The significance of the charter in Canadian legal history.

Author:Paradis, Patricia

Looking Back

2017 not only marks 150 years since the British North America Act, 1867 (better known today as the Constitution Act, 1867), came into being, it also marks the 35th anniversary of an important part of our Constitution--the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

What is the Charter?

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a bill of rights--a statement of rights and freedoms that was added to the Constitution in 1982. It is a powerful legal tool that protects those living in Canada from breaches of specific rights and freedoms by the federal and provincial governments. The Charter essentially protects Canadians from the power of the state.

Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms is 34 clauses long--relatively short, but mighty! It has changed the legal landscape in Canada since it was entrenched as Part 1 of our Constitution on April 17, 1982.

How did our Charter of Rights come to be?

Canada's first Bill of Rights was enacted in 1960. The problem with the Bill was that it was not part of the Constitution, which meant it could easily be changed by the government. And it was not used effectively to protect Canadians' rights.

When Pierre Trudeau became Prime Minister in 1968 he was committed to a constitutional bill of rights. He believed that a strong democracy needed the protection of people's rights from the power of the state in its supreme law--the Constitution. As this was just after 1967--the 100th anniversary of the Constitution--there was talk by the provinces about revisiting and renewing the Constitution. One aspect under discussion was making it possible for Canadians to change the Constitution without asking Britain for permission to do so. This seemed an opportune time, from Trudeau's perspective, to include a bill of rights in a renewed Constitution. Most of the provinces did not agree with Trudeau on including such a bill and years of wrangling between them followed. The contents of the Charter were hotly debated in several meetings and in the meantime, the Canadian public was given the opportunity to have input into its structure and contents.

The patriation battle between Prime Minister Trudeau and the provinces finally culminated with a deal in 1981. In the end, they successfully patriated our Constitution from Britain and added a Charter of Rights and Freedoms to it on April 17, 1982. The result of this contentious time in our history is a Charter that is used as a model by countries all over the world.


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