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Twenty years after prime minister Pierre Trudeau braved the anger of the premiers to give the country the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canadians are overwhelmingly convinced that their rights have been better defended because of his actions.

Nearly three quarters of Canadians view their rights as better protected because of the Charter, a recent poll by Ipsos-Reid poll conducted for The Globe and Mail and CTV suggests.

The approval rate climbed to 81 per cent for those who grew up after the document was signed into law at a rain-soaked ceremony in Ottawa on April 17, 1982.

These sentiments provide a hearty endorsement for Mr. Trudeau's legacy. In fiery constitutional conferences held at the time, Mr. Trudeau was harshly criticized for believing that unelected judges should be the primary guardians of individual rights.

The poll also found that 70 per cent of Canadians were more likely to trust judges than politicians to protect their Charter rights -- an opinion that was more commonly expressed by younger citizens.

Deloyd Guth, a University of Manitoba law professor, said the poll results are reassuring in light of the constant criticism judges have endured in recent years for allegedly usurping the role of politicians.

Prof. Guth said the responses suggest that Canadians see the courts as being accessible to ordinary people and minorities in a way that Parliament and the legislatures are not.

"To put it crudely, you can enter two different theatres," he said. "People have a sense of awe for the judicial one; it is seen as a much cleaner and more wholesome way to go.

"The political one has elements that are tawdry or crass," Prof. Guth said.

"If you are going to go the political route, you have to be able to position yourself for influence."

"The only way to do that is through fundraising and networking -- which is enormously expensive and time-consuming," Prof. Guth said.

People seem to recognize instinctively that politicians generally will sidestep any issue that could breed bad publicity or lessen their chances of being re-elected, Prof. Guth said.

"The politicians will duck every time," he said.

"They are experts at the avoidance game. The current Liberal government has got it down to a fine art."

Kent Roach, a University of Toronto law professor, said there could be a false premise to the views people espoused in the poll. Neither politicians nor judges have a claim to absolute power over policy, he said.

The author of a recently published book on the evolution of judicial power -- The Supreme Court on Trial -- Prof. Roach said courts and legislatures share power and regularly send one another messages.

The Supreme Court, for instance, may strike down a particular law and supply broad hints on how it could be rewritten to pass constitutional muster. Parliament may, in turn, adopt the court's suggestions while reiterating some policy elements it feels are especially important.

"The history of the Charter is that the legislatures will often respond and rebalance," he said. "We wouldn't necessarily want judges to have the last word on rights."

Prof. Guth remarked that public trust in judges is somewhat anomalous, in that the outcome of a court case is akin to playing a lottery.

"It depends so much on the skills of the lawyer, the response the political institution or government involved makes to the defendant and on the judge you draw," Prof. Guth said.

The poll was conducted in early March and was based on a sample of 1,000 adult Canadians. The results are considered accurate within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The poll found that:

70 per cent of respondents felt more comfortable entrusting their rights to judges than to politicians;

72 per cent associate the Charter most closely with protecting the rights of all citizens rather than with any particular group, such as accused criminals or minorities;

The belief that the Charter has secured individual rights is strongest in Atlantic Canada (84 per cent) and weakest in Alberta (68 per cent);

Albertans and older Canadians are the most likely to associate the Charter with protecting criminals.

Charter protections

Nearly three-quarters of Canadians believe that their individual rights and freedoms are better protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and 72 per cent say the Charter most protects rights of all Canadians.

Question: Do you feel that your rights and freedoms are better protected because the Charter of Rights and Freedoms became law in 1982?

Yes..........74%

No...........21%

Don't know....9%

Question: When you think of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, do you associate it most with protecting:

Equality of women and minorities...........7%

Rights of criminals or accused criminals...8%

Rights of aboriginals......................3%

Rights of gays and lesbians................1%

Rights of Canadians.......................72%

Rights of other groups or individuals......5%

Don't know.................................3%

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