The Current

Federal-versus-provincial powers take centre stage in Ontario carbon tax court battle

Ontario Premier Doug Ford takes his fight over the federal carbon tax to a Toronto courtroom this week, in a bid to have the measure ruled unconstitutional. We weigh up the arguments about provincial authority, and national health and the fight against climate change.

Ontario government making its case the federal carbon tax is unconstitutional this week

This week, in a Toronto courtroom, Ontario Premier Doug Ford's government is challenging the federal carbon tax. (Canadian Press)

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Where do federal political powers end and public health concerns begin?

This is the question being argued in the Ontario Court of Appeals this week as the province's government appeals the federally-imposed carbon tax. 

"It's not really about whether carbon taxes are good or whether they work; it's whether the federal government has the power to impose this onto provinces," argues Aaron Wudrick, director of the Federal Taxpayers Federation, who are intervening in support of Ontario's Progressive Conservative government.

"The feds do not in fact have the power to do it. You've got multiple provincial governments taking the federal government to court over this. So I think at the very least it speaks to the seriousness of the issue," he said on The Current.

The Ontario government under Premier Doug Ford and several interveners are pushing back against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's federally-imposed carbon tax in a hearing that began Monday at the Ontario Court of Appeal.

An exterior of Ontario's Court of Appeal in Toronto.
A view of the outside of the Ontario Court of Appeal in Toronto. Interested Canadians have a rare opportunity this week to watch Ontario's top court sort out a federal-provincial legal battle over carbon pricing. It is the first time in more than a decade cameras are being allowed in the Court of Appeal to live stream an event. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

The federal Liberal government insists its law is an appropriate response to the nationally important issue of climate change. The carbon tax, which they describe as a "price on pollution," came into effect on April 1, imposing a charge on gasoline and other fossil fuels as well as on industrial polluters.

The law applies only in provinces that had not yet developed a carbon-pricing scheme of their own that meets national standards — Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick.

Ontario isn't the only province fighting the federal carbon tax. Saskatchewan launched its own constitutional challenge against the Trudeau government in February, with the support of New Brunswick and British Columbia as interveners.

Players on the other side argue that the health of Canada and its citizens is at stake if drastic measures aren't taken.

The federal government says its carbon tax, which bumps up gas prices across the country, is a way to curb greenhouse gas emissions. (Kevin Yarr/CBC)

"Public health is both the responsibility and the prerogative of the federal government because in the case of climate change, we're dealing with a condition that does not respect provincial boundaries," said intervener Ian Culbert, the executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association.

"So if one jurisdiction is not pulling its fair share, as far as taking action on climate change, citizens in other parts of the country will pay the price."

To discuss the legal and political ramifications of the ongoing appeal hearing, Anna Maria Tremonti also spoke to:

  • Mike Crawley, CBC Toronto's provincial affairs reporter.
  • Carissima Mathen, law professor at the University of Ottawa, and author of Courts Without Cases: The Law and Politics of Advisory Opinions.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written with files from CBC News. Produced by Idella Sturino, Sarah-Joyce Battersby, Samira Mohyeddin and Cinar Kiper.