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ARCHIVED - Building a Just Society:
A Retrospective of Canadian Rights and Freedoms

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Severn Cullis-Suzuki

Freedom and Rights

Freedom and rights: the meaning of these words depends on your life experience. Being a biracial person, it's only a few generations ago that I would have been a second-class citizen, evidence of the sin of interracial relationships. And being female, I might not be considered quite a person at all. Growing up in Canada today, things have changed -- life is pretty good! My rights to participate in this democracy, and my freedom as a citizen, have never been threatened.

Photograph of a group including Indian immigrants at the Canadian Pacific Railway station in Frank, Alberta, circa 1903
Source
A group including Indian immigrants at the Canadian Pacific Railway station in Frank, Alberta, circa 1903

I might take the words freedom and rights for granted if it weren't for my family and friends' collective memory. I am all too aware of the good timing of my life, and that I have benefited from generations of people fighting for social justice. In the kitchen, my mom, an immigrant and soldier in the feminist movement, reminds me that while we still have to push for social reform on many levels, our society has come a long way since she was my age, baby! Dad reminds me, in his work, outlook on life, and drive, how thoroughly he was shaped by experiences of prejudice and government oppression as a Canadian kid of Japanese descent on the west coast during the Second World War. And my many friends in First Nations communities have made me aware of the history of great injustice Canadians of different skins have suffered. And so, when reading the Charter, I think of the background from which it comes. Reading the section on democratic rights I remember the right to vote for every Canadian was not a reality until late in the 20th century. Women in Quebec only got the vote in 1940. It was only at the end of WW2, in 1948, that Japanese-Canadians got the right to vote. And they were lucky -- the first Canadians, aboriginal people, didn't get the vote until 1960. Though the Charter states the franchise is the right of every citizen of Canada, it was not until 1988 and 2002 did mental health patients and prison inmates receive their right to vote. I am amazed by how recently these rights were established.

Cover of a book by Michel Bélanger entitled LA RECONNAISSANCE D'UN DROIT FONDAMENTAL À UN ENVIRONNEMENT DE QUALITÉ, 1990

Cover of a book by Michel Bélanger entitled La reconnaissance d'un droit fondamental à un environnement de qualité, 1990
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Cover of a book entitled TEACHING AS ACTIVISM: EQUITY MEETS ENVIRONMENTALISM, 2005

Cover of a book entitled Teaching as Activism: Equity Meets Environmentalism, 2005
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Though late, at least they have been declared. We are not perfect, but the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a declaration of the values we want for this society. It's not a boastful declaration of who we are, but a set of values we claim to believe in, and to which we continually aspire. We can be idealistic without being naïve. We can be critical without being jaded. Lined up on a single page, these values make one proud to be Canadian, and I am glad to have grown up in the lee of this document. Reading its noble values and ideals I feel lucky, proud, and safe. Clearly, we have evolved as a society.

It was with this contented attitude that I casually asked my Dad how he felt about our official definition of Rights and Freedoms. And after exchanging a few thoughts I am suddenly questioning my confidence. He asked: Has the strength of this document been tested? Has the robustness of its power been proven? What about our resolve to live up to its ideals? He reminded me that the Charter's entire lifetime has been a time of prosperity and peace. He reminded me that he and his parents were born in Canada, that they had been a third generation Canadian family enjoying their citizenship, living normal lives, when an act of war prompted the government to suddenly remove their freedom. He reminded me that the ideals are only as good as their strength under threat. It's easy to assert that all citizens are entitled to rights when there are no problems; the real test is when the country is stressed.

Photograph of Japanese-Canadian women being relocated by train to internment camps in the interior of British Columbia, 1942

Japanese-Canadian women being relocated by train to internment camps in the interior of British Columbia, 1942
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Postage stamp depicting stylized Canadian flag and coat of arms, commemorating the patriation of the Constitution, 1982

Postage stamp depicting stylized Canadian flag and coat of arms, commemorating the patriation of the Constitution, 1982
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Letter describing a resolution by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, calling for an enquiry concerning the fundamental concepts of liberty, democracy, law, and legality, December 24, 1948

Letter describing a resolution by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, calling for an enquiry concerning the fundamental concepts of liberty, democracy, law, and legality, December 24, 1948
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And suddenly the fragility of these ideals is evident. Are our rights and freedoms ensured in times of war and threat? We have yet to find out. I am sure every parent hopes that their child will not know oppression; yet the irony of growing up free of the experience of prejudice is that it leaves us less vigilant. Without having lived the experience of prejudice, we must still guard our rights, must somehow remain aware enough to protect our fragile, beautiful ideals.

I am only one generation away from being interned by the government in the mountains of B.C. I wonder how watchful my generation is. In the ebb and flow of history, there will certainly be times of strife ahead. This week (June 2006), we saw the uncertainty and fear of terrorism amongst our own people, and media condemnation of suspects before having a fair trial. This week, in multicultural Ottawa, my immigrant cab driver denounced all practitioners of the suspects' faith, and declared that Canada should shut its doors to all immigrants. Those are dividing lines in peaceful times.

The test of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is really still ahead.
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Further Research

Severn has been involved in social and ecological issues all her life, and is passionate about encouraging young people to speak out for their future. She is pursuing a Master's project in ethnoecology which draws on perspectives she has been exposed to all her life -- the natural world, traditional beliefs, science, societal trends and the politics of interests on the Northwest Coast. She believes her pursuit of traditional and scientific understanding will help her promote a culture of diversity, sustainability and joy.

"Everyone has the ability to be a revolutionary: Cullis-Suzuki." The Gateway.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Severn_Cullis-Suzuki
(accessed December 16, 2010).