The most recent Hart House debate saw a multi-generational group of speakers take the stage to tackle the tricky Section 33 of the Constitution of Canada.

The annual Hart House Alumni Debate was held on March 13 in front of a packed crowd in the Debates Room. Each year, the Hart House Debates & Dialogue Committee organizes a debate that hears voices from both alumni and student participants.

This year, the featured debaters included former Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada Louis LeBel, Member of Parliament and former Cabinet Minister Michael Chong, recent U of T Law alumnus and current commercial litigator Anisah Hassan, and current fourth-year undergraduate student and multi-title winning debater Sarah Millman.

Commenting on the selection of the participants, Aceel Hawa, Chair of the Hart House Debates & Dialogue Committee, said that they “wanted to target alumni that would not only represent a variety of different age groups, but also different life experiences as well.”

The debate addressed the role of Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, better known as the ‘notwithstanding clause.’ Section 33 is considered to be a particular controversial item in the constitution.

Section 33 allows federal parliament and provincial legislatures to enact laws that override certain freedoms entrenched in the charter. In essence, it allows legislative branches to override the Supreme Court of Canada, making it possible to pass legislation that the Supreme Court would strike down as being unconstitutional.

Following the structure of parliamentary debating, the four debaters were evenly split into two sides: the Government, consisting of LeBel and Millman, and the Opposition, consisting of Chong and Hassan. The Government’s position was that the Supreme Court should have the final say on legislation while the Opposition argued that legislative branches should have the right to ultimately decide.

In making his case, LeBel described the notwithstanding clause as “the wart on the nose of our great constitution.” While the notwithstanding clause doesn’t directly affect many Canadians due to its rarity of use, LeBel told The Varsity that it is still an important issue to discuss. “It raises basic questions about ‘what is this constitution?’ [and] what is the nature of the state we have?’,” said Lebel. “Here is a very good example, I would say, of the difference between the text of the constitution and the life of the constitution.”

After hearing ten-minute speeches from each of the debaters, the audience left the room through a selection of two doors in order to tally the votes for and against the motion. While the results were close, the Opposition came out on top.

Describing the reasons for his vote, audience member and U of T alumni Ben Atkins said that he “liked the argument that, if you eliminated the notwithstanding clause, you affect the way in which judges are appointed.”

Chong, reflecting on the importance of the debate, told The Varsity that “politics is incredibly important. It governs every aspect of our lives and the more people get involved the more they can make a difference.”

“[Debate] has pushed me to think critically about everything,” said Millman, in an interview with The Varsity.

“It’s been hugely important because it has informed the way I think for my courses, and the way I engage with politics, and the way that I look at any news story. It just changes the way you think.”

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