Canada’s Political Secret

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Canada’s Political Secret

Pamela Pizarro

How is it that our neighbor to the north manages to enact the liberal legislation the U.S. can't seem to pass?

In Canada, religion has always played a part in politics. I don't think that this is unique to Canada – it's something that every country on earth has in common. Why shouldn't religion play a part, after all? For most of our recent history, religion has framed society's values and morality. And yet the idea that church and state should be separate is not new. In fact, centuries of politicians, political scientists, and philosophers argued that the state should not be influenced solely by the church.

In Canada the Liberal government in the late 1960s, and in specific Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau (whom would later become Prime Minister), began to revise laws which had in the past been dictated by the church's stance. The laws were those that dealt with divorce, abortion, and homosexuality. Trudeau famously said, "the government has no business in the bedrooms of the nation." Since then social conservatives in Canada have challenged the liberalization of these laws by saying that they are destroying Canadian society and the family. But each progressive government has moved forward with the help of another very important document that Trudeau as Prime Minister enshrined in our Constitution: the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

This Charter of Rights in Freedoms guarantees each Canadian citizen the right of non-discrimination. With the help of the Canadian Supreme Court and their interpretations of the Charter, many challenges to laws which could be seen as restrictive have been removed. Most recently, the Charter formed the basis for Canada's Same Sex Marriage Act. As same-sex couples began to challenge marriage laws that stated that marriage could only be entered into by a man and a women, the Liberal government under former Prime Minister Paul Martin passed a legislation that opened up marriage to twp people of any sex.

So why is it then that in Canada we have been able to pass laws that are inclusive and anti-discrimination, when our American counterparts are struggling on some very important issues, namely abortion and same-sex marriage? Is it that Canada is more liberal? That's unlikely – there are pockets of social conservatism all over Canada, and some of which are very, very powerful. Is it that religion doesn't play such an important role in our political life? Again, unlikely – the leaders of conservative parties who have been the official opposition to Canada's Liberal governments in the past have been headed by fundamentalist Christians including Preston Manning and Stockwell Day. Although our current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, can not be considered a fundamentalist Christian, he has strong ties to the Christian community, members of which are still very powerful inside of his party.

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I would argue that the difference is the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This Charter has single-handedly allowed Canadians of any race, creed, and orientation to protect themselves against anti-discrimination and challenge laws that are oppressive to their rights as individuals. It also helps that because the job of the Supreme Court of Canada is to interpret the Charter, and that most of the judges have been able to interpret without the bias of religion. Their main concerns are the rights of individual citizens as guaranteed by our charter. Whether or not politicians listen to their own religious biases in passing legislation is irrelevant when each citizen is protected by such a powerful document.