Yes, April 17 was the big day – cause for much celebration and pride for Canadians. The only problem: no one showed up for the party.
Wait, what party, you may be asking?
On April 17, 1982, Canadians witnessed a new era – the signing in of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the Constitution Act, by the sovereign of Canada, Queen Elizabeth II, Prime Minister Trudeau and Minister of Justice Chrétien. Since then, this document has had a profound impact on all Canadians, from all walks of life, from coast to coast. It changed the very idea of our democracy. Where the rule of the majority had generally been the rule of legitimacy, the Charter brought to life a different perspective, one that would not only redefine Canada, but one that would give this country a new standing and respect worldwide.
That new and rather innovative idea was the protection of minorities. Since the Charter, rights have been secured for religious minorities, ethnic minorities, women, LGBTQ identified persons, and the list goes on. Aboriginal communities have also seen further recognition of their status as founding peoples, though the journey to full autochthonous rights is far from over. Linguistic minorities have also seen their rights become collective human rights in the sense that governments have the constitutional obligation to give these minorities tools and resources, not only to survive, but to thrive. The furtherance of bilingualism – French and English – has been of paramount importance, as the full equality of these two founding and international languages has given Canada prestige and envy within the global community. When addressing Parliament in 2004, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, stated, “Your country’s multicultural character and bilingual tradition give it special qualifications as an exemplary member of our Organization.”
While many of these rights emanate from political compromise, the Supreme Court declared that the historical foundations from which these rights stem do not render them unfounded. They are in fact to be cherished and to be at the very core of our society.
So, why, one might ask, does our government not celebrate our core?
The Harper Government or Government of Canada (sorry, I don’t know which one is appropriate in this context) seems to have an answer. On its 30th anniversary, the government elected not to celebrate the Charter due to “divisions around the matter… still very real in some parts of the country.” So, in a nut shell, we don’t celebrate our Charter of Rights and Freedoms because it is a hot issue in some parts of the country. Whether the prime minister was referring to the absence of Québec’s signature or of the “issues” the Charter has caused in the West, we cannot be sure. He didn’t say. What he did say is that Charter, a fundamental piece of Canadian identity, should not be celebrated because there are diverging views with regards to it.
So let me get this straight. A divisive issue equals no party, no fiesta. Until the Queen decided to have hers.
It was a big one. Oh yes, Her Royal Majesty, Queen of the Empire on which the sun never sets, celebrated her Royal Diamond Jubilee. And Canada was invited to join – that invitation certainly didn’t get lost in the mail. Receptions across the country, new stamps of the Queen, a Royal visit from the newlyweds, a historical series outside the Château Laurier in Ottawa, free pictures and posters on demand from Heritage Canada, cards and diplomatic gifts galore. Sounds like a real shaker.
Wait. I thought Canada didn’t celebrate that which screamed “controversy,” regardless whether or not it was entrenched in the very fabric of our country’s makeup. The Queen and the British monarchy – above all – has been the subject of great criticism. And no, I am not only talking about Québec. Political and public outcry against the monarchy has sprouted from all corners of Canada. Some studies and surveys even show that most Canadians do not forcibly favour the royals.
But I suppose being the Queen has its privileges. Her parties counts.
And, well, the Charter’s don’t.
Like many things in life, change is a slow process or an absent one. For this year’s Charter party, it was the latter. No balloons. No confetti. No cake. For when the Charter creates opposing views, it is deemed non-celebratory. If this logic is followed accordingly, it would therefore be fair to say that the Charter will never see its birthday observed. By its very nature, it is no surprise that the Charter is not always the government’s best friend: it limits the executive, legislative and administrative powers in order to protect the citizenry from potential abuse, and protect minorities from the arbitrary pull of the majority. Its fundamental being will unboundedly challenge the ruling power and the majority that elects it, thus being prone to controversy and debate – which should normally be encouraged in a free and democratic society like Canada.
However, instead of celebrating such an accomplishment, we merely tolerate it. Instead of promoting it, we ignore it. And instead of using it as a tool towards unity, we use it as a way to deepen historical divides. All of which it was engineered to counter.
To sum it up, I would like to quote a MP who had an interesting viewpoint on the matter: “[This government] talks a good game about being a party of freedom. But they are mistrustful of the mechanisms that actually ensure those freedoms for Canadians. And that’s why they don’t celebrate the Charter.”
Okay, so that quote may either be saying something about our current leaders in public office, or it may be pushing it too far. After all, I suppose it is only the 31st anniversary of the Charter. The 25th wasn’t worthy of celebration, nor was the 30th. Maybe when its 60th comes around we’ll have a real shaker. Like the Queen’s.
CC photograph courtesy of Christina Welsh (Rin) on Flickr.
Stéphane Erickson is a Bilingual Bachelor of Commerce Graduate from the University of Alberta. He is currently in the Programme de droit canadien, as a J.D. & LL.L. candidate at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law. He is also a Fondation Baxter et Alma Ricard Scholar.