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Thirtieth anniversary celebrations for the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms took on a distinctly partisan tone Tuesday.
Liberals, under whose watch the charter was created, were the only federal party to actually celebrate the occasion — with a $300-per-head fundraising bash in Toronto.
The Conservatives and New Democrats contented themselves with issuing tepid news releases, in which they sought to underscore their respective parties' contributions to the protection of civil liberties in Canada.
The Liberal festivities featured former prime minister Jean Chrétien, one of the key architects of the 1982 deal to patriate Canada's Constitution with a Charter of Rights. Both he and interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae proclaimed that the charter was a historic, non-partisan accomplishment of which all Canadians should be proud.
'We're not here as Liberals. We're here as Canadians.'—Former prime minister Jean Chrétien
"We're not here as Liberals. We're here as Canadians," Chrétien told hundreds of cheering Liberals.
Rae noted that Pierre Trudeau, the Liberal prime minister at the time of patriation, "did not do it alone." He was supported by Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats in Parliament, by premiers of various party stripes and by advocacy organizations who worked to improve the charter during lengthy consultations.
"And when we did that, we said to every single Canadian, there are no back seats, there are no second-class seats ... for the citizens of Canada, whether you came here yesterday or whether you came here 300 years ago, you are a Canadian and your rights are protected," Rae said.
"So we say to Mr. Harper 'This is your Canada. Get used to it, Mr. Harper."'
Yet neither could resist the opportunity to take Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper to task for his government's refusal to mark the occasion with anything more than a perfunctory news release.
Rae in particular took issue with Harper's suggestion Monday that his reluctance to celebrate the anniversary was out of sensitivity to lingering ill-feeling in Quebec — the only province that refused to sign on to the 1982 patriation deal.
"This is the Constitution of Canada, this is the Charter of Rights of Canada and let no prime minister ever say, ever say ever again, that he apologizes for the Charter of Rights," Rae thundered.
Noting that countries around the world have looked to the charter as a model for human rights protection, Chrétien said: "So it is an occasion for celebration. I don't know why Mr. Harper doesn't want to celebrate that."
Chrétien noted that the Harper government is spending millions to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee even though not all Canadians support the monarchy.
Neither the Tories nor the NDP appeared inclined to draw attention to what they regard as a primarily Liberal achievement. "This anniversary marks an important step in the development of Canada's human rights policy," said a joint statement from Heritage Minister James Moore and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson.
"Building on Diefenbaker's Canadian Bill of Rights of 1960, the Constitution Act of 1982 enshrined certain rights and freedoms that had historically been at the heart of Canadian society into a constitutional document known as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms."
John Diefenbaker was a Conservative prime minister. His Bill of Rights was not enshrined in the Constitution and did not carry the same weight with the courts as the charter eventually did.
Newly minted NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair was somewhat more enthusiastic, saying the charter "stands as an example the world over."
"It reminds us that respect for basic human rights is a vital part of every modern society and that any threat to these rights constitutes a threat to society as a whole," he said in a statement.
Mulcair went on the praise the role of the NDP in "shaping" the charter, including the passage of Canada's first bill of rights in Saskatchewan under NDP premier Tommy Douglas and former national NDP leader Ed Broadbent's role in ensuring women's rights were included in the charter.
But Mulcair also noted that the anniversary serves as a reminder that "Quebec is still not a signatory to the most fundamental compact of our democracy."
He vowed to continue working to create the conditions that will "one day allow Quebec to embrace the Canadian constitutional framework," adding that New Democrats will "work tirelessly to give real meaning" to a parliamentary resolution recognizing that the Québécois form a nation within Canada.
On Monday, Harper also alluded to Quebec in explaining his government's lacklustre response to the charter's 30th anniversary.
"In terms of this as an anniversary, I think it's an interesting and important step but I would point out that the charter remains inextricably linked to the patriation of the Constitution and the divisions around that matter, which as you know are still very real in some parts of the country," he told reporters during a visit to Chile.
Former governor general Michaëlle Jean showed no such qualms, taking to social media Tuesday to praise the charter. "After 40 state and official visits around the world, I can testify that everywhere our charter is cited as a model," she tweeted.