The Canadian Constitution is the foundational set of laws that lays out the overarching rules of Canada, including the system of government and the distribution of powers. All other Canadian laws must be consistent with the laws of the Constitution.
The first part of the Constitution is the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which was enacted in 1982. The Charter sets out a list of fundamental rights freedoms that Canadians believe are necessary in a free and democratic society, including the fundamental rights of freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of association.
These rights, however, are not absolute. As section 1 reads:
This means that individual freedoms are not unquestionably granted, and must always be tempered with the collective needs of Canadian society. For instance, freedom of expression can be limited by laws such as legislation against hate speech.
The Charter also lays out English and French as the official languages of Canada and the quality of rights and status afforded to both languages.
The rights and freedoms laid out in the Charter generally apply to any person living in Canada, with a few exceptions that are limited to Canadian citizens (such as the right to vote).
The following TVO video provides a simple overview of the Charter:
The courts have the power to strike down any law that violates the Charter. Any individual who thinks their Charter rights have been violated can bring their case before the courts.
In a Charter case, the government must justify that the violation of that right is justified in its goal, and that it pursues that goal in a reasonable and proportionate manner.
If a court finds that a law or action has violated your rights, the Charter provides several types of remedies (actions that compensate for wrongdoing). For example, a remedy might be monetary compensation, the exclusion of evidence in a trial (e.g. if it were obtained in a way that violated your right to privacy), or the invalidation of a law.
Here are a few examples of Charter-related court cases:
This Supreme Court case struck down certain provisions in the Criminal Code that required women to meet certain criteria in order to have an abortion.
The Court determined that these provisions interfered with the right to liberty and security of the person.
This case challenged the definition under the Family Law Act that treated opposite-sex unmarried couples differently than same-sex unmarried couples.
The Supreme Court found that this violated equality rights granted by the Charter because it implied that same-sex relationships were less valuable and should receive less legal protection than opposite-sex relationships.
This Supreme Court case struck down a provision in the Canada Elections Act that limited the ability of prisoners to vote based on the length of their sentence.
The Court confirmed that all Canadian prisoners over the age of 18 have the right to vote.
This Supreme Court decision challenged the Criminal Code's prohibition on assisted suicide and found that it infringed the right to life, liberty, and security of the person.
The Court found that total prohibition could not be justified as reasonable and proportionate to the law's objective.