Interpretation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms

AuthorRobert J. Sharpe; Kent Roach
Entrenching rights i n the Constitution does not end the debate about
the legitimacy of judicia l review. Rather, the debate takes on a dierent
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 rights norms, or
evolving community values for help in the interpretive process.
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 Charte r identif‌ies and enshrine s 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.
democratic rights, includi ng 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 pertain ing to the criminal process,
such as the rights to couns el, protection against unreasonable search
and seizure, habe as corpus, trial w ithin a reasonable 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 before 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 limit ations
in section 1 of the Charter, which states that the Charter “guarantees
the rights and freedoms set out in it subject to such reasonable lim-
its prescribed by l aw as can be demonstrably justif‌ied in a free and
democratic society.” Thus, the Canadia n Charter follows the model of
international huma n rights documents rather than the A merican consti-
tution. Whereas the America n document sets out the rights as if they are
absolute, international documents, such a s the International Covenant on
Civil and Political Rights, expressly acknowledge that right s can be lim-
ited to protect other individual rights or broader community interests.
The Charte r also includes a number of distinct ive interpretive pro-
visions, including a clause ensuring that there will be no derogation
from Aboriginal r ights by the Charter in section 25,7 a commitment
to preserve and enhance our multicultural heritage in section 27, and
a further guarantee of gender equality in section 28. Al so signif‌icant
to interpretive issues i s the specif‌ic remedial clause in section 24, dis-
cussed in Chapter 17, as well as a mechanism to override cert ain Charter
rights, found in section 33, which is discus sed in Chapter 5.
The rights included in a constitutional document ref‌lect the con-
cerns prevalent at the time of dra fting. To the extent that the goal of
a constitution is to curta il majority tyranny and government excesses,
2 Sections 3–5.
3 Section 6.
4 Sect ions 7–14.
5 Secti on 15.
6 Sections 16–23.
7 Aborigin al rights are recogni zed and armed in s 35 of the Constitution Act,
1982, whic h does not form part of the Charter.

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