Learn about the Charter

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the Charter) protects basic rights and freedoms that are essential to keeping Canada a free and democratic society. It ensures that the government, or anyone acting on its behalf, doesn’t take away or interfere with these rights or freedoms unreasonably. It is a powerful force for progress, protection, compassion and fairness with the power to influence our society by interpreting laws and policies.

The Charter has shaped our past but it will also shape our future. Since 1982, it has been an essential part of Canada’s democracy and will continue to shape our identity as a nation. The Charter affirms that we are a multicultural country and that the Charter must always be read and understood with this in mind. It also protect the rights of Indigenous people in Canada (First Nation, Inuit, and Métis). Section 35 of the Constitution, which is separate from the Charter, recognizes and affirms Aboriginal peoples and the treaty rights of Aboriginal peoples.

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History of the Charter

The roots of the Charter lie in the desire for Canada to gain full control over the Constitution. Because Canada's original Constitution was an act of the British Parliament in 1867, only Britain had the power to change it. In 1980, Canada and its provinces began a collaborative process to bring home the Constitution and to incorporate a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. A committee of Canadian Parliamentarians, representing all parties, considered more than 1,200 written submissions and over 300 testimonies to develop the final Charter.

Receiving approval from Britain for the last time, Queen Elizabeth II signed the Canada Act on April 17, 1982 in Ottawa. This action gave Canada control over its Constitution and guaranteed the rights and freedoms in the Charter as the supreme law of the nation.

How the Charter has shaped Canada

The Charter allows you to challenge any government action that you believe violates your rights or freedoms. The most complex and controversial Charter-based challenges end up before the Supreme Court of Canada. In the past, these challenges have set legal precedents and also inspired significant changes to federal, provincial and territorial laws.

When and how the government can put limits on your rights

The Charter recognizes that even in a democracy, rights and freedoms are not absolute. Section 1 of the Charter allows the government to put limits on rights and freedoms if that limit:

Section 33 of the Charter, also called the notwithstanding clause, allows Canada’s Parliament, provincial and territorial legislatures to pass laws that may violate certain Charter rights. They can only do this if they clearly state to the public that they are passing a law that contradicts the Charter. All levels of government must review and re-enact this declaration to Canadians every five years, or the limits automatically no longer exist. Parliament has never used the notwithstanding clause. 

If the government limits your rights without good reason

If you think that the government has put limits on your rights without good reason, you can challenge this in court. If the court agrees with you, the Charter sets out three types of remedies, which are actions intending to compensate for the rights violation in question.

Human rights protected in other statutes

The Charter guarantees many basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. We have other human rights tools that come from federal, provincial, and territorial statutes, common law, and international law. Also, all levels of government can always add to our rights.

In 1960 the government of Canada passed the Canadian Bill of Rights, which was the first federal human rights law in the country. It guarantees many basic rights and freedoms.

The Canadian Human Rights Act, passed in 1977, prohibits discrimination in the context of employment and the provision of goods, services, facilities or accommodations generally available to the public. It prevents discriminatory practices based on a number of grounds, including race, national or ethnic origin, sex, and disability. The act applies to the Government of Canada, First Nations governments, and federally regulated private businesses, including in banking, airline, telecommunications and broadcasting and inter-provincial transportation sectors.

All provinces and territories have similar human rights laws that apply within that province or territory. They also similarly apply to provincial or provincially-regulated works and undertakings.