In Debate: Defending the Charter of Rights

Ms. Irene Mathyssen (London—Fanshawe, NDP): Mr. Speaker, I welcome this opportunity to participate in the debate regarding the Liberal opposition day motion.

I will be sharing my time with the member for Vancouver Kingsway.

This opposition day motion is definitely very interesting and most timely, and I thank the member for Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe for bringing it forward. That being said, I must first take some time to remind my hon. colleagues in the Liberal Party of their track record, both historically and in the not so distant past, concerning the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The present often has a way of dimming the past, but I am surprised at how quickly my colleagues in the Liberal Party forget their own belittling of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I find it passing strange that they have decided to go forward with this motion considering that, this week alone, it became clear that their Ontario provincial counterparts completely ignored this ever-important statute.

The flouting of the charter was made clear in the Ontario ombudsman's G20 report. The ombudsman states that the actions taken by the government of Dalton McGuinty were illegal and unconstitutional. The actions by the Liberal Party of Ontario are an excellent example of a government belittling the importance of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and removing rights and freedoms from the Canadian public. Worse yet, this was done behind closed doors and without public knowledge. Peaceful G20 protestors who had educated themselves on their fundamental rights had no way of knowing that the Ontario government had secretly removed these rights. It is painfully clear that the Liberals breached the rights of Canadians in Toronto just this past summer.

If we go back only about five years, we can find yet another example of the Liberal Party disregarding and undermining the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I am speaking of the debate concerning marriage law in Canada, specifically, Bill C-38 and the rights of same sex couples to marry.

On February 21, 2005, my colleague from Mississauga South said this in House:

With respect, my view is that Bill C-38 should not be passed and that the notwithstanding clause under section 33 of the charter should be invoked to provide Parliament with the time it needs to make a fully informed decision.

I have two fundamental problems with this statement. First is the fact that the member and his party saw fit to entertain the use of the notwithstanding clause. I take serious issue with the notwithstanding clause. To be honest, I worry that this clause, which gives this House the right to remove the fundamental rights and freedoms from Canadians, exists at all. I find it shocking that the Liberal Party was considering its use in this situation. To quote from its former leader, former prime minister Trudeau, “There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation”.

While I am on the topic of former prime minister Trudeau, let us discuss the actual creation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Trudeau's respect for the rights of Canadians. I would like to draw the attention of the House to Trudeau's breaching of the fundamental rights of Canadians, which he said he so strongly supported. I am speaking of course of his enactment of the War Measures Act during the October crisis of 1970. While historically governments have used this statute during times of crisis, most analysis of Trudeau's use of the War Measures Act says that not only was it unnecessary but it was wrong.

In October 1970, Trudeau specifically targeted communities in Quebec, separatist communities, labour groups and left-leaning communities. He took away their rights of citizenship without any proof that they were involved in the events of October 1970. He presumed guilt without evidence of guilt. Regardless of the fact that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms had not yet been signed, this is a complete breach of the fundamental rights of Canadians, the spirit of that charter.

Furthermore in 1981, the Liberal government cancelled a conference on women's equality. The women present were told that the government would take care of things. The response of these women was immediate and overwhelming. Doris Anderson, the head of the advisory council on the status of women, resigned the post, and a handful of influential Canadian women organized their own conference in Ottawa, calling everyone they knew to attend. On Valentine's Day, 1981, more than 1,000 women descended upon Ottawa to ensure that women were protected in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Through an unprecedented grassroots campaign, these women fundamentally changed Canadian history to ensure stronger equality sections in the newly patriated Canadian Constitution's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, section 15 and 28.

While I am indeed happy that sections 15 and 28 were included in the charter, it was disappointing that women had to lobby so hard to be included. It would seem that somehow, perhaps because of the court decision on October 18, 1929, women had the misguided notion that they were not only persons but were recognized as persons by the government.

However, that being said, I would like to turn my focus now to the Conservative government and its record.

The member elect from Vaughan has a highly questionable history when it comes to respecting fundamental freedoms. He has openly stated his opposition to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. During his law enforcement career, he flagrantly abused his power when he ordered illegal wiretaps to target minority communities. He demonstrated a complete lack of transparency as a public officer holder.

In 1992, internal police reports indicate that the member elect from Vaughan ordered a wiretap of a civilian member of the city of Toronto's police service board. This is a body that oversees police actions. These actions, for the new member for Vaughan, are highly questionable in a democratic society.

Later during the same individual's tenure as police chief in London, he authorized the now infamous and disastrous Project Guardian. This was essentially an anti-gay witch hunt. Although the originally stated purpose of the operation was to catch pedophiles and expose a child pornography ring, no child pornography ring was ever found. There were convictions for drug possession and prostitution, but no child pornography ring.

