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Meet the ‘anti-establishment’ group changing the conversation in the Canadian legal world


A sure sign of the growing influence of the Runnymede Society is that, among the 100 or so of Canada’s brightest legal minds mingling before the group’s annual conference last weekend in Toronto, a Supreme Court justice can weave his way through the crowd, chatting casually, and go relatively unremarked upon.

It may be that the group has gotten used to these legal celebrities. Supreme Court Justice Russell Brown, who gave Saturday night’s keynote speech at the conference, is the third sitting justice in three years to attend the conference.

Since it was founded in 2016, the Runnymede Society has mostly defied easy descriptions, but its influence is becoming obvious, and 2022 may have marked a watershed moment for the Canadian legal landscape and the society itself.

Founded by the Canadian Constitution Foundation as a student organization to promote constitutionalism, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law, the Runnymede Society has since spread across Canada into all major law schools.

The society can be loosely described as right-of-centre, and its members identify as libertarian, classically liberal, and conservative. But most of all, it’s the kind of group where the big laugh lines are inside jokes about constitutional interpretation.

“Everyone in first-year law school can tell you the Constitution is a living tree…” said Justice Bradley Miller, during a fireside chat that kicked off the conference on Friday. And, with a talent for comedic timing not commonly associated with judges, Miller let a long pause hang in the air.

“That’s mostly false,” added Miller, to a wave of applause and laughter.

Inside Miller’s joke is a clue to why the Runnymede Society has grown in size and influence at a steady rate over the last seven years.

It now boasts 19 student chapters and seven chapters run out of major Canadian cities. The last four Law and Freedom conferences have hosted Supreme Court justices, with three of them currently on the bench.

The panels at the conference focused on issues like the state of academic freedom and the provision in the Charter against cruel and unusual punishment, usually finding the intersection between legal wonkery and controversial political topics. Although most of these panels feature disagreement among the panelists, the discussion on the government’s invocation of the Emergencies Act last year found consensus that the Liberal government had overreached last year when it invoked the Act.

Like Miller’s subversive humour, the Runnymede Society has been poking holes in the broad and mostly unquestioned consensus in Canadian law.

“It’s kind of anti-establishment. The thing they have in common is that their views are not really reflected in the legal establishment today. But I think you’ll find just as active disagreement among members of Runnymede as you would between any of them and the establishment,” said Howard Anglin, who has served as deputy chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and worked as a lawyer in New York, London, and Washington, DC, along with being a Hub contributor.

As debates over the use of the notwithstanding clause in the Canadian Charter burst open last year, some legal experts noticed that the debate wasn’t as one-sided as they expected. Smart academics argued that it was perfectly reasonable to use the notwithstanding clause, while most of the left-leaning legal establishment argued against it.

But some of the most heated debates came between Runnymede members. The society’s more libertarian-leaning members resent the notwithstanding clause for providing an escape clause on Charter rights, while more conservative members support it for pulling power back to the legislature, which is answerable to the people. Other members have context-dependent positions that depend on why the government has invoked the clause.

The sheer variety of interpretations was notable, especially in a world that hasn’t always welcomed viewpoint diversity.

Miller said the legal landscape in Canada has always been marked with “hostility to novelty and different lines of analysis, particularly in constitutional law.”

The idea of learning from U.S. originalist thought is met with “deep hostility,” he said, at least partly because it’s “unfairly related” to the U.S. Republican Party.

When Miller was appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal in 2015, a year before Runnymede was founded, his defence of originalism, which puts an emphasis on the original meaning of the constitution, was met with outrage.

Now, at least among the conference-goers at the society’s Law and Freedom conference, there is a pervasive feeling that any opinion that can withstand the stress test of a friendly cross-examination is welcome.

The debate on the notwithstanding was invigorating for the legal nerds who engaged in it, but it also provided a crucial service to Doug Ford’s Ontario government, which was battling a monumental public relations crisis over its decision to invoke the clause.

It didn’t help that the Ontario government had used the notwithstanding clause to impose a contract on education workers who were attracting widespread sympathy from voters, according to opinion polls. On the legal question, though, the government was on firmer ground.

When journalists questioned the government and TV shows convened panel discussions, the conversation was more balanced. The Ford government could correctly say that experts were split on the issue, taking a little bit of the heat off the political firestorm.

“I think it’s very helpful because conservatives are used to getting crushed in the media,” said Anglin.

It’s unrealistic to expect the average voter to understand the nuances of Sec. 33 of the Charter, but they will notice if the battle among experts is being fought to a draw.

“In some cases, the best you can hope for [in managing political issues] is to get to the point where a normal harried person who’s consuming the news in 30-second drips, looks at it and sees that there’s somebody on one side and somebody on the other and then either forgets about the issue or lets their normal prejudices kick in, such as whether or not they like the politician or the party. In those cases the goal is to neutralize an issue, not necessarily to win it,” said Anglin.

