Ontario Superior Court rules against Ford Govt. in carbon tax sticker challenge

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Ontario's Superior Court of Justice dealt a loss to the Ford Government in a legal challenge over its anti-carbon tax stickers, ruling it could not mandate private retailers to post them on their property and face fines for refusal. 

In his 17-page decision, Justice Ed Morgan wrote a government or party could use such a sticker in an election campaign or otherwise, "but a government cannot legislate a requirement that private retailers post a Sticker designed to accomplish that task." 

"The mandatory fuel pump Sticker is an unconstitutional attempt to do just that." 

The provincial government brought in the stickers in the spring of 2019, showing what the added cost of gasoline would be because of the federal carbon tax, but not mentioning the return Canadians get as part of the levy. 

But the most controversial part of the move was mandating fines for individuals and businesses that failed to post them, which then Environment Minister (now Finance) Rod Phillips defended at the time. 

"I am confident that we are going to see small businesses, including gas retailers, implementing this program," he said April 15 last year, and was then pushed on whether they should be forced to implement the stickers. 

"I don't believe that this is going to be a problem," he said. 

But the Canadian Civil Liberties Association decided to take the government to court over the stickers, arguing they were compelled speech. 

Director of the Fundamental Freedoms Program Kara Zwibel with the CCLA said while there wasn't a lot of case law regarding that sort of expression, they felt confident in the challenge from the beginning. 

"If the government wants to convey a political message, they can do that, but they shouldn't be allowed to force other people to convey that message for them and so it's really satisfying to see that the court agreed with us on that," she said. "That's the real take home point from this case." 

Ford has railed against the carbon tax since it was implemented and defended the government's stickers, arguing it was the government's responsibility to inform the public. 

"We're doing nothing different than when we've seen stickers in the past, the people need to know that their gas prices are going up, directly because of the carbon tax," he said last August.

But Morgan ruled retailers are at liberty to keep the stickers if they choose to or not, while also using the government's own words against them.

He cited What Energy Minister Greg Rickford said in the legislature last April, when he said "we're going to stick it to the Liberals and remind the people of Ontario how much this job-killing, regressive carbon tax costs." 

"Could the Ontario government, speaking in its own voice, require a gas pump sticker that says explicitly what the Minister of Energy says it means implicitly? To ask this rhetorical questions is to answer it," Morgan wrote. "The message would be blatantly advantage-seeking by a political party and a misuse of the governing party's legislative power." 

"Its deleterious effect on democratic governance would certainly outweigh any salutary benefit of the information it contained." 

Rickford responded to the decision in a statement:

"The federal carbon tax makes life more unaffordable and hits the wallets of Ontario families and small businesses hardest when it comes to gas prices and home-heating costs. We respect the decision of the court, but our government will always stand up for the people of Ontario when it comes to matters that make everyday life more expensive for hardworking families," the statement said.