Principles of Interpretation

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Principles of Statutory Interpretation

Fundamental Principle
The fundamental principle of statutory interpretation is that "the words of a statute be read in their entire context and in their grammatical and ordinary sense harmoniously with the scheme of the Act, the object of the Act, and the intention of the legislature"[1]

This fundamental rule has been treated as effectively an amalgam of three "classic rules of interpretation":[2]fra

  1. the "Mischief Rule" that considers legislative intent;
  2. the "Literal Rule" that considers the "textual meaning"; and
  3. the "Golden Rule" that considers the "entire context" including established legal norms.

It is understood that legislators choose to adopt “language which accurately conveys the effect of the law without in itself imposing an unnecessary burden of translation and explanation”.[3]

Whenever possible, every part of a provision should be assigned meaning.[4]

The "modern" approach to statutory interpretation can be divided into a separate inquiry of "(a) the statute's textual meaning; (b) the legislative intent; and (c) the entire context including the consideration of established heal norms"[5]

"Ordinary meaning" refers "to the reader’s first impression meaning, the understanding that spontaneously comes to mind when words are read in their immediate context".[6] It is the "natural meaning which appears when the provision is simply read through".[7]

  1. Rizzo & Rizzo Shoes Ltd. (Re), 1998 CanLII 837 (SCC), [1998] 1 SCR 27, at para 21
    Bell Expressive Limited Partnership v Rex, 2002 SCC 42 (CanLII), [2002] 2 SCR 559, at para.26
    R v Brode, 2012 ONCA 140 (CanLII), (“direct that the words of a statute be read in their entire context and in their grammatical and ordinary sense harmoniously with the scheme of the Act, the object of the Act, and the intention of the legislature.”)
    Regina v Rioux, 1969 CanLII 83 (CSC), [1969] SCR 599, 8 C.R.N.S. 21, [1970] 3 CCC 149, 10 D.L.R. (3d) 196, Hall J. at p. 26 ("First, in criminal matters, the phraseology used by Parliament must be given its ordinary meaning; this is a fundamental rule of interpretation.")
  2. Cape Breton (Regional Municipality) v Nova Scotia (Attorney General), 2009 NSCA 44 (CanLII) at paras 36 to 41
  3. Howard’s Criminal Law (5th ed. 1990), at p. 11
  4. R v A.A. 2015 ONCA 558 (CanLII) at para 67
    R v Hutchinson, 2014 SCC 19 (CanLII) at para 16
    Ruth Sullivan, Sullivan on the Construction of Statutes, 5th ed. (LexisNexis, 2008), at p. 210
  5. Capre Breton (Regional Municipality) v Nova Scotia (Attorney General), 2009 NSCA 44 (CanLII) at para paras 36 to 38
  6. Pharmascience Inc. v Binet, 2006 SCC 48 (CanLII), [2006] 2 S.C.R. 513, at para. 30
    R v Wookey, 2016 ONCA 611 (CanLII) at para 25
  7. Canadian Pacific Air Lines Ltd. v Canadian Air Line Pilots Assn., 1993 CanLII 31 (SCC), [1993] 3 S.C.R. 724, at p. 735
    Pharmascience Inc v Binet, supra at para 30
    Wookey, supra at para 25


Where there is no ambiguity the fundamental principle of interpretation is the only principle that applies. The other principles only apply where there is "ambiguity".[1]

Ambiguity exists where the provision is "reasonably capable of more than one meaning".[2] The ambiguity must be "real".[3] Two or more interpretations must be "each equally in accordance with the intentions of the statute".[4]

Ambiguity does not exist merely where courts or other writers disagree on interpretation.[5]

Ambiguity in the wording of one language may be resolved by considering whether the other language wording provides clarity before considering other principles of interpretation.[6]

Where the meaning of the English and French versions diverge, the proper interpretation should be the lowest common denominator.[7]

