Ultra Vires


Runnymede Returns to U of T

The Runnymede Society hosts their annual Law and Freedom Conference

On March 11-12, students, lawyers, and academics from across Canada gathered under the Gothic ceiling and stained glass windows of Hart House’s Great Hall for the Runnymede Society’s annual Law and Freedom Conference. After last year’s conference took the form of a virtual webinar, many were excited to once again meet in-person for the Society’s flagship event. This was also Hart House’s first major in-person event since much of the province and country shut down in early 2020. Fittingly, in a room ringed by a quotation from Milton’s Areopagitica, one of the greatest works in the English language on the subject of liberty, much of the conference centred on individual freedoms and the law.

The conference began on Friday evening with a fireside chat with Marie Henein. In her remarks, Henein spoke on the importance of defence lawyers in the justice system, how defence lawyers uphold the rule of law, the importance of free speech, her experience as a woman in the defence bar, the value of engaging with individuals who hold different viewpoints, and public opinion of defence lawyers.

The second day of the conference began bright and early with a panel discussion on the notwithstanding clause. In recent years, the notwithstanding clause has been featured in the news; for example, the Government of Quebec invoked the clause to protect Bill-21 from being overturned, which bans many provincial civil servants from wearing visible religious symbols. Additionally, the Government of Ontario used the notwithstanding clause when its attempt to reduce the size of Toronto’s city council was blocked at trial. 

The second panel of the day focused on emerging alternatives to legal interpretation. The panellists contrasted the living-tree approach with common-good constitutionalism, originalism, and textualism.

In the afternoon, attendees had the option of either joining a discussion on lessons from the pandemic with a focus on civil liberties, which was conducted in English, or a panel on intellectual diversity in Canadian law schools, which was conducted in French. This was the first time a French panel had been featured at the Law and Freedom Conference. On the English side, the Emergencies Act discussion featured a panel involving lawyers from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Canadian Constitution Foundation who discussed their experience with civil rights litigation during the pandemic. This panel also featured Professor Ryan Alford of the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law, who recently wrote an op-ed in Newsweek on the Trudeau government’s recent invocation of the Emergencies Act.

The afternoon ended with a panel on the dilemmas of free expression as governments and courts have long grappled with the appropriateness and scope of limits to free speech. The panellists discussed Supreme Court cases involving offensive speech, the Trudeau government’s Bill C-36, and the potential chilling effect of the federal government’s broad definition of “hate speech”.

Justice Suzanne Côté addresses attendees during an evening keynote speech on March 12, 2022. Credit: Runnymede Society

Finally, the conference concluded with dinner and an evening keynote address by Justice Suzanne Côté of the Supreme Court of Canada. This was the third year in a row in which a sitting or former Supreme Court justice addressed the Law and Freedom Conference, with Justice Malcolm Rowe speaking in 2021 and Justice Marshall Rothstein in 2020. Justice Côté, who has written opinions and dissents in many recent constitutional cases, emphasized the importance of the text in constitutional interpretation—a point which has animated recent debates among scholars and jurists, including the question of whether Charter values not outlined in the text have a role to play in constitutional interpretation. 

As the conference drew to a close, the Runnymede Society celebrated another successful year. National Director Kristopher Kinsinger noted that the Society’s lawyer and student chapters grew significantly over the past year, with the student chapters holding 20 events across Canada during the winter 2022 semester.

Editor’s Note: Gordon Lee is a student executive with the U of T chapter of the Runnymede Society who attended the Law and Freedom Conference.

Recent Stories