The rights and freedoms the Charter protects
The rights and freedoms protected by the Charter fall into 7 categories:
- Fundamental freedoms
- Democratic rights
- Mobility rights
- Legal rights
- Equality rights
- Official Language rights
- Minority language educational rights
Everyone in Canada is free to practise any religion or no religion at all. We are also free to express religious beliefs through prayer or by wearing religious clothing for example. However, the Charter also ensures that others also have the right to express their religious beliefs in public.
We’re free to think our own thoughts, speak our minds, listen to views of others and express our opinions in creative ways. We’re also free to meet with anyone we wish and participate in peaceful demonstrations. This includes the right to protest against a government action or institution.
However, these freedoms are not unlimited. There may be limits on how you express your religious beliefs if your way of doing so would infringe on the rights of others or undermine complex public programs and policies. For example, you may have religious reasons to object having your photo taken for your driver’s license, but this requirement may be linked to a need to stop others from unlawfully using your identity. In addition, the Charter does not protect expression such as hate speech that involves threats of violence or that takes the form of violence.
The media also have certain fundamental freedoms, and are free to print and broadcast news and other information. The government can only limit what the media prints for justifiable reasons set out in law. For example, a magazine cannot print slander, which is an untrue statement about a person that may hurt his or her reputation.
Every Canadian citizen has the right to vote in elections and to run for public office themselves. There are certain exceptions. For example, people must be 18 years old or older in order to vote.
Our elected governments cannot hold power for an unlimited amount of time. The Charter requires governments to call an election at least once every five years. An election could be delayed, however, during a national emergency, like a war. In this case, two-thirds of the members of the House of Commons or, in the case of provinces or territories, the legislative assembly must agree to delay the election.
The Charter makes it clear that elected representatives of legislative assemblies must sit at least once a year. This holds Parliament and all other legislatures responsible for their actions.
Canadian citizens have the right to enter, remain in, and leave Canada.
Canadian citizens and permanent residents have the right to live or seek work anywhere in Canada. Governments in Canada can't discriminate based on what province someone used to live or currently lives in.
However, laws can set certain rules for when people are able to get social, health and welfare benefits. For example, you may have to live in a particular province for a certain length of time before getting health benefits from that province. Also, provinces with an employment rate below the national average may create programs that are only available to its own socially and economically disadvantaged residents. These programs encourage the residents to stay in the province and contribute to the workforce.
Right to be secure against unreasonable search and seizure
The Charter protects everyone’s reasonable expectation to privacy. This means that no one can search you, take away your personal belongings or access your personal information without clear legal reasons.
Authorities acting on behalf of the government, such as the police, must carry out their duties in a fair and reasonable way. For example, they cannot enter private property or take things without good reason. Police are required to get a warrant from a judge before searching someone’s home.
Interactions with the justice system
The Charter sets out rights that deal with the interaction between the justice system and individuals. These rights ensure that individuals are treated fairly at every stage of the justice process. This is especially true if an individual is charged with a criminal offence.
Protection against unreasonable laws
The Charter protects everyone against unreasonable laws that could lead to imprisonment or harm their physical safety. The law may still comply with the Charter if it is consistent with a basic set of values. For example, there must be a rational link between the law’s purpose and its effect on people’s liberty. Also, laws should not have a severe impact on people’s rights to life, liberty or security of the person.
Protection against arrest without good reason
The Charter also says law enforcement agencies cannot take actions against individuals that are random or not backed by good reasons. A police officer, for example, must have reasonable grounds to believe you have committed a crime and must tell you why you are being arrested and detained. You also have the right to consult a lawyer without delay and to be informed of this right. Finally, you have the right to have a court decide whether this detention is lawful. If you believe your detention is not legal, the Charter protects your right to challenge it.
