It’s just three decades old, but Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms has done a remarkable job of elucidating the noble ideas that form the framework of this country.
By failing to celebrate the charter this week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has shown a pettiness that belies his attempts to serve as a statesman.
Harper shrugged off Tuesday’s milestone by trying to tactically draw attention to previous Conservative efforts at enshrining Canadians’ rights.
The fact it was the Liberals – and Pierre Trudeau, to boot – who succeeded in repatriating the constitution must truly irritate the governing Conservatives.
For sure, the charter isn’t loved by everyone. Some say it allows people to “work the system,” either by dragging out court cases or challenging those in positions of authority. They might be right, but the critics are also pointing out one of the strengths of having a legal document that enshrines our rights.
Freedom and democracy can only truly exist in a somewhat messy state. The very nature of rights means that their definition must be open for challenge. If the courts struggle with interpreting those definitions, it probably means there is room for clarification. The government also has a built-in mechanism for dealing with any difference in opinion. However, there is also a price to pay for enacting the notwithstanding clause. Governments, so far, have realized they need to be judicious or else risk the wrath of the electorate.
The charter is not convenient for a government that wants to do what it pleases. It’s also not necessarily a pleasant document for the nation’s judges, who can find themselves put on the spot by charter challenges.
The people who have truly benefited from the charter are those most in need of its protection. Canada has made huge strides as a tolerant society because minorities have been allowed to step into the mainstream.
Our evolution hasn’t gone unnoticed, either, as the charter is used by countries around the world as a model constitution.
That’s not to say the charter is perfect. One outstanding issue remains: getting Quebec to sign on. But, for 30 years, the majority of Canadians have benefited from having an insightful declaration of the freedoms we cherish.
As more decades pass, the advantages that come with our Charter of Rights will only become more cherished.