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As we approach another federal election campaign, we are also nearing the 25th anniversary of arguments in the Supreme Court of Canada that led to political rights for public servants.

It is almost hard to imagine that, before 1991, public servants were prohibited from taking part in many political activities. They couldn’t engage in any work for or against a candidate in an election. In fact, realistically, the law prohibited all partisan work by all public servants. 

Running afoul of the rules could put someone’s career, or even their job, in jeopardy.

In Osborne v. Canada (Treasury Board), a group of public servants, including the president of the Ottawa and District Labour Council, took the Government to court and said they had a constitutional right to express their political beliefs and to associate, including political association.

The Supreme Court of Canada agreed and said the government could protect the idea of a politically neutral public service while respecting public servants’ constitutional rights. The Court struck down the law and sent the government back to the drawing board.

Fast forward 25 years and these issues are still front and centre. The rights of scientists and others to provide their views to the media without significant constraints is a current problem. Even the question of whether the government can refuse some of its current employees the right to run for political office has been raised for the fall federal election.

Public servants had to fight to the top court for their constitutional rights to be respected during election campaigns. However, those battles are far from resolved.

This content is not intended to provide legal advice or opinion as neither can be given without reference to specific events and situations. © 2021 Nelligan O’Brien Payne LLP.

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