Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Litigation in Canadian Referendum Politics

Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Litigation in Canadian Referendum Politics

Article excerpt

Abstract: During the last decade, various governments in Canada have organized referenda to define their options on issues of great popular controversy. The Canada-wide referendum on the Charlottetown Constitutional Accord in 1992, the Quebec sovereignty referendum in 1995, and the British Columbia referendum on aboriginal treaty negotiations in 2002 are the most interesting and the most significant examples. The core issue in each case was determining the political direction a government or a jurisdiction should follow. In each of these instances, interested citizens representing a segment of public opinion sought court injunctions to stop the vote. The focus of this article is the use of the courts on the political process. In each of the three cases, the applications for injunction were denied and the referendum proceeded. Nevertheless, the legal proceedings highlighted the increasing impact of law in politics under the Charter, as well as the greater willingness of political actors to use litigation to achieve political goals. These trends point out lessons for democracy that public administrators ought not ignore.

Sommaire : Au cours de la derniere decennie, divers gouvernements au Canada ont organise des referendums pour determiner leurs options concernant des questions faisant l'objet de serieuses controverses. Le referendum canadien de 1992 sur l'Accord constitutionnel de Charlottetown, le referendum de 1995 sur la souverainete du Quebec et le referendum qui s'est tenu en 2002 en Colombie-Britannique sur les negociations des droits issus de traites des Autochtones sont les referendums les plus interessants et les plus marquants. Dans chaque cas, le point essentiel consistait a determiner l'orientation politique que le gouvernement ou une juridiction devrait adopter. Dans chacun de ces exemples, des citoyens concernes representant un segment de l'opinion publique ont tente d'empecher la tenue du vote en sollicitant des injonctions aupres des tribunaux. Le present article porte sur le recours a des moyens legaux pour influer sur le processus politique. Dans chacun des trois cas, les demandes d'injonctions ont ete refusees et le referendum a eu lieu. Neanmoins, les actions en justice ont souligne l'impact grandissant du juridique dans le domaine des politiques, sous l'influence de la Charte, et une plus grande acceptance de la part des responsables politiques a recourir a des litiges pour atteindre des objectifs politiques. Ces tendances soulignent pour la democratie des lecons que les administrateurs publics ne devraient pas ignorer.


Canada is a difficult country to govern. Its politics are fraught with centrifugal forces that need to be reconciled. For a long time, the relationship between the English and French communities was the most significant of these issues. Recently, the relationship between aboriginal Canadians and the larger society has gained prominence.

Elections are one way of building coalitions capable of handling fundamental and potentially divisive issues. Sometimes, however, governments choose to isolate important matters from the electoral process and attempt to resolve them through votes on single issues. Referenda can be useful vehicles of governance when political parties have taken a clear stand on matters of high political importance. If a government faced a whipped vote in the House of Commons or a legislature and won, its triumph would be hollow, as it would merely have inflamed passions on all sides. If the government were to lose such a crucial vote, the country or the province would be without leadership. In order to avoid such scenarios, referenda can be important instruments of governance.

A referendum allows the political system to take a single issue, to handle it with the gravity and decisiveness of an election, while not placing the stability of the government, or of the political system itself, at risk. This occurs even when referenda are designed to give representative institutions an increased range of options, as well as in cases where the instrument of the referendum is chosen by a government for other reasons. …

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