Under s. 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, everyone has the right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment. In Quebec (Attorney General) v. 9147-0732 Québec inc., 202 SCC 32, the Supreme Court of Canada held that “everyone” does not include corporations.
In Québec, like other provinces, it is an offense to carry out construction work as a contractor without holding a current license for that purpose. The defendant in this case, 9147-0732 Québec inc., was found guilty of doing just that.
Under the Québec Building Act, the penalty for the offence is a mandatory minimum fine which varies depending on whether the offender is an individual or a corporation. Applying the Act, the Court of Québec imposed the then minimum fine for corporations of $30,843. The corporation challenged the constitutionality of the mandatory minimum fine, arguing that it offended its right to be protected against cruel and unusual treatment or punishment under s. 12 of the Charter.
The case went through three instances of the Québec court system before ending up in the Supreme Court of Canada. The Court of Québec concluded that expanding the protection of rights intrinsically linked to individuals to include corporate rights would trivialize the protection granted by s. 12 of the Charter, and that in any event, the minimum fine was far from being cruel and unusual. The Quebec Superior Court agreed that corporations were not covered by s. 12, the purpose of which was the protection of human dignity, a notion clearly meant exclusively for natural persons. A further appeal was successful, and the majority at the Quebec Court of Appeal held that s. 12 could apply to corporations. The majority held that the fact that s. 12 was linked to human dignity did not prevent its application to corporations, since other Charter rights which also protect human dignity, such as ss. 8 and 11(b), have also been held to apply to corporations.
The Supreme Court agreed with the dissenting judge in the Court of Appeal. The court held that the inclusion of “cruel” strongly suggested that the provision was limited to human beings:
Justice Chamberland quite rightly emphasized that the ordinary meaning of the word “cruel” does not permit its application to inanimate objects or legal entities such as corporations. As he explained, [TRANSLATION] “[o]ne would not say, it seems to me, that a group of workers who demolish a building using explosives (rather than going about it more gradually, brick by brick, plank by plank) are being cruel to the building. Nor would one say that a group of consumers who boycott a business’s products, creating a real risk that it will be driven into bankruptcy, are being cruel to the company that owns the business”... We therefore agree […] that the words “cruel and unusual treatment or punishment” refer to human pain and suffering, both physical and mental.
The court looked to its earlier decision in Irwin Toy Ltd. v. Quebec (Attorney General),  1 S.C.R. 92, in which it held that s. 7 of the Charter , which guarantees “the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice”, could not apply to a corporation, since it would be hard to conceive of a manner in which a corporation could be deprived of its “life, liberty or security of the person”. To say that bankruptcy and winding up proceedings could engage s. 7 would stretch the meaning of the rigt to life beyond recognition.
While all justices of the Supreme Court concurred in finding that s. 12 had no application to corporations, there was disagreement on the role of international and comparative law in interpreting the Charter. The majority (Wagner C.J. and Moldaver, Côté, Brown and Rowe JJ.) held that it held a limited role of providing support or confirmation for the result reached by way of purposive interpretation of Charter rights. Justices Abella, Karakatsanis and Martin would have looked abroad in support of interpreting s. 12. As stated by Justice Abella, “since Canada’s rights protections emerged from the same chrysalis of outrage as other countries around the world, it is helpful to compare Canada’s prohibition against cruel and unusual treatment or punishment with how courts around the world have interpreted the numerous international human rights instruments containing provisions that closely mirror the language of s. 12.”
In the result, however, all justices were in agreement that just like demolishing a building by blowing it up does not constitute cruelty toward the building, fining a construction company does not constitute cruelty toward the corporation.