Freedom in the World
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Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government passed controversial crime and immigration laws in 2012, though it failed to pass a bill that would have allowed police to monitor private information on the internet. Student-led protests in Québec in May over proposed tuition hikes led to a controversial emergency law that limited free expression and assembly. General elections in Québec in September resulted in the election of the province’s first female premier.
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 Stephen Harper as prime minister. While the Conservatives expanded their position in the 2008 national elections, they failed to attain a majority. The Liberals, the principal opposition party, formed an alliance with the social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Québec-based Bloc Québécois, which favors Québec separatism.
Early elections were called in May 2011 after the parliamentary opposition voted in March to hold the government in contempt for allegedly failing to disclose accurate costs for key programs. However, the Conservative government triumphed in the election as a result of Canada’s success in largely avoiding the economic turmoil that had engulfed much of the global economy since 2008, securing 166 seats, well over the 155 necessary to form a majority government. Placing second with 103 seats was the NDP, which for the first time became the leading opposition party. The Liberals finished in third place with 34 seats, while the Bloc Québécois, which favors Québec separatism, suffered a devastating defeat, with just 4 members elected to Parliament. The Green Party captured 1 seat.
In May 2012, the provincial government of Québec passed an emergency law to stifle student-led demonstrations against tuition increases that had been taking place since February. The emergency law—Bill 78—provided for fines of up to C$125,000 (about US$125,000) for groups failing to obtain police permission to hold a demonstration or for deviating from an agreed upon route or time limit. In response to the new law, thousands from the general public joined the demonstrations, known as “casseroles,” in which protestors banged pots and pans, a tactic used in Chilean student protests. The police response to the months-long demonstrations occasionally turned violent and included mass arrests of up to 2,500 people, the use of tear gas, and the tactic of kettling. On May 23, over 500 people were arrested in a single demonstration in Montreal.
Pauline Marois of the separatist Parti Québécois (PQ) defeated Jean Charest to become Québec’s first female premier on September 4, 2012. In her first day on the job, Marois dissolved Bill 78 and cancelled the tuition increase. The victory of Marois, however, was marred by tragedy when Richard Henry Bain, an English-speaking businessman and advocate for the separation of Montreal from Quebec for linguistic purposes, opened fire outside of the PQ victory party, killing one bystander and wounding another. Bain was awaiting trial at year’s end. In provincial elections in Alberta, Alison Redford and the Progressive Conservatives won their 12th consecutive majority on April 23, 2012.
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, while lower-house elections are to be held every four years, with early elections called only if the government loses 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.
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. Québec has used the clause to retain its provincial language law, which restricts the use of languages other than French on signs.
Canada has a reputation for clean government and has a record of vigorous prosecution of corruption cases. However, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has criticized Canada for failing to effectively combat bribery of foreign public officials in international business transactions. In 2011, the government attempted to address these complaints by imposing a C$9.5 million (US$9.5 million) fine on Calgary-based oil company Niko Resources for bribing a Bangladeshi energy minister. In 2012, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was in the process of investigating around 35 additional cases of foreign bribery. Canada was ranked 9 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Canada’s media are generally free, and journalists are mostly free from violence and harassment and are able to express diverse views. However, defamation remains a criminal offense, punishable by up to five years in prison. There are no statutory laws to protect confidential sources, and the courts often decide whether or not to respect source confidentiality on a case-by-case basis. A 2007 policy prohibits federally-funded scientists from speaking to the media about their research, even after it has been published. Despite the existence of Canada’s Access to Information Act, there are many challenges to obtaining information, including lengthy delays and excessive costs. Media ownership continued to become more concentrated in 2012.
While there are no restrictions on internet access, the government introduced a controversial bill in February 2012 that would have permitted police to monitor online subscriber information from internet service providers without a warrant. After heavy criticism, the bill appeared to be permanently shelved at year’s end.
Religious freedom is protected by the constitution and other legislation. However, there have been cases of societal discrimination based on religious affiliation, including numerous acts of violence and vandalism against Canada’s Jewish and Muslim communities in 2012. There has also been debate surrounding the legality of wearing religious clothing and face coverings, such as the niqab or burqa, in public. On December 20, 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in a split decision that women have the right to wear the niqab while testifying in court in certain circumstances. Academic freedom is respected.
Freedoms of association and assembly are generally respected. However, the right to assemble was restricted in May 2012 by the Québec government with the passing of its emergency law. Police conduct during the protests surrounding the 2010 meeting of the Group of 20 in Toronto, including the use of excessive force and illegal imprisonment, was heavily criticized in a report released by the Office of the Independent Police Review in May 2012.
Trade unions and business associations enjoy high levels of membership and are well organized. In 2012, however, the government continued to adopt a tough line with unions representing public workers and to interfere in the rights of workers to organize, strike, and bargain collectively. It also introduced legislation to impose binding arbitration in numerous labor disputes, including between Air Canada and the unions representing its pilots and machinists in March.
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 Québec, where it is based on the French civil code. The federal government passed an anticrime law in March 2012, which increased mandatory minimum sentences and harsher sentences for young offenders, and eliminated conditional sentences such as house arrest or community service for some crimes. Critics argued that the new law would increase the number of people in prison and detention costs, and inflict unconstitutional punishments on people.
Canada maintains relatively liberal immigration policies. However, concern has mounted over a June 2012 immigration law that, according to Amnesty International and the Canadian Council for Refugees, creates an unfair system by increasing detention time for refugees and granting sole discretion to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration to designate certain countries of origin as “safe.” The new law also imposes a waiting period of five years before refugees can apply for permanent residence.
While authorities have taken important steps to protect the rights of the country’s indigenous population, they remain subject to multiple forms of discrimination and have unequal access to education, health care, and employment. There are frequent controversies over control of land in various provinces, including the building of gas and oil wells on traditional territories.
The country boasts a generous welfare system, including national health care, which supplements the largely open, competitive economy.
Women’s rights are protected in law and in practice. Women hold about 25 percent of the seats in the lower house of Parliament and about 37 percent of Senate seats. Women have made major gains in the economy, and are well represented in the labor force, though they still earned 28 percent less than men for the same work in Ontario in 2012. Indigenous women face racial and economic discrimination, as well as extreme gender-based violence. Canada legalized same-sex marriage in 2005.