Freedom in the World
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After years in power, the Liberal Party found itself in opposition following a Conservative triumph in the January 2006 elections. The year was also marked by the arrest of a group charged with planning major terrorist actions against key Canadian targets, continued controversy over the application of counterterrorism policies, and renewed questions about the future status of Quebec in a unified Canada.
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 June 2004 legislative elections dealt a setback to the Liberal Party, which failed to retain a majority and was 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. 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 the January 2006 parliamentary elections, the Conservatives emerged as the country’s leading party, with 124 seats in the House of Commons. This was well short of a majority, however, so the party was forced to rule as a minority government. The Liberals finished second, with 103 seats, followed by the Bloc Quebecois with 51, and the NDP with 29. Under the leadership of Stephen Harper, who became prime minister, the Conservatives ran a campaign that emphasized tax reductions, health-care improvements, anticorruption efforts, and closer ties with the United States.
Since the attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001, Canada has implemented a series of measures to combat international terrorism, including stopping the transfer of funds to foreign terrorist groups and a comprehensive bilateral agreement with the United States on improving cross-border security. Several antiterrorism measures have drawn criticism on civil liberties grounds, including the 2004 Security of Information Act and two provisions of an omnibus antiterror bill that allow police to make preventive arrests of those suspected of planning a terrorist act and require suspects to testify before a judge, even if they have not been formally accused of a crime.
In June 2006, a group of 12 men and 5 youths were arrested and charged with planning a major terrorist operation in the country. According to authorities, the plans included storming Parliament, beheading the prime minister, and possibly bombing the Toronto Stock Exchange and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. All the suspects were Muslims, and most were Canadian citizens. Authorities said the suspects had acquired material to make explosives and were inspired by al-Qaeda, the international terrorist network.
At the same time, several aspects of Canada’s antiterrorism policy came under renewed legal pressure. In one development, a judge ruled that a provision of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001 requiring authorities to prove that terrorism offenses are motivated by political, religious, or ideological motives was in violation of the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In another decision, a court struck down provisions of the country’s secrecy law. That case stemmed from efforts by the authorities to discover the source of leaked government information used by a journalist, whose home and office were raided in 2003 by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The leaks in question had involved Maher Arar, a dual citizen of Canada and Syria, who had been detained by U.S. authorities in 2002 while transiting the United States—based on information provided by Canadian authorities—and was deported to Syria, where he claims to have been tortured. Arar was cleared of any terrorist links by a formal inquiry, and a letter of protest was sent to the United States for its role in the case. Some believe that the judge’s decision will have the broader effect of strengthening protections to the principle of confidentiality of journalists’ sources.
In a related issue, political leaders voiced some criticism over the participation of Canadian troops in the NATO forces fighting against a resurgent Taliban militia in Afghanistan. There were a number of Canadian casualties in 2006, and opinion polls showed declining public support for the country’s involvement in the struggle. The NDP, the most left-leaning of the country’s major parties, has taken a strong stance in favor of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. The government, however, has reiterated its intention to continue participation in the NATO effort.
Prime Minister Harper reopened the debate over the status of Quebec when he declared that the predominantly French-speaking province should be recognized as a nation “within a unified Canada.” Quebec has had a tenuous relationship with the federal government, and the provincial Parti Quebecois has in the past pressed for withdrawal from Canada. While independence has been rejected by Quebec voters in several referendums, the margins were narrow. Quebec provincial politics has in recent years been dominated by a federalist-oriented Liberal Party.
Canada is an electoral democracy. The country is governed by a prime minister, cabinet, and Parliament, which consists of an elected 308-member House of Commons and an appointed 105-member Senate. Elections for the lower house are held at least every five years, and senators may serve until age 75. 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, a measure designed to prevent corruption. The kickback scandal aside, Canada is regarded as a society with a low level of official corruption and was ranked 14 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 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 on the internet.
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 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 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. At the same time, controversy has arisen over Canada’s policies of multiculturalism in education, law, and social life. This emerged during a debate in Ontario province over whether to allow Sharia law to apply in certain cases involving Muslim citizens. Some officials have also raised questions about Canada’s policy of allowing immigrants to maintain dual citizenship. About 10 percent of foreign-born Canadians hold passports from another country, leading some to charge that for some immigrants, Canadian citizenship is primarily a safety net while they maintain principal loyalty to their country of origin.
Canada has taken important steps to protect the rights of native groups, although some 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 2006, a dispute erupted over claims by Indian groups to land being commercially developed in Caledonia, a town 50 miles from Toronto. Activists from the Six Nations occupied the land, set up barricades, and blocked traffic. After several clashes, the provincial government bought the property and began negotiations with the Six Nations.
Canada became one of the few countries in the world to have legalized same-sex marriage in 2005. Several provinces had authorized the practice before the federal legislation was enacted.
Canada boasts a generous welfare system that supplements the largely open, competitive economy.
Women’s rights are protected in law and 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 indigenous communities.