Freedom in the World
Following the defeat of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative minority government in a March 2011 vote of confidence over various scandals, the Conservative Party scored a major victory in parliamentary elections held two months later. The Liberal Party, Canada’s dominant party throughout most of its history, suffered a crushing setback, finishing in third place behind the New Democratic Party.
Colonized by French and British settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries, Canada was secured by the British Crown under the terms of the Treaty of Paris in 1763. After granting home rule in 1867, Britain retained a theoretical right to override the Canadian Parliament until 1982, when Canadians established complete control over their own constitution.
After a dozen years of center-left Liberal Party rule, the Conservative Party emerged from the 2006 parliamentary elections with a plurality and established a fragile minority government. Following setbacks in several of the 2007 provincial elections, the Conservatives expanded their position in the 2008 national elections. While capturing 143 seats in Parliament, the Conservatives failed to attain a majority. The Liberals, the principal opposition party, formed an alliance with the social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Quebec-based Bloc Quebecois, in an attempt to displace the Conservatives with a coalition government. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the leader of the Conservative Party, suspended Parliament in December 2008 to prevent a confidence vote, which his government was likely to lose.
The Conservatives triumphed in the May 2, 2011, parliamentary election, winning 166 seats, well over the 155 necessary to secure a majority government. Placing second, with 103 seats—well above its previous record of 43—was the NDP, which for the first time became the leading opposition party. The Liberals finished in third place with 34 seats, while the Bloc Québécois, which favors Quebec separatism, suffered a devastating defeat, with just 4 members elected to Parliament. The Green Party captured 1 seat.
The election was called after the parliamentary opposition voted on March 25 to hold the government in contempt for allegedly failing to disclose accurate costs for key programs, as well as other minor scandals. Harper has been criticized for adopting a polarizing governing style, which is regarded as unusual for Canadian politics, and for an adversarial stance toward the media. Under Harper, however, Canada weathered the economic crisis that struck the global economy in 2008 in notably better shape than the United States or most European countries, and the government’s record at economic stewardship ultimately swung the electorate in the Conservatives’ direction.
Canada is an electoral democracy. The country is governed by a prime minister, a cabinet, and Parliament, which consists of an elected 308-member House of Commons and an appointed 105-member Senate. Senators may serve until age 75, and elections for the lower house have been held at least every five years. However, a law enacted in 2007 stipulated that lower-house elections would be held every four years, with early elections called only if the government lost a parliamentary no-confidence vote. The British monarch remains head of state, represented by a ceremonial governor-general who is appointed on the advice of the prime minister. As a result of government canvassing, Canada has nearly 100 percent voter registration. Prisoners have the right to vote in federal elections, as do citizens who have lived abroad for fewer than five years.
Civil liberties have been protected since 1982 by the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but they are limited by the constitutional “notwithstanding” clause, which permits provincial governments to exempt themselves with respect to individual provisions in their jurisdictions. Quebec has used the clause to retain its provincial language law, which restricts the use of languages other than French on signs. The provincial governments exercise significant autonomy.
Canada has reputation for clean government and has a record of vigorous prosecution of corruption cases. It also enjoys a reputation of open government, although the media have complained that the Harper government is less open in its dealings with the press than its predecessors. In 2004, the Supreme Court upheld legislation that places a limit on the amount lobbying groups can spend on advertisements that support or oppose political candidates, a measure designed to prevent corruption. Canada was ranked 10 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The media are generally free, although they exercise self-censorship in areas such as violence on television, and there is concern that this tendency may also apply to coverage of the country’s minority groups, especially Muslims. There is a high degree of media concentration. Limitations on freedom of expression range from unevenly enforced “hate laws” and restrictions on pornography to rules on reporting. Some civil libertarians have expressed concern over an amendment to the criminal code that gives judges wide latitude in determining what constitutes hate speech on the internet. However, in 2009, the country’s human rights tribunal found unconstitutional an anti-hate speech law that targeted telephone and internet messages. The decision has had the effect of restricting the Canadian Human Rights Commission’s efforts to bring cases against alleged hate speech on the internet. In general, conditions for press freedom have improved in recent years. In 2010, the Supreme Court, while stopping short of issuing a blanket protection of journalists’ sources in a case involving a major political scandal, sent a strong warning that judges should force journalists to identify their confidential sources only as a last resort. Also in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled for the first time that the media has the right to publish confidential information provided by a source—even when the source has no right to divulge the information or has obtained it by illegal means.
Religious expression is free and diverse. In 2010, the Court of Appeals for Ontario ruled that women had the constitutional right to wear the niqab in court. Academic freedom is respected.
Freedom of assembly is respected, and many political and quasi-political organizations function freely. Trade unions and business associations enjoy high levels of membership and are free and well organized. The Harper government, however, has adopted a tough line with unions representing public workers. After postal workers called a series of rotating strikes in June 2011, the government pushed through a law that dictated the terms of settlement and compelled the workers to return to the job. Canadian unions denounced the maneuver as a violation of the right to strike.
The judiciary is independent. Canada’s criminal law is based on legislation enacted by Parliament; its tort and contract law is based on English common law, with the exception of Quebec, where it is based on the French civil code. While Canada’s crime rate is low by regional standards, it has experienced a growing problem from the growth of criminal gangs, often involved in the illegal drug trade.
Canada maintains relatively liberal immigration policies. However, concern has mounted over the possible entry into Canada of immigrants involved in terrorist missions. The 2002 Immigration and Refugee Protection Act seeks to continue the tradition of liberal immigration by providing additional protection for refugees while making it more difficult for potential terrorists, people involved in organized crime, and war criminals to enter the country. Canada has an immigration policy that gives preference to applicants with higher education or certain job skills. Unlike in Europe and the United States, Canada has generally avoided high levels of political polarization over immigration. Some, however, have objected to Canada’s policies of multiculturalism in education, law, and social life, and have raised questions about the high percentage of immigrants who hold dual citizenship. There is a growing controversy over the wearing of the niqab or burqa in public. In 2010, a bill was proposed in Quebec that would prohibit the wearing of either garment in public sector jobs, but it had not been enacted by the end of 2011.
The authorities have taken important steps to protect the rights of native groups, although some contend that indigenous people remain subject to discrimination. Indigenous groups continue to lag badly on practically every social indicator, including those for education, health, and unemployment. There are frequent controversies over control of land in various provinces. At the same time, government proposals to facilitate the assimilation of native groups have met with stiff opposition from the groups’ chiefs.
The country boasts a generous welfare system, including national health care, which supplements the largely open, competitive economy.
Women’s rights are protected in law and practice. Women hold 22 percent of seats in Parliament, have made major gains in the economy, and are well represented in such professions as medicine and law. However, women’s rights advocates report high rates of violence against women in indigenous communities. Canada in 2005 became one of the few countries in the world to legalize same-sex marriage.