Democracy and Rights: A Canadian Perspective

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"TEXT 1756.","Canadian Speeches: Volume 14, #06, January/February 2001.","Chief Justice Of Canada.","Democracy and rights: a Canadian perspective.","BEVERLEY McLACHLIN.","Democracry. Rights. Constitution. Judiciary.","Individual and group rights are the cement that holds together the diverse cultures, religions, languages, races and ethnic groups that constitute Canada. But group rights paradoxically both promote and conflict with individual rights. Canada's ability to reconcile individual and group rights is seen as key to it history of peace, prosperity, and the fulfillment of its citizens. Given tolerance and mutual respect, Canada's history suggests that recognition of group rights may offer progress to the problem of ethnic divisions that besets many countries. Address at a Conference of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, Jerusalem, Israel, December 19, 2000."," A visitor from a distant planet dropping in on my county, Canada, might be forgiven for feeling confused. Her first impression would be of a prosperous, peaceful country. People of all races, colours and cultures live together in relative harmony. As everywhere on earth, violence occurs, but its levels are low. Women, gays and members of minority groups occupy prominent positions in business and government. Health services are good and the standard of living is high. And if to confirm her initial impressions, she consulted the United Nations Human Development Index, she would find her initial impressions confirmed: Canada is the best country in the world in which to live. Of course, the UN Index doesn't take Canadian winters into account, but that's a minor quibble of no account to we northerners who revel, or so we pretend, in ice and snow.

But on a closer examination, our inter-galactical observer might begin to wonder if Canada is as peaceful and prosperous as it at first seemed. She would read in the papers that a substantial number, albeit a minority, of people in the Province of Quebec profess that they would like to establish their own country. On the television news at night she might see the spectacle of Aboriginal fishers who want to take lobster out of season off the coast of New Brunswick shouting at federal fisheries officers who want to stop them. She might hear women complaining that they still are not equally represented in government, the courts and big business, and gays complaining that they can't be legally married. And if she wandered into the local shopping mall she might hear people grumbling about another boatload of Asians who just landed off British Columbia's shores. And if our visitor happened to land in the middle of an election campaign like the one that just concluded, she would also hear people arguing about organized crime, child poverty, western alienation and whether we should have a law against abortion. She might well be forgiven for asking: is Canada really a stable, peaceful prosperous country? Or is it a "basket case" about to fall apart?

The answer is that Canada is a complex multicultural country made up of many different groups and individuals pushing their own agendas and protesting loudly about what they see as injustices. But the answer is also that we really are simultaneously a stable, peaceful, prosperous country. We are a stable, peaceful prosperous country because we have learned to accept and accommodate our conflicts and differences. How have we done this? Through the political process to be sure. But even more, through the process of rights. Fundamental rights, both individual and group, are the language through which, more than any other, we work out the myriad accommodations and compromises that make our life together possible.

Today, I would like to share with you a few thoughts on the Canadian experience with nationalism, democracy and peaceful coexistence, and how our acceptance of individual and group rights -- "rights talk" (1) -- helps to make it work.

First, I pause for definitions. …