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Human Rights in Canada: An Historical Perspective

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

Ottawa, Canada
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 against them.

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 these rights.

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 human rights.

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 Act, 1982.

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
Senior Justice officials prepare early drafts of the 1982 Constitution

Still Want To Know More?

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms