Canada | Freedom House

Freedom in the World


Freedom in the World 2016
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Quick Facts

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The Liberal Party, led by Justin Trudeau, won a clear majority in federal elections held in October 2015. When Trudeau took office as prime minister in November, he ushered in a cabinet composed equally of men and women, an unprecedented step in Canada’s political history. Outgoing prime minister Stephen Harper resigned as leader of the Conservatives following his party’s loss.

 During the election campaign, the Liberals pledged to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada before year’s end, a commitment that Trudeau defended in the face of criticism and security concerns following a November terrorist attack in France by the Islamic State (IS) militant group. That month, the government extended the timeline for resettlement to February 2016, and the plan was ongoing at year’s end. Separately, at the G20 summit in November, Trudeau announced plans to withdraw Canadian jets from a bombing mission led by the United States against IS targets, although no firm timeline was announced by year’s end. 

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Political Rights: 40 / 40 (+1) [Key]

A. Electoral Process: 12 / 12

Canada is governed by a prime minister, a cabinet, and Parliament, which consists of an elected 338-member House of Commons and an appointed 105-member Senate. Lower-house elections are held every four years, with early elections called only if the government loses a parliamentary no-confidence vote. The British monarch is head of state, represented by a ceremonial governor general who is appointed on the advice of the prime minister.

General elections must be held on the third Monday in October every four years. The most recent elections were held in October 2015. Trudeau’s Liberal Party captured 39.5 percent of the vote and 54.4 percent of electoral districts, taking 184 seats. The party was able to form a majority government, and Trudeau was sworn in as prime minister in November. The Conservative Party, which held power under Harper for close to ten years, captured 31.9 percent of the vote but only 29.3 percent of electoral districts, winning 99 seats. The New Democratic Party (NDP) took 44 seats, Bloc Québécois (BQ) captured 10, and the Green Party won 1.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) conducted a needs assessment mission before the election as well as a mission during the vote. The OSCE reported that the elections were free and fair but noted the need for some improvements, including to minority participation.

In 2014, the Fair Elections Act—a broad and controversial set of measures promoted by the government to address voter fraud and update campaign finance laws—came into force. An open letter signed by 465 academics vehemently argued that the act would “undermine the integrity of the Canadian electoral process.” Critics have expressed concerns that the legislation could place indigenous peoples at a disadvantage due to its stringent requirements about voter identification and addresses.


B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 16 / 16

Canadians are free to organize in different political parties, and the system is open to the rise and fall of competing parties. While two parties have traditionally dominated the political system—the Conservative Party, espousing a center-right to right-wing political position, and the Liberal Party, espousing a center to center-left position—recent years have seen the rise of new groups. A total of 23 political parties were registered in the 2015 elections. The center-left NDP lost its status as the official opposition party in the House of Commons after the vote, and the Conservatives became the dominant opposition to the Liberal government.

Critical issues facing Canada’s indigenous peoples, including high rates of suicide, violent victimization, and murder, received little attention in the 2015 electoral campaign. The Liberals proposed investment into education for indigenous communities, and the NDP pledged to initiate an inquiry into problems facing indigenous women. No party offered comprehensive solutions or strategies, however. After the October vote, parliamentary representation of indigenous and other “visible minority” groups, who together constitute nearly a quarter of Canada’s population, increased to approximately 17 percent.


C. Functioning of Government: 12 / 12 (+1)

Canada has a reputation for clean government and a record of vigorous prosecution of corruption cases. The country was ranked 9 out of 168 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index. Several administrations have been criticized for failing to effectively combat bribery of foreign officials in international business transactions, but the government has made efforts to improve in this area, including by strengthening the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act in 2013 to facilitate prosecution of Canadian entities that bribe foreign officials.

No major corruption revelations emerged in 2015, and authorities continued efforts to adequately process ongoing cases. The trial of Mike Duffy, a senator from Prince Edward Island, began in April and was ongoing at year’s end. Duffy was charged with 31 criminal offenses in July 2014 in connection to evidence that emerged in 2012 about exorbitant expense claims by Senate members. There was also considerable focus on corruption in Quebec during the year. The Charbonneau Commission, a public inquiry into public construction contracts in the province, issued its final report in November. The lengthy publication detailed 60 recommendations for the Quebec government, and concluded that corruption in the province was a more serious problem than originally perceived. The report also voiced concerns about the role of organized crime in Quebec’s construction sector.

Despite the existence of the Access to Information Act, there are some challenges to obtaining information, including delays and excessive costs. An investigation by the magazine Maclean’s revealed in September 2015 that a federal cost-saving plan had led to the loss of significant amounts of public data since 2012, including information from census, environmental, and socio-economic studies. Watchdogs voiced concerns about the situation’s negative ramifications for transparency and public information management.


Civil Liberties: 59 / 60

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 16 / 16

Canada’s media are generally free; journalists are mostly protected from violence and harassment in their work and are able to express diverse views. However, defamation remains a criminal offense, punishable by up to five years in prison. No statutory laws protect confidential sources, and the courts often decide whether or not to respect source confidentiality on a case-by-case basis. Media ownership has become more concentrated in recent years.

