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Dignity, Equality, Freedom: The Charter 30 Years On


Caitlin Stone
Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

On May 28, I attended the first equity panel in the series sponsored by the Equity and Diversity Portfolio of the Canadian Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Later, as I re-read the pages of notes I took during the panel, I realized how many questions I had which had been left unanswered. To say that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a complex piece of legislation is a gross understatement. Thankfully, I’ve completed some of my undergraduate course work on the Charter and I was familiar with the relevant case law that was referenced by the panelists – don’t worry, I have no intention of delving into that sort of detail here. Instead I’ll discuss my particular interest in Carissima Mathen’s analysis of equality and the Canadian Criminal Code, and Douglas Elliott’s discussion about the Charter and LGBTQ rights.

Mathen examined how elements of the Code have been found to violate section 15 of the Charter. Using the example of polygamy, Mathen explained how section 293 of the Code is an example of aggressive legal moralism, and entirely contradictory to the Charter values of dignity, equality, and freedom. Admittedly my knowledge of Charter case law is limited but Mathen’s analysis reminded me that there have been many other instances where the Code has been found in violation of the Charter. Is it realistic to suggest that out-dated and moralistic elements of the Code should be revised? Or should Canadians continue to place their faith in the balancing effects of the Justice system?

Elliott’s talk focused on how the Charter has become a legal tool at the disposal of LGBTQ persons. Incrementally, those who identify as LGBTQ have been able to secure their rights and freedoms because of the intentional ambiguity of the Charter. Individuals have been able to use the Charter to fight for employment equity and to give same-sex couples the same rights as straight couples (to name a few examples). But as Elliott mentioned, there is a long way to go. For example, gay men in Canada still cannot donate blood. The most chilling point presented, is that money can influence an individual’s success in a Charter case. How is it acceptable that many LGBTQ rights in Canada are secured only when the money is there to hire the best lawyer, and to appeal a decision if necessary?

As you can see this panel raised a lot of really important questions about the rights and freedoms which Canadians currently enjoy, and about the work that still has to be done. Above all else, this panel renewed my appreciation for the rights and freedoms I enjoy; while at the same time, I am once again reminded about the fight others are currently facing.

Photography by Brandon Telford, CFHSS Multimedia Intern.