Liberal MPs shoot down request to study use of notwithstanding clause

By Janice Dickson   

General Government Canada Constitution Doug Ford government Notwithstanding clause Ontario

Ontario Premier Doug Ford reached for the rarely used constitutional tool in his bid to slash the size of Toronto city council.

OTTAWA—Federal Liberals have rejected a request by opposition MPs to delve into the issue of whether it’s appropriate for a politician to routinely use the Constitution’s controversial notwithstanding clause to override a court’s decision.

The governing MPs voted against NDP justice critic Murray Rankin’s motion proposing that the justice and human rights committee study the routine use of the clause. Rankin had wanted the committee to meet five times and hear from constitutional experts and former attorney generals.

The Liberal MPs who spoke to the issue primarily argued that there is not enough time for another study.

Liberal MP Iqra Khalid questioned whether the committee is the right place for the study to occur, saying there is only 10 months left to work on substantial legislation before the 2019 election.


“I really don’t think this committee is the right place for it,” she said.

Randy Boissonnault echoed Khalid and said the committee needs to focus on legislation.

The notwithstanding clause gives provincial legislatures and Parliament the ability to usher in legislation that overrides provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for a five-year period.

Rankin’s motion was defeated five to four.

Committee chair Anthony Housefather, a Liberal MP, reiterated that he’s against using the notwithstanding clause. But he said there needs to be a “cooling off period” to ensure any study would not be related to one government in one part of the country and on one specific issue.

Housefather suggested holding back on voting, and said the committee could look at the issue in the future.

Rankin repeated that his motion, while prompted by recent comments made by Ontario Premier Doug Ford, was not intended to single out a premier or an event. The Ontario government reached for the rarely used constitutional tool in its bid to slash the size of Toronto city council.

“I think we need to let Canadians know where we stand on this,” said Rankin, adding he didn’t accept the excuse that there’s not enough time.

Conservative MPs Tony Clement, Michael Cooper and Dave MacKenzie supported Rankin’s motion.

Cooper, who told The Canadian Press last week that he would likely not support Rankin’s motion, had a change of heart.

He acknowledged he was skeptical initially but that he had been convinced the intent of the motion was to have a dispassionate study. Cooper said he hoped the committee could find a time to fit it in before June.

Ontario’s top court sided with the provincial government last week in the legal battle over the size of Toronto’s council.

Related: Toronto election proceeding with 25 wards after court sides with province

The appeal court suspended a lower court ruling that found the province’s move to slash council was unconstitutional. In turn, that eliminated the Progressive Conservative government’s need to push ahead with a revamped bill on the issue.

Critics attacked the Ford government for invoking the notwithstanding clause to ensure the bill’s passage, but the government now says it won’t move forward with the legislation, given the appeal court’s decision.


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