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Federal-Provincial Competing Jurisdictions

This topic is about the jurisdictional tension sometimes between the federal and the provincial superior s.96 constitutional courts - ie. when is a civil case properly before either.

. Windsor (City) v. Canadian Transit Co.

In Windsor (City) v. Canadian Transit Co. (SCC, 2016), an appeal from the Federal Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court of Canada considered whether the federal court system had jurisdiction where a federally-incorporated company, co-owner of an international bridge, sought relief in that court against Canadian municipal property standards orders:
[25] In order to decide whether the Federal Court has jurisdiction over a claim, it is necessary to determine the essential nature or character of that claim (JP Morgan Asset Management (Canada) Inc. v. Canada (National Revenue)), 2013 FCA 250 (CanLII), [2014] 2 F.C.R. 557, at para. 50; Sifto Canada Corp. v. Minister of National Revenue, 2014 FCA 140 (CanLII), 461 N.R. 184, at para. 25). As discussed in further detail below, s. 23(c) of the Federal Courts Act only grants jurisdiction to the Federal Court when a claim for relief has been made, or a remedy has been sought, “under an Act of Parliament or otherwise”. The conferral of jurisdiction depends on the nature of the claim or remedy sought. Determining the claim’s essential nature allows the court to assess whether it falls within the scope of s. 23(c). Jurisdiction is not assessed in a piecemeal or issue-by-issue fashion.

[26] The essential nature of the claim must be determined on “a realistic appreciation of the practical result sought by the claimant” (Domtar Inc. v. Canada (Attorney General), 2009 FCA 218 (CanLII), 392 N.R. 200, at para. 28, per Sharlow J.A.). The “statement of claim is not to be blindly read at its face meaning” (Roitman v. Canada, 2006 FCA 266 (CanLII), 353 N.R. 75, at para. 16, per Décary J.A.). Rather, the court must “look beyond the words used, the facts alleged and the remedy sought and ensure . . . that the statement of claim is not a disguised attempt to reach before the Federal Court a result otherwise unreachable in that Court” (ibid.; see also Canadian Pacific Railway v. R., 2013 FC 161, [2014] 1 C.T.C. 223, at para. 36; Verdicchio v. R., 2010 FC 117 (CanLII), [2010] 3 C.T.C. 80, at para. 24).

[27] On the other hand, genuine strategic choices should not be maligned as artful pleading. The question is whether the court has jurisdiction over the particular claim the claimant has chosen to bring, not a similar claim the respondent says the claimant really ought, for one reason or another, to have brought.


[31] The role and jurisdiction of the Federal Court appear most clearly when seen through the lens of the judicature provisions of the Constitution Act, 1867. Section 96 recognized the superior courts of general jurisdiction which already existed in each province at the time of Confederation. Section 101 empowered Parliament to establish “additional Courts for the better Administration of the Laws of Canada” — i.e., to establish new courts to administer federal law (R. v. Thomas Fuller Construction Co. (1958) Ltd., 1979 CanLII 187 (SCC), [1980] 1 S.C.R. 695, at p. 707; Quebec North Shore Paper Co. v. Canadian Pacific Ltd., 1976 CanLII 10 (SCC), [1977] 2 S.C.R. 1054, at pp. 1065-66; Consolidated Distilleries, Ltd. v. The King, [1933] A.C. 508, at pp. 520-22 (P.C.)). Parliament exercised this power in 1875 when it enacted legislation creating the Exchequer Court of Canada, which ultimately became the Federal Court of Canada (see The Supreme and Exchequer Court Act, S.C. 1875, c. 11). The Federal Court plays an important role in the interpretation and development of federal law in matters over which it has been granted jurisdiction.

[32] The provincial superior courts recognized by s. 96 “have always occupied a position of prime importance in the constitutional pattern of this country” (Attorney General of Canada v. Law Society of British Columbia, 1982 CanLII 29 (SCC), [1982] 2 S.C.R. 307, at p. 327, per Estey J.). Provincially administered (s. 92(14)) and federally appointed (ss. 96 and 100), they weave together provincial and federal concerns and act as a strong unifying force within our federation. As courts of general jurisdiction, the superior courts have jurisdiction in all cases except where jurisdiction has been removed by statute (Québec Téléphone v. Bell Telephone Co. of Canada, 1971 CanLII 160 (SCC), [1972] S.C.R. 182, at p. 190). The inherent jurisdiction of the superior courts can be constrained by legislation, but s. 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867 protects the essential nature and powers of the provincial superior courts from legislative incursion (Ontario v. Criminal Lawyers’ Association of Ontario, 2013 SCC 43 (CanLII), [2013] 3 S.C.R. 3, at para. 18; MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. v. Simpson, 1995 CanLII 57 (SCC), [1995] 4 S.C.R. 725, at para. 15).

[33] The Federal Court, by contrast, has only the jurisdiction it has been conferred by statute.[1] It is a statutory court, created under the constitutional authority of s. 101, without inherent jurisdiction. While the Federal Court plays a critical role in our judicial system, its jurisdiction is not constitutionally protected in the same way as that of a s. 96 court. It can act only within the constitutional boundaries of s. 101 and the confines of its statutory powers.[2] As this Court noted in Roberts v. Canada, 1989 CanLII 122 (SCC), [1989] 1 S.C.R. 322, at p. 331, “[b]ecause the Federal Court is without any inherent jurisdiction such as that existing in provincial superior courts, the language of the [Federal Court Act] is completely determinative of the scope of the Court’s jurisdiction.”
At paras 34-69 the court continues to extensively review the elements of the 'ITO' test for federal court jurisdiction, being drawn from the case of ITO-International Terminal Operators Ltd. v. Miida Electronics Inc. (SCC, 1986), which - roughly stated - requires that "(1) a statute grants jurisdiction to the court, (2) federal law nourishes the grant of jurisdiction and is essential to the disposition of the case, and (3) that federal law is constitutionally valid." [para 19].


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