Learn about the Charter

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the Charter) protects basic rights and freedoms that are essential to keeping Canada a free and democratic society. It is a powerful force for progress, protection, and fairness with the power to influence our society by interpreting laws and policies. The Charter ensures that the government, or anyone acting on its behalf, doesn’t take away or interfere with these rights or freedoms in an unreasonable way.

Since 1982, the Charter has been an essential part of Canada’s democracy and it will continue to shape our identity as a nation. The Charter affirms that we are a multicultural society and that it must be read and understood with this in mind. The rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Charter govern how governments act, including the right to equality, freedom of expression and the right not to be deprived of life, liberty or security of the person, except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice. It also protects the rights of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis in Canada.

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History of the Charter

The roots of the Charter lie in the desire for Canada to gain full control over its Constitution. Because Canada's original Constitution was an act of the British Parliament in 1867, only Britain had the power to change it. In 1980, Canada and its provinces began a collaborative process to bring home the Constitution and to incorporate a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. A committee of Canadian Parliamentarians, representing all parties, considered more than 1,200 written submissions and over 300 testimonies to develop the final Charter.

Receiving approval from Britain for the last time, Queen Elizabeth II signed the Canada Act on April 17, 1982 in Ottawa. This action gave Canada control over its Constitution and guaranteed the rights and freedoms in the Charter as the supreme law of the nation.

The rights and freedoms the Charter protects

The rights and freedoms protected by the Charter can be divided into 7 categories. These categories address Canadians’ fundamental freedoms, democratic rights, mobility rights, legal rights, equality rights, official language rights and minority language educational rights.

How the Charter has shaped Canada

The Charter allows individuals to challenge government actions that are believed to violate rights or freedoms. The most complex and controversial Charter-based challenges may end up before the Supreme Court of Canada. In the past, these challenges have set legal precedents and also inspired significant changes to federal, provincial and territorial laws.

When and how the government can put limits on individual rights

The Charter recognizes that even in a democracy, rights and freedoms are not absolute. Section 1 of the Charter allows the government to put limits on rights and freedoms if that limit:

Section 33 of the Charter, also called the notwithstanding clause, allows Canada’s Parliament, provincial and territorial legislatures to pass laws that may violate certain Charter rights. A legislature may do this if they clearly state to the public that they are passing a law that violates the Charter and which rights in particular the law infringes. All levels of government must review and re-enact this declaration to Canadians every five years, or the limits are automatically lifted. The federal Parliament has never used the notwithstanding clause.

If the government limits your rights without good reason

If an individual thought the government had put limits on individual rights without good reason, a court challenge may be brought forward. If the court agrees with the individual who has brought the claim, a court may order a remedy. The Charter sets out three types of remedies, which are actions intending to compensate for the rights violation in question.

Human rights protected in other statutes

The Charter guarantees many basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. We have other human rights protections that come from federal, provincial, and territorial statutes, common law, and international law.

In 1960, the parliament of Canada passed the Canadian Bill of Rights, which was the first federal human rights law in the country and guaranteed basic rights and freedoms in federal law for the first time.

The Canadian Human Rights Act, passed in 1977, prohibits discrimination in the context of federal employment and the provision of goods, services, facilities or accommodations generally available to the public. It prevents discriminatory practices based on a number of grounds, including race, national or ethnic origin, sex, and disability. The act applies to the Government of Canada, First Nations governments, and federally- regulated private businesses, including in banking, airline, telecommunications and broadcasting and inter-provincial transportation sectors.

All provinces and territories have similar human rights laws that apply within that province or territory. They also similarly apply to provincial or provincially-regulated works and undertakings.