  1. Bell ExpressVu Limited Partnership v Rex, [2002] 2 SCR 559, 2002 SCC 42 (CanLII) at paras 26 to 28
  2. Bell ExpressVu, ibid. at para 29
  3. Bell ExpressVu, supra at para 29
  4. Bell ExpressVu, supra at para 29
  5. Bell ExpressVu, supra at para 30
  6. R v Mac, [2002] 1 SCR 856, 2002 SCC 24 (CanLII) at paras 26 to 31
  7. Daoust at para 2

Other Principles

Error or Omissions
The court has no authority to correct any errors or omissions in legislation where it is a "clearly drafted enactment".[1]

Principle of legality
The principle of legality requires that legislation provide a degree of certainty, and should reflect “the overall need to use the criminal law with restraint”[2]

No surplusage
No provision in an act "should be interpreted so as to render it mere surplusage.”[3]

It is a principle that "Parliament does not speak in vain".[4]

Parliament is presumed to have a purpose for each provision and avoids superfluous and meaningless language.[5]

There is a presumption against legislative drafters being redundant.[6]

Remedial Purpose
Under s. 12 of the Interpretation Act, "[e]very enactment is deemed remedial, and shall be given such fair, large and liberal construction and interpretation as best ensures the attainment of its objects."[7] This requires that the court examine what the problem the act is attempting to solve and interpret the meaning in that light.[8]

Constitutional Interpretation and Charter values
Where multiple interpretations exist the court should only consider those interpretations that are constitutional.[9]

A provision should be interpreted to conform with "Charter values".[10]

This principle only applies where there is ambiguity.[11]

International Law
It is presumed that all laws of Canada are to accord with international law.[12] Parliament is free to make laws that conflict, but it should do so "clearly and expressly".[13]

Presumption of Consistent or Uniform Expression
Unless it appears otherwise, the same words used by the legislature have the same meaning within a statute and different words have different meanings.[14]

"[A]bsent express language to the contrary, the same words in two subsections of the same provision should be treated alike... Giving the same words the same meaning throughout a statute is a basic principle of statutory interpretation".[15]

The principle of "uniformity of expression" states that a word or phrase should have one and only one meaning across the statute and enabled regulation. The opposite is also true, the use of different wording implies a different meaning.[16] The principles of uniformity of expression is not infallible.[17]

Amending the common law
There is a presumption against interpreting statutes as changing the common law, except where they "clearly and unambiguously" intend to do so.[18]

Avoiding absurdities
Where the language of a statue has multiple meanings, it must be interpreted to exclude absurd results. [19]

General wording
General wording of a statute is to provide the court with responsibility to interpret in a proscriptive manner. [20]

Last Antecedents
When legislation lists a series of clauses, a "comma before a qualifying word ordinarily indicates that they are meant to apply to all antecedents while the absence of a comma indicates that they are meant to apply to the last antecedent alone."[21]

Relative words "must ordinarily be referred to the last antecedent" to give the words full meaning.[22] This rule should yield where the result "makes nonsense".[23]

Deference to Parliament
Deference must be given to the manner chosen to achieve its objectives.[24]

Legislative History
The history of legislation can be an important part of "the context" for statutory interpretation.[25] The history can sometimes provide insight into how to interpret the provision.[26]

House of Commons debates that indicate the object of the bill can regularly be relied upon as evidence for the legislative purpose.[27]

Legislative Headers and Marginal Notes
Marginal notes are of limited value.[28]