Although some conservative politicians have recently taken great pleasure in skewering experts, they still seek that authority when unveiling a new policy idea.

“It’s very important to have media support and experts in third parties that can validate policy positions. It’s pretty crucial,” said Samuel Duncan, a vice president at Wellington Advocacy who has held senior roles in both Ford’s office and in the prime minister’s office of Stephen Harper.

“It’s always helpful to understand, from the government’s perspective, who’s going to be on the other side of this? And how loud are they going to be? Do we have a voice that can counter that, to try to make sure there’s a balanced perspective in whatever is being discussed?” said Duncan.

At the Runnymede conference last week and in the broader legal community there have been some tentative suggestions that there is a vibe shift underway.

It’s been noticed by right-leaning governments, who aren’t getting crushed in the media quite as conclusively as they are used to, legal academics, and even a Supreme Court justice.

“There’s a shift happening. And there’s already more room for different points of view,” said Geoffrey Sigalet, an assistant professor of political science at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus.

“I think what’s happened is Runnymede has seriously started to shake things up. I think Runnymede is the key ingredient here,” said Sigalet.

If the current legal establishment is described as a collection of overlapping left-leaning groups that mostly agree on the idea of expanding judicial power and taking an expansive view of the Charter, they are starting to see some pushback from influential places.

At his keynote speech at the Runnymede conference on Saturday night, Brown said he has seen a shift in recent years towards more judicial humility.

“As to the other feature of the first 40 years of Charter adjudication—the large and liberal constitutional interpretation—the Court has shifted around the margins there as well. And so in a few recent judgments, we’re now seeing in the Court more restrained, intentionally grounded analysis,” said Brown.

Brown argued that there was nothing inevitable about the Court’s “large and liberal” interpretation of the Charter in the first 40 years of its existence and so there is nothing foreordained about the next few decades either.

“And this is where the Runnymede Society comes in,” said Brown.

“What you’re doing at the Runnymede Society is terribly important, because there is, at these events, a refreshing ecumenicism about these kinds of questions, and I commend you for that,” said Brown.

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At the fireside chat on Friday, Miller also argued that progressive living tree proponents are starting to impose some limits on how far they take that interpretation. Miller wrote the majority decision at the Ontario Court of Appeal that upheld Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s move to shrink the Toronto city council. The Ontario Court of Appeal’s decision was upheld at the Supreme Court and Miller said there was a “living tree” argument available to any justice who wanted to reverse his court’s decision, but “nobody went for it.”

Some critics and proponents of the Runnymede Society have compared it to the Federalist Society in the United States, either as an ominous warning about the group or an optimistic hope for what it can achieve.

It’s an imperfect comparison, and one that some members of the group will shy away from, but there are some similarities. The Federalist Society has mainly functioned as a networking organization, pulling like-minded lawyers together to share ideas and help promote each other. That mission mirrors the goals of the Runnymede Society.

One major difference, at least at this point in the combined history of the two groups, is the wild, almost unbelievable success of the Federalist Society in getting its members appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The current, nine-person court contains six Federalist Society alumni, making up the entire contingent of judges appointed by Republican presidents.

Nobody at the Runnymede Society even dreams of that kind of success, at least partly because Canada’s political and judicial system probably makes it impossible. But the existence of Runnymede should theoretically make life easier for conservative politicians.

Consciously or not, through networking events and public debates, the Runnymede Society is helping build a roster of potential judicial appoints for any future Conservative government.

That’s no small thing. While a Liberal government is spoiled for choice when it reaches into the lower courts or academia for lawyers who share its view of the Charter, the pool has always been smaller for Conservatives.

By encouraging these “anti-establishment” ideas, the Runnymede Society is building a bench of lawyers and judges who may be more inclined to take an originalist view of the Charter or who may advocate for a more limited role for judges, or who may simply believe that the “living tree” is growing out of control and needs to be pared back.

“I think the more interesting project is exposing a body of students to the kinds of debates that are happening everywhere else in the world, but less so in Canadian law school classrooms, so that there is a diversity of views among future leaders of the legal profession, which I suppose includes judges, but that’s a 20-25 year project and not, I think, a conscious goal,” said Anglin, who was involved in judicial appointments during the latter years of the Harper government.

Kristopher Kinsinger, an Ontario lawyer and the national director of Runnymede, said the society’s commitment to the rule of law, fundamental freedoms, and the ideals of constitutionalism doesn’t necessarily make it a conservative group, but that those ideals should make conservatives feel at home.

“I don’t consider them to be inherently conservative principles, or exclusively conservative principles… but I think those commitments are necessary commitments for legal conservatism, but they’re not sufficient,” said Kinsinger.

