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Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms more critical than ever

“Six years of deprivation of freedom,” Adil Charkaoui said as he snipped his electronic house arrest bracelet upon his release from a Security Certificate three years ago.  "Two years in jail, four years with this bracelet and draconian conditions.”

Today, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms turns a venerable 30 years old – its “Pearl Anniversary,” if you will, making it nearly as old as Charkaoui himself. The occasion should not simply be celebrated as an important step towards democracy in this country – but as a reminder of the risks of unbridled government power, even (and especially) here in the “True North Strong and Free.”

Let us not be under any illusion that this vital document will protect us from our government; it merely offers a belated remedy to its own violation.

When I met the now 38-year old Charkaoui just after his release, in Toronto, the loss of years of his freedom – nay, theft of his life, his family, his reputation – was a stirring reminder that the Charter only goes so far, and only serves those abused by the state too late.

Citizenship and Immigration minister Jason Kenney defended locking Charkaoui and other Muslim-Canadian men away for so long.

“I read the protected confidential dossiers on such individuals, and I can tell you that, without commenting on any one individual, some of this intelligence makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck,” he said. “I just think people should be patient and thoughtful and give the government and its agencies the benefit of the doubt.”

Need I be clearer: the state should never deserve the “benefit of the doubt” when it comes to fundamental freedoms. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms may be imperfect, and imperfectly enforced, but a country without it would be a frightening one, indeed.

Amidst media's rightful pontification and celebration and reflection marking the rights document's 30th anniversary, let us not let this important occasion whitewash a document that remains controversial, unequally enforced, and too-easily evaded by an over-zealous government.

I rarely concur with National Post columnist Andrew Coyne, but on the constitution we tend to find agreement: Canada's Charter is both flawed and crucial, notwithstanding its "exceptions and escape hatches, most notoriously the notwithstanding clause," Coyne argues.

Therein lies what many see as the fatal flaw of "democratic" constitutions: after hard-fought battles for civilian rule, the rulers always saw fit to allow a way out, a manual override, a self-destruct button of sorts. Canada's allows the state to temporarily suspend our most cherished of laws if deemed necessary.

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