  1. R v Daoust, [2004] 1 SCR 217, 2004 SCC 6 (CanLII), at para 45
  2. see D. Stuart, Criminal Law: A Treatise (5th ed. 2007), at p. 86
  3. R v Proulx 2000 SCC 61 (CanLII) at para 25
  4. Attorney General of Quebec v Carrières Ste-Thérèse Ltée, 1985 CanLII 35 (SCC), [1985] 1 SCR 831, at p. 838
  5. Medovarski v Canada, 2005 SCC 51 (CanLII), [2005] 2 SCR 539, [2005] S.C.J. No. 31 (QL), at paras 31 to 38
    R v Plummer 2006 CanLII 38165 (ON CA), (2006), 214 CCC (3d) 84, [2006] O.J. No. 4530 (QL) (Ont. C.A.) at para 19
    R.v. Joncas, 2007 NBCA 28 (CanLII), [2007] NBJ No. 152 at para 17 (QL)
  6. R v Shand, 2011 ONCA 5 (CanLII) at para. 107
    National Automobile, Aerospace Transportation and General Workers Union of Canada (CAW - Canada) Local No. 27 v. London Machinery Inc. (2006), 2006 CanLII 8711 (ON CA), 79 O.R. (3d) 444 (C.A.) at para. 7
  7. R.S., c. I-23, s. 11.
  8. R v Gladue, 1999 CanLII 679 (SCC), [1999] 1 SCR 688 at paras 31 - 34 Canada 3000 Inc., Re; Inter‑Canadian (1991) Inc. (Trustee of), 2006 SCC 24 (CanLII), at para 36, [2006] 1 SCR 865 ("the notion that a statute is to be interpreted in light of the problem it was intended to address is as old at least as the 16th century”)
  9. Slaight Communications v Davidson [1989] 1 SCR 1038, 1989 CanLII 92 (SCC)
    R v Canadian Pacific Ltd., [1995] 2 SCR 1031, 1995 CanLII 112 (SCC), at para 12
    R v Nickel City Transport (Sudbury) Ltd., Nickel City Transport (Sudbury) Ltd., 1993 CanLII 8483 (ON CA)
    R v Rube, [1992] 3 SCR 159, 1992 CanLII 34 (SCC)
  10. Bell ExpressVu
    Hills v Canada (Attorney General), [1988] 1 SCR 513, 1988 CanLII 67 (SCC)
    R v Nova Scotia Pharmaceutical Society, [1992] 2 SCR 606, 1992 CanLII 72 (SCC)
  11. Bell ExpressVu
  12. R v Hape, 2007 SCC 26 (CanLII), [2007] 2 SCR 292 at para 53
  13. R v Chowdhury, 2014 ONSC 2635 (CanLII) at para 20
  14. R v A.A. 2015 ONCA 558 (CanLII) at para 68
    Ruth Sullivan, Sullivan on the Construction of Statutes, 5th ed. (LexisNexis, 2008), at 214 to 215
    R v Zeolkowski, 1989 CanLII 72 (SCC), [1989] 1 SCR 1378, at p. 1387
  15. R v Charette, 2009 ONCA 310 (CanLII) at para 38 citing R v Zeolkowski, 1989 CanLII 72 (SCC), [1989] 1 SCR 1378 at p. 1387
  16. see Maurice v Priel, 1987 CanLII 207 (SK CA), at pp. 20-21
  17. R v Trang, 2001 ABQB 106 (CanLII), at para 21
  18. R v Goleski, 2014 BCCA 80 (CanLII) at para 77
    Slaight Communications Inc. v. Davidson, 1989 CanLII 92 (SCC), [1989] 1 S.C.R. 1038, at p. 1077
    Parry Sound (District) Social Services Administration Board v. O.P.S.E.U., Local 324, 2003 SCC 42 (CanLII), [2003] 2 S.C.R. 157, at para. 39
    Heritage Capital Corp. v. Equitable Trust Co., 2016 SCC 19 (CanLII), [2016] 1 S.C.R. 306, at paras. 29-30
  19. R v Canadian Pacific Ltd., 1995 CanLII 112 (SCC), (1995), 99 CCC (3d) 97 (S.C.C.), at para 65
    Hinchey, [1996] 3 SCR 1128, 1996 CanLII 157 (SCC)
  20. R v Beauchamp, 2009 CanLII 37720 (ON SC) at paras 40 to 41
  21. R v CL, 2005 NSFC 21 (CanLII) at para 7 citing Dreidger, "Construction of Statutes (3rd Ed.) at p. 277
  22. Re Hinton Avenue, Ottawa, 1920 CanLII 443 (ON CA)
  23. R v Frank, [1978] 1 SCR 95, 1977 CanLII 152 (SCC)
  24. Beauchamp, ibid. at para 42 to 44
  25. R v A.D.H., 2013 SCC 28 (CanLII) at para 30
    Canada (Canadian Human Rights Commission) v Canada (Attorney General), 2011 SCC 53 (CanLII), [2011] 3 SCR 471, at para 43
  26. Goleski, ibid. at para 31
    R v Ulybel Enterprises Ltd., 2001 SCC 56 (CanLII) at para 33
    Chieu v Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), 2002 SCC 3 (CanLII) at para 34
    Montréal (City) v 2952-1366 Québec Inc., 2005 SCC 62 (CanLII) at para 17
    McDiarmid Lumber Ltd. v God’s Lake First Nation, 2006 SCC 58 (CanLII) at para 46
  27. see e.g. Canadian National Railway Co v Canada (A.G.), 2014 SCC 40 (CanLII), [2014] 2 SCR 135, at para. 47
  28. Interpretation Act, s. 14
    Imperial Oil Ltd. v Canada; Inco Ltd. v Canada, 2006 SCC 46 (CanLII), [2006] 2 SCR 447, at para 57
    R v Wigglesworth, 1987 CanLII 41 (SCC), [1987] 2 SCR 541, [1987] S.C.J. No. 71 (QL) at paras 18-19
    Skapinker v Law Society of Upper Canada, 1984 CanLII 3 (SCC), [1984] 1 SCR 357, [1984] S.C.J. No. 18 (QL) at para 25 - charter interpretation, (“These headings in Part I appear to be integral to the Charter provisions and hence of more significance than the marginal notes and chapter headings sometimes appearing in the statutes.”)

