03/21/2012 10:36 EDT | Updated 05/21/2012 05:12 EDT

What We Should Remember Before Celebrating the Charter

Today marks the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. To the innocent ear, this United Nations commemoration may sound sterile, even awkward. But under this clunky nomenclature lies a history that resonates meaningfully as Canadians celebrate the 30th anniversary of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms this month -- particularly for those who came here seeking freedom from racial oppression.

Fifty-two years ago today, 69 people in Sharpeville, South Africa were massacred by police for demonstrating against the apartheid regime's restrictive laws. The young protesters' anger was fueled by the passbooks that black South Africans were forced to carry, outlining where they could work and live.

The event was a tragic tipping point in the anti-apartheid struggle. Political organizations were pushed to armed conflict as a result of brutal repression. And the international community bore witness. Vicki Bismilla remembers growing up in South Africa. "As an Indian woman in apartheid, I was born on the wrong side of the colour bar," she said. Classified as non-whites, Bismilla and her family were restricted in which job they could hold, where they could be educated, which ethnic groups they could mingle with, and where they lived. "We had no political rights, not even voting rights," said Bismilla. "The situation was horrible."

Bismilla immigrated to Toronto to escape fierce racial tension in her native Durban. But hearing Bismilla's story should not make Canadians smug. While this country has enjoyed a reputation as an international safe-haven, it was not long ago that the guaranteed rights granted to Canadians were quite limited.

This April marks just 30 years since we incorporated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms into our Constitution. Before the Charter, no comparable declaration existed that went as far to protect citizens against their own State and to protect minorities against parliamentary majorities. The Charter became a model for other countries' human rights documents and covers the gamut of fundamental, democratic, mobility, legal, equality, and linguistic rights.

The Charter, which followed two years of debate, was part of a larger package of legislation that opened up Canadian society to greater diversity and that would have an impact upon the population's makeup. New immigration rules between 1967 to 1977 opened up applications to people from anywhere in the world; Trudeau's much-debated multiculturalism policy of 1971 allowed minorities to protect their culture and fully participate in Canadian society; and the Charter specifically recognized multiculturalism as a Canadian value. Census figures from pre- and post-Charter years show significant shifts in the Canadian population. In 1971, only five per cent of the population was of non-European, non-White descent, whereas 25 years later, that fraction had more than doubled.

Of course, the Charter was not single-handedly responsible for making Canada more ethnically diverse. It did not eradicate discrimination, which persists in Canada, nor succeed in responding to the concerns of all minorities, such as those voiced in Quebec. But it did make official a growing belief that full membership in Canadian society should be equally accessible to all and it opened an important debate on exactly what it means to articulate that right. Whether the debate is over remains to be seen.

This March, Canadians should reflect on what it means to commemorate three decades under the Charter. One way to do so is by sharing stories of those who faced or continue to face discrimination at home or abroad to understand the impact of the Charter's legacy upon our fellow Canadians. Bismilla's story is an important reminder of our status as "a human rights leader" as she describes Canada. It may also remind us of the ongoing efforts that are needed to reinforce that position.