The Pillar of Canadian Society
It was 30 years ago when the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was signed and became not only the pillar of Canada's commitment to the rule of law but also a pillar of the very nature of Canada's structure of society and culture. We may view the WWI battle of Vimy Ridge as the moment in history when Canadians became most conscious of our nationhood, but this was only symbolic and emotional. And while the federal nature of our country was determined with the British North American Act in 1867, it was the repatriation of our Constitution (which includes the Charter of Rights and Freedom) which fixed the parameters and vision of our country long into the future.
The British who had to accept the changes to the British North America Act where reluctant to see Canada accept a bill of rights which was not in the parliamentary tradition but more like the American Republican form of government. But in the end, they did and Canada got a Charter of Rights and Freedoms which was much more than a bill of rights.
The Charter assures us that long into the future Canada will be a federal, bilingual and multicultural society. History will record that this is Pierre Elliott Trudeau's political legacy. Like no other Prime Minister he has shaped the nature of Canada, perhaps forever.
It is interesting to note that the Charter of Rights and Freedom does not guarantee property rights as a more individually focused bill rights might. At least one writer attributes this to the New Democratic Party, which was at that time more aggressively socialist.
The Charter also sets out the federal nature of Canada and who the Federal and Provincial jurisdictions will interact, allowing the Provinces to use a "notwithstanding clause" to opt out of some federal laws, but not all. It is not applicable to the the laws guaranteeing the bilingual nature of Canada.
There was a time in Canada's history when Canadians saw themselves as Americans ,written small. We were largely influenced by American culture. I might even say in the Canada of my youth we envied a lot the United States. My recollection is that I learned more about American history than Canadian history in school. We struggled against this cultural imperialism and our own sense of inferiority by such efforts as laws that protected and supported Canadian cultural elements with various arts institutions federally funded. There have always been pressures for Canada to just be a market extension of the United States. The nature of Canadian society has always been at risk. And yet we had begun to change Canada moving away in many ways from our southern neighbour. With the reparation of the Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedom the distinctive nature of Canada is now assured, protected and guaranteed. During my lifetime Canadian culture has become increasingly rich and distinct. The Charter will help to see that this continues to be the case.
It is interesting to note that this 30th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is not being recognized by the Federal government of the Harper's Conservatives. This is ironic for a government that loves to wave the flag at every opportunity when it comes to the military, our military history and even the Royal family. You would think our Constitution and its importance to Canada would be worthy of federal celebration. I see this as a snub and a contempt for this pillar of Canadian society.
There are those Canadians who hate the Charter and see it as a divisive document between different views of Canada. They often see it as a Liberal Party document, that fixed their view of Canada on our country for all times. I see these people as those who know little about Canada's history and values. I encourage them to read "A Fair Country" by John Ralston Saul where he argues that Canada is a metis society which called upon aboriginal values as well as English and European values, in such a way as to make Canada quite different from the Old World and the United States. This has served us well culminating in our current bilingual and multicultural country. Perhaps, arguably the most successful such society in the World. The Sun Newspapers and the Sun Television network often give voice to the negative view. They see the Charter as being divisive. They are the Canadian equivalent of the Fox News Network of the United States and deserve to be ignored.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth signing the repatriated Constitution April 17, 1982
The damaged Constitution
There are two copies of the Canadians Constitution. One was slightly damaged by the rain the day it was signed. The other, signed indoors, was pristine, until one day it was vandalized as an act of protest. It is an interesting story. This red stained copy of the Constitution is a reminder that our rights and freedoms must always be defended. The incident is symbolic of how open a society we are that an ordinary citizen could easily have access to our Nation's foundation document. I hope this will always be the case as an ideal. We need to always be tolerate of protest and dialogue even if it is occasionally extreme.
The Charter of Rights and Freedom has been used to continue to make changes in Canadian society through decisions of the Supreme Court. I need only point out the gay and lesbian community has been added to groups that have Charter protection. Need I point out that Canada has relatively easily accepted gay marriage and accepted abortion and birth control as individual rights. Such issues, which are contentious in the U.S. are largely irrelevant in Canada.
Recently, the federal governments opposition to needle exchange and injection site for drug addicts, has been rejected by the court. There will now be more of these. One could go on and on reviewing large and small issues dealt with by the Court in the past 30 years.
I must point out that the Harper government has argued before the Supreme Court many times and loses almost every time. The Court has chastised the government on several occasions. The one I was please with most was the one that told the government they failed to do enough on behalf of Omar Khadr, the child soldier, who is suffering under the American justice system. Hopefully, he will be back in Canada soon but if it were up to the Harper government he would be left to rot in an American military jail. Canadian citizens have a right to have their government come to their aid internationally, whether the government approves or disapproves of their politics. The draconian actions of the government after the 9/11 attack in New York, were somewhat limited by the court. Muslim men detained without trial under security certificates were finally freed as their detention was illegal and unCanadian. I have faith in Canada's Supreme Court. It remains truly independent, which is largely guaranteed by the Constitution. Effort to politicize it should fail. It is interesting to note that the recent decision against unwarranted wiretapping by the police was written by the two recent appointees to the court by the Harper government. It is interesting to review the decisions of the court over the years . I look forward to future decisions.