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Human Rights in Canada: An Historical Perspective

First Attempt at a Human Rights Charter:
The Canadian Bill of Rights

Ottawa, Canada
August 10, 1960

Ever since its passing, Canadians wanted a Universal Declaration of Human Rights put into practice. Many called for a bill of rights to be added to the British North America Act, 1867, but all attempts to agree on amending the Act end in failure. Complications over jurisdiction concerning property, language, criminal law, and religion made reaching a consensus difficult. Frustrated by this squabbling, Prime Minster John Diefenbaker's government unilaterally adopts the Canadian Bill of Rights.

The Bill recognizes the following freedoms:

"1. It is hereby recognized and declared that in Canada there have existed and shall continue to exist without discrimination by reason of race, national origin, colour, religion or sex, the following human rights and fundamental freedoms, namely:

  1. the right of the individual to life, liberty, security of the person and enjoyment of property, and the right not to be deprived thereof except by due process of law;
  2. the right of the individual to equality before the law and the protection of the law;
  3. freedom of religion;
  4. freedom of speech;
  5. freedom of assembly and association;
  6. freedom of the press."

It also states that no law - unless it expressly says so - shall be interpreted or applied in a way that violates the rights recognized by the Bill.

The Canadian Bill of Rights did have its shortcomings:

First, it does not apply to provincial laws since it's not in the Constitution.

Secondly, the courts never really take it seriously. Judges find that it only applies to existing rights, and so they are hesitant to use the Bill to expand rights or strike down any laws. Again, because it is not part of the Constitution, it does not necessarily overide other existing laws.

Although the purpose of Canadian Bill of Rights is noble, its effectiveness proved to be limited.


The Parliament of Canada, affirming that the Canadian Nation is founded upon principles that acknowledge the supremacy of God, the dignity and worth of the human person and the position of the family in a society of free men and free institutions;

Affirming also that men and institutions remain free only when freedom is founded upon respect for moral and spiritual values and the rule of law;

And being desirous of enshrining these principles and the human rights and fundamental freedoms derived from them, in a Bill of Rights which shall reflect the respect of Parliament for its constitutional authority and which shall ensure the protection of these rights and freedoms in Canada:

Therefore Her Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate and House of Commons of Canada, enacts [The Canadian Bill of Rights].

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Canadian Bill of Rights