Skip to main content

The jury was out on April 17, 1982, when the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into being. It was entirely open to speculation as to whether the judiciary would embrace or retreat from the new powers the Charter conferred on it.

Twenty-five years -- and many hundred Charter rulings -- later, it is undeniable that a broad spectrum of Charter decisions has profoundly changed both the country and the Canadian psyche. Whether those changes have enhanced democratic traditions or nurtured a politicized judiciary intoxicated with power is a debate with no end.

In this three-day series, The Globe examines the Charter's evolution and looks toward a future in which it will be applied to questions that those who drafted it never imagined.

The Top Cases: The Globe invited three Charter experts to compile a ranked list of the most important and influential Charter cases since 1982

A. Wayne MacKay, law professor at Dalhousie University

R. v. Oakes, 1986: A blueprint in which claimants must prove a Charter violation and then governments must justify it.

R. v. Morgentaler, 1988: Struck down the abortion law, tossing the issue back to Parliament.

R. v. Big M Drug Mart, 1985: One of the first rulings to strike down and void a law -- the Lord's Day Act.

Vriend v. Alberta, 1998: Sparked a national debate; helped advance the rights of gays and lesbians.

R. v. Collins, 1987: Set the test for excluding evidence in criminal cases, a vital component in expanding the rights of the accused and limiting police powers.

Hunter v. Southam Inc., 1984: Defined reasonable expectation of privacy and essential components of a reasonable search and seizure for both individuals and corporations.

McKinney v. University of Guelph, 1990: Created the test limiting the Charter to the public sphere; advocated deference to legislatures on broad, socio-economic matters.

Law v. Canada, 1999: Its flexible test links equality to violations of dignity.

R. v. Keegstra, 1990: Defined free expression broadly, but said that equality and the protection of the vulnerable justify limitations on hate speech.

Chaoulli, 2005: Struck down Quebec prohibitions on private health insurance; demonstrated the Court's willingness to enter contested public debates and challenge sacred legislative cows.


Mayo Moran, dean of University of Toronto law school

R. v. Oakes, 1986: Its definition of reasonable limits of rights is the key to Charter analysis.

R. v. Keegstra, 1990: Established that balancing of competing interests should occur within the Charter's Section 1, when judges rule whether there has been a threshold violation.

Andrews v. Law Society of B.C., 1989: Struck down prohibition against non-citizens practising law.

R. v. Big M Drug Mart, 1985: Established the importance of freedom of religion.

R. v. Morgentaler, 1988: Popularized the Charter and its expanded role for judges.

Law v. Canada (Minister of Employment and Immigration), 1999: Tried to resolve years of confusion by providing a flexible test for finding equality violations.

M v. H, 1999: Obliged Ontario to alter dozens of pieces of legislation that discriminated against gays.

Vriend v. Alberta, 1998: Infuriated Charter opponents by reading protection for gays into Alberta's human-rights code.

Chaoulli and Zeliotis v. A. G. Quebec and A. G. Canada, 2005: Delays in obtaining surgery were deemed to threaten life and security of the person.

Charkoui v. Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2007: Struck down portions of immigration security-certificate regime that denied detainees full answer and defence.


David Stratas, constitutional lawyer at Heenan Blaikie LLP

R. v. Oakes, 1986: Laid out the test for balancing rights and against governmental interests.

R. v. Stinchcombe, 1995: Revolutionary ruling enshrined the right to pre-trial disclosure in criminal cases, placing strict obligations on police and prosecutors.

Irwin Toy Ltd. v. Quebec, 1989: The first big freedom-of-expression case.

Hunter v. Southam Inc., 1984: Adopted a broad, liberal approach to rights interpretation.

B.C. Motor Vehicle Act, 1985: Declared that courts can judge the very substance of a law or regulation.

Law v. Canada (Minister of Employment and Immigration), 1999: Had the effect of greatly restricting equality claims.

Vriend v. Alberta, 1998: The backlash the gay-rights case prompted against judicial activism brought calls for use of the Charter's notwithstanding (override) clause.

R. v. Askov, 1990: Led to tens of thousands of charges being dismissed in Ontario due to court delays.

Doucet-Boudreau, 2003: Provided a recipe for awarding Charter remedies.

Charkaoui v. Canada, 2007: Charter rights and national security collide in an age of terrorism.

Interact with The Globe