Freedom in the World
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In a year marked by controversy over a scandal that involves prominent members of the governing Liberal Party, Canada faced the prospect of critical federal elections in early 2006. In another important development, legislation legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the country was passed by Parliament in 2005.
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 the transfer of funds to foreign terrorist 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 terrorist organizations, several have drawn criticism on civil liberties grounds, with two measures in an omnibus antiterrorism bill evoking particular concern. One allows police to make preventive arrests of those suspected of planning a terrorist act, and another requires suspects to testify before a judge, even if they have not been formally accused of a crime. As part of the antiterrorism bill, the government adopted the Security of Information Act, a revised version of the Official Secrets Act, in 2004. 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 in 2002 while transiting the United States and was deported to Syria, where he claims to have been tortured. Freedom of expression organizations pressed to amend the law to exclude journalists from its purview.
Legislative elections in June 2004 dealt a setback to the long-dominant Liberal Party. The Liberals failed to retain a majority, and they 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. A major factor in the Liberals' electoral setback was a scandal, the origins of which date to the mid-1990s, involving kickbacks to Liberal Party officials by advertising firms in the province of Quebec in exchange for contracts to do work for a national unity campaign.
New elections were called after the minority government of Prime Minister Paul Martin fell to a no-confidence vote in November 2005. Martin, a Liberal, was seriously weakened by the release of a report that blamed high-ranking members of the Liberal Party, including former prime minister Jean Chretien, for the scandal that had cost the Liberals their parliamentary majority the previous year. Although Chretien was not accused of direct involvement in the kickbacks, he was faulted for lax supervision of the national unity project. At the time of Parliament's dissolution, the Liberals held 133 seats in the House of Commons, followed by the Conservatives with 98, the Bloc Quebecois, a separatist-oriented party with 53, and the NDP with 18.
In 2005, the government delayed a plan that would bind many public servants to lifetime secrecy on aspects of their work. The measure would have required some public servants to take an oath of secrecy that would apply not only to the time of their public service, but for the rest of their lives.
A foreign policy controversy with political implications emerged over U.S. pressure on Canada to join its planned missile defense system. The plan drew the opposition of the NDP and provoked a series of protest demonstrations. In February, Martin announced that Canada would not take part in the scheme.
After a two-year struggle, Canada enacted legislation legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the country. After both houses of Parliament adopted the measure by comfortable margins, Canada became the fourth country to sanction homosexual marriage. Previously, same-sex marriage had been made legal in seven provinces.
Canadians can change their government democratically. The country is governed by a prime minister, a cabinet, and Parliament, which 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.
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.
In 2004, the Supreme Court issued a decision validating legislation that places a limit on the amount lobbying groups can spend on advertisements that support or oppose political candidates. The kickback scandal aside, Canada is regarded as a society with a low level of official corruption and was ranked 14 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 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 2005, a former indigenous leader was convicted of hate speech for comments he made in 2002 to a reporter that described Jews as a "disease" and denied that the Holocaust had occurred.
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. 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 terrorist missions. The 2002 Immigration and Refugee Protection Act 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 has taken important steps to protect the rights of native groups, although some native groups contend that indigenous peoples remain subject to discrimination. Indigenous groups continue to lag badly on practically every social indicator, including those for education, health, and unemployment. During 2005, the Martin government convened what was described as a summit meeting with leaders of Indian organizations, during which the government pledged a substantial increase in aid for housing, health care, and economic development. The government also pledged additional money as reparations for the abuse suffered by indigenous children during a period in the twentieth century when many were forced to attend schools operated by Christian denominations.
Canada boasts a generous welfare system that supplements the largely open, competitive economy.
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. However, women's rights advocates report high rates of violence against women in aboriginal communities.