at that time.

Lawyers for Saskatchewan and Ontario argued today, however, that the power does lie with the provinces and Ottawa should not be allowed to nab that power for itself.

Mitch McAdam, the director of the constitutional law branch in Saskatchewan’s justice department, said the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act, which created the carbon tax program, even says provinces have the ability to regulate greenhouse gases on their own.

Josh Hunter, the deputy director of the constitutional law branch in the office of Ontario’s attorney general, said the carbon tax policy gives Canada wide-reaching powers to regulate anything that affects greenhouse gases and treats provinces like subordinates.

“The way they’ve done it, it’s even worse because it’s not just they say they’re going to regulate it,” he told the court. “They say, ‘You regulate it the way we like it or we will regulate it.’”

Several judges expressed doubt that Ottawa doesn’t have the power to step in when climate change is an “existential” emergency that requires an all-hands-on-deck response from every corner of the country.

Justice Michael Moldaver said “everybody as I understand it agrees that climate change is a serious threat to life on Earth as we know it,” and that even if the provinces have the power to do something about it, they don’t have to.

“If one province decides not to do it, if one province decides to go rogue, this will have an impact potentially on the whole of Canada, and other provinces that are trying their best,” said Moldaver.

Justice Rosalie Abella echoed those sentiments, asking the provincial lawyers to explain what happens if a province doesn’t act.

“They can collectively choose to deal with those issues but they don’t have Plexiglas at their borders and the effect of not choosing to engage in strategies that are ultimately helpful to the rest of the country has enormous implications,” she said. “That’s why we have the national concern test.”

She told Hunter it was not clear to her yet why Ottawa wouldn’t have authority to act just because the provinces could also act.

Abella’s comment about Plexiglas comes as all nine Supreme Court justices were separated from each other by space and transparent walls. The carbon tax hearing is the first in-person hearing of the court in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As such, the court is closed to the public, the number of staff in the courtroom is limited, clerks are wearing masks at all times, and the judges and lawyers presenting wore masks until they got to their seats.

Chief Justice Richard Wagner noted the judges are in two rows instead of one now.

The hearing is also being webcast, although the top court has been livestreaming proceedings since before the pandemic.

Federal government lawyers are set to make their arguments defending the carbon tax law Tuesday afternoon, as are lawyers from British Columbia. Alberta lawyers are also on the schedule to argue against it Tuesday.

Wednesday, the hearings will continue with arguments from other provinces, including Quebec, Manitoba and New Brunswick. Also on the schedule for Wednesday are several First Nations and Indigenous governing bodies, as well as more than a dozen special interest groups.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Federal Carbon Tax

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Signs at a new COVID-19 testing and collection centre at 14577 66th Ave. in Surrey. It was relocated from an urgent primary care centre near Surrey Memorial Hospital. This new centre allows for up to 800 tests per day, which is 550 more than the previous centre, according to Fraser Health. (Photo: Lauren Collins)
More than 200 new COVID-19 cases linked to Fraser Health region: Dr. Henry

Provincial health officer appeals to people to keep gatherings small

Reni Masi file photo
Former Surrey school trustee, Delta MLA dies at age 87

Reni Masi served as Liberal MLA for nine years, then as a Surrey school trustee for another nine

A driver pulls up to the new COVID-19 testing and collection centre at 14577 66th Ave. in Surrey. It was relocated from an urgent primary care centre near Surrey Memorial Hospital. This new centre allows for up to 800 tests per day, which is 550 more than the previous centre, according to Fraser Health. (Photo: Lauren Collins)
Weddings, funerals have ‘potential to become a super-spreader’ event: Fraser Health

As of Oct. 21, health authority accounted for 70% of total provincial cases

The White Birch proposal for a six-storey rental-only building for 1485 Fir St. (at the corner of Fir Street and Russell Avenue) will proceed to a public hearing on Nov. 23, following a split vote at White Rock council. Contributed rendering
White Rock 80-unit rental-only project goes to public hearing

Six-storey, mid-rise building planned to boost affordable housing stock

Actor Ryan Reynolds surprised a Shuswap family with a special birthday message to their son who was worried he’d be alone on his 9th birthday on Nov. 24. (Tiffanie Trudell/Facebook)
Ryan Reynolds text almost gives away Shuswap boy’s birthday surprise

Deadpool actor helps remind eight-year-old Canoe resident he’s not alone

Vancouver police reactivated the search for Jordan Naterer Thursday Oct. 22. Photo courtesy of VPD.
Mom of missing Manning Park hiker believes her son is waiting to come home

‘He’s going to come out of a helicopter and say ‘what took you so long?”

Environment Minister George Heyman, Premier John Horgan and Energy Minister Michelle Mungall announce that B.C. Hydro is proceeding with construction of the Site C dam, Dec. 11, 2017. (Tom Fletcher/Black Press)
Site C actions, costs won’t be known until after B.C. election, Horgan says

Peace River diverted for construction of reinforced dam base

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

One of the squirrels who ended up having their tails amputated after getting them stuck together with tree sap. (Facebook/Wild ARC)
Squirrels recovering from tail amputation after sap situation near Victoria

BC SPCA Wild ARC says squirrels will be released back into wild, fifth sibling was euthanized

Most Read