Protection of Civil Liberties

By: The Hon. Peter Harder

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Parliament from across the Ottawa River, Ottawa

Hon. Peter Harder: Honourable senators, soon we will mark the third anniversary of the passage of Bill 21, the controversial Quebec law which prohibits the wearing of religious symbols by teachers and other public servants working in that province.

While the infringement of constitutionally entrenched liberties — which this bill represents — is alarming, equally alarming are the persistence of this injustice for so long a period of time and the worrying example the use of the notwithstanding clause sets for other jurisdictions.

As the anniversary approaches, I am drawn to these observations: First, the continued existence of this law underscores the duty of every citizen to stand up in defence of civil liberties for all Canadians because each time we diminish the civil liberties of anyone, we demean them for everyone. Second, the less we are personally affected by any diminution of civil liberties, the greater our responsibility is to object on behalf of those who are most aggrieved. Third, the compromise of any civil liberty becomes more offensive the longer it remains in place. So long as it remains extant, the responsibility to push for its repeal increases with each passing day. We must not become inured to a compromise of civil liberties simply because it becomes familiar.

Allowing for restrictions on civil liberties within a federal state like ours is an especially dangerous path. It creates a temptation for one jurisdiction to ignore an attack on liberty within another, perhaps in the hope that their own transgressions will be simply ignored. This threatens the creation of a patchwork quilt of civil liberties which changes each time we cross an internal boundary.

Moreover, when we tolerate a restriction on our own civil liberties, we sacrifice our capacity to object to similar or even greater restrictions in other countries. This remains true even if we have acquiesced to the compromise of a civil liberty in only our smallest province. Protecting the liberties of Canadians anywhere in the country is thus a responsibility for Canadians everywhere in the country.

We live in a world where, in many countries, civil liberties are extremely restricted or non-existent. To diminish our nation’s capacity to hold other countries to account is to deprive the world of a champion for liberty, which it so sorely needs.

The unwarranted restrictions on civil liberties that we have tolerated in our past, usually to the detriment of specific communities of citizens, speak to the vigilance that is required to protect all our civil liberties for everyone in the present.

Our liberties and our responsibilities go hand in hand. Protecting them is one of our greatest responsibilities for ourselves and for future generations. They are a prerequisite for a tolerant, pluralistic, multicultural society. They are an essential component of human dignity, social cohesion and respect for our fellow citizens. They must be protected and promoted whenever they are under threat.


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