Rights and freedoms in Canada

In Canada, the Constitution, as well as federal, provincial and territorial laws, protect our human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The Canadian Bill of Rights, passed in 1960, was the first federal human rights law in Canada. It guarantees many basic rights and freedoms, including the "right of the individual to life, liberty, security of the person and enjoyment of property" and the right not to be deprived of any of those rights except in accordance with "due process," meaning basic procedural fairness.

The Canadian Human Rights Act, passed in 1977, also protects human rights in the federal public and private sectors (for example, banking, rail, telecommunications, inter-provincial transportation), particularly the right to equality and non-discrimination in the areas of employment, housing and the provision of services.

All provinces and territories also have human rights legislation which prohibits discrimination in employment, housing and in providing goods, services, and facilities to the public. Some provincial and territorial laws protect a broader range of rights and freedoms. But like any legislation, these laws can be repealed or changed, so their protection can be limited. It was only with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that human rights in Canada were protected in the written Constitution.

What does the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms say?

The Constitution says that the Charter takes priority over all other legislation in Canada because it is part of the "supreme law of Canada." It applies to all government action, meaning to the provincial legislatures and Parliament, and to everything done under their authority. This means that governments must take the Charter into account in developing all laws and policies. It also means that when an individual goes to court because he or she believes that Parliament or a legislature or a government official has violated rights or fundamental freedoms guaranteed in the Charter, the court may declare the law invalid if it conflicts with the Charter or provide any other "appropriate and just" remedy.

However, section 1 of the Charter also recognizes that even in a democracy, rights and freedoms are not absolute. For example, no one is free to yell "fire" in a crowded theatre, to slander someone, to engage in religious practices which cause harm to others, to spread child pornography or hate propaganda or to enter or leave Canada without any restrictions whatsoever. Parliament or a provincial legislature can limit fundamental rights, but only if it can show that the limit

The interests of society must always be balanced against the interests of individuals to see if limits on individual rights can be justified.

The Charter also affirms that we are a multicultural country and that the Charter must be interpreted consistently with this ideal.

Under the Constitution, both Parliament and the provincial legislatures still have a limited power to pass laws that may violate certain Charter rights. However, this can only be done if Parliament or a provincial legislature specifically declare that it is passing a law notwithstanding certain provisions of the Charter. This declaration must be reviewed and re-enacted at least every five years or it will not remain in force. The declaration informs Canadians of the limits being imposed on Charter-protected rights or freedoms. It also requires the government to explain itself, to accept full responsibility for its actions, and to take the political consequences. So far, Parliament has never used the notwithstanding clause.

What rights does the Charter protect?

The Charter protects:

It also recognizes and affirms Aboriginal and treaty rights.

Fundamental freedoms

Democratic rights

Mobility rights

Legal rights

Everyone, regardless of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, or mental or physical disability, is equal before the law.

Equality rights

Equality rights are at the core of the Charter. They are intended to ensure that everyone is treated with the same respect, dignity and consideration (i.e. without discrimination), regardless of personal characteristics such as race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, or mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, marital status or citizenship.

Language rights

English and French are Canada's official languages, according to the Charter. Both languages have equality of status and equal rights and privileges to be used in all institutions of Parliament and government of Canada.

Minority-language educational rights

This right to minority-language instruction applies where numbers warrant, and can include the right to receive that instruction in minority-language educational facilities provided out of public funds.

Aboriginal and treaty rights

The Charter and the Constitution protect the rights of the Aboriginal peoples (Indian, Inuit, and M├ętis) of Canada.

As noted earlier, Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 recognizes and affirms the Aboriginal and treaty rights of Aboriginal peoples.

The Charter cannot take away or diminish those rights, or any other rights or freedoms that Aboriginal peoples may acquire in the future (for example, from the settlement of land claims).

Other rights

The Charter guarantees many basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. But we all have other rights that come from federal, provincial, territorial, international, and common law. Also, Parliament or a provincial or territorial legislature can always add to our rights.