1998 Scores

Status: Free
Freedom Rating: 1.0
Civil Liberties: 1
Political Rights: 1


The status of Quebec continued to be the most contentious issue in Canadian politics. Four years after Canada's divisive 1995 referendum on independence for Quebec, separatism for the province remained a primary political issue. Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard has periodically threatened to hold another referendum on the province's status. In the meantime, Prime Minister Jean Chretien's Liberal government, which was narrowly re-elected in 1997, worked to strengthen Canada's federal system.

Colonized by French and British settlers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Canada came under the control of the British Crown under the terms of the Treaty of Paris in 1763. After granting home rule in 1867, Britain retained a theoretical right to overrule the Canadian Parliament until 1982, when Canadians established complete control over their own constitution. The country is governed by a prime minister, his cabinet, and the parliament. The parliament includes an elected 301-member House of Commons and an appointed 104-member Senate. The British monarch remains nominal head of state, represented by a ceremonial governor-general appointed by the prime minister.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Canadians can change their government democratically, and due to government canvassing, Canada has nearly 100 percent effective voter registration. Prisoners have the right to vote in federal elections, as do citizens who have lived abroad for less than five years. In the 1993 elections, the government held three days of advance voting for people unable to vote on election day.

In 1995, a federal law prohibiting the broadcasting of public opinion poll results two days prior to and during federal elections was upheld. A 1988 act to limit all forms of cigarette advertisement, however, was struck down as a violation of free speech. After passage in the House of Commons, a modified, less comprehensive bill was passed by the Senate in 1997.

The judiciary is independent. Limitations on freedom of expression range from unevenly enforced "hate laws" and restrictions on pornography to rules on reporting. Recently, there have been complaints that the judiciary has become overly activist and has issued decisions that have theeffect of usurping the powers of the legislature.

The media are generally free, although they exercise self-censorship in areas such as violence on television.

Civil liberties have been protected since 1982 by the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but have been limited by the constitutional "notwithstanding" clause, which permits provincial governments to exempt themselves by applying individual provisions within their jurisdictions. Quebec has used the clause to retain its provincial language law, which restricts the use of English on signs. The provincial governments, with their own constitutions and legislative assemblies, exercise significant autonomy. Each has its own judicial system as well, with the right of appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Canada's criminal law is based on British common law and is uniform throughout the country. Its civil law is also based on the British system, except in Quebec, where it is based on the French civil code.

In 1996, parliament amended the constitution to outlaw discrimination based on "sexual orientation" by adding this term to a 1977 Human Rights Act list that includes age, sex, race, religion, and disability. Canada has also taken important steps to protect the rights of native groups. In April, Canada created a new territory, Nunavut, consisting of regions of the country's vast North. The new territory is largely populated by Inuits, an indigenous group.

Canada boasts a generous welfare system that supplements the largely open, competitive economy. Property rights for current occupants are generally strong, but increasing Indian land claims have led to litigation and strained relations between the government and Canadian Indians.

Trade unions and business associations enjoy high levels of membership and are free and well-organized.

Religious expression is free and diverse, but religious education has been the subject of controversy in recent years. Many provinces have state-supported religious school systems that do not represent all denominations.

Despite restrictions announced in 1994, the flow of immigrants into the country remains strong. Concern has been expressed about the possibility of terrorists taking advantage of the country's liberal immigration policies. In August, there were demands for a crackdown on illegal immigrants after several boatloads of undocumented Chinese landed on Canada's western coast.

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