Charter of Rights and Freedoms marks 20th anniversary

Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms marks 20th anniversary

Twenty years after the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was proclaimed, some say it is responsible for a new era of judicial activism, while others think its potential to promote human rights has not yet been reached.

When it was proclaimed by the Queen in 1982, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau predicted the charter would reshape the way we view our government, saying it "defines the kind of country in which we wish to live."

Roger Tasse was deputy justice minister when the charter was drafted. Now a senior partner with an Ottawa law firm, he says Trudeau and others hoped the courts would interpret the charter broadly.

"We were hoping the court would take a very aggressive role in living up to the call we had made. This was the supreme law of Canada," said Tasse.

Win some, lose some

And in the hundreds of charter decisions handed down since 1982, judges have overturned laws banning abortion and tobacco advertising, restrained police powers and blocked extradition to countries with the death penalty.

The charter has also given minorities some protection against majority decisions, and individual citizens have the right to challenge the collective will of the government.

But critics say 20 years of charter judgments have undermined Parliament's powers.

Canadian Alliance justice critic Vic Toews says that when it comes to shaping public policy, judges have supplanted Parliament. "Many politicians are more worried about what the courts are going to say than what their constituents need," said Toews.

His views are not shared by social activists, who believe the courts have not gone far enough.

Civil rights lawyer Joe Arvay says it is unrealistic to suggest that the charter can address every perceived injustice. "It's not a panacea. It's not a be-all and end-all. But it is an instrument for social justice that we didn't have 20 years ago."

And for all the triumphs of individual rights, there have been setbacks.

The owner of a Vancouver bookstore who spent 10 years in court arguing charter violations says his individual rights were not upheld. Jim Deva argued Canada Customs violated the charter by seizing shipments of gay and lesbian material from his bookstore, Little Sisters.

Deva says the Supreme Court agreed his store was unfairly targeted, but allowed the confiscation anyway. "Of course they would think our rights weren't being infringed upon. They sit up there, nine heterosexual judges of course that's what they believe. That's the tyranny of the majority."