Peter Aucoin

In a bit of tragic irony last week, I finished my post on some of Canada’s constitutional documents and hit the publish button and left Slaw to discover that Dalhousie, and indeed, Canada had suffered a terrible loss with the passing of Professor Peter Aucoin. I’m sure that many Slaw readers are familiar with the name as he was one of, if not the, preeminent scholar on Canadian government and public service; he was a key figure in many Royal Commissions and published books and journal articles of high quality, too numerous to mention here. His scholarship and contributions were acknowledged in 2008 with investiture as a Member of the Order of Canada. I, personally, had the privilege of being in one of his classes and considered myself fortunate to be a student of his; I remember myself and my classmates being in awe of his knowledge on a weekly basis. At the same time a person of that level of accomplishment did not have a hint of pretension and was a true gentleman. He was a frequent witness at the Supreme Court of Canada, which is a statement unto itself both as a direct witness and also his works being directly quoted. I could not hope to give a fitting tribute in this forum so I simply wanted to highlight some direct quotes from SCC cases where, it is perhaps, a tribute to the clarity and quality of his thoughts that there is no need to provide context to these quotes:

In, Libman v. Quebec (Attorney General), [1997] 3 SCR 569 at para 40:

The purpose of spending limits in an election or a referenda campaign is to promote fairness as primary value or objective of the democratic process. . . .

Fairness is promoted in order to ensure that to the greatest extent possible that various sides in an election or a referenda [sic] have a reasonable equal opportunity to present their case to voters in the hopes that their case will influence the vote and that voters themselves will have a reasonable opportunity to hear the various views put forward by the participants before they cast their vote.

Thomson Newspapers Co. v. Canada (Attorney General), [1998] 1 SCR 877

While I support this particular proposal [the 72-hour blackout period], people must understand its purpose. The purpose is not, as has been said even in the Senate, to give voters a rest or breather from a flood of public opinion polls published just prior to election day. In fact, voters find that polls are useful information to them. They have a right to those polls. In terms of the electoral contest as we know it, the more polls the better.

The issue here is twofold. Public opinion polls purport to be scientific and are reported as such by the press. There is a question of the accuracy of public opinion polls in reading public opinion. There is clearly some need for regulation, given that particular assumption.

P]arties and candidates need access to the polls and this requires some time. In particular, it means they have to be able to respond to the poll. They cannot do that if the poll is published either on election day or the day before an election. Therefore, the ban of 72 hours is to ensure that polls cannot be published after a point in time where candidates and parties cannot respond. It has nothing to do with giving voters a breather. [Emphasis added.]

As a country that concerns itself with how we govern ourselves, we are certainly poorer for the passing of Peter Aucoin but greatly enhanced for his lifetime of work in the field.

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