Canada | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores



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(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
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Canada's political life was dominated by a debate over the country's response to the September 11 terror attacks on the United States. In the aftermath of the terror acts, Prime Minister Jean Chretien introduced a number of measures designed to strengthen internal security. Some of these measures, however, drew criticism on the grounds that they would tip the balance away from Canada's traditional respect for civil liberties.

Colonized by French and British settlers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Canada came under the control of the British Crown under the terms of the Treaty of Paris in 1763. After granting home rule in 1867, Britain retained a theoretical right to overrule the Canadian parliament until 1982, when Canadians established complete control over their own constitution. The country is governed by a prime minister, a cabinet, and the parliament. The parliament consists of an elected 301-member house of commons and an appointed 104-member senate. The British monarch remains the nominal head of state, represented by a ceremonial governor-general appointed by the prime minister.

Immediately after the September 11 attacks, Canada joined other members of the Group of 8 industrial countries in devising measures to combat international terrorism, including stopping funds for foreign terror groups. In early December, Canada and the United States undertook a comprehensive bilateral agreement on improving cross-border security. Discussions were also begun with the United States and Mexico on forging a continental security perimeter.

Two measures in an omnibus antiterror bill drew particular concern from civil libertarians. One allows police to make preventive arrests of those suspected of planning a terror act. Another requires suspects to testify before a judge, even if they have not been formally accused of a crime. In a compromise with the critics, the government agreed that this clause would become inoperative after five years; some want the entire antiterror act to be subject to a "sunset clause."

Chretien's Liberal Party is in firm control of the national government after a sweeping electoral victory in 2000. The triumph made Chretien the first Canadian prime minister to win three consecutive terms in the post-World War II period. Chretien is the longest-serving leader of a democratic country in the western hemisphere.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Canadians can change their government democratically, and as a result of government canvassing, Canada has nearly 100 percent effective voter registration. Prisoners have the right to vote in federal elections, as do citizens who have lived abroad for fewer than five years.

The judiciary is independent. Limitations on freedom of expression range from unevenly enforced "hate laws" and restrictions on pornography to rules on reporting. Recently, there have been complaints that the judiciary has become overly activist and has issued decisions that have the effect of usurping the powers of the legislature. The media are generally free, although they exercise self-censorship in areas such as the amount of violence shown on television.

Civil liberties have been protected since 1982 by the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but have been limited by the constitutional "notwithstanding" clause, which permits provincial governments to exempt themselves by applying individual provisions within their jurisdictions. Quebec has used the clause to retain its provincial language law, which restricts the use of English on signs. The provincial governments, with their own constitutions and legislative assemblies, exercise significant autonomy. Canada's criminal law is based on British common law and is uniform throughout the country. Civil law is also based on the British system, except in Quebec, where it is based on the French civil code.

The status of Quebec became a contentious issue in Canadian politics. Six years after Canada's divisive 1995 referendum on independence for Quebec, separatism for the province remained a primary political issue.

In 1996, parliament amended the constitution to outlaw discrimination based on "sexual orientation" by adding this term to the 1977 Human Rights Act list that includes age, sex, race, religion, and disability. Canada has also taken important steps to protect the rights of native groups, although some native groups contend that indigenous peoples remain subject to discrimination.

Canada boasts a generous welfare system that supplements the largely open, competitive economy. Trade unions and business associations enjoy high levels of membership and are free and well organized.

Religious expression is free and diverse, but religious education has been the subject of controversy in recent years. Many provinces have state-supported religious school systems that do not represent all denominations. In 2000, a major scandal was triggered by a series of legal actions taken by members of native groups who had been educated in schools operated by religious denominations under federal charter. The cases involved widespread allegations of physical and sexual abuse by teachers and administrators in incidents that went back several decades.

Canada maintains relatively liberal immigration policies. However, concern has mounted over the possible entry into Canada of immigrants who were involved in terror missions. Pressure towards tightening immigration laws grew following the 1999 arrest of Ahmed Rassem, an Algerian national who was in Canada illegally, and who was involved in an attempt to smuggle bomb-making material into the United States. Further pressure for immigration restrictions grew again after evidence was uncovered of a support network in Canada for those involved in the September 11 attacks.