Human Rights Interpretation and Unreasonableness: Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse c. Côté, 2015 QCCA 1544

Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse c. Côté, 2015 QCCA 1544 is an instructive case on the role of the principles of statutory interpretation in unreasonableness analysis — and, moreover, a decision which also caused me to make a further update to this post.

Here, the parents of an autistic teenager made a reservation at a bed and breakfast in Quebec’s scenic Eastern Townships. They intended to head off on a short holiday while their son was at a retreat. The complication was the presence in their household of a new companion dog for their son; his previous dog had died suddenly several months earlier. By chance, the family obtained a new dog from a charitable organization. The catch was that the dog had to remain with the members of the family during a settling-in period. So the parents had to bring the dog with them on their short holiday. But the bed and breakfast had a ‘no animals’ policy. The parents went elsewhere and subsequently made a discrimination complaint to Quebec’s Human Rights Tribunal.

The Tribunal refused the complaint. There is no doubt that discrimination against someone suffering from autism is a violation of article 10, the anti-discrimination provision of Quebec’s Charte des droits et libertés de la personne.  In the Tribunal’s view, the absence of the autistic son meant that there was no discrimination of which the parents could complain. Based on its analysis of article 10 and a comparison with Australian and American statutes providing expressly for relief in similar circumstances, the Tribunal found that there had been no discrimination against the parents:

L’absence de dispositions dans la Charte ou dans une loi particulière attribuant un statut particulier à l’entraîneur d’un chien d’assistance et aux tuteurs de la personne handicapée ne permet pas de leur reconnaître la même protection que celle reconnue à la personne handicapée.

The Quebec Court of Appeal held that this was unreasonable. Morissette J.A. noted that article 10 had evolved over time. In its first appearance on the statute book, “handicap” did not appear at all. In 1978, the following language was added to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination: “or the fact that he is a handicapped person or that he uses any means to palliate his handicap”. And in 1983, this became: “a handicap or the use of any means to palliate a handicap”. Here, it seems clear, the son’s autism was “a handicap” and the parents’ care of the dog was “the use of any means” to “palliate” it.

A literalist reading of the French provision suggests it is slightly more restrictive than its English counterpart — “le handicap ou l’utilisation d’un moyen pour pallier ce handicap”. Here, the use of “le”, the definite article, rather than “un”, the indefinite article, suggests that the handicap must be specific to the person who suffers from it; and the use of “ce” might seem to underscore this by referring back to the personal handicap in question.

But this ignores the permissive language in the English version: “Il est certain que, même prise au pied de la lettre ou envisagée littéralement, la version anglaise et actuelle de l’article 10 décrit avec exactitude la situation des plaignants : le chien dont ils ont la garde est un moyen de pallier le handicap de leur fils, un handicap qui, ce n’est pas contesté, est visé par l’article 10″ (at para. 26). Moreover, in light of the English version, a literalist application of the French text alone is inappropriate, because even if “ce handicap” means “the handicap in question”, the parents’ care of the dog was “un moyen pour [le] pallier”.

The decision was unreasonable because the Tribunal took a literalist approach and failed to apply the the ‘large and liberal’ approach to quasi-constitutional instruments that has long been favoured in Canada. It was “un procédé d’interprétation inapproprié lorsqu’une interpré­tation large et libérale s’impose, en s’en tenant strictement au texte de la disposition sans s’interroger autrement sur l’intention du législateur…” (at para. 28).

Moreover, the Tribunal again failed to follow the ‘large and liberal’ approach when it resorted to the implied exclusion rule. It applied this technical rule of construction to demonstrate that other jurisdictions had specifically provided for anti-discrimination obligations in favour of people who train companion dogs. In its view, Quebec’s failure to enact such obligations should be taken as an indication that article 10 did not extend to the parents affected in this case. This was unreasonable, Morissette J.A. held:

Or, le Tribunal, on l’a vu, s’est tourné vers des législations étrangères qui prévoient expressément, encore que ce soit dans des styles de rédaction fort différents, l’extension de la protection aux dresseurs ou aux maîtres de chiens-guides ou de chiens d’assistance. Ce faisant, il s’est détourné de la tâche qui lui incombait – soit de déterminer la portée d’un texte législatif considéré d’abord en tant que tel – et il a opté pour une lecture qui n’a de raison d’être que lorsqu’une interprétation stricte est de mise. Une telle lecture s’inscrit dans le droit sillage de la maxime expressio unius est exclusio alterius (at para. 27).

Administrative tribunals should not worship false canons of construction! It is bad enough when reviewing courts invoke such technical rules to strike down administrative interpretations of law; it is worse again when administrative decision-makers privilege interpretive pettifoggery over good faith attempts to implement statutory purpose. It is not the first time the Quebec Court of Appeal has had to clamp down on overly narrow administrative decisions. At the same time, I would caution that administrative decision-makers may be taking their cues from reviewing courts: the more judges insist on the primacy of technical rules of statutory interpretation, the more obliged administrative decision-makers will feel to apply them to the letter. Notice though that Morissette J.A. did not, as many Canadian judges are (wrongly) tempted to do, simply declare that article 10 was “clear” and the Tribunal’s decision was unreasonable as a result. Rather, the decision was unreasonable because the Tribunal failed to make a good faith effort to give effect to its statutory mandate.

This content has been updated on October 13, 2015 at 21:43.