The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is now 30 years old. It's impact has been felt across Canadian culture, and has had high-profile influence in our local area as well.
Two of the most spotlighted instances for local residents, where the Charter played a central role, involved minority rights being upheld in the face of majority discrimination. Local couple Wendy Young and Theresa Healy was one such case, and RCMP officer Baltej Singh Dhillon was the other.
Dhillon was a celebrity by the time he was a graduate of RCMP depot in 1990, all because he took the handcuffs off the Mountie uniform rules. He was a practitioner of the Sikh culture and wished to have the orthodox turban recognized as official police garb, in keeping with his religious rights (the RCMP uniform had already undergone several evolutions by the time he made his request). The highest court in the land did not have to hear the case as federal authorities voluntarily made the change, but with the Charter in mind.
Dhillon's first posting was to the Quesnel detachment where he served for five years. His original RCMP-issue turban is now on display at the Cariboo city's museum.
Healy and Young were part of the first legal challenge (five couples jointly petitioned the court on Dec. 15, 2000) in B.C. history to the legal definition of marriage excluding same-sex partners. They were eventually successful when the B.C. Court of Appeal trumped the B.C. Supreme Court which initially ruled against same-sex unions.
It was May 1, 2003 when the appeals court said "that the common-law definition of marriage contravenes the Charter and it cannot be justified in contemporary Canadian society," and gave the federal government until July 2004 to change the laws. Healy and Young, who have been together since 1998, were officially married on Pride Day 2003, in Fort George Park as part of the city's celebration of gay-inclusive culture.
"[The Charter] is a concrete reminder of the best we aspire to as a society - of the compassion and mutual regard we ought to hold reverently for every member of our society," Healy said Tuesday. "It is not just a philosophical beacon of hope that we can be better than we are, it is a pragmatic tool to ensure those who are trapped by ignorance that the power they might want to wield against the less popular - like gays, First Nations, women, the poor, immigrants i.e. most of us - isn't actually legal."
One of the city's longest-serving defense lawyers, Simon Wagstaffe, said he has loved putting accusations to the test in the post-Charter era.
"Of course its not perfect, but the crux of the Charter is liberty," he said. "It is about liberty being sufficiently important that a transient majority can't destroy it for tomorrow's citizens. A simple majority doesn't allow you to treat people any damn way you please."
What the Charter does best, said Wagstaffe, is limit the power any level of government has over its people, and those who oppose the Charter might be suspected of wishing to take those liberties that currently have that constitutional shield.
UNBC professor Michael Murphy, a constitutional expert, agreed that Canadians were thinking deeply about these issues long before the Charter was painstakingly and controversially put down on paper. It was able to incorporate the best elements of the great documents of democratic history, but it also built in innately Canadian realities like First Nations rights and the already established multicultural nature of Canada.
It was also written with flexibility in mind, so future generations would still have the ability to make relevant rulings based on the roots of Canadian values, he said.
"One of the popular criticisms of the Charter is that it is antidemocratic, that it empowers judges over Parliament but I think that charge has been vastly exaggerated," said Murphy. "The strongest critics tend to be irritated with particular decisions which get in the way of their moral objections of an issue, and they express that by blaming the Charter itself. The Charter is, itself, a very broad document open to a lot of complex interpretations. You can never account for all those complexities in a single document, so you need judges and governments to interpret those points as they come along. Sometimes there are disagreement. That is just the nature of judicial review. So you can like the Charter, but it doesn't mean you're necessarily going to like every decision that comes down and that is not reason in itself to conclude the Charter is a bad document. On the whole, I think the Charter is helpful for Canada and I think most Canadians think that too."