Turning Points: Fresh opportunities to explain Canadian law to the public

Professors deliver as pandemic prompts queries on health law, Constitution, disinformation

Helen Metella - 22 July 2021

The COVID-19 health crisis has whetted public interest in numerous fine points of the law and placed experts from the University of Alberta Faculty of Law in the spotlight almost daily.

They’ve delivered crisp, clear soundbites and large social media campaigns, succinct Twitter threads, in-depth interviews and plain-language essays, and responded eloquently to citizens’ questions during webinars.

Among them, Professor Timothy Caulfield has countered misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccinations. Associate Professor Ubaka Ogbogu has evaluated the Alberta government’s pandemic response and explained the legislated rights and role of chief public officers of health.

Vice Dean Eric Adams has clarified the protections for religious rights, personal rights and dissent. In one of the Centre for Constitutional Studies’ monthly Charter Series webinars, Executive Director Patricia Paradis explained how courts balance the constitutional protection of individual rights and freedoms in the Charter with the interests of the community.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a busier year of media commentary than this past year,” says Adams. “It’s a challenging but rewarding part of the position I have as someone with the academic freedom to study, teach and write about important topics in Canadian constitutional law … I think part of my responsibility is to try and give back my expertise to (the) public in as many different ways as I can.”

The pandemic prompted Canadians to understand how the government could inhibit their Charter-protected rights, says Paradis.

“So this year provided several perfect opportunities for the Centre for Constitutional Studies to explain how courts balance rights and government action that limits those rights. It was a silver lining — an opportunity to explain the way the Charter works in areas that significantly affect people's lives."

A higher profile does draw heated criticism, however.

“It ain’t easy and often not fun,” wrote Caulfield in a May 2021 opinion piece in the Globe and Mail. But expert commentary that corrects falsehoods about the pandemic is “needed, effective, encouraged, appreciated—and perhaps an obligation.”

Demystifying and disseminating knowledge to the wider community is integral to academic work, says Ogbogu. “I think about how to do it effectively each time I undertake a research project.”

Among his considerations: “The public is interested and not stupid. Keep the message clear, simple and to the point. And most importantly, be correct when offering facts, and measured and respectful when offering opinion.”

Adds Adams: "I would certainly wish away the last 15 months if I could, but there have also been important moments demonstrating the workings of our constitutional framework of rights protection which enables reasonable restrictions to those rights when warranted and proportionate."