Publications, opinions, and speeches
A time for rights
Published on 29/10/2015
For the first time in almost a decade, Canadians woke up on October 20 with someone other than Stephen Harper as prime minister. The new prime minister-designate with his freshly minted majority government was Justin Trudeau, son of Harper’s nemesis Pierre Trudeau.
For progressives, this result was not only welcome but a great relief. The Harper government was not an ally for most of the issues of interest to Canada’s progressive community. Poverty, indigenous people, cities, affordable housing and refugees were files either neglected or used as fodder in a cultural war. In response, the 2015 anti-Harper vote coalesced around Justin Trudeau, and his strong majority victory has raised the hopes of progressives.
Among them now there is optimism. The “sunny ways” to which Trudeau referred in his election night speech has raised spirits.
And raised expectations.
In the days following the election, messages poured into the media, filled the networks of people working on specific issues, and surely landed by the virtual truckload on Trudeau’s doorstep. Restore the long-form census, un-muzzle the scientists, get cracking on climate change, fund the cities, and a host of other imperatives.
Long lines have begun to form with an urgent push for change now, on a wide array of issues. It must be daunting for a new government which hasn’t even taken office or yet named a cabinet, and for a new prime minister who has to spend much of the next month abroad at important international meetings.
As we think about how realistic it is to expect movement on our issue now, it is at least encouraging to know that our values and rights, what the Canada progressives thought they might have lost over the last decade, may be found again. One of the reasons is that the Harper government never had free reign to do what it wanted. Sometimes the provinces pushed back against the federal government, sometimes doing what the feds refused to, and sometimes exerting sufficient collective pressure to force the feds to back off.
But it was the courts, and mostly the Supreme Court of Canada, that defended Canadian values and limited the power of government to overturn rights and the law. In many cases the Court ruled to protect the rights of Canadians: assisted suicide, safe injection sites and medical marijuana. In others it ruled that the government could not ignore accepted protocols of governing: unilateral federal changes to the Senate, and the attempted appointment of the ineligible Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court.
While displeasing to the Harper government, the courts acted to limit government attempts to ignore the law or to abridge the rights of individuals. Progressives will say that the courts kept oppressive forces at bay. But if the shoe had been on the other foot, say a majority progressive government repressing the rights of conservative elements, the courts probably would have intervened to protect their rights as well.
The new federal government might consider its new mandate as a time both to recognize the importance of rights in Canada, and to strengthen them. It was Pierre Trudeau who built on the legacy of John Diefenbaker’s Bill of Rights by bringing in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It might be Justin Trudeau who could take us further.
Unlike many rights regimes, Canada’s Charter does not include social and economic rights. These would include rights to education, work, health and food. They are included in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Canadian John Humphrey was the principal drafter. These rights were left out of our Charter, and an effort to add them in a social charter later failed.
It would be a major achievement and a tremendous service to Canadians for the Trudeau government to add them. Social and economic rights embedded in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a noble goal for the whole country, and for our new government.