Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, enacted in 1982, represents a fundamental departure from a long tradition of British common law. In an insightful submission to the Senate last June, E.L.R. Williamson observed that the constitution framed five years ago by a handful of Canadians involved “far-reaching changes devoid of any roots in Canada’s traditions and past experience; changes which had not grown by adaptation to perceived needs; and there was no general anticipation that they would bear healthful fruit. On the contrary, it was ideologically conceived, fashioned at a single blow, and forced in haste upon an un-understanding public. In consequence, it has swiftly decayed and now is perishing in the waters of Meech Lake.
The Charter has been widely praised because it reflects the dominant view of politics and the state in Canada today. That view is disdainful of our ties with the past and especially, of any sense of abiding moral norms. In other words, political life is not directed by any given principles or standards, but people in politics (and in every other area) create their own values, which change along with changing circumstances. Thus historical circumstances themselves determine the values we adopt.
This relativistic (“there is no truth”) world-view pervades contemporary thought. Philosophers refer to it as “the autonomy of man”; in everyday language it is called “doing your own thing” and “if it feels good, do it.” Confusingly, this supposed autonomy and freedom of the individual has little defence against that intangible tyrant, the “General Will,” which is usually just the loud voice of the strongest lobby. Inspired as it is by the modern concepts of human autonomy and relativism, the Charter will not enhance our rights and freedoms but will, instead, destroy them. The evidence of this destruction already surrounds us, visible to those who wish to see.
In recent years, the view of politics described above has already much weakened the natural and institutional ties that bind people together in the so-called mediating structures, of which the family is the most important. Consider the many ways in which that institution is now systematically undermined. Family and marriage are often portrayed as a form of bondage for women and a place of oppression for children; a politicized feminism labels all differences between men and women as discrimination and demands egalitarian remedies; human rights codes and a vocal lobby promote the idea that a homosexual lifestyle is normal and respectable; the task of nurturing children is relegated to “society”; and equality legislation is being used to eradicate the remnants of a Christian civilization.
This list could be lengthened considerably. Suffice it to say that when rights and freedoms are isolated from a sense of historical continuity and from respect for given norms, the bonds linking people together in institutions such as marriage, family, church, school and so on are seriously weakened. When these bonds break and the institutions no longer function as they ought, many look to the state to provide security and social integration. Insofar as it reflects the antihistorical and anti-institutional mindset described here, the Charter will not reinforce the nonstate structures (the only true barriers against political (despotism) but will further undermine them.
Harry Underwood, a Toronto lawyer, has shown how drastic a break Canada has made with our legal and constitutional tradition in his analysis of the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1985 decision to set aside the Lord’s Day Act on the basis of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He is convinced that this decision does not protect the long-accepted concept of freedom of religion (as the Lord’s Day Act works no religious oppression) but that it in fact proposes freedom from religion. This position implies that “the only person whose interests are worth serving in our society is the atheist,” he writes. According to Underwood, “‘freedom of religion’ will henceforth connote the right to require the State to eliminate ‘reminders’ of the Christian religion. This is a long, long way from the protection of individual liberties” (“Sunday at the Supreme Court,” The Idler, May 1986, pp.33-37).
Underwood’s evaluation may strike some as being overly critical of the Supreme Court’s decision and thus of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, if we really want to preserve our precious heritage of freedom and justice, we must see the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for what it is: a document rooted in a thoroughly relativistic mindset that will deliver the very opposite of what it promises. We must test the spirit of our times in order to discern the true nature of the current political fads and warn against their destructive results.