Interpreting the Criminal Code

The common law rules and principles can be used to explain the outlines and boundaries of a defence.[1]

Under s. 8(2) provides that the English criminal law as it existed immediately before April 1, 1955 are still applicable to Canada. This does not include common law or statutory offences from Great Britain.[2]

If a penal provision is ambiguous as it has two reasonably capable interpretations, "that interpretation which is the more favourable to the accused must be adopted".[3]

Interpreting Terms Not Otherwise Defined
Where a term within the Criminal Code has not been defined by statute it is open to the judge to consult a dictionary to assist in defining its meaning.[4]

Cross References
Cross-references are not binding on interpretation and are effectively illustrative.[5]

Descriptive cross-references
3. Where, in any provision of this Act, a reference to another provision of this Act or a provision of any other Act is followed by words in parenthesis that are or purport to be descriptive of the subject-matter of the provision referred to, the words in parenthesis form no part of the provision in which they occur but shall be deemed to have been inserted for convenience of reference only.
1976-77, c. 53, s. 2.


  1. R v Jobidon, 1991 CanLII 77 (SCC), [1991] 2 SCR 714 ("courts to look to preexisting common law rules and principles to give meaning to, and explain the outlines and boundaries of an existing defence or justification, indicating where they will not be recognized as legally effective -- provided of course that there is no clear language in the Code which indicates that the Code has displaced the common law."
  2. see s. 9
  3. Regina v Goulis, 1981 CanLII 1642 (ON CA)
    United States of America v Dynar, [1997] 2 SCR 462, 1997 CanLII 359 (SCC) at p. 503
  4. R v St. Pierre, 1974 CanLII 874 (ON CA)
  5. eg. see R v J. J. R., 2003 CanLII 32169 (ON CA),

