Canada | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Canada continued to be concerned about policies to curb terrorism and involved in a growing debate over the impact of antiterrorism measures on the country's civil liberties. Canadians were also faced with the announcement and possible implementation of major changes in the leadership of the country's three main political parties.

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 parliament. Parliament consists of the elected, 301-member House of Commons and the appointed, 104-member Senate. The British monarch, represented by a ceremonial governor-general appointed by the prime minister, remains nominal head of state.

The war against terrorism has been a leading item on Canada's agenda since the attacks of September 11, 2001 on the United States. Shortly after those attacks, Canada joined other members of the Group of 8, a forum of industrialized countries, in devising measures to combat international terrorism, including stopping funds for foreign terrorist groups. In December 2001, Canada and the United States undertook a comprehensive bilateral agreement on improving cross-border security.

Concern about terrorism was reinforced in 2002 when leaders of al-Qaeda issued statements suggesting that the country might be targeted for violent acts. Canada has adopted several measures in the name of curbing terrorist organizations. Several have drawn criticism on civil liberties grounds. Two measures in an omnibus antiterror bill drew particular concern. One allows police to make preventive arrests of those suspected of planning a terrorist act. Another requires suspects to testify before a judge, even if they have not been formally accused of a crime. Concern about terrorism was behind passage, in 2002, of the Public Safety Act, which was introduced in October. The law's sections on data sharing drew criticism from civil liberties groups and from the country privacy commissioner, who expressed concern over the possible retention of data on private citizens for long periods of time and the possibility that information could be used for purposes other than terrorism investigations.

In August, Prime Minister Jean Chretien announced his intention to resign in February 2004. Chretien's Liberal Party won a sweeping electoral victory in 2000, but was plagued by charges of scandal in 2002. The Canadian Alliance, the chief opposition party, elected Stephen Harper as its new leader in March. Alexa McDonough, the leader of the country's third-largest party, the New Democratic Party, announced her intention to step down in January 2003.

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.

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 languages other than French on signs. The provincial governments exercise significant autonomy. However, Canada's criminal law, which is based on British common law, 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 has become a less contentious issue in the past several years. Demands for the establishment of an independent Quebec have diminished since a 1995 referendum, in which voters in the province narrowly rejected a separatist course.

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 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. A recent controversy has broken out over the policy of some provinces to single out for support the school systems run by certain denominations. In 2000, a major scandal was triggered by a series of legal actions taken by members of native groups who had been subjected to physical and sexual abuse while being educated in schools operated by religious denominations under federal charter. In November, officials of the Anglican Church reached an agreement with the government to establish a fund to compensate the aboriginal victims of abuse.

Canada maintains relatively liberal immigration policies. However, concern has mounted over the possible entry into Canada of individuals who have been involved in terrorist missions. In 2002, the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act was passed. It seeks to continue Canada's tradition of liberal immigration and refugee policies while making it more difficult for potential terrorists to enter the country.