Unanimous ruling sets out roadmap to constitutional change

OTTAWA—Penned simply by “The Court,” the Supreme Court of Canada ruling Friday on Senate reform was complex constitutional stuff — written with a ringing clarity ordinary Canadians can easily understand.

All eight judges (minus a Quebec colleague still to be chosen) who heard the landmark case signed off as one.

None wrote separate concurring reasons — as often used to be the case historically — leaving a powerful unanimous opinion that stands as one of the high court’s most significant constitutional decisions in more than three decades.

Legal experts say it’s a major ruling not just because it dealt with Senate reform but because it is the first time the Supreme Court of Canada set out a roadmap for how changes to Canada’s Constitution and its “foundational political institutions” should be made using the 1982 Canadian Constitution Act.

It could affect future reforms to federal institutions such as the Supreme Court itself, Canada’s view on rules for succession to the throne, even one day the creation of new provinces.

The 1982 document included for the first time rules on how political actors can amend the country’s basic government institutions and the Constitution — Canada’s foundational law — and was itself a product of long negotiation and compromise, with then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau getting the agreement of all provinces but Quebec.

“If we’re still around in 50 years time we’ll still be reading it,”

Prior to that, constitutional amendment in Canada could be made only through the British Parliament adopting a law sent to it by joint resolution of the Senate and the House of Commons, since the Constitution Act of 1867 was an act of the British Parliament. There was no formal requirement for consultation with the provinces.

In its ruling Friday, the Supreme Court looked at the amending formula and said the 1982 changes “reflect the political consensus that the provinces must have a say in constitutional changes that engage their interests. The ‘underlying purpose’ of these documents is to constrain unilateral federal powers to effect constitutional change.”

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This content has been updated on August 23, 2014 at 12:19.