A country’s Constitution is the set of rules that everyone must follow for it to run well. We should all resist those who want to by-pass it. Especially Canadians who support organizations like ours, who advocate for a better world.

3D rendering of a gavel on a wooden desktop and the Canadian flag in background

Canada joined many modern democracies when it adopted a new constitution in 1982 that protected key individual freedoms under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The “Charter” guarantees broad equality rights as well as fundamental freedoms, democratic rights, mobility rights, legal rights and language rights.

Unfortunately, many of these rights (except democratic rights) can be overridden quite easily by provincial legislatures or federal Parliament through the use of the “Notwithstanding Clause”. The inclusion of this clause in any new bill being passed by a legislature in Canada removes it from oversight and review by the Courts for any infringement on fundamental freedoms, legal rights and equality rights for a period of five years.

The inclusion of the Notwithstanding clause in our Charter of Rights is unique among Constitutional democracies. It was unused for decades and was often referred to by commentators as the “nuclear option” that governments would always avoid employing out of fear of public backlash.

Well the button has been pushed a number of times now, first by the Quebec government in its effort to favour the French language and then even more ominously by others to override equality provisions for sexual minority rights.

Most recently, the Leader of the Opposition Pierre Poilievre has indicated he will use it to override citizen legal rights within the Criminal Code if he becomes Prime Minister.

Why should this escalation be worrisome for civil society organizations and those who support them?

In 2014, the federal government –  in which Mr Poilievre was a Cabinet Minister – was very eager to suppress the voices of organizations like Environmental Defence (and others) who spoke out about the risks of climate change and Canada’s oil and gas industry’s contributions to it. Organizations were targeted for Canada Revenue Agency audits and Ministers publicly attacked the organizations’ (legal) funding sources and described them as “radicals”.

A federal government using the Notwithstanding clause could use its criminal or tax law setting powers (these are fortunately not available to provincial governments) to silence the voices of specific organizations. These changes would not be appealable to the Courts even if they blatantly violated guaranteed charter rights.

Organizations speaking about the risks of climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution or other environmental, social or economic harm could be silenced with no legal recourse.

This possibility is concerning, not only for protecting our environment, but also for protecting our fundamental guarantees of freedoms contained in our Constitution. This is a risk to our families, communities and society. Please help us spread the word about this distressing trend of overriding fundamental rights and freedoms of Canadians. Share this link on your socials today.