A guide to rights and freedoms in Canada
By Kathleen Charlebois
Posted on April 19, 2021
What are your rights in Canada?
A right is an entitlement or guarantee of protection under the law, and it is an important part of a democratic society like Canada. Rights help democracy function properly.
Examples of legal rights include the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, to have a fair and impartial trial if you are charged with an offence, and not to suffer cruel and unusual punishment from the state. Human rights include your right to live free from discrimination and harassment based on race, ethnicity, age, or other protected grounds.
Many of your basic rights and freedoms as a Canadian are set out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
What is the Charter of Rights and Freedoms?
According to the Government of Canada website, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms “sets out rights and freedoms that Canadians believe are necessary in a free and democratic society.”
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into force on April 17, 1982 and is part of the Canadian Constitution Act. The Constitution is the highest law of Canada and outlines the rules about how the Canadian state and provincial and territorial governments are allowed to operate. Because the Constitution is the most important law in Canada, all other laws that the government passes must be consistent with the Constitution and Charter.
Anyone living in Canada, whether they are a Canadian citizen, a permanent resident or a newcomer, is guaranteed the rights and freedoms that are listed in the Charter. However, you need to be a Canadian citizen to have the right to vote and the right to enter, remain in, and/or leave Canada.
The Charter protects your democratic rights, the right to live and to look for a job anywhere in Canada, your legal rights to life, liberty, and personal security, and your right to equality. The Charter also protects English and French as the official languages of Canada as well as minority language education rights, Canada’s multicultural heritage, and the rights of Indigenous people in Canada.
What are equal rights?
Everyone in Canada is considered equal before and under the law according to the Charter, and you have the right to equal protection and benefit without discrimination. You cannot be discriminated against based on your race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, marital status, or citizenship status. Men and women are equally protected under the Charter.
What are freedoms?
The Charter protects your fundamental freedoms, such as the freedom of conscience and religion (being able to follow any religion you choose or none at all); the freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression, including freedom of the press and other forms of communication; the freedom of peaceful assembly, such as going to a protest to support a cause you believe in; and the freedom of association, such as being able to join a workers’ union.
These rights and freedoms can be limited in order to protect other rights that may be infringed upon or violated. For example, freedom of speech does not protect things like hate speech or child pornography.
What are my legal rights?
The Charter guarantees all Canadians life, liberty, and personal security, and it requires that governments respect the basic principles of justice whenever they infringe on those rights.
You have the right to a reasonable expectation of personal privacy, which means that you are protected against an unwarranted search or seizure of your property. Anyone who acts on behalf of a government, such as police officers, must carry out their duties in a reasonable way.
The Charter protects your right to not be taken into police custody or held without a good reason by government officials. If a police officer detains you, they must have solid justification based on evidence for doing so.
If the police ever arrests or detains you, you have the right to be promptly told why you are being arrested or detained. You also have the right to contact a lawyer immediately in order to receive legal advice, and the police must tell you that you have this right. If you do not have a lawyer, the police must let you know about the legal aid services that are available to you. You also have the right to ask a judge if your arrest was lawful. If the arrest was unlawful, the judge can order your release.
You also have the right to go to trial within a reasonable time and not to be forced to testify as a witness at your own trial. You have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty in a public hearing with an independent tribunal.
If you are a witness in a trial and have to provide evidence in court, your testimony can’t be used against you in another trial or other subsequent proceeding.
If you are part of any kind of legal proceedings, and you do not understand or speak the language that the proceedings are in, you have the right to an interpreter to translate for you, no matter what language you speak. The right also applies if you are deaf and need a sign language interpreter.
You have the right to not be denied reasonable bail without a good reason. Whether you are found guilty or not guilty, you have the right to not be tried or punished a second time.
You have the right to not be punished in a cruel or unusual way. You can’t be tortured, and law enforcement officials can’t use excessive or abusive force against you.
If you are sentenced, the sentence must match the seriousness of the offence, so you can’t get an extremely long prison sentence for a minor offence.
What are my democratic rights?
If you are a Canadian citizen and over the age of 18, the Charter guarantees your right to elect your government representatives (such as members of parliament, members of provincial parliament, or members of the legislative assembly), to vote in elections, and to run for office yourself.
How are these rights and freedoms enforced?
If you believe that any of your rights and freedoms, outlined in the Charter, were violated by any level of government, you can take your issue to court and ask for a remedy. You and your legal representation must show that your rights were violated.
Even if certain rights and freedoms aren’t specifically outlined in the Charter, it doesn’t necessarily mean that those rights and freedoms don’t exist and that you aren’t entitled to them.
Action against discrimination
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms only applies to governmental authorities, such as the legal and justice system or government programs, whenever they unreasonably intrude on your rights and freedoms.
If you have been discriminated against based on any prohibited grounds, such as race, sex, or mental or physical disability, by a non-government organization (such as your workplace) or an individual person, you can take your case to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal Canada. The CHRT protects people from discrimination. According to the CHRT website, “all Canadians have the right to equal opportunity, fair treatment, and an environment free of discrimination.” The CHRT is similar to a court of law, but it isn’t as formal. It also only hears discrimination cases.
It is important to understand your rights and freedoms as a Canadian since they are a vital part of a free and functioning democracy, and many people have fought hard for these rights as we know them today.