Concern is being expressed that a federal government “gag” law remains on the books, despite a declaration by an Alberta court that the law is unconstitutional.

Known as Bill C-169, the law is amendment to the Canada Elections Act and makes it an offence for special-interest groups to spend money during an election campaign in an attempt to influence how people vote.

The law was rushed through Parliament, with the approval of all three political parties, in 1983.  It was intended to prevent groups involved in social issues including capital punishment, free trade, foreign aid and of course, abortion, from having any substantial impact on the course of the election.

It was for that reason that the National Citizens Coalition challenged the constitutionality of the law.  The group launched a legal challenge in Alberta arguing that the law infringed on the freedom of speech.

The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench agreed and on June 26, 1984, declared the law invalid as being in conflict with the Charter of Rights.

At that time the federal government had a right to appeal the decision.  It chose not to do so and the time for launching an appeal has now passed.

The federal government has now introduced before Parliament the first set of amendments to the Elections Act since the Alberta court’s ruling.  To the dismay of the National Citizens Coalition the amendments do not include removing Bill C-169 from the books, that is, Section 70.1 of the Act.

The danger in leaving that section on the books is that, legally speaking, the decision of the Alberta court is binding only in the province of Alberta.  Technically the law still applies in the other provinces.

This raises the very real possibility that the law will be used to gag special-interest groups, including pro-life organizations, during the coming federal election.  The fear is that the threat of prosecution may be used to prevent such groups from advertising once the election is called.

IN the words of the National Citizens Coalition, “This is an affront to the entire Canadian system of Justice.  The federal government should honour the decision of the Alberta court by removing Section 70.1 from the books completely.”

Most likely, Section 70.1 would be unenforceable in any other province.  The Supreme Court has decided in other cases that it is contrary to the Charter of Rights to have federal laws, which apply in certain provinces and not in others.  Consequently any attempt to have 70.1 enforced in those other provinces would be struck down by the Courts.

Nevertheless, leaving the section on the books creates uncertainty in the eyes of many.