16. What Makes Us Canadian? / Qu’est-ce qui fait de nous des Canadiens?

(Policy papers 2012-2013)

What does it mean to be Canadian when we come from everywhere? Our increasing diversity is our greatest strength. But we are unified in our devotion to the fundamental values expressed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Canadians are uniquely positioned to be in the front ranks of a world without borders. With a clear global vision and bold national leadership, we can show that a progressive, vigorous, multi-ethnic democracy can thrive.

Que signifie « être canadien » alors que nous venons de partout dans le monde ? Notre diversité grandissante est notre plus grande force. Mais nous sommes unis par notre dévotion aux valeurs fondamentales énoncées dans la Charte canadienne des droits et libertés. Les Canadiens sont dans la position unique d’être au premier rang d’un monde sans frontières. Avec une vision globale claire et un leadership national audacieux, nous pouvons montrer qu’une démocratie progressiste, dynamique et multiethnique peut prospérer.



Canada is a magnet to people from around the globe. We have transformed in a relatively short time into the most cosmopolitan and diverse society in human history. And because of our accident of geography — vast spaces from sea to sea to sea — we have a huge potential to transform even further.

By 2050, the population of the developing world will increase by over 2 billion people; already more than half the people in countries such as Pakistan are under the age of 20. The forces of globalization will create incredible wealth but also suffering on a global scale. We will experience enormous environmental challenges and massive population shifts, as modern-day nomads disregard borders and seek a livelihood and an escape from dreadful poverty, religious friction, and environmental catastrophes.

What do people see when they look at Canada from afar, if it is not ethnicity, religion, language, or other traditional markers of nationhood? Is it a common sense of tolerance? That’s not why people are knocking on Canada’s doors. Our welcome mat does not say, “Please come here and as long as you do not bother anyone, no one will bother you.” Tolerance cannot be our ultimate goal. We owe each other more.

People choose Canada because of the opportunities it offers, both economic and social, and because we have the best of universal values: justice, equality, diversity, the rule of law, fundamental freedoms, equal rights, non-discrimination. They see us living together peaceably, compassionately, and respectfully, exercising the mutual responsibilities that go along with the rights of citizenship.

Among the most important of these collective responsibilities is upholding gender equality and rejecting discrimination, even if this leads us to hold inconvenient debates over the propriety of cultural or religious norms. We need open, civil, nationwide discussion about the right to freedom of religion and how to balance that right with the need for public security. We can agree that we all have the right to practise the faith of our choice. But we must also agree not to express prejudice, incite hatred or discrimination, or use violence against those of different beliefs. When newcomers apply for citizenship, these values and responsibilities must be promoted during the application process. A shared understanding can help build consensus on restrictions that might be legitimate.

Our national purpose must be to improve the quality of life not only in Canada but elsewhere: to promote humanity, good government, and good citizenship around the globe, and to collaborate globally to ensure that economic prosperity coincides with environmental preservation. In exporting the type of pluralistic, creative, modern society we are building in Canada, we need our leaders to be poets, not merely pollsters. We have every right to be proud and assertive, not weighed down by “middleness,” diffidence, and the all-too-typical Canadian “Excuse me, sorry to bother you” attitude.

Almost every aspect of our daily lives has a global dimension. All the serious challenges we face — from global warming and energy security to nuclear proliferation and terrorism, from global poverty and economic inequality to the lethal arms trade fuelling regional conflict — require global cooperation and global solutions and bold and visionary national leadership. The longer we fail to work together both nationally and internationally, the narrower our options and the greater the potential for catastrophe.

When we look for a unifying symbol with which all Canadians identify, it is certainly not the monarchy, despite the wishful thinking of our Conservative government. It is the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Charter, signed into law in 1982, spells out the fundamental rights and freedoms that we can assert as individuals against all levels of government. It guarantees the equality of citizens — the cornerstone of any liberal democracy — ensuring that regardless of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, or mental or physical disability, all Canadians have the same basic rights and can expect equal respect for their human dignity and self-worth.

The Charter is now viewed as a model for other nations. A new American study concludes that Canada is a constitutional trendsetter in several respects. First, section 1 states that rights and freedoms are “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society,” which provides a way of weaving compromise and dialogue into rights debates. It offers a structure for working through the competing interests found in any multicultural nation seeking a balance between the decisions of judges (who must uphold the Charter) and the actions of legislators (who make laws that may limit rights).

Second, equality rights are listed in section 15, and the text has proved flexible; the courts have extended its protections to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and permit gay marriage. And the American study notes that the Charter contains a notwithstanding clause in section 33 that permits a government to bring in certain laws even if a court finds that they are contrary to the Charter. Fortunately this clause has rarely been used.

Indeed, Canada’s courts often play an important role on behalf of the people of Canada, for example in taking the edge off the current government’s ideological and blinkered approach to law and order and criminal justice. Judgments based on the Charter have cancelled the government’s decision to shut down facilities that help those suffering from addiction and related conditions; provided greater protection for those engaged in prostitution; and held mandatory minimum sentences to be unconstitutional in some circumstances. Unfortunately, rather than complying with the fundamental law of the land, the present national government prefers to govern as if the courts are adversaries to be ignored as much as possible.

The Charter blends the emphasis on individual rights with respect for community values. For example, it requires us to take into account cultural, religious, linguistic, and Aboriginal communities in interpreting the rights guaranteed to individuals. This allows for the protection of minorities while not diminishing the ideal of the equality of all citizens under the law.

The Charter remains a concrete expression of our shared values, the rights we can expect to have respected, and the responsibilities we owe each other. It is a crucial part of what binds us together in our diversity. The current government was unable to rise above petty partisanship with its laughably tepid acknowledgment of the Charter’s 30th anniversary; its generously funded celebration of the largely forgotten War of 1812 makes a sad contrast.