Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper suspended Parliament in December 2009, thereby postponing criticism stemming from allegations of abuse of Afghan detainees. It was the second consecutive year in which Harper had ended the legislative session prematurely. In what some observers regarded as a major achievement for freedom of expression, the Supreme Court issued two decisions in December that restricted the ground on which libel judgments could be brought against journalists and others.
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. Following setbacks in several of the 2007 provincial elections, the Conservatives expanded their position in the 2008 national elections. While capturing 143 seats in Parliament, the Conservatives failed to attain a majority. The Liberals, the principal opposition party, secured only 77 seats, but subsequently formed an alliance with the social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Quebec-based Bloc Quebecois, in an attempt to displace the Conservatives with a coalition government. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the leader of the Conservative Party, suspended Parliament in December 2008 to prevent a confidence vote, which his government was likely to lose.
Since the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Canada has struggled to find a balance between ensuring the country’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. In May 2008,the Supreme Court determined that the United States violated the rights of Omar Khadr, a Canadian who had been held at the Guantanamo Bay prison facility since the age of 15. The court rebuked the Canadian government for having allowed its intelligence agents to interview Khadr and share information with U.S. officials. The government has also been criticized for its policy of handing over prisoners detained in conflict in Afghanistan to Afghan authorities. Diplomats have asserted that many of those given over to Afghan officials were tortured. A parliamentary committee launched an investigation of the detainee issue in fall 2009, and opposition critics claimed that Prime Minister Harper dismissed Parliament on December 30 in part to avoid the controversy that would have surrounded the committee’s findings.
Two Supreme Court decisions, both issued in December 2009, significantly changed the terms under which libel cases could be brought against journalists. The rulings establish a “responsible journalism” defense for reporters whose stories are deemed in the public interest. The decisions also extend protection against libel suits to internet journalists.
An intense debate has raged over Canada’s participation in a NATO-led mission to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. In November 2009, the government announced its intention to withdraw its forces from the military zone in 2011.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Canada is an electoral democracy. The country is governed by a prime minister, a 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. However, voter turnout in the 2008 election, at 60 percent, was one of the lowest in Canadian history.
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 they 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. Nonetheless, Canada is regarded as a society with a low level of official corruption. Canada was ranked 8 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 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. However, in 2009, the country’s human rights tribunal found unconstitutional an anti-hate speech law that targeted telephone and internet messages. The decision is expected to restrict the Canadian Human Rights Commission’s efforts to bring cases against alleged hate speech on the internet. Advocates of freedom of expression have grown increasingly concerned over legal cases filed by the human rights commission against journalists who write critically about Muslims and Islam, as well as other minority groups.There is a high degree of media concentration. On a positive note, in December 2009, the Supreme Court issued two decisions strengthening protections for journalists by restricting the ground on which libel judgments can be brought against journalists and others.
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. 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. While Canada’s crime rate is low by regional standards, it has experienced a growing problem from the growth of criminal gangs, often involved in the illegal drug trade. Recently, civil liberties’ groups have criticized the police over the use of Tasers on criminal suspects. In 2009, Amnesty International reported that 26 people have died in Canada since 2003 after being subjected to Tasers.
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.
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. At the same time, government proposals to facilitate the assimilation of native groups have met with stiff opposition from the groups’ chiefs.
The country boasts a generous welfare system that supplements the largely open, competitive economy.
Women’s rights are protected in law and practice. Women hold 22 percent of seats in Parliament, 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. Canada in 2005 became one of the few countries in the world to legalize same-sex marriage.