The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
April 17, 1982
Of all the human rights milestones in 20th century Canada, arguably the
single most significant is the passing of the Charter of Rights and
Freedoms. With its signing, human rights became an intrinsic and
irrevocable part of our Canadian identity.
At the turn of the century, human rights were at the mercy of laws passed
by the provincial and federal governments. This instability opened the
doors for discrimination. For instance, Chinese-Canadians gained the vote
because it was a popular decision - not necessarily a "right"
one. They could have easily lost that right had public opinion turned
World War II sewed the seeds for change. The horrors of war led to the
creation of the United Nations in 1945. The UN in turn passed the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The declaration affirmed that
human beings were entitled to fundamental human rights simply by virtue
of their humanity. The United Nations agreed that no law should ever usurp
Canada's committment to these "human rights" was first manifest
in the passing of the Canadian Bill of Rights. Yet, despite its
good intentions, the Bill of Rights was a federal law that was
difficult to enforce. It would take a man of vision, Prime Minister Pierre
Elliott Trudeau, to realize the United Nations' dream of unassailable
In 1982, Prime Minister Trudeau brought Canada's Constitution home, and
with it, the new Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The
charter sought to protect individual rights by preventing laws that unfairly
discriminate or that take away human rights. It acknowledged that everyone
regardless of colour, religion, race, or belief possesses certain fundamental
rights that no government can remove without cause.
The new arrival was welcomed with great excitement and some trepidation.
There is excitement because - as part of the constitution - the charter
has the power to protect and expand human rights. There is trepidation
because it will transfer some power from elected officials to the courts.
To some, this seemed antidemocratic.
In the years that followed its signing, the charter's limits would be
tested. Canada would learn that even human rights are not absolute. That's
why the charter included Section 1
. It dictates that limits on rights are acceptable if those limits can
be justified in a " free and democratic society." The charter
also has a built-in escape clause - Section
33 . Section 33 lets a government override certain charter
rights. This would become known as the " notwithstanding clause."
Yet, to this very day, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms continues
to defend the principles of freedom and dignity that define us as Canadians.
Did you know?
The Charter is technically known as Schedule B, Part I of the Constitution
Before the Charter
Federal Provincial Governments
Laws That Can Create or Remove Rights
After the Charter
Entrenchment of Rights
Federal Provincial Governments
Laws That Must Respect Charter Rights
Want to know more?
Summary of Charter Rights
A Word About Charter Interpretation
Senior Justice officials prepare early drafts
of the 1982 Constitution
Still Want To Know More?
Charter of Rights and Freedoms