Freedom in the World
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The year 2004 was marked by a national parliamentary election in which the long-dominant Liberal Party suffered major setbacks. In another important development, same-sex marriage was made legal in four provinces during the year, bringing to seven the number of provinces to legalize gay marriage.
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 war against terrorism has been a leading item on the government's agenda since the attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001. Shortly after those attacks, Canada implemented a series of measures to combat international terrorism, including stopping funds for foreign terror groups. Canada also reached a comprehensive bilateral agreement with the United States on improving cross-border security.
Of the measures the government has adopted in the name of curbing terror organizations, several have drawn criticism on civil liberties grounds, with two measures in an omnibus antiterror bill evoking particular concern. 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.
Concern about terrorism was behind passage in 2002 of the Public Safety Act, which became law in 2004. The law's sections on data sharing - transportation, police, and intelligence officials have access to airline passenger information - 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 for the possibility that information could be used for purposes other than terrorism investigations.
In addition, as part of the antiterror bill, the government adopted the Security of Information Act, a revised version of the Official Secrets Act. The federal police used the Security of Information Act to raid the house of a newspaper reporter who allegedly had leaked classified information relating to Maher Arar. Arar, a dual citizen of Canada and Syria, was detained by U.S. authorities while transiting the United States and was deported to Syria, where he claims to have been tortured. In January 2004, the government announced a judicial inquiry into the Arar matter. The antiterror law itself is slated for review in 2005.
National elections in June 2004 dealt a setback to the long-dominant Liberal Party. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Paul Martin, who succeeded Jean Chretien on his retirement in late 2003, the Liberals had managed to retain governing power. However, they lost their status as a majority party and were compelled to depend on support from smaller parties, in particular the New Democratic Party (NDP), a social democrat oriented party with ties to organized labor. With 135 seats in the House of Commons, the Liberals remain the single largest party, followed by the Conservatives with 99, the Bloc Quebecois with 54, and the NDP with 19. In the previous parliament, the Liberals enjoyed an outright majority with 168 seats, followed by the Conservatives with 73.
An important factor in the Liberals' electoral setback was a major scandal stemming from allegations of payoffs and kickbacks to Liberal supporters, particularly in Quebec province. Martin responded by pledging a package of reforms, including protections for whistle-blowers and new measures to ensure transparency in the awarding of contracts. Canada was also shaken by charges of serious misconduct by police in Toronto. Police were accused of beating drug suspects, extorting money from businessmen, and other offenses.
A foreign policy controversy with political implications emerged over U.S. pressure on Canada to join its planned missile defense system. The NDP declared itself opposed to Canada's participation in the plan during the election campaign, and a number of demonstrations were held prior to the election by peace organizations that opposed the missile defense
Canada continued to move gradually towards the enactment of legislation that would legalize same-sex marriage throughout the country. During 2004, courts in four provinces issued decisions that found that denying homosexuals the right to marry violated the constitution. These decisions bring to seven the number of provinces that permit same-sex marriage. The Liberal government was said to be planning to push for passage of a national law in parliament in fall 2005.
Canadians can change their government democratically. The country is governed by a prime minister, a cabinet, and parliament. The parliament consists of an elected 301-member House of Commons and an appointed 104-member Senate. The British monarch remains nominal head of state, represented by a ceremonial governor-general appointed by the prime minister. 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 turnout of eligible voters for the 2004 election was slightly over 60 percent. During 2003, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that compels the federal government to adopt legislation to make it easier for small parties to raise money and appear on the ballot. In May, the Supreme Court issued a decision that validated legislation that places a limit on the amount lobbying groups can spend on advertisements that support or oppose political candidates.
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.
Canada is regarded as one of the least corrupt societies in the world, having been ranked 12 out of 146 countries surveyed in the 2004 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
The media are generally free, although they exercise self-censorship in areas such as violence on television. Limitations on freedom of expression range from unevenly enforced "hate laws" and restrictions on pornography to rules on reporting. Some civil libertarians have expressed concern over an amendment to the criminal code that gives judges wide latitude in determining what constitutes hate speech in material that appears online. In 2004, the government conducted investigations of Internet chat rooms and Web sites that are alleged to preach hatred against minority groups and advocate violence against political leaders.
Religious expression is free and diverse. Academic freedom is respected.
Freedom of assembly is respected, and many political and quasi-political organizations function freely. Trade unions and business associations enjoy high levels of membership and are free and well organized.
The judiciary is independent. Recently, there have been complaints that the judiciary has become overly activist and has issued decisions that effectively usurp the powers of the legislature. This debate has been inflamed by provincial court rulings permitting same-sex marriages. 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.
Canada maintains relatively liberal immigration policies. However, concern has mounted over the possible entry into Canada of immigrants who were involved in terror missions. In 2002, the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act was passed. It seeks to continue the tradition of liberal immigration by providing additional protection for refugees while making it more difficult for potential terrorists, people involved in organized crime, and war criminals to enter the country. Recently, human rights organizations have charged that Canada has deported immigrants to countries that practice torture. The Canadian government contends that in such cases, assurances have been made by the receiving country that the deported individual will not be subjected to torture.
Canada boasts a generous welfare system that supplements the largely open, competitive economy. A major problem is unemployment, which even under high-growth conditions remains at more than 7 percent of the workforce.
Canada has taken important steps to protect the rights of native groups, although some native groups contend that indigenous peoples remain subject to discrimination. During 2003, the federal government reached an agreement whereby it ceded control of a tract of land the size of Switzerland to the Tlicho First Nation.
Women's rights are protected in law and in practice. Women have made major gains in the economy and have strong representation in such professions as medicine and law. Women's rights advocates report high rates of violence against women in aboriginal communities.