At 30, the Charter of Rights has reshaped our society, for the better

Posted on April 14, 2012 in Equality Policy Context

Source: — Authors: – opinion/editorials
Published On Sat Apr 14 2012.

Think of it as a shield against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, adopted 30 years ago this week, protects us all. Time and again, Canadians have invoked it to challenge overbearing government power, to expand freedoms including that of free speech and of the press, to right wrongs and to remedy inequality. It is one of our great treasures.

Indeed Canadians put it on a par with such icons as Confederation itself, and universal health care. And for good reason. We look to the Charter for guidance on the political, legal, social and ethical issues that define our lives.

It’s a shame, then, that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservatives have no great regard for the Charter, seeing it as a Liberal political legacy that “limits democracy” by empowering unelected judges to review the decisions of Parliament, legislatures and bureaucrats. There will be no official celebratory bash in Ottawa on Tuesday, despite the Tories’ attention to other, less relevant aspects of our history.

The Charter was adopted on former prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s watch when the Constitution was repatriated from the United Kingdom on April 17, 1982. Queen Elizabeth II attended a ceremony on Parliament Hill to sign the documents that transformed us from being a parliamentary democracy to a constitutional one.

Since then the Charter has reshaped Canadian society in big ways and small, bringing sweeping and at times controversial change. “On balance,” says Peter Hogg, one of the nation’s most respected constitutional scholars, “we have improved our country’s governance” by having it. At root, the Charter empowers the people, he told Lawyers Weekly in a recent interview. That is its great, enduring value.

Every schoolchild by now knows that it guarantees the right to free expression and association, to freedom of the press, to vote, to life, liberty and security, to freedom from discrimination, and more. But fewer are aware of what that means in practice.

In recent years the Star and other media have successfully invoked the Charter to shield responsible journalism from defamation lawsuits, providing for a stronger, more informative press.

Just this past Friday the Supreme Court cited it in holding police who conduct wiretaps more accountable for notifying people who are under surveillance.

Since the 9/11 attacks the Charter has been used to temper needlessly draconian anti-terror laws. And to affirm the worth of human life by preventing the extradition of suspected criminals who might be executed. The Charter has been invoked in regard to Quebec secession, to raise the bar to breaking the country. It has forced police and prosecutors to meet higher procedural standards in criminal cases, reinforcing the presumption of innocence. It has been used to stop discrimination against gays, to permit the wearing of religious symbols, and to effectively legalize women’s freedom of choice in abortion.

The Charter has been invoked, as well, in causes that range from minority language rights to aboriginal rights, Sunday shop closings, refugee cases, assisted suicide, extradition to torture, prostitution, censorship, collective bargaining, tobacco advertising, and more.

Under a series of vigilant judges who did not hesitate to strike down bad laws, or to “read in” rights when justice required, the Charter has come to affect most aspects of our lives.

As Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dubé once put it, memorably, the Charter “stretched the cords of liberty” and enfranchised us all.

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