The case that led to the Supreme Court ruling on political activity

In 1991, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld a Federal Court of Appeal decision that struck down restrictions on the political rights of federal public service employees. The Court also confirmed that restrictions on political activities should not apply to the vast majority of federal workers.

Until 1988, the Public Service Employment Act (PSEA) did not allow federal public sector workers to take part in political activities beyond simply casting their vote.

In the Osborne v Canada (Treasury Board) case, four PSAC members challenged this on the grounds that it violated their freedom of expression and freedom of association under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. With PSAC's help, they won.

A majority of the Supreme Court judges held that forbidding political activity was not a reasonable limit on freedom of expression, even for employees of the federal government. Our members were finally able to do more than just vote. They could take an active role in the democratic process.

PSAC supported the case for political rights all the way to the Supreme Court

The case started in 1984 with four PSAC members, two members of the Professional Institute of the Public Service (PIPSC) and then NDP Member of Parliament Mike Cassidy. They applied to the Trial Division of the Federal Court asking the Court to declare that the restrictions on their political rights violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Section 33(1)(a) of the Public Service Employment Act at the time barred federal public service workers from working for or against a candidate or a political party in a federal, provincial or territorial election. 

Two years later, in 1986, Justice Walsh concluded that even if Section 33 infringed the Charter rights of individuals in the federal public service, the limits on their political rights were justified under Section 1 of the Charter. Section 1 allows for “reasonable limits” to the rights and freedoms set out in the Charter.

PSAC appealed this decision and in July, 1988 the Federal Court of Appeal set aside Justice Walsh’s judgment. The Court found that not all of the restrictions were justified and said that PSEA Section 33(1)(a) no longer applied except to deputy heads.

This decision was issued just weeks before the 1988 federal election and PSAC members were free to exercise their political rights.

However, the Public Service Commission didn’t accept the 1988 decision and appealed to the Supreme Court to have it overturned.

On June 6, 1991, in a six to one majority decision, the Supreme Court dismissed the Public Service Commission’s appeal and supported the Federal Court of Appeal which had struck down the restrictions on political activity.

Watch lawyer Jeffrey House talk about the case


July 15, 2015