With its decision in Canada Post Corporation v. City of Hamilton,1 the Ontario Court of Appeal has confirmed that the placement of community mailboxes by Canada Post is a matter beyond the reach of municipalities and their regulatory powers. The decision serves as an important constitutional reminder that a municipal bylaw that conflicts with a federal law, or frustrates the purpose of that law, is inoperative and has no legal effect. In practical terms, this principle of paramountcy means that Canada Post – and Canada Post alone – has the power to determine the location of community mailboxes within a municipality.

Background

In the face of significant public opposition to the introduction of community mailboxes, the City of Hamilton adopted a bylaw prohibiting any person from installing “equipment” within municipal roadways without a permit.2 The bylaw also imposed a moratorium for 120 days to allow for the development of standards that would govern the issuance of these permits.3 The effect of the bylaw was to vest discretion in a municipal director to approve or deny the permits and to impose conditions on them for the purpose of protecting persons from injury, properties from damage, and roadways from disruption.4 For the purpose of the bylaw, “equipment” included community mailboxes. Canada Post applied to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice and asked that the bylaw be set aside on constitutional grounds. It was successful.5 The City of Hamilton appealed to the Ontario Court of Appeal.

The Doctrine of Paramountcy

The constitutional doctrine of paramountcy provides that, where there is a conflict between federal and provincial laws, the latter is inoperative to the extent of the conflict.6 In other words, the federal law is paramount and any conflict must be resolved in its favour. This principle extends to municipal bylaws because the authority to make them is delegated by provincial legislatures.7 A conflict will exist – and paramountcy will be triggered – when it is impossible to comply with both laws or when the provincial law has the effect of frustrating the purpose of the federal law.8 In either case, the conflicting provincial law will be declared inoperative.

Drawing upon this doctrine, the Ontario Court of Appeal concluded that the bylaw passed by the City of Hamilton was inoperative as it applied to Canada Post and had no legal effect.9 While the Court of Appeal was satisfied that the bylaw was truly aimed at protecting persons and properties from harm and therefore fell within the jurisdiction delegated to the municipality by the provincial legislature, the effect of the bylaw was to give the municipality a “veto” over the location of community mailboxes.10 That veto, according to the Court of Appeal, conflicted with the purpose of the federal law granting Canada Post the sole and exclusive authority to “install … in any public place, including a public roadway, any receptacle … to be used for the collection, delivery or storage of mail.”11

While the City of Hamilton did counter that its bylaw was merely permissive and not an outright prohibition on the installation of community mailboxes, the Ontario Court of Appeal was not persuaded.12 It found that this uncertainty only compounded the logistical problems faced by Canada Post and had the potential to frustrate the whole national network for mail delivery:

Were the City to refuse approval for even a few sites, it would require Canada Post to redraw its mail delivery routes and restart the cycle of consultation with customers, volume mail delivery counts, route restructuring and staffing, and hiring contractors. And there is of course no guarantee that sites selected in the subsequent round would meet with City approval. Furthermore, what is at issue is not the location of a single mail receptacle, or even a few hundred mail receptacles. The CMBs are part of a national network. These logistical problems would be magnified by the number of municipalities enacting such a bylaw – each with their own decision-maker and criteria – that will collectively have veto power over the placement of CMBs nationwide.13

This effort by the City of Hamilton to assert supervisory authority over the locations selected by Canada Post – and displace its discretion – was held to conflict with the power of Canada Post to locate mailboxes within its national network “free of interference.”14 That power, according to the Court of Appeal, had resided with the “Postmaster General” since Confederation.15

Message for Municipalities

For municipalities looking for direction as to the boundaries of their jurisdiction, the decision in Canada Post Corporation v. City of Hamilton is a valuable summary of the basic principles. While the subject of community mailboxes is a modern and contentious one, the Ontario Court of Appeal did not have to break new constitutional ground. The decision is – to borrow a phrase from the Court of Appeal itself – “a short walk”16 through a number of longstanding and foundational principles of constitutional law in Canada.