Gov't press release dubs Charter an 'important step'
Published Tuesday, April 17, 2012 8:17PM EDT
Despite calls from some political quarters for a little more fanfare, the Government of Canada has issued its relatively muted recognition of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms' 30th birthday.
In a joint statement released Tuesday morning, Heritage Minister James Moore and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson acknowledge the Charter as "an important step in the development of Canada's human rights policy."
But rather than heap the credit on the Liberals, under whose government the Charter was brought into law in 1982, the ministers trace its roots back another 20 years.
"Building on Diefenbaker's Canadian Bill of Rights of 1960, the Constitution Act of 1982 enshrined certain rights and freedoms that had historically been at the heart of Canadian society into a constitutional document known as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms," the statement said.
In his own statement released Tuesday, interim Liberal leader Bob Rae took umbrage at attempts to paint the Charter with political stripes.
"Thirty years later, the impact of the Charter on Canadian society has been significant and lasting. The Charter does not belong to one political party or one group, it belongs to all Canadians," Rae wrote, pointing to a recent newspaper column written by his party's justice critic.
Quoting Irwin Cotler's editorial, Rae wrote that, "The Charter merits both recognition and respect from the government, reflective of the reverence it is accorded by both Parliament and the judiciary."
Roy Romanow, who was Saskatchewan's attorney general in 1982 and was a key negotiator of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, said John Diefenbaker started the process of legislating Canadians' rights, but Pierre Trudeau took the idea to a whole new level.
Regardless of which political party is governing the country, Romanow told CTV's Power Play, the Charter acts as a "counter balance to the excesses of the government." It puts many contentious issues before the Supreme Court rather than the government of the day, he said.
"There is a check and balance of excessive or improper use of government power," Romanow said. "The other great strength of the Charter is that it represents the values of Canadians – not perfectly, but broadly and generally speaking."
When asked why his government is marking the Charter's 30th anniversary with a press release rather than fanfare, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters on Monday the approach was intended to be sensitive to political differences.
"In terms of this as an anniversary, I think it's an interesting and important step, but I would point out that the Charter remains inextricably linked to the patriation of the Constitution and the divisions around that matter, which as you know are still very real in some parts of the country," Harper said in Santiago, Chile.
Without stating it outright, Harper was alluding to the fact Quebec's separatist government at the time refused to sign on when then-Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau sat down with Queen Elizabeth II to put their signatures on the Constitution Act of 1982.
That move, which gave Canada the independence to craft and pass its own constitution without seeking the approval of its former colonial masters in England, also brought the Charter into force.
In an interview Tuesday, former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien said that besides the legislation itself meriting more than a press release, Harper's argument doesn't jibe with his commemoration of other aspects of Canadian history.
"They don't want to celebrate because they say it is controversial," Chretien told CTV's Canada AM.
"But you know, it's not everybody in Canada who loves the monarchy, and for example he wants to celebrate the monarchy."
While Chretien doesn't begrudge Ottawa celebrating the Queen's 60 years on the throne, he thinks the Charter deserves more than it's getting.
"You know, why don't we just be normal and celebrate something that is great for Canada," he said.
Heralded as an example emulated by countries around the world -- including Hong Kong, New Zealand and South Africa -- the Charter is essentially a set of principles intended to guarantee that citizens' rights are protected from government intrusion.
In other words, a law thought to infringe on a citizen's rights can be challenged in court, leaving it up to the judicial system to determine whether or not it violates the Charter.
While some consider that a powerful means of ensuring the rights of groups that might otherwise enjoy legal protection, others think it hands too much power to the judiciary.
Those differences are at the fore today, as the Liberals trumpet the anniversary with a full slate of events while the ruling Conservatives take their much-more low-key approach.
Before the Charter, Canadians' rights were protected by the 1960 bill enacted under Diefenbaker's leadership. Unlike the Charter, however, it was not enshrined in the Constitution.