“It’s no secret that legal conservatives want our society to succeed because they have a vested interest in seeing an organization where there is a robust commitment to those principles,” he said.

Embattled Royal BC Museum gives decolonization push a breather as it seeks community consultation


The Royal British Columbia Museum made a lot of people very angry in November 2021. In the name of decolonization, the Victoria museum announced its most popular exhibits were to be closed and stripped. It led to so much backlash that a planned demolishing and rebuilding of the whole museum was suspended, leaving the RBCM gutted while the public guessed what came next. 

Museums are changing across the world, and at least two in Canada, the RBCM and the National Gallery in Ottawa, have subjected themselves to public relations disasters in the process. Decolonization, indigenization, and inclusivity are the most popularly cited reasons for the changes to these institutions.

Under the leadership of CEO Alicia Dubois, appointed in February of 2022, the RBCM has embarked on an extensive consultation process with the public in 2023 about the museum’s future, including conversations with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

As one of the largest and most important museums in western Canada, 800,000 visitors visit the RBCM annually, and it creates an economic impact of roughly $50 million. By comparison, the Royal Ontario Museum brought in 1.34 million visitors in 2019, while Calgary’s Royal Tyrrell Museum attracted 450,000 visitors in 2018.

The unclear nature of the previous developments under a different CEO that led to the cancelled rebuild is not lost on Dubois. 

“Transparency is something that I value, and I suspect that British Columbians have an expectation of transparency when it comes to investment of taxpayer dollars,” says Dubois. “I have a lot of respect for that…we are now engaging in a process and we’re at a transition stage that is going to take a lot of trust.” 

Ottawa’s National Gallery has faced a similar transition that has also engendered a loss of public trust.

In the last few years, the National Gallery has made several bad headlines. First, it cancelled travelling exhibits due to ethical objections about how the collections were first gathered together. Then came controversy over its self-celebrated indigenization program. The National Gallery fired its lead Indigenous curator, who in turn accused the administration of colonial offences during its decolonization process. 

The National Gallery’s confusing decisions led it to be labelled a “woke national disgrace” in the National Post, and many questions about its future remain. 

“They’re saying we have to stop doing things in the old way, but they don’t say which things they’re going to leave behind and what they’re going to replace them with,” a former curator of the National Gallery told the Globe & Mail. “We know what you’re destroying, but what are you building?”

Back in Victoria, the RBCM has undergone several rounds of public consultations in January to answer the same question. 

When the RBCM’s administration made its first declaration that the museum’s third-floor exhibits were closing in November 2021, it spelled the end of an immaculate recreation of the 19th century in the name of decolonization. 

Called “Old Town”, the exhibit featured full-sized storefronts and multi-story buildings that visitors could enter and explore, as well as cobblestone streets and a working mini-theatre. 

Despite its popularity and craftsmanship, a recreation of what Victoria or Nanaimo neighbourhood looked like in 1901, sans the people, was too Eurocentric to exist in 2021. Or at least that was how the RBCM initially conveyed it.

Communication by the RBCM was muddied from the start, with then-acting CEO Daniel Muzyka, a business professor in Vancouver, stating the third floor’s galleries would be “decanted”. Decanting is a term used by sommeliers, finance executives, and museum staff with slightly different meanings that revolve around filtering out unwanted items.

The reasons given for the “decanting” were that the exhibit did not properly display the diversity of BC’s population prior to WWI.

While decanting might have been a gentler term than dismantling, most people associate decanting with merlots instead of museums, leading to confusion. The public was left with the impression a sledgehammer was being taken to the RBCM’s most popular exhibits. 

A few months later, it was announced by the BC government that the whole museum was to be demolished and rebuilt at a cost of $789 million. The RBCM is a Crown corporation, and big decisions like a rebuild are ultimately up to the province. 

Outrage from BC residents about the unanticipated “decanting” and sudden wholesale demolishing notice swiftly spread across Canada. Criticism was levelled in publications like Victoria’s Times Colonist, the Vancouver Sun, Daily Hive, National Post, and the Globe & Mail

Combined with dreadful polling on whether almost $1 billion in taxpayer dollars should be spent to rebuild the museum, the BC government backed down from its decision. However, the third floor had already been stripped, leaving just half the museum’s gallery space intact, and even less public trust. 

On the second floor is a vast space for travelling exhibitions and the Natural History Gallery. Containing fossilized mollusks and furry, life-sized models of local wildlife, the Natural History Gallery was judged innocent of colonialism and left alone. The first floor of the gutted museum has no exhibits and is home to ticketing, a cafe, and two gift shops. 

Prior to cancelling the museum’s rebuild, the BC government’s language surrounding the changes pivoted from initially declaring it a decolonial move to framing it as a technical decision spurred on by asbestos and threats from possible earthquakes. 