Specific Wording

"means" vs "includes"
The word "means" when defining terms is means to be "explanatory and restrictive" in nature. While "includes" is "extensive" in nature. [1] "Means" "indicates that the definition is exhaustive".[2] An "exhaustive" term is one where the definition "completely displace[s] whatever meanings the defined term might otherwise bear in ordinary or technical usage".[3]

Evidence to the Contrary
See Presumptions

Appellate Review
Interpretation of a section of the Criminal Code is a question of law and is reviewable on a standard of correctness.[4]

  1. R v Sheets, 1971 CanLII 130 (SCC), [1971] SCR 614, at pp. 619 to 620
  2. R v Wookey, 2016 ONCA 611 (CanLII) at para 34
  3. Wookey, ibid. at para 34
    R v ADH, 2013 SCC 28 (CanLII), [2013] 2 SCR 269, at para. 43
    Yellow Cab Ltd v Alberta (Industrial Relations Board), 1980 CanLII 228 (SCC), [1980] 2 SCR 761, at pp 768-69
  4. R v Goulet, 2011 ABCA 230 (CanLII) at para 7
    R v Hubek, 2011 ABCA 254 (CanLII), 513 AR 194 at para 6
    R v McColl, 2008 ABCA 287 (CanLII) at para 8

Interpreting Criminal Offences

There is recognized limits on the ability of criminal law to fulfill its objectives. The criminal law must be restrained and avoid over-criminalizing peoples' activities peoples'. There must be a distinction made between true crime deserving of "harsh sanctions" and conduct that is merely undesirable or unethical but "lacks the reprehensible character of criminal acts"[1]

The criminal law must provide "fair notice of what is prohibited and clear standards of enforcement".[2]

The "most direct and authoritative evidence" of a provision's legislative purpose is in the enacting legislation, including "the beginning of a statute, in the section in which a provision is found, or in sections providing interpretive guidelines".[3]

Offences should be interpreted purposively in a manner consistent with the philosophy and rationale of the legislative objectives.[4]

Offences should not be interpreted as penalizing trivial act.[5]

strict construction
The rule of strict construction does not apply when the Offence definition is resolved and not ambiguous.[6]

There must be "express" wording that indicates that penalties include incarceration. Incarceration by implication is not sufficient.[7]

wording across different acts
Also, under s. 4(4):

Expressions taken from other Acts
(4) Where an offence that is dealt with in this Act relates to a subject that is dealt with in another Act, the words and expressions used in this Act with respect to that offence have, subject to this Act, the meaning assigned to them in that other Act.
R.S., 1985, c. C-46, s. 4; R.S., 1985, c. 27 (1st Supp.), s. 3; 1994, c. 44, s. 3; 1997, c. 18, s. 2; 2008, c. 18, s. 1.


  1. Hutchinson, 2014 SCC 19 (CanLII), at para 18
  2. Hutchinson, ibid. at para 18
  3. R v Appulonappa, 2015 SCC 59 (CanLII) at para 49
  4. R v Fong, 1994 ABCA 267 (CanLII), (1994), 92 CCC (3d) 171 (C.A.), leave denied (1995), 94 CCC (3d) vii - in context of s. 152
  5. R v Beauchamp, 2009 CanLII 37720 (ON SC) at paras 38 to 39
  6. R v Mac, 2002 SCC 24 (CanLII), at para 4, [2002] 1 SCR 856
    R v Hasselwander, 1993 CanLII 90 (SCC), [1993] 2 SCR 398 at paras 27 - 31
  7. Marcotte v Canada (Deputy Attorney General), [1976] 1 SCR 108, 1974 CanLII 1 (SCC)

Charter Interpretation

The goal of Charter interpretation to secure for all people "the full benefit of the Charter's protection".[1]

This requires a judge to interpret a Charter right using a "purposive approach"[2] (or sometimes called "purposive analysis").[3] This mean that a right is to be understood "in light of the interests it was meant to protect".[4] It should be interpreted in "a manner that best ensures the attainment of its objects".[5]