Rights after arrest
If you are charged with an offence under federal or provincial law you have the right to:
- be told quickly of the offence you are charged with
- be tried within a reasonable amount of time
- choose not to testify at your own trial
- be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a fair and public hearing by an independent and unbiased tribunal
- only be denied reasonable bail with cause
- be tried by a jury for serious charges
- be convicted only for an act or omission that was a crime at the time it was committed
- only be tried or punished once for an offence
- receive the lesser punishment if the punishment for the crime changes between the time it was committed and the time of sentencing
Protection against cruel and unusual punishment
In addition the Charter protects everyone from cruel and unusual punishment. This includes torture, excessive or abusive use of force by law enforcement officials. Also, sentences of imprisonment must match the seriousness of the crime committed. For example, an extremely long prison sentence is not appropriate for a very minor crime.
Rights in Court
The Charter offers certain protections if you are accused of a crime and must go to court. This includes your right to a quick and reasonably speedy trial. This trial must be fair and done by an unbiased court that assumes your innocence until you’re proven guilty. You are also entitled to an interpreter during court proceedings if you do not understand the language or if you are hearing impaired.
Anyone who is a witness in a trial has the right to not have incriminating evidence used against them in later proceedings. For example, if you admit to a crime while acting as a witness in court at someone else’s trial, the police cannot use it to prove your guilt in court later. Perjury, which is lying during legal proceedings, is the one exception to this rule.
The Youth Criminal Justice Act protects people under the age of 18. For more information on this act, check out this guide to the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
Equality rights are at the core of the Charter. They are intended to ensure that everyone is treated with the same respect, dignity and consideration (i.e. without discrimination), regardless of personal characteristics such as race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, or mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, residency, marital status or citizenship.
As a result, everyone should be treated the same under the law. Everyone is also entitled to the same benefits provided by laws or government policies. However, the Charter does not require the government to always treat people in exactly the same way. Sometimes protecting equality means that we must adapt rules or standards to take account of people's differences. An example of this would be allowing people to observe different religious holidays without losing their job.
Governments can also promote equality by passing laws or creating programs that aim to improve the conditions of people who have been disadvantaged because of the personal characteristics listed above. For example, governments can create affirmative action programs targeted at increasing employment for persons with disabilities.
Official language rights
The Charter establishes that English and French are the official languages of the country and have equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the Parliament and government of Canada. It also establishes principle of advancement or progression of the equality of status and use of the official languages by Parliament or by the provincial legislatures. Parliament acted on this principle of advancement in 1988 by passing the Official Languages Act and by providing, in the Criminal Code, for the right to a trial in the official language of the accused. Many provincial and territorial governments have also passed language legislation.
The Charter establishes that everyone has the right to use English or French in any debates and other proceedings of Parliament. The statutes, records and journals of Parliament must be printed and published in both languages, and both language versions are equally authoritative.
Everyone has the right to use English or French in, or in any pleading in or process issuing from, any court established by Parliament.
Any member of the public also has the right to communicate with and receive services in English or French from any head office of an institution of Parliament or government of Canada. They have this same right from any office of an institution where there is a significant demand for communications with and services from that office in such language; or where due to the nature of the office, it is reasonable that communications with and services from that office be available in both English and French.
Similar rights apply in New Brunswick, the only officially bilingual province in Canada. In fact, members of the public in New Brunswick have the right to communicate and obtain services in either English or French from any office of an institution of the legislature or government of New Brunswick. The English and French linguistic communities in New Brunswick also have equality of status and equal rights and privileges. This includes the right to distinct educational institutions and cultural institutions that preserve and promote those communities.
Minority-language education rights
Every province and territory has official language minority communities (French-speaking communities outside Quebec and English-speaking minorities in Quebec). Section 23 of the Charter guarantees minority language educational rights to French-speaking communities outside Quebec, and to English-speaking minorities in Quebec. It applies to all provinces and territories.
Canadian citizens living outside of Quebec have the right to send their children to French schools if:
- their mother tongue is French
- they attended French primary and secondary schools in Canada
- they have child who has attended or is attending French primary or secondary schools in Canada
Canadian citizens living in Quebec have the right to send their children to English schools if:
- they themselves attended English primary and secondary schools in Canada
- they have a child who has attended or is attending English primary or secondary schools in Canada
This right to minority-language instruction applies where there’s a large enough number of people to justify it.
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