Interpretation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms

AuthorRobert J. Sharpe; Kent Roach
Entrenching rights in the constitution does not end the debate about
the legitimacy of judicia l review. Rather, the debate takes on a different
form, revolving around the justif‌ication for various approaches to con-
stitutional interpretation. Some argue for a strict reading of the consti-
tutional text, often mai ntaining t hat the words of the document should
be understood in light of their mean ing at the time of drafting. Others
argue for a more “progressive” approach that will allow the content to
adapt to new societal needs and values. Those who take this latter pos-
ition turn to moral philosophy, international human r ights norms, or
evolving community values for help in the interpretive proces s.
In this chapter, we outline the structure of the Canadian Charter
of Rights and Freedoms and then canvass some of the debates about its
interpret ation.
The Canadian Charter identif‌ies and enshri nes six broad categories of
right s:
the “fundamental f reedoms” of conscience, religion, thought, belief,
opinion, expression, assembly, and associat ion;1
1 Section 2.
Interpretat ion of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms 49
democratic rights, including the right to vote, the guarantee of regu-
lar elections, and annual parliamentary sessions;2
mobility rights to enter and leave the countr y and the right to reside
in and gain a livelihood in any province;3
legal rights, particularly those pertai ning to the criminal process,
such as the rights to couns el, protection against unreasonable search
and seizure, habeas corpus, trial within a re asonable time, and the
presumption of innocence until proven guilty, as well as a more gen-
eral right to life, libert y, and security of the person, and the right
not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with principles of
fundamental justice;4
the right to equality b efore and under the law and to the equal pro-
tection and equal benef‌it of the law;5 and
language rights.6
These rights are both g uaranteed and made subject to limitations in
section 1 of the Charter, which states that the Char ter “guarantees the
rights and freedoms set out in it subject to such reasonable limits pre-
scribed by law as c an be demonstrably justif‌ied in a free and democratic
society.” Thus, the Canadian Charter follows the model of international
human rights document s rather than the American constit ution. While
the American document set s out the rights as if they are absolute, inter-
national documents, such as t he International Coven ant on Civil and Pol-
itical Rights, expressly acknowledge that rights ca n be limited to protect
other individual right s or broader community interests.
The Charte r also includes a number of distinct ive interpretive pro-
visions, including a clause ensuring that t here will be no derogation
from Aboriginal r ights by the Charter in section 25,7 a commitment
to preserve and enha nce our multicultural heritage in section 27, and
a further guarantee of gender equality in section 28. Also signif‌icant
to interpretive issues is the specif‌ic remedial clause in section 24, dis-
cussed in Chapter 17, as well as a mechanism to override certain Char-
ter rights, found in section 33, which is discu ssed in Chapter 5.
The rights included in a constitutional document ref‌lect the con-
cerns prevalent at the time of dr afting. To the extent that the goal of the
constitution is to curta il majority tyranny and government excesses,
2 Sections 3 –5.
3 Section 6.
4 Sect ions 7–14.
5 Section 15.
6 Sections 16–23.
7 Aborigin al rights are recogni zed and aff‌irmed in s 35 of the Constitution Act,
1982, whic h does not form part of the Charter.

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