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The Charter Birthday Got Old, Really Fast

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Thirty years later, how has the Charter of Rights and Freedoms changed Canada? Such was the Grade 12 civics question that gripped the nation's editorial pages this historic week, as pundits across the land churned out neat, double-spaced essays about the importance of codified constitutions in the era of human rights.

"Charter proves to be Canada's gift to the world," exclaims John Ibbitson at the Globe and Mail. "Don't hate us because our constitution's beautiful," says Adam Dodeck at the Post. If nothing else, we can safely say the Charter hasn't hurt Canada's ego.

Both guys have a lot of fun with the fact that some American scholars recently concluded that Canada's fresh and sprightly Charter is fast becoming a more globally admired document than the musty old U.S. Bill of Rights with all its "whereofs" and firearm-related amendments.

"In today's world," notes Professor Dodeck, "when American institutions and ideas are viewed with suspicion if not hostility, the Charter's international credibility increases simply by virtue of its not being American." Hard to get more proudly Canadian than that!

These things do cut both ways, though. As the Globe notes, opposition to U.S. Cruise missile testing also inspired a 1983 protestor to pour red paint all over the Charter, meaning anti-American sentiment is imbedded in our national document in more ways than one.

In any case, while we might agree that lots of foreigners love our Charter -- the "envy of millions," says Bernard Amyot, displaying classic Canadian modesty -- not all of Canada is necessarily on the same page. To much of the country's conservative punditocracy, the Charter's Pearl Jubilee is merely occasion for a snarky round of I-told-you-sos.

National Post opinions boss Jon Kay tries to pour cold water on what he calls the left's "almost spiritual reverence for the Charter," claiming it's "debatable whether the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has actually improved the stock of liberty in this country." Like most right-wingers, he's uppity about all the lefty stuff that's trickled out of the Supreme Court over the last 30 years in the name of Charter rights, including unregulated abortion, gay marriage, and taxpayer-subsidized needle dens for Vancouver junkies. (By the way, be sure to vote in the Globe's online poll and pick your favourite post-Charter instance of judicial activism gone amok!)

Lawrence Martin, meanwhile, concludes that almost everything bad that's happened in Canada over the last three decades -- Meech Lake, the 1995 Quebec Referendum, the sponsorship scandal, Stephen Harper's entire political career, etc. -- is directly attributable to the Charter in some form or another, and the jerkish way Pierre Trudeau rammed it through without Quebec's consent. "With its exclusion of Quebec," Lawrence writes, "the patriation exercise set in motion a fracturing of the country's unity that endured for more than a dozen years."

Not so fast, snarls Andrew Coyne. This entire "exclusion of Quebec" business is just a big ol' separatist lie told to solidify their power! He argues that if "the intervening decades were tumultuous, it had nothing to do with any reduction in Quebec's legitimate authority," since the Frenchies actually gained several powers -- "over resources, for example" -- from the post-Charter constitution they never had before. So pipe down!

Coyne's CBC buddy Chantal Hérbert agrees, noting that regardless of the unfortunate "political circumstances" of the Charter's adoption (a far more polite euphemism for Trudeau's antics than the Godwinian "Night of the Long Knives" trope most journalists use), as the most progressive province in Canada, Quebec has certainly benefitted from all the lefty Supreme Court stuff Jon Kay hates.

But it hasn't been all knives and French people; the Chartaversary features a lot of good ol' fashioned personal drama too. To a considerable degree, the only reason we're even talking about this Trigentennial at all, in fact, is because Jean "Architect of the Charter" Chretien got cranky when he noticed that no one seemed to be planning a surprise party in his honour.

Of course, David Akin on his Canoe blog notes that Chretien didn't exactly organize much of a barnburner himself back during the Charter's 20th anniversary,  but the rest of the press clearly felt sorry enough for the old guy to stage a couple softball interviews to cheer him up.

Chretien's whining also gave convenient pretext to cram this whole Charter thing into a partisan narrative, which is obviously is what we all wanted, right? Failing to properly celebrate the most inconsequential of the divisible-by-five anniversaries clearly reflects an underlying hatred for liberty itself, says the reliably uptight Haroon Siddiqui at the Star. Knock knock, says Haroon. "What does Stephen Harper dislike that almost all Canadians like? The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that's what."

Speaking as someone who was born in the post-Charter era, it would have been nice if at least one pundit, somewhere, had put some effort into describing what civil rights in Canada were like prior to 1982 (and no, a single allusion to the internment of the Japanese during World War II doesn't cut it). A political anniversary can only be meaningful, after all, if there's a true sense of history to the event in question; not only was something great done, but something equally significant was left behind.

As is too often the case in Canada, however, it seems this particular milestone of our heritage is merely one more weapon with which to fight the shallow battles of the present.