Thursday, 19 July 2012

The Return of the Nordiques? An Icy Reception for the Applicants

They love their hockey up in Québec City, but have had nothing to love in the major leagues since the Nordiques decamped to Colorado in the mid-90s. Efforts are afoot to revive the local brand. One of the elements is a stadium, financed in part by the City of Québec and the provincial government. The City entered into a contract with media company Quebecor, exchanging management rights in respect of the facility, in return for Quebecor's participation in securing an NHL team for the City. But whether the City had complied with provincial contracting rules quickly became a bone of contention.

Aghast at the possibility that court action could derail the project, local politicians lobbied provincial representatives to pass a law shielding the contract from judicial oversight. They ultimately got their wish (with repercussions for the leader of the Parti Québécois, who had to whip some deputies into line) and the following provisions were enacted:

Attendu que la Ville de Québec a le projet de construire un amphithéâtre multifonctionnel dans le Parc de l’Exposition Provinciale;
Que l’amphithéâtre multifonctionnel est un édifice public financé par la Ville de Québec et le gouvernement du Québec;
Que Quebecor Media Inc. a déposé aux autorités de la Ville de Québec, le 26 février 2011, une proposition qui a été acceptée par la résolution CV-2011-0174 de son Conseil de ville le 7 mars 2011;
Que la proposition de Quebecor Media Inc. prévoit la conclusion d’un contrat de droits d’identification, d’un contrat de gestion, d’un bail relatif aux activités liées au hockey, d’un bail relatif à des spectacles et évènements, d’un bail avec une équipe de hockey amateur; elle prévoit également la possibilité d’évènements bénéficiant à la communauté;
Que ce projet revêt un caractère exceptionnel et qu’il est nécessaire d’assurer la sécurité juridique de la proposition déposée et des contrats à conclure à la suite du dépôt de cette proposition.
1.         Malgré toute disposition inconciliable, la Ville de Québec peut conclure tout contrat découlant de la proposition faite par Quebecor Media Inc., le 26 février 2011, et acceptée par la résolution CV-2011-0174 adoptée par le Conseil de la ville le 7 mars 2011. Un tel contrat doit être substantiellement conforme au contenu de la proposition.
La mise en concurrence effectuée en vue d’obtenir la proposition visée au premier alinéa et l’octroi de tout contrat conclu en vertu de cet alinéa sont réputés ne pas contrevenir aux articles 573 à 573.4 de la Loi sur les cités et villes (L.R.Q., chapitre C-19) et à la politique adoptée en vertu de l’article 573.3.1.2 de cette loi.
2.         La présente loi entre en vigueur le 21 septembre 2011.
All contracts, then, flowing from the proposition made by Quebecor, would be immune from challenge in the courts.

A pair of interested citizens, one of whom, Denis de Belleval, was a former Director General of the City, made an application to the Superior Court on the basis that the law was an unconstitutional attempt to retroactively ratify illegal government activity. The Barreau du Québec joined them as an intervenor.

Jacques J. was unimpressed. The first argument was that the provisions violated the unwritten constitutional principle of the rule of law. But this principle, as Jacques J. observed, must contend with a competitor: the sovereignty of parliament. Jacques J. relied heavily on the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in British Columbia v. Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., 2005 SCC 49, [2005] 2 SCR 473. There, a statute retroactively imposing liability for health care costs on tobacco companies was upheld as constitutional.

Thus, Jacques J. concluded, a court may only intervene where specific constitutional rights have been infringed, and not on the basis of the rule of law alone (at paras. 128-129). This seems correct to me. While there are rule of law concerns about resort to such measures, it must logically be the case that parliament retains the power to ratify illegal acts of its delegates (at paras. 161-162) as long as no constitutional restrictions are violated. If it could authorize such acts going forward, it should be able to authorize them retroactively too (subject, perhaps, to any vested rights created in the interim). Where such powers are exercised, as they were here, in full public view and after thorough discussion, there is no violence to the rule of law. Should such exercises become routine, there may be cause for concern, but this was a one-off and some of the law's supporters paid a heavy political price.

The applicants also alleged that various constitutional rights were infringed. But, in sum, as Jacques J. observed, the applicants had the opportunity to testify before parliament on the subject of the proposed law, they were able to make their case in the media, and they also had access to independent courts to challenge the law as unconstitutional (see paras. 179-180, 186-187, 199-201). One should also not exclude the possibility of judicial review in the future, of acts which do not conform to the contracting requirements and which do not flow from the initial proposition (see para. 200 for a hint of this).

In any event, Jacques J. concluded, the contracting decisions taken here did not contravene any provision of the law.

One issue was not taken up by the applicants. Section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867 provides for the appointment of judges by the federal government and has been interpreted as preventing the provinces from ousting judicial review of government action. Otherwise, the argument goes, the provinces would effectively be able to create bodies with court-like powers and appoint non-judges to them, allowing them to make an end-run around the provisions of s. 96 (the leading case is Crevier v. Attorney General (Québec), [1981] 2 SCR 220).

On this logic, while the retroactive ratification of illegal acts is not problematic, sheltering future acts from judicial oversight is problematic. Is the effect of the law not to vest court-like powers in the City of Québec? Its prophylactic scope is not particularly wide, but it walls off certain categories of decision from judicial oversight. Against that, one could argue that judicial review remains available in respect of whether particular acts flowed from the initial Quebecor proposition. In any event, de Belleval does not have the means to pursue an appeal, so the issue is unlikely ever to be dealt with.

On the plus side, the return of the Nordiques is a step closer...