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harper versus the charter

On April 17, 1982, Queen Elizabeth of England signed the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms into law. It marked a milestone in Canadian history, a major step in our progress from British colony to independent nation.

On April 17, 1982, Queen Elizabeth of England signed the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms into law. It marked a milestone in Canadian history, a major step in our progress from British colony to independent nation. This April, on the 30th anniversary of that signing, there were no official celebrations in Ottawa.

The Charter is a section of the Canada Act of 1982, an act of the British Parliament, the last such to carry any weight in this country. It was, in effect, Canada’s declaration of independence, and the Charter was its greatest achievement.

Even in Quebec, where resentment has always run high over what’s perceived as the exclusion of the province from the Constitution, the Charter enjoys a high degree of popularity. It’s also emulated around the world. A recent American study has found that Canada has replaced the U.S. as the world’s “constitutional superpower,” with our Constitution and Charter standing as a model for more countries - most recently Egypt.

This April, the Department of Canadian Heritage, in the natural course of things, made plans to celebrate the anniversary. It wasn’t to be a great nationwide event, just a televised ceremony on Parliament Hill, attended by the chief librarian, the Governor General, and a minister or two. But when it reached the desk of James Moore, Canada’s heritage minister, the plan got the axe.

Why? The closest thing to an explanation came from a spokesperson for the minister, who said “The department routinely submits communications opportunities to the minister’s office. Some of them we take, some of them we don’t.”

Taken: countrywide celebrations of the War of 1812, the diamond jubilee of a foreign monarch, two royal visits from the descendants of a foreign monarch. Not taken: a modest commemoration of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Why? The ceremony would have been relatively inexpensive: no CF-18 flybys, no fleets of limos, no gifts for foreign royalty. As compared to approximately $1.2 million for a royal visit, a simple one-day ceremony would have been a bargain.

But, of course, expense was not the issue. To the Conservative government, the Charter is nothing to celebrate.

For Stephen Harper, the document that seems such a model for the rest of the world is just a pesky nuisance. With a majority in Parliament and a well-whipped caucus the Prime Minister rules all but unopposed. By upholding the Charter, the courts are often the only body in the country that can put obstacles in his path. And they have.

The Charter prevented the Conservatives from closing Insite, Vancouver’s life-saving safe-injection site which, like the Charter, is a model for the world. A Charter challenge tossed out laws that put the lives of prostitutes in danger, much to the chagrin of the Conservatives.

And a judge in Ontario, citing the Charter, set a precedent by overriding the section of the Conservatives’ omnibus crime bill that reduces the amount of credit a prisoner receives for time spent in remand while awaiting trial.

There are more battles to come. The framers of Canada’s Constitution had one vision of the country, the Conservatives have another.

It’s not a simple matter of the difference between Pierre Trudeau and Stephen Harper. The Charter and the Constitution were written by many hands, and in the end must have in some way represented the way we imagined ourselves at the time. A country that took human rights seriously. A country that kept its ties with the crown at a polite distance. A country that pursued equality.

So, no, the Conservative government doesn’t want to celebrate the Charter, thank you very much. It’s going to be a thorn in their sides for the rest of their reign.

It will certainly be raised as a defence against the new mandatory minimum sentences brought in by Bill C-10. The ludicrous minimum sentence for five pot plants has already been flagged by experts as likely to fail in the courts, as have new Internet snooping powers and arbitrary arrest and detention powers in human smuggling, terrorism, and refugee laws.

These are only a few of the Charter challenges that the Harper government doesn’t want to celebrate. But most Canadians do. Polls consistently show that at least 60 per cent of us appreciate the way it protects our rights. The astute reader will have noticed that this is about the same number who voted against the Conservatives in the last election.

So what the hell, lets celebrate without them. Break out the maple leaf flag and raise a toast. With its firm stand on human rights, the Charter will continue to throw sand in the gears of the ill-thought-out, expensive, and repressive machinery that is the Harper social policy. And here’s to anything that can do that.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.