Sharing the honour

By: Annalee Grant
Reporter, Cranbrook Daily Townsman

Federal Heritage Minister James Moore and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson released a short press release to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Right and Freedoms. They had the following to say:

“Today marks the 30th Anniversary of the Proclamation of the Constitution Act of 1982, which was formally signed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on April 17, 1982, in the presence of tens of thousands of Canadians on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

This anniversary marks an important step in the development of Canada’s human rights policy. Building on Diefenbaker’s Canadian Bill of Rights of 1960, the Constitution Act of 1982 enshrined certain rights and freedoms that had historically been at the heart of Canadian society into a constitutional document known as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

They unfortunately left out one very, extremely important person in all this – and I know, I mention his name in the west at my own peril – Pierre Elliot Trudeau.

The ministers’ message suggests that John Diefenbaker was responsible for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Trudeau’s own principal secretary, Tom Axworthy, later said Diefenbaker’s contribution was invaluable to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“In 1982, the Constitution was finally amended and the Charter came into force,” he wrote. “But this would never have happened if John Diefenbaker had not lit the way with his lifelong dedication to human rights.”

Diefenbaker’s Bill of Rights was significant in Canadian history, but it had some significant issues that were later fixed with Trudeau’s Charter. The Bill of Rights was criticized because as a federal statute, Parliament could change it at any time, it only applied to federal matters and it did little to protect equality rights.

When Diefenbaker died in 1979, Trudeau commended him for his Bill of Rights.

“I was struck by his vigorous defence of human rights and individual liberties. The Bill of Rights remains a monument to him,” Trudeau said.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms remains a monument to Trudeau, who passed away in September 2000.

I am certainly proud that Diefenbaker was able to create the Bill of Rights and Freedoms. He was the only politician of his time who dared wade into the debate of human rights, and I commend him for that.

I wonder how Diefenbaker would have responded had the Constitution Act been amended while he was still alive. I certainly know how he felt when he began the long jog to have the Bill of Rights created;

“I am a Canadian, a free Canadian, free to speak without fear, free to worship God in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, free to choose those who shall govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and all mankind.” John Diefenbaker, 1960.

On the anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, can we not leave out the partisan push to re-brand Canadian history in Tory blue? Can’t ministers Nicholson and Moore utter the “T” word positively, just once and acknowledge that an opposing political party contributed greatly to something started by their own prime minister?

Because when Trudeau signed the Charter of Rights and Freedoms into law alongside Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II on April 17, 1982, he used a Grit-red pen when he crossed the T in Trudeau, and no one can deny it changed our world as we knew it.

Originally published April 20, 2012.

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