Unreasonable Bilingual Interpretations of Law: Bureau de la sécurité privée c. Aurélien, 2022 QCCA 239

In “One Year of Vavilov“, I observed that “some portions of Vavilov are liable to become battlegrounds between different factions of judges, those who favour more intrusive review on questions of law in one camp, their more deferential colleagues in the other” (at p. 15).

One of those portions is the one on judicial review of administrative interpretations of law (Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v. Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65, at paras. 115-124).

I summarized my concerns in “The Vavilov Framework and the Future of Canadian Administrative Law“:

Whilst it is pellucidly clear (and most welcome) that a reviewing court is not to conduct its own statutory interpretation exercise to establish a benchmark or yardstick against which to measure an administrative decision-maker’s interpretation of law, the finer details are murky. On the one hand, the reader is told: “Administrative decision makers are not required to engage in a formalistic statutory interpretation exercise in every case”. On the other hand, a few paragraphs later, the administrative decision-maker’s task is said to be to “interpret the contested provision in a manner consistent with the text, context and purpose, applying its particular insight into the statutory scheme at issue”. That looks awfully like a “formalistic statutory interpretation exercise”, one which judges suspicious of an administrative decision-maker’s ability to issue interpretations of law might well require. I hope such judges take particular note of the majority’s insistence that sometimes an administrative decision-maker need “touch upon only the most salient aspects of the text, context or purpose”. But there is a risk that many anti-deference judges will fasten upon the emphasis on text, context and purpose to constrain administrative interpretations of law (at pp. 19-20).

With this background context in mind, I want to consider the recent decision of the Quebec Court of Appeal in Bureau de la sécurité privée c. Aurélien, 2022 QCCA 239. The issue here was whether A could continue to hold a permit to work as a security guard. The relevant provision of s. 19(3) of the Loi sur la sécurité privée provides:

19. Le requérant doit satisfaire aux conditions suivantes: […] 3°  ne jamais avoir été reconnu coupable, en quelque lieu que ce soit, d’une infraction pour un acte ou une omission qui constitue une infraction au Code criminel (Lois révisées du Canada (1985), chapitre C-46) ou une infraction visée à l’article 183 de ce Code créée par l’une des lois qui y sont énumérées, ayant un lien avec l’exercice de l’activité pour laquelle il demande un permis, à moins qu’il en ait obtenu le pardon; 19. The applicant must meet the following conditions: [] (3)  never have been convicted, in any place, of an offence for an act or omission that is an offence under the Criminal Code (Revised Statutes of Canada, 1985, chapter C-46) or an offence referred to in section 183 of that Code under one of the Acts listed in that section and is related to the activity for which the agent licence application is filed, unless the applicant has obtained a pardon;

A had received an absolute discharge in respect of a criminal offence. The Bureau de la sécurité privée, responsible for administering the statute, took the view that A no longer met the condition in s. 19(3). But the Tribunal administratif du Québec found in favour of A, and the superior court held that the TAQ’s interpretation was reasonable.

The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal. The crux of the matter was that the TAQ had not followed the established methodology for bilingual interpretation. This involves a two-step process: (1) find the meaning common to both versions of the statute; and (2) ensure that this meaning is consistent with legislative intention. If, at step (1) the two versions are irreconcilable, the interpreter should proceed to step (2) immediately.

Here, the TAQ had found the two versions to be irreconcilable, because the language used referred to different notions: being found guilty in French and being convicted in English. A had been found guilty, but not convicted. The TAQ noted that the irreconcilability between guilt and conviction was not present elsewhere in the statute, as the same notions were used in both language versions (2019 CanLII 10769, at paras. 25-28). The TAQ thus moved more or less straight to step (2) and found in A’s favour based, amongst other things, on the principle of lenity.

The error here, according to the Court of Appeal, was in thinking that the term “convicted” is clear. Rather, in ordinary language, it is synonymous with findings of guilt (at para. 59): ” Il est donc loin d’être évident que le mot « convicted » désigne nécessairement l’individu déclaré coupable, puis condamné à une peine. Au contraire, selon son sens ordinaire, le mot réfère plus souvent qu’autrement à la simple déclaration de culpabilité” (at para. 60). This is also true of judicial interpretations of the term “convicted” (at paras. 61-62). The Court of Appeal was also unimpressed by what it took to be the TAQ’s use of s. 730 of the Criminal Code (at paras. 64-68).

The Court of Appeal also found that the TAQ erred at step (2) of its bilingual interpretation analysis, for example, by failing to take into account the objectives of the statutory scheme (at para. 77) and its own past jurisprudence (at para. 84).

On the one hand, then, the TAQ went wrong in applying the principles of bilingual statutory interpretation. On the other hand, however, the error at step (1) was context-specific, thinking that the term “convicted” clearly meant the imposition of a prison sentence. But the Court of Appeal did not explain why the TAQ’s conclusion that “convicted” was clear was, in and of itself, unreasonable. Indeed, this looks like an error of application, of appreciation of context, rather than an error in stating the applicable legal test and arguably calls for a greater degree of deference. As for the error at step (2), this too has the character of an error in appreciating the context: the TAQ sought to achieve a harmonious reading of the statutory scheme and s. 730 of the Criminal Code and applied the principle of lenity but the Court of Appeal thought this approach underplayed the objectives of the statutory scheme.

My point here is not that the Court of Appeal and/or the TAQ were wrong or right, simply that the Court of Appeal’s analysis can be read as revealing a reasonable disagreement about the level of clarity of s. 19(3) and the objectives of the statutory scheme rather than an unreasonable analysis by the TAQ. At a minimum, as Mark Mancini observed of this decision, it involves “fairly searching reasonableness review”. Indeed, in a parallel universe, the outcome at the Court of Appeal might have been quite different. Consider the warning issued by another panel of the Court of Appeal in M.O. c. Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec, 2021 QCCA 177, at paras. 66-67:

La multiplication des recours en proposant, palier après palier, année après année, les mêmes arguments que ceux initialement plaidés et évalués par des instances administratives spécialisées, sans tenir compte des préceptes fondamentaux du droit administratif, est de nature à frustrer les justiciables, qui ne se voient pas offrir la justice administrative souple et efficace à laquelle ils sont en droit de s’attendre. Selon l’appelante et les mis en cause, l’intervention de la Cour d’appel était absolument requise pour clarifier le droit sur les exemptions à l’article 10 de la LAA. Or, il revient d’abord aux tribunaux administratifs, non aux tribunaux judiciaires, d’interpréter le droit constituant l’assise de leur juridiction spécialisée et de le faire évoluer, une brique à la fois, selon les circonstances propres aux affaires qui se présentent devant eux.

This warning was grounded in the first principles set out in Vavilov. But in Aurélien, the Court of Appeal was also persuaded that its approach was consistent with Vavilov. The contrast between the two decisions is striking and recalls that although the Vavilov framework has certainly increased the simplicity and certainty of Canadian administrative law, it contains important tensions.

As it happens, the Supreme Court of Canada recently granted leave to appeal in Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) v. Mason, 2021 FCA 156, where the relationship between reasonableness and the principles of statutory interpretation will be front and centre. It will be interesting to see what the parties and the judges have to say about the tensions in Vavilovian reasonableness review of administrative interpretations of law.

This content has been updated on April 8, 2022 at 17:25.