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Lesson Plan: For Teachers - The Notwithstanding Clause: A Classroom Debate

History, Political Science
2 lessons
To support and debate a given position on the use of the notwithstanding clause
Students will research and debate the use of the notwithstanding clause to limit rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Lesson Plan

Before Exploring

Write the term "notwithstanding clause" on the board. Ask students if they are familiar with this section of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Explain to students that the notwithstanding clause allows federal or provincial governments to pass a law that violates rights and freedoms in the Charter as long as it is reviewed every five years and approved by the respective legislature. Essentially, governments can opt out of section 2 and sections 7 to 15 of the Charter.

Explain that the Quebec government passed a language law in 1977 that restricted the use of the English language, particularly on public signs and in businesses. In 1988, the law was challenged as a violation of the Charter and held to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada. Nevertheless, the Bourassa government used the notwithstanding clause to allow the government to opt out of the Charter and enable French-language-only sign laws to prevail.

Ask students to work with a partner and discuss if Charter rights should be limited. Should there be an opt-out clause in the Charter? Share and discuss student responses.

Outline the Opportunity

Direct students to the topic Fighting Words: Bill 101 on the CBC Digital Archives website. In small groups, have students browse the clips "'French in Quebec: it's a plus,'" "Bill 101's first legal blow," "Mr. Singer goes to court" and "Bourassa's dilemma" and then conduct further research by examining the clips "The 1988 Supreme Court decision on signs,", "Defending his decision" and "Quebecers on the Supreme Court decision."

With their group members, have students take notes assessing the pros and cons of using the notwithstanding clause. They will use their notes to develop arguments for a class debate.

Select and present one of the following resolutions:

  • Be it resolved that the notwithstanding clause is a viable option to be used by federal and provincial governments to limit the application of the Charter.
  • Be it resolved that the notwithstanding clause allows for an unacceptable violation of rights and freedoms.

Assign each group either the 'for' or 'against' position, then pair up groups and have them debate the resolution in front of the class.

Assessment Tip: Download and distribute the Debate Rubric. Students can use it to guide their own preparation and later to score the debates.

Revisit and Reflect

Have students vote on which group won their respective debate. Ask: Which arguments were the most persuasive? Did your personal opinion change as a result of any of the debates?

Assessment Tip: Look for a clear summary of the pros and cons of the debated issue.


Students can write a one-page position paper to support or criticize the use of the notwithstanding clause to limit constitutional rights. They should use three arguments to support their position.


Charter of Rights and Freedoms

Download PDF

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