The Canadian Charter Era

From around 1931 (when Canada became independent from British law) to 1982, Canadian law operated according to a principle known as parliamentary supremacy. According to this theory, with Britain out of the way, there was basically no authority higher than the Canadian Parliament when it came to deciding what was legal and what was not. Any decree passed by Parliament was the law, end of story. If you didn’t like it, too bad.

Parliamentary supremacy ended in 1982, when the Canadian Constitution was reformed and a new thing called the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was added. The Charter declared that some human rights were so important that no law could be passed that violated them. So if, say, the Canadian government passed a law that said all Japanese people had to be rounded up and sent to camps because we were at war with Japan, that law would be unconstitutional, because the Charter forbids parliament from passing a law that discriminates against race or nationality.

1982 thus heralded in a bold new age of Canadian law, sometimes called the “Charter Era.” It’s a new era in which the rights of all Canadians are much more clear and easily protected than in previous decades, but also one in which judges and lawyers have gained a great deal of power, as we shall see.

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