Natural disasters have devastated museums in countries like Brazil, where the National Museum burned down in 2018, losing over 90 percent of the 20 million items held in the museum and archives. 

With the controversy subsiding and public engagement on the museum’s future beginning, both safety and cultural concerns factor into Dubois’ decision-making. But there will be no repeat of the botched process that began in 2021, she assures.

“I don’t know how long the process is going to be because we’re moving, as they say, at the pace of trust,” says Dubois. “We will respond accordingly with respect to our engagement plans because at this point it’s very, very important that we get it right.” 

On Thursday of last week in a backroom of the RBCM, Dubois fielded questions from a room full of locals regarding the museum’s future. Dubois emphasized the need for repatriating Indigenous objects previously on display or held in the vast provincial archives located on the museum’s site. 

Repatriation is not an uncommon trend. A German museum recently returned Nigerian artifacts to their place of origin, and the British Museum is in talks with the Greek government to return the Elgin Marbles from London. 

One example of repatriation driven by the RBCM’s consultation that was mentioned by Dubois was the return of one First Nation’s whistles, which were returned so that they could be played together for the first time in 100 years. 

“A lot of the belongings that I have seen go home, are going home to be used for the cultural reason, the purposes that they were created to begin with,” says Dubois. “That’s perfect because at the end of the day, we recognize that for some communities we’re holding the remnants of cultural history for them, and that means connection to their history and ancestors and culture.” 

Prior to its closure, the First Peoples Gallery sat next to Old Town on the third floor. Unlike its neighbour, the First Peoples Gallery was a more typical museum exhibit. Located within it were hundreds of Indigenous items like carved masks, painted animal-hide drums, and totem poles in long rows of dreary glass cases, as well as a great hall filled with totem poles. 

Any mention of residential schools and epidemics that wiped out 90 percent of North America’s Indigenous population was relegated to a small section at the end of the gallery. 

The First People’s Gallery also displayed an outfit made up of items from several separate First Nations thrown together. It was the equivalent of dressing a mannequin in German overalls, Italian shoes, and a Serbian hat while marketing it to visitors as a recreation of a 19th-century Swedish fisherman. 

Dubois also mentioned the RBCM aimed to make First Nations the authority on exhibits about their communities, rather than the museum, which Dubois said should assume the role of facilitator.

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At the Thursday consultation, nearly all questions lobbed at Dubois concerned the future of the Old Town exhibit, with little mention by attendees of the First Peoples Gallery, despite Dubois speaking extensively about the museum’s Indigenous collection. 

The confusing process surrounding the RBCM’s planned “decanting”, announced in 2021 before Dubois became CEO, was reflected in the questions asked. One irate attendee demanded to know why the third floor could not be reopened while consultations continued. Dubois explained that the contents of the floor had been removed and stored prior to the rebuild’s cancellation, leaving the museum with few options. 

Despite the impression that Old Town had been sledgehammered, it turned out it had in fact been actually taken apart carefully for storage. 

Dubois enjoyed a successful career in banking and law prior to becoming CEO of the RBCM, having served on the Royal Ontario Museum’s board of trustees. She says she doesn’t feel the same affection for Old Town that local Victorians have, which attendees made abundantly clear during the consultation session. 

“Many individuals grew up coming to the museum and seeing Old Town transform with different seasons, et cetera, and the Christmas events and stuff like that, and having it decorated,” says Dubois. “They have a tie to it that I just simply don’t, and so I try very hard to be understanding.” 

With the rebuild cancelled and a brand-new museum in doubt, one of Dubois’ biggest goals is learning from communities across BC so the RBCM can be a better partner in the future.

“I have no idea what the outcome is going to be, and frankly, I didn’t take the job for a new building. I took the job because museums are going through a very important transformation,” says Dubois. 

In an interview on Friday with Glacier Media, Dubois said Old Town and the First Peoples Gallery will reopen, but only when all of BC’s communities are properly represented. That will only happen when the consultation process, which will include a tour of the province by the museum administration, concludes. 

Dubois says that while it is important to change the narratives and conversations about Indigenous people at the RBCM, it should be done “as a family.” Additionally, Dubois says people often view changes to institutions like the RBCM through the wrong lens. 

“I think the biggest challenge is that a lot of people view [it as] a zero-sum game and don’t understand that the success of our communities and the success of our country…and true wellness is going to be dependent on us getting this relationship right,” says Dubois. “It’s going to be dependent on building connections and not just improving the narrative for the sake of improving the narrative but from a genuine and relationship-building perspective and understanding of one another.” 

Coming off a pandemic that dealt museums huge financial losses around the world, the timing could not be worse for museums to alienate their visitor base. 

If decolonization thus far has consisted of statue-toppling and divisive street renaming, all features of a toxic culture war, then the RBCM could be taking it in a totally different direction.