An increasing number of Canadians are aware of the Harper Conservatives’ attacks on our democracy – proroguing and contempt of Parliament, limiting debate, secret committee hearings – but few are aware of inroads being made on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The 30 Anniversary is a time to make this threat known to citizens – and to push back.
“When the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was established thirty year ago today, there was a different attitude in Ottawa. Government was seen as a guardian of our rights and freedoms,” said Elizabeth May, MP Saanich-Gulf Islands and Leader of the Green Party.
“Under the Harper Conservatives, government is more often viewed as a threat to those rights and freedoms, and nothing could be more dangerous to Canadian society and values than an assault in the name of democracy.”
The Charter, established in 1982 to replace the Canadian Bill of Rights, formed the first part of the Constitution Act of the same year. It was designed to unite Canadians around a guaranteed set of rights – including democratic, equality, legal, language, and mobility – and freedoms – conscience, religion, thought, belief, press, assembly and more.
Over the past six years, the Green Party notes that Charter rights in various aspects of our lives have been compromised. One of the first things the Harper Conservatives did was to cancel the Court Challenges Program, which offered funding to women’s and minority groups to challenge court rulings they felt violated the Charter.
“Closing the Law Reform Commission and ending the Charter Challenges programme have chipped away at Canadians’ ability to fully exercise Charter rights,” said May.
Women’s Charter rights to equality have been systematically weakened. The Green Party of Canada has called on the Harper Conservatives to reverse major funding cuts on Status of Women Canada, and restore the word “equality” to its mandate.
Harper eliminated pay equity as a basic right in the 2009 budget, calling it “a rip off.” He has ignored calls for comprehensive national strategies to provide daycare and combat violence against women.
An important Charter check is the enforcement of Section 11(b) (the right to be tried within a reasonable time). In the last five years, jail and prison stays have been on the rise, due to too few judges and Crown attorneys, and insufficient legal aid. The Harper Conservatives’ newly passed Bill C-10 will inevitably result in increased arrests and incarceration, compromising Charter rights further, especially among the vulnerable.
At the same time, Bill C-10’s call for mandatory minimum sentences likely contravenes Section 12 of the Charter (protection against cruel and unusual treatment or punishment) and could result in multiple court challenges.
Police are rarely, if ever, disciplined when they breach the Charter. This must end. Such breaches should be considered very serious when intentional and slightly less serious when due to negligence or ignorance.
The Green Party has called attention to the Harper Conservatives use of Security Certificates, allowing detention without charge and no access to evidence for reasons of national security, as undemocratic and a violation of the Charter. “Secret trials” are a slippery slope.
An indication of the power of and need for the Charter is the fact that the Supreme Court is on record saying the death penalty would likely violate Section 12 (cruel and unusual punishment). Thanks to the Charter, the Harper Conservatives have insisted they will not re-introduce the death penalty.
Canada’s immigration and refugee system was once seen as one of the best in the world, in part because it reflected Charter rights. With the Harper Conservatives’ Bill C-31, these rights are being gravely compromised, especially with the bid to lock up refugees 16 and over for a year without review, if ordered by the Minister. This aspect alone contravenes Charter Sections 7 (right to life, liberty, and security), 9 (right not to be arbitrarily detained or imprisoned), and 10 (right to retain counsel and more).
However, there is some good news. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously against the Harper Conservatives’ attempt to close down Insite, Vancouver’s supervised injection site. The Green Party has been a supporter of Insite as it has reduced health and public safety risks within a vulnerable population. Citing Section 7 of the Charter (the right to life, liberty, and security), the Court held that the Minister’s refusal to grant an exemption to Insite under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act was arbitrary and grossly disproportionate in its effects. The Minister was ordered to grant an exemption.
“The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is and can continue to be an effective tool for maintaining a fair, just society and democracy in Canada,” May concluded, “but, under the present circumstances, we have to work very hard to protect it.”