In June 2015, legislators passed a controversial antiterrorism law following prolonged and heated debate. The legislation grants the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) wider authority to conduct surveillance and share information about individuals with other agencies. Its passage elicited considerable public uproar and led to a petition calling for its repeal. Canadian intellectuals as well as both domestic and foreign civil liberties watchdogs warned that the bill undermined the concept of privacy and could harm freedom of expression. Separately, a 2014 law against cyberbullying came into force in March. Critics have warned that the law’s standards for granting access to internet and telecommunications user data were too low and threatened the right to privacy.

The constitution and other legislation protect religious freedom. However, there have been cases of societal discrimination based on religious affiliation, including acts of violence and vandalism against Canada’s Jewish and Muslim communities. In November, a mosque in Ontario was subject to arson. The police categorized the incident as a hate crime, and an investigation was ongoing at year’s end. In recent years, there has been controversy over the legality of wearing religious clothing, particularly veils, in public. In 2011, the immigration ministry banned the wearing of any kind of face coverings at citizenship oath ceremonies. However, a Federal Court judge found in February 2015 that the ban unlawfully contradicted the federal Citizenship Act, and supported the right of individuals to wear face-covering veils for religious reasons. The ruling generated controversy during the election campaign, with Harper pledging to challenge it.

Academic freedom is generally respected. In May, several public sector unions staged demonstrations on behalf of federally funded scientists who voiced opposition to government interference in their work, particularly restrictions on sharing information about research. The scientists themselves did not protest for fear of losing their jobs. In November, Prime Minister Trudeau scrapped the restrictions, which had required federally funded academics to receive authorization before speaking to the press, among other things. An investigation into the scientists’ allegations by Canada’s information commissioner, launched in 2013, was ongoing at year’s end.


E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 12 / 12

Freedoms of association and assembly are generally respected. However, in November 2014, four UN special rapporteurs reported that they had received information that the National Energy Board (NEB), the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and the CSIS were engaged in systematic monitoring of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) slated to participate in NEB hearings about an oil pipeline. The rapporteurs voiced concerns that these activities did not have an adequate legal basis and could jeopardize the NGOs’ independence and safety. In January 2015, the Canadian government replied to these concerns, stating that the agencies had acted in accordance with legal standards. The UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association requested to make a country visit, but one had not been scheduled at year’s end.

Trade unions and business associations enjoy high levels of membership and are well organized. The outgoing Harper government had adopted a tough line with unions representing public workers, and had somewhat restricted the rights of workers to organize, strike, and bargain collectively. In January, the Supreme Court delivered two rulings in support of organized labor. In one case, the court declared a constitutionally protected right to strike; in the second ruling, it found that the RCMP had a right to unionize as part of their constitutional right to freedom of association.


F. Rule of Law: 15 / 16

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.

A 2012 anticrime law increased mandatory minimum sentences, provided for harsher sentences for young offenders, and eliminated conditional sentences such as house arrest or community service for some crimes. The 2013–14 Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator noted that the country’s prison population had increased by 17.5 percent since 2005. The number of visible minorities in prison has risen significantly in the last decade; while the indigenous population comprises about 4 percent of Canada’s population, they represent close to one-quarter of all inmates.

The government had made increasing efforts to enforce equal rights and opportunities for minority groups, although some problems persist. Members of Canada’s indigenous population remain subject to discrimination and have unequal access to education, health care, and employment. There are legal protections for the human rights of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people, although some reports of discrimination and hate crimes persist.

Immigration and asylum were widely discussed issues in the lead-up to the October 2015 elections, and the Liberal Party’s platform included a plan for the resettlement of 25,000 Syrian refugees by 2016. Trudeau prioritized resettlement after taking office, although he extended the deadline for completion until February 2016. Efforts to fulfill the plan were ongoing at year’s end.


G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 16 / 16

Freedom of movement is constitutionally protected and upheld in practice.

Property rights are not constitutionally protected, and a 2012 survey published by the Fraser Institute found that Canadian property rights were significantly weak in comparison with peer Western states. In a landmark ruling delivered in June 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada held that, unless they signed a treaty with the government, Canada’s indigenous populations still held title to their ancestral lands. The ruling also provided long-awaited details about the nature of indigenous title. However, the ruling may not necessarily afford indigenous communities a veto against government decisions on land where title claims have yet to be proven, which is the case for communities in much of British Columbia. In September 2015, the British Columbia Supreme Court rejected a First Nations challenge to a dam project, concluding that the government had fulfilled its obligations by providing the challengers with an opportunity to make their opposition heard.

Canada legalized same-sex marriage in 2005. Women’s rights are generally well protected in law and in practice. Women hold approximately 26 percent of seats in the House of Commons, 39 percent in the Senate, and one-half in the cabinet. However, some problems persist. Indigenous women and girls face racial and economic discrimination, high rates of gender-based violence, and mistreatment by police. In a June 2015 report, the RCMP concluded that the number of indigenous women and girls murdered between 1980 and 2012 was 4.5 times higher than the number of all other female homicides.

In 2012, Canada enacted the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking, and the government continued efforts in 2015 to hold perpetrators accountable and to improve resources available to victims.


Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

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