40 years on, Charter of Rights still falls short for many Canadians

This weekend, on April 17, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) commemorates the 40th anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  At the same time, CJPME acknowledges that many of the protections guaranteed by the Charter are not fully enjoyed by many Canadian citizens.  In fact, in these times of extreme political polarization, populist leaders, and popular fear-mongering, the rights of certain minorities are more tenuous than they have been in years.

When originally conceived, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms defined those rights and freedoms that Canadians deemed necessary for a free and democratic society.  In theory, any person in Canada – whether they are a Canadian citizen, a permanent resident or a newcomer – has the rights and freedoms contained in the Charter. For decades, the Charter has been the source of change, progress and the affirmation of our society's values.  With regard to equality rights, the Charter has facilitated the recognition and enforcement of the rights of a number of minority and disadvantaged groups.

Nevertheless, deep issues of prejudice and discrimination continue to plague our Canadian society.

My organization, for example, has been involved in significant efforts to raise the issue of anti-Arab racism in Canada.  Last year, in partnership with the Arab Canadians Lawyers Association and the Canadian Arab Federation, CJPME commissioned an EKOS public opinion survey on anti-Arab racism in Canada.  The results were sobering.  The survey revealed that:

  • A striking 79% of Canadians acknowledged that prejudice against Arab-Canadians is a problem
  • Survey respondents also acknowledged the many factors that negatively affect Arab-Canadians' ability to find work.   In fact, 64% of Canadians believe that simply “having a name that sounds Arab” could have a negative effect on an Arab-Canadian’s job prospects.

These are just two of the many grave findings of the survey.

My organization has also been involved with efforts to combat Islamophobia in Canada.  In 2018, in partnership with the Canadian Muslim Forum, we commissioned an EKOS survey on Islamophobia in Canada.  The survey confirmed that Islamophobia and religious discrimination generally are troubling problems in Canada. For example, 81 percent of Canadians acknowledged that Islamophobia exists in Canada.  But the survey also showed how attitudes on the topic are so extremely politically polarized. For example, around 50% of Liberal, NDP and Green party supporters consider religious discrimination against their fellow Muslim citizens to be a significant problem, whereas only 14% of Conservative supporters do.

Of course, beyond public opinion surveys, there are many concrete examples of anti-Arab and Islamophobic attitudes in Canada.  Quebec's Law 21 is one of the most egregious examples of Islamophobia.  This law bans Quebec teachers, lawyers, police officers, and more from wearing religious garb such as crosses, hijabs and turbans.  This not only affects people currently employed in the public sector, but also young people who aspire to such careers.  People should not be forced to choose between their religion, their identity, and their preferred career choice. The Quebec government should not be allowed to dictate to individuals what they can and cannot wear.

Unfortunately, all these issues exist despite Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

There have been some positive steps taken by the government to address the underlying issues, but progress is painfully and unnecessarily slow.  The government must be a better advocate for vulnerable groups, and must do much better in the many areas targeted for improvement:

  • Better reporting on hate crimes
  • New tools to help religious minorities overcome racism in the employment market
  • More funding for public awareness programs on religious discrimination?
  • Diversity training for public servants

As a Canadian organization, CJPME is proud and thankful for the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  But with the realities our society faces today, we are compelled to call on the federal and provincial governments to be much better at recognizing and addressing the deep issues of prejudice and discrimination that continue to plague our society.