It is important that the right be "generous" and not "a legalistic one", while at the same time not to "overshoot" the "actual purpose" of the right.[6]

Similarly the interpretation of any Charter right must not "second-guess" and instead should "respect proper choice[s]" of the government.[7]

The right must be "placed in its proper linguistic, philosophic and historical contexts".[8]

Speeches and statements of public servants and minutes of the parliamentary committees who assisted in drafting the Constitution are of limited weight for reasons including that it would freeze the rights as they were at the time of drafting.[9]

In interpreting the Charter judges must avoid "adjudicati[ng] the merits of public policy".[10]

When applying purposive interpretation it requires that remedies be interpreted in a way to provide "a full effective and meaningful remedy for Charter violations".[11] A Charter remedy must crafted to be responsive and effective.[12]

  1. R v Morgentaler, 1988 CanLII 90 (SCC), per Dickson CJ at p. 51
    R v Big M Drug Mart Ltd, 1985 CanLII 69 (SCC), [1985] 1 SCR 295 at p. 344
  2. R v Brydges, 1990 CanLII 123 (SCC), [1990] 1 SCR 190
  3. Hunter v Southam Inc., 1984 CanLII 33 (SCC), [1984] 2 SCR 145
    R v Big M Drug Mart Ltd., 1985 CanLII 69 (SCC), [1985] 1 SCR 295
    R v KRJ, 2016 SCC 31 (CanLII) at para 29 - re s. 11(i)
    R v Rodgers, 2006 SCC 15 (CanLII), [2006] 1 SCR 554 at paras 61 and 63 - re s. 11(i)
  4. Big M Drug Mart at p.344
    Morgentaler, supra at p. 52
    Hunter v Southam, supra R v Therens, 1985 CanLII 29 (SCC), [1985] 1 SCR 613
  5. R v 974649 Ontario Inc, 2001 SCC 81 (CanLII) at para 18
  6. Big M Drug Mart, supra at para 117
  7. Vriend v Alberta, 1998 CanLII 816 (SCC), [1998] 1 SCR 493 at para 136
  8. Big M Drug Mart, supra at para 117
  9. Re B.C. Motor Vehicle Act, 1985 CanLII 81 (SCC), [1985] 2 SCR 486, per Lamer CJ
  10. Re BC Motor Vehicles, ibid. at p. 499
    Morgentaler, supra at p. 53
  11. Doucet-Boudreau v Nova Scotia (Minister of Education), 2003 SCC 62 (CanLII), [2003] 3 S.C.R. 3, at para 25
  12. Doucet-Boudreau, ibid. at para 25

Legislative Amendments

Stare Decisis

Interpreting Court Orders

Interpreting an order is a "question of law" and no deference is owned on review. It is an objective assessment on a standard of correctness.[1]

There is an exception where a judge's interpretation of his own orders is "entitled to considerable deference".[2]

Where record of the decision is available, it will be necessary to conform the order to the decision.[3]

In interpreting an order "a Court will use accepted principles of statutory and contractual interpretation to ascertain the intent of the ordering judge".[4]Those principles of statutory and contractual interpretation are "analogous" to the principles to be applied to looking at the "intent of the ordering judge"[5]

The "contextual approach to interpreting statutes ...with necessary modification, apply to the interpretation of orders."[6]

  1. Royal Bank of Canada v. Robertson, 2016 NSSC 176 (CanLII) at para 11
  2. Boily v Carleton Condo. Corp., 2014 ONCA 574 (CanLII) at para 71
  3. Robertson, supra at para 13
  4. Canadian National Railway v Holmes, 2015 ONSC 3038 (CanLII) at para 18
    Robertson, supra at para 14
  5. Robertson, supra at para 15
    L’Homme v. Pliskevicius Estate, 2011 ONSC 6102 (CanLII) at para 22
  6. Robertson, supra at para 19

See Also