Canadians have reason to celebrate Tuesday’s 30th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Entrenched in the wake of our Constitution’s patriation, as a result of a bill passed by the British Parliament, the Charter is one of the most significant milestones in our country’s history, along with the adoption of federalism in 1867.
This watershed moment meant Canadians could henceforth amend their own Constitution without having to go begging to London to do so. Besides consecrating Canada’s legal sovereignty, this move enshrined the rights and freedoms of Canadians. It also consecrated the rule of law, which makes all citizens equal before the law and protects them from discrimination and arbitrary state actions.
Since the Charter was ushered in, our courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada, have sanctioned all acts of public authority that violate the rights and freedoms of citizens beyond the constraints allowed within the realm of a free and democratic society.
Furthermore, Canadians respect the role of courts in this area, viewing them as impartial guardians of their rights. On occasion, citizens even accept that courts defend “unpopular” causes, so long as the Charter’s principles are maintained.
Advent of the Charter has also encouraged Parliament to pass legislation that takes into account the principles of fairness and equality. If, at times, legislators perceived the need to uphold a violation of those principles, they would be duty bound to pass such a law, notwithstanding the Charter, with the political repercussions that would entail.
Given that so few people take to the streets to protest against the decisions of our courts in that regard, I would argue that the public sees the balance achieved, albeit imperfect, as healthy and equitable.
It’s thanks to the vision and efforts of Pierre Trudeau and his justice minister, Jean Chrétien, that the Charter has become the central pillar of our constitutional system. Today, it’s the envy of millions of people around the world who dream of having their democratic rights and civil liberties similarly protected.
More important still: Canadians, including most French-speaking Quebeckers, now see these founding events as positive and useful. Besides, this is what polls confirmed at the time. It’s noteworthy to underline that francophone Quebeckers adhere to the Charter to the same degree they adhere to the Charter of the French Language.
No doubt, this can be explained by their deep attachment to the principles of freedom and individual responsibility. From their origins as coureurs de bois, they’ve understood that innovation and creativity arise mainly from the individuality of each person and that the prosperity thereby created generally benefits the entire community.
Besides being the cornerstone of our values and national identity, the Charter also protects minorities and language rights. Indeed, as a result of this 1982 constitutional amendment, francophone minorities across the country, as well as the anglophone minority in Quebec, have been able to demand services in their language, as well as schools for their children.
Finally, Canadians cherish the Charter and adhere to it. They know about it, understand that it protects their rights and trust that impartial courts will uphold them.
All of which gives us much reason to celebrate its 30th anniversary.
Bernard Amyot is a Montreal lawyer and past president of the Canadian Bar Association.