Beguiled by Metaphors: The ‘Living Tree’ and Originalist Constitutional Interpretation in Canada

Constitutional interpretation in Canada is dominated by the metaphor of the “living tree”. Living tree constitutional interpretation is usually defined in terms of its incompatibility with what is understood in Canada to be the central commitment of originalist interpretation: that the constitution is, in some sense, “frozen” at the moment of adoption. But the tenets of originalism that are used as a definitional contrast are not widely held by originalist constitutional scholars today, and are in fact expressly rejected in the new originalist theories that have been developed principally in the United States over the past 20 years. There has not been a meaningful engagement in Canada with contemporary schools of originalist interpretation. The originalism rejected by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1985 , is not the new originalism, and a rejection of this new family of interpretive theories does not necessarily follow from the fact of the Supreme Court of Canada’s rejection of original intent originalism. Unfortunately, the Canadian courts have continued to affirm living tree constitutional doctrine and denounce originalism without providing much of an account of what they are accepting or rejecting. This paper is a prefatory study to an engagement with new originalist scholarship. I attempt a statement of the current commitments in Canadian living constitutional doctrine and, in passing, note the Supreme Court’s attitudes towards originalism. My purpose is to determine what the central commitments of living tree constitutional doctrine are, as a preliminary step towards a later study to determine the extent to which Canadian doctrine is truly incompatible with orginalist interpretation. I explore what I observe to be the four central commitments to living tree constitutionalism in Canada: the doctrine of progressive interpretation; the use of a purposive methodology in progressive interpretation; the absence of any necessary role for the original intent or meaning of framers in interpreting the constitution; and the presence of other constraints on judicial interpretation
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