This past April the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms celebrated its 35th anniversary. This is a momentous occasion, as it comes during the same year in which we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation.
This anniversary is significant on many levels. Personally, for a racialized Canadian of Muslim faith who came to these shores as a refugee, the Charter represents inclusion. It says to newcomers that in Canada you can belong, because in this country your freedom to worship and express yourself is constitutionally guaranteed.
On a national level, for generations young and old, the Charter is a great unifier, precisely because of its universality. The Charter sees no colour, race, gender or faith; it knows no borders. All persons in Canada are protected equally under our Constitution.
The rights entrenched in the Charter are things we are so accustomed to in Canada, we often take them for granted—though they remain threatened in many parts of the world. Things like free speech and freedom of the press, the freedom to assemble and protest, and freedom of religion. These rights are so fundamental that despite the ability of legislatures to override them, this power has almost never been invoked.
But the genius of the Charter is that it not only entrenches fundamental rights, it expands them. Through my 15 years of practising human rights and constitutional law, I was fortunate to witness firsthand the tremendous impact of the Charter on the lives of Canadians. How each and every day, the protections afforded by the Charter improve the ability of Canadians to live harmoniously with one another, in a system that fosters mutual respect and understanding. This is due, in large part, to the fact that the Charter itself is a living document—the rights it protects are constantly evolving. Nowhere is this more apparent than under the equality rights guaranteed by our Constitution. The text of the Charter protects Canadians from discrimination on the basis of “race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability”. But by interpreting the Charter to include “sexual orientation”, we have expanded protection against discrimination to LGBTQ2 persons and advanced the equality of sexual minorities in Canada.
This is a critical point because our Government does not view the expansion of Charter rights as a threat to our democracy—to the contrary, we see it as an affirmation of our democracy. We recognize that while we have made progress in improving equality for groups like racialized Canadians, Indigenous persons, women and persons with disabilities, much more needs to be done. This is precisely why we have expanded the Court Challenges Program, which funds constitutional challenges to government legislation. In our view, programs that facilitate Charter challenges do not undermine our system of government—quite the opposite, they help produce laws that are more inclusive and result in fairer treatment for all.
In the Charter’s evolution, this expansion of rights protection will continue. What is abundantly clear is that the Charter is more relevant now than ever. In the current climate of division, where the bonds that unite our various cultural groups, ethnic communities and faiths are being challenged, the Charter’s reference to preserving and enhancing the multicultural heritage of Canadians has taken on new resonance. I look forward to what the next 35 years in the evolution of this living document will entail, in reaffirming the diverse and inclusive nation that Canadians of all backgrounds hold dear.