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Statutory Interpretation

Rooney v. ArcelorMittal S.A. (Ont CA, 2016)

In this case the Court of Appeal usefully reviews basic principles of statutory interpretation:
(1) Modern Principle of Statutory Interpretation

[10] The starting point in a review of the modern principle of statutory interpretation is Rizzo & Rizzo Shoes Ltd. (Re), 1998 CanLII 837 (SCC), [1998] 1 S.C.R. 27. That case provides both general guidance on the proper approach to statutory interpretation and specific guidance on how to apply that approach where the plain meaning of a provision appears to conflict with its underlying statutory purpose.

[11] Rizzo Shoes is the best known authority for how to approach the task of statutory interpretation and has been cited more than 3,000 times by courts at all levels. Iacobucci J., writing for the court, endorsed Driedger’s “modern principle” of statutory interpretation, at para. 21, quoting the following passage from Elmer Driedger, Construction of Statutes, 2nd ed. (Toronto: Butterworths, 1983), at p. 87:
Today there is only one principle or approach, namely, the words of an Act are to be read in their entire context and in their grammatical and ordinary sense harmoniously with the scheme of the Act, the object of the Act, and the intention of Parliament.
With these words, the Supreme Court fully embraced Elmer Driedger’s “modern principle” of statutory interpretation. But to fully appreciate the significance of this statement, we have to ask: “modern” compared to what?

[12] Ruth Sullivan explains that, in the nineteenth and for much of the twentieth centuries, statutory interpretation was dominated by the plain meaning rule. That rule held that where the words of a statute were clear and unambiguous, the courts applied them as they were written – even if legislative intention or practical considerations pointed in another direction. At times, courts relied instead on the so-called golden rule, which allowed courts to depart from the plain meaning of a statute but only when that meaning lead to absurd results.: Ruth Sullivan, Sullivan on the Construction of Statutes, 6th ed. (Markham: LexisNexis Canada Inc., 2014), at §2.13-2.17.

[13] The modern principle takes a more holistic view. As Iacobucci J. explained in Rizzo Shoes, at para. 21, the modern principle “recognizes that statutory interpretation cannot be founded on the wording of the legislation alone.” Sullivan expands on this idea, at §2.18: “Today, as the modern principle indicates, legislative intent, textual meaning and legal norms are all legitimate concerns of interpreters and each has a role to play in every interpretive effort” (emphasis added).

[14] That is the general guidance that Rizzo Shoes provides in all cases involving statutory interpretation. Equally important for present purposes is the guidance the case provides in circumstances where the plain meaning of a provision appears to conflict with its underlying statutory purpose. The issue in Rizzo Shoes was whether employees who lost their jobs when their employer went bankrupt were entitled to termination and severance pay under the Employment Standards Act, 1981, S.O. 1981, c. 22 (the “ESA”). That statute provided that such benefits were payable when a claimant’s employment was “terminated by an employer”: see ss. 40 and 40a. The question was whether bankruptcy acted as a “termination” for purposes of the Act.

[15] The judge at first instance held that it did. He reasoned that the object and intent of the Employment Standards Act was to provide minimum employment standards and to benefit and protect employees’ interests. As remedial legislation, the Act should be given a fair, large, and liberal interpretation to advance its goals.

[16] The Court of Appeal for Ontario disagreed. It focused on the plain meaning of the impugned provisions and concluded that the rights to termination and severance pay were limited to situations where the employer actively terminates the employee – not when the termination results by operation of law, as in a bankruptcy.

[17] Iacobucci J. identified the fundamental tension as follows, at para. 20:
At the heart of this conflict is an issue of statutory interpretation. Consistent with the findings of the Court of Appeal, the plain meaning of the words of the provisions here in question appears to restrict the obligation to pay termination and severance pay to those employers who have actively terminated the employment of their employees. At first blush, bankruptcy does not fit comfortably into this interpretation.
[18] It was in this context that Iacobucci J. repudiated the view that statutory interpretation could be “founded on the wording of the legislation alone.” Instead, the words of the statute had to be read in their entire context, having regard not just to their ordinary and grammatical meaning but also to the scheme and object of the Act and to the legislature’s intention.

[19] Iacobucci J. examined the Court of Appeal’s reasoning in light of this standard and found it “incomplete”. He explained his conclusion, at para. 23:
Although the Court of Appeal looked to the plain meaning of the specific provisions in question in the present case, with respect, I believe that the court did not pay sufficient attention to the scheme of the ESA, its object or the intention of the legislature; nor was the context of the words in issue appropriately recognized.
[20] Applying the modern principle to the case before him, Iacobucci J. concluded that the impugned provisions of the Employment Standards Act should be interpreted to include the employees whose jobs were terminated as a result of their employer’s bankruptcy. He held the following with respect to the Court of Appeal’s restrictive interpretation of the word “termination”:
• It was incompatible with the object of the Act, which was to protect employees;

• It was incompatible with the object of the termination and severance pay provisions themselves, which was to provide employees with a cushion against the adverse economic effects of termination without notice; and

• It would lead to absurd results because it would distinguish between employees’ entitlement to benefits based on whether they were dismissed the day before or the day after their employer’s bankruptcy became final.
[21] In considering the arguments advanced on this appeal, this court must take the modern approach described by Iacobucci J. It is not permissible or helpful to look at the words of s. 131(1) in isolation and without regard to the scheme and object of the Act and to the legislature’s intention.

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