Unfortunately during his tenure as police chief in London, the new member for Vaughan had a history of targeting minority communities. The consequences of this behaviour were that it created great distrust of authorities among the people our police services are pledged to protect.

Likewise, during his tenure as police chief in Toronto, Now magazine reported that the same member showed his disdain for democracy by trying to require that the police approve public rallies. Various news articles indicate that the corruption scandals in the police force were shielded from public scrutiny in an amazingly unaccountable fashion by the newly elected member for Vaughan.

Controversy follows this member no matter what position he holds. It goes on and on. His apparent disdain for democracy, transparency, accountability and now the Charter of Rights and Freedoms leaves a chilling legacy.

As we have heard today from many members, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is vital because it protects minority groups. The Conservative government itself has shown its disdain for the charter in many ways, from disregarding its obligations to Canadian citizens like Omar Khadr to cancelling the court challenges program.

The court challenges program was an essential tool for Canadians to access protection under the charter. As we know, Canadians from minority groups often lack the fiscal resources to access the justice system and therefore are unable to seek protection under the charter.

The Conservative government chose to cancel the court challenges program for ideological reasons. The Prime Minister's former chief of staff, Ian Brodie, wrote extensively about the faults of the court challenges program.

The House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women wrote a report in 2008 analyzing the impact of the cancellation of the court challenges program. The committee heard expert testimony that showed how the court challenges program improved women's equality in Canada. It upheld the rights of pregnant women and protected them in rape trials. It was essential in terms of making sure they were not revictimized.

Furthermore when it comes to the most vulnerable in our society, the court challenges program significantly changed the lives of aboriginal women. Women like Sandra Lovelace, Jeannette Corbiere Lavell and Sharon McIvor all used the court challenges program. We sacrifice and demean its authority at our peril.

As parliamentarians, we must respect the rights and freedoms of our citizens. Unfortunately at times the rights and freedoms of marginalized Canadians are forgotten and overlooked. The charter enshrines these rights and ensures that all Canadians are equal under the law. It is for this reason that the charter must be respected. It must be upheld.

Mr. Jim Maloway (Elmwood—Transcona, NDP): Mr. Speaker, I wonder if the member would comment on the history of human rights in this country.

On April 1, 1947, under the leadership of CCF premier Tommy Douglas, Saskatchewan became the first province in Canada to introduce a bill of rights. That decision of Tommy Douglas' inspired John Diefenbaker, who was from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, influenced him and led him to bring in the Canadian Bill of Rights in 1960. That part of history is not well known. In fact, Jehovah's Witnesses brought a petition to Parliament containing 625,000 signatures in 1947. This demonstrates that all the activity in this area is not just recent; it goes back a long way.

Ms. Irene Mathyssen:
Mr. Speaker, I want to thank my colleague for reminding this House of our history and of the incredible visionary, T.C. Douglas.

In 1947, just after the war, Canadians had laid down their lives for this country. Canadians who had sacrificed for this country returned home to find there were no jobs. Veterans who had pledged to protect our country were disrespected, very much like veterans now are disrespected.

T.C. Douglas came forward with this charter in Saskatchewan in 1947. He told Canadians that we had come of age, that we were a nation and that we needed the kinds of rights and freedoms that would protect every single citizen.

Mr. Diefenbaker too showed wisdom by emulating Mr. Douglas with a bill in 1960, and even more so, understood the importance of the health care system that Tommy Douglas had established in Saskatchewan. Mr. Diefenbaker said we must have that system across Canada.

Canadians are grateful to Tommy Douglas for many reasons. I am grateful to him too.

Mr. Paul Szabo (Mississauga South, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, this interesting debate gives us an opportunity to provide commentary on who we are and what our values are.

I do not so much look at the charter as a document that protects us from anything but rather as a document that defines us, that probably represents to the world a value system that many countries wish they had, freedom of speech, mobility freedom and all of the things that Canada offers. From a public perspective, that would be the reaction to the charter.

It does concern me when someone talks about the rights of persons who have done wrong in the criminal justice system, in the courts, et cetera, that they have the right to access proper representation. Some would characterize that as giving more protection to those who break the law, whereas we know that many people who are charged are not convicted.

I wonder if the member would care to comment as to whether or not the charter is a matter of protection or a matter of articulating the values of Canada.

Ms. Irene Mathyssen:
It is both, Mr. Speaker. It sets out a value system as has been indicated, that in extending rights, in guaranteeing rights, in saying that we will ferociously protect those rights, we are not diminishing anyone.

In my own work as a constituency person, I noted that there seems to be a fear out there that ensuring rights to minority groups, new Canadians, our first nations, somehow diminishes the rights of many citizens. That is not true. In establishing or expending those rights, we are making Canada a stronger country.

In terms of guilt and innocence, I would hope that Canada is a country where guilt would have to be absolutely established and innocence is presumed.