The Charter’s Lonely 30th Birthday

by Jason Murphy | Dec 27, 2012

There’s been plenty of memorializing by our federal government this year. According to Heritage Canada, we spent $7.5 million celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s 60th year on the throne. Medals were struck, educational materials for schools circulated and a book published to explain to the public, “the role of the Crown in Canada and our constitutional monarchy.”

Another $28 million has been set aside to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. Heritage Canada’s website says that bicentennial will be recognized with over 100 historical re-enactments, a permanent memorial in Ottawa, an IPhone app and another education campaign to teach children the importance of our war with America as a “source of our freedoms and democracy.”

Over the next few years we can also look forward to celebrating such further “key anniversaries” as the 200th birthday of Sir John A. Macdonald, the 50th birthday of our flag and the 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup.

I don’t take issue with commemorating any of these events. But the attention and money given them by the federal government is a stark contrast to an event that came and went with barely peep or a dime out of Ottawa.

How did the feds forget to wish happy 30th birthday to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms?

According to recent media reports, they didn’t forget at all. The government intentionally decided to stay all but silent about the birthday of our modern constitution. Proposals for public celebrations were nixed by the Heritage Minister. Instead, a half page press release mumbled that “the Constitution Act of 1982 empowered our government to amend every part of Canada’s constitution, for the very first time.” Yawn. No education material for schools, no medals and – greatest slight of all to someone turning 30 – no Iphone app!

My first reaction upon learning of this slight to our Charter was disbelief. How could the War of 1812 and the Queen’s coronation be treated as key anniversaries in Canada’s democratic history, but our Charter not? In a time when our men and women in uniform are fighting overseas to preserve the rights and freedoms of other peoples, how could we ignore the document that enshrines ours?

Clearly, the Charter has made some enemies in Ottawa. But then again, that’s part of its job description. If the Charter has made anything clear in its first 30 years, it’s that you don’t have to be popular in this country to be right.

Whether it’s seniors fighting age discrimination, women fighting for the right to choose, gays and lesbians fighting for equal status, accused fighting for the right to a fair trial or the press fighting for the freedom to report, time and again the Charter has often vindicated groups that typically find themselves on the outside of political power looking in.

It hasn’t been all victories. Unions, deportees and women seeking pay equity have had notable failures in critical Charter cases. And there is a legitimate debate to be had about whether the Charter has struck the appropriate balance of power between our legislative and judicial branches of government.

But regardless of how you feel about it, there is no ignoring that the Charter has fundamentally changed our democracy in ways that General Brock and Tecumseh never dreamed of. It allows any one of us to challenge government policy based on its compliance with constitutional principles. From Sunday shopping to abortion to euthanasia to official languages to immigration to prostitution to gay marriage, the Charter is influencing Canadian life and society every day and will continue to do so long after we’ve forgotten the outcomes of our wars and the names of our kings and queens.

While the government may not be talking much about the Charter’s anniversary, others are. A great site from which to learn more is The Charter Project (charterproject.ca). Established by a group of Windsor University law students, it provides educational material about the Charter, candid interviews with the political leaders, lawyers, judges and scholars who have brought it to life, and forums for discussion on the different freedoms it guarantees.

The site is thoughtful, grassroots and unsupported by tax dollars.

In other words, it’s the perfect “gift” for the Charter’s 30th.

Jason Murphy practices family, civil and estates litigation at the law firm of Christie/Cummings in Collingwood. Questions and topics for future articles can be sent to jmurphy@christiecummings.com.

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