Freedom in the World
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Debate continued in 2007 over antiterrorism legislation, Canada’s military role in Afghanistan, provincial government funding for religiously affiliated schools, and land disputes involving Canada’s indigenous community. Canada also faced growing controversy over freedom of the press and freedom of expression, triggered by investigations aimed at journalists who had written critically about Muslims and Islam.
Colonized by French and British settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries, Canada was secured by 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 override the Canadian Parliament until 1982, when Canadians established complete control over their own constitution.
After a dozen years of center-left Liberal Party rule, the Conservative Party emerged from the 2006 parliamentary elections with a plurality and established a fragile minority government. With 124 seats in the House of Commons, the Conservatives held only a narrow lead over the Liberals, who placed second with 103 seats. The Bloc Quebecois, a separatist-oriented party, took 51 seats, while the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) won 29.
The Conservatives’ status was weakened further in 2007 by setbacks in several provincial elections, most notably in Ontario. The Conservative provincial government there had advocated expanding state assistance for religious schools to include a variety of faiths; state aid had long been restricted to schools operated by the Roman Catholic Church. The electorate apparently rejected the proposal, dealing the Conservatives a major blow at the polls.
Meanwhile, advocates of press freedom and freedom of expression grew increasingly concerned over legal cases filed against journalists who wrote critically about Muslims and Islam. In one case, four Muslim law students filed a grievance against Mark Steyn, a columnist, and Maclean’s, a prominent magazine, in response to a 2006 article featuring the argument that Muslims would eventually dominate the world due to current demographic trends. The complaints were filed with human rights commissions in Ontario and British Columbia on the grounds that the article “subjects Canadian Muslims to hatred and contempt.” In another case, charges were brought by a Muslim leader against the publisher of the Western Standard after the newspaper republished controversial Danish cartoons that had lampooned the prophet Muhammad. Journalists’ associations and press freedom organizations argued that the willingness of government entities to give such complaints a hearing could send disturbing signals about the freedom to publish articles on certain contentious subjects.
Since the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Canada has struggled to find a balance between ensuring the nation’s security and safeguarding civil liberties. A number of laws adopted soon after the 2001 attacks have been modified or struck down by the courts. While Canada itself has not been the victim of a terrorist attack in recent years, Canadian citizens have been arrested in the United States and elsewhere on charges of conspiring to commit such attacks. In February 2007, Canada’s Supreme Court struck down a law that allowed authorities to detain foreign terrorism suspects indefinitely without disclosing the evidence against them. The government has introduced legislation to allow preventive detention without a warrant if it were deemed necessary to prevent a terrorist act. Another proposed measure would compel an individual with knowledge of a planned terrorist action to speak before a judge.
Also in 2007, debate intensified over Canadian troops’ participation in a NATO-led mission to fight a resurgent Taliban militia in Afghanistan. Canadian forces have suffered a number of casualties during the conflict, and critics noted that Canada’s troops were fighting in Afghanistan’s volatile southern provinces while a number of other NATO countries restricted their forces to noncombat missions in the relatively peaceful north. In response, the Conservative government threatened to withdraw its forces if allied countries failed to take on more of the combat burden.
Canada is an electoral democracy. The country is governed by a prime minister, his cabinet, and Parliament, which consists of an elected 308-member House of Commons and an appointed 105-member Senate. Senators may serve until age 75, and elections for the lower house have been held at least every five years. However, a law enacted in 2007 stipulated that lower house elections would be held every four years, with early elections called only if the government lost a parliamentary no-confidence vote. The British monarch remains head of state, represented by a ceremonial governor-general who is appointed on the advice of the prime minister. As a result of government canvassing, Canada has nearly 100 percent voter registration. Prisoners have the right to vote in federal elections, as do citizens who have lived abroad for fewer than five years. Political parties operate freely. The main parties are the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party, the Bloc Quebecois, and the NDP.
Civil liberties have been protected since 1982 by the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but are limited by the constitutional “notwithstanding” clause, which permits provincial governments to exempt themselves with respect to individual provisions in 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 upheld 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. While Canada has a reputation for vigorous prosecution of corruption involving public officials, the country has endured several high-profile scandals in recent years. In 2007, a German lobbyist sued former prime minister Brian Mulroney for money he said he had paid Mulroney to obtain contracting and business favors during the early 1990s. This and other scandals aside, Canada is regarded as a society with a low level of official corruption. It was ranked 9 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The media are generally free, although they exercise self-censorship in areas such as violence on television, and there is concern that this tendency may also apply to coverage of the country’s minority groups, especially Muslims. 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 on the internet. Nevertheless, recent judicial decisions have restricted the authority of the government to demand that reporters turn over their research materials and interview notes or reveal the identity of confidential sources.
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, critics have complained that the judiciary has become overly activist, issuing decisions that effectively usurp the powers of the legislature. Canada’s criminal law is based on legislation enacted by Parliament; its tort and contract law is based on English common law, with the exception of 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. Some officials have also raised questions about Canada’s rules allowing immigrants to maintain dual citizenship. About 10 percent of foreign-born Canadians hold passports from another country, leading critics to charge that some immigrants use Canadian citizenship primarily as a safety net while maintaining principal loyalty to their country of origin. Others have objected more broadly to Canada’s policies of multiculturalism in education, law, and social life. At the same time, defenders of immigrant rights have complained of the abuse of temporary workers lured to Canada by promises of high wages but treated, as one police official put it, as “economic slaves” after arriving in the country.
The authorities have taken important steps to protect the rights of native groups, although some contend that indigenous people remain subject to discrimination. Indigenous groups continue to lag badly on practically every social indicator, including those for education, health, and unemployment. There are frequent controversies over control of land in various provinces; in 2007, a British Columbia court gave native peoples control over a huge tract in that province.
Canada in 2005 became one of the few countries in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. Several provinces had authorized the practice before the federal legislation was enacted.
The country 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 are well represented in such professions as medicine and law. However, women’s rights advocates report high rates of violence against women in indigenous communities.