Fundamentals of Canadian Law
|This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by People's Law School in February 2023.|
|This page is used in the Fundamentals of the Law Lesson Module, a law-related ESL lesson for newcomers to Canada.|
In this section, you will learn about Canada's laws, your rights and responsibilities, and how the laws are made.
The laws in Canada
Canada's laws express the values and beliefs of Canadian society. They aim to protect people and provide stability for society as a whole. They also aim to make sure there is a peaceful way to settle disputes.
Multiple legal systems
There are multiple legal systems in Canada. European settlers brought the English and French legal systems to Canada. Today, most of the country follows laws rooted in English common law. The province of Quebec follows civil law, which came from France. When we say “Canada’s laws,” these are the laws we’re talking about.
As well, Indigenous laws exist. They operate at the same time as common law and civil law in Canada. Indigenous legal systems were disrupted by colonialism. Indigenous communities across the country are rebuilding their distinct laws in a variety of ways.
Canada’s colonial past and present
The people who are Indigenous to Canada belong to three groups — First Nations, Métis, and Inuit. Indigenous Peoples have lived on these lands for thousands of years. When settlers arrived, there were many distinct Indigenous societies. Each had its own thriving systems of government and laws, cultures, and languages.
European colonizers did not take Indigenous laws or worldviews seriously. Over time, they imposed their laws and policies on Indigenous Peoples. They did this to take control of Indigenous Peoples and benefit from the lands.
When Canada was formed in 1867, the government introduced laws that aimed to erase Indigenous Peoples as distinct peoples. Yet Indigenous Peoples and cultures have survived and adapted. Indigenous Peoples continue to fight colonial policies and laws that threaten their communities and land.
Reconciliation is everyone’s responsibility
Governments have started to accept responsibility for how their actions hurt Indigenous Peoples. This is due to the efforts of Indigenous Peoples. All Canadians are called to a lifelong process of reconciliation.
For newcomers to Canada, a first step is to learn the truth about past and present injustices. You should also learn about the Nations on whose land you live and work. Learn about their histories, cultures, languages, and the issues facing them today.
Rights and responsibilities
Canada has a constitution. It sets out the powers of the government and the rights of the people. It says how we want to govern ourselves and structure our society.
The constitution is the highest law in the Canadian legal system. Governments must respect it whenever they pass a law, make a policy, or have day-to-day dealings with us.
The rule of law
The constitution states that the rule of law is one of Canada’s founding principles. This principle recognizes that we need laws to manage society. They help us live together peacefully.
The rule of law means that no one is above the law. Everyone — including politicians, police officers, and wealthy individuals — must obey the law. All Canadians must respect the law even if they disagree with it. This means you must obey a law even if you don’t like it.
Rights and freedoms
Canada’s constitution includes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (often called the "Charter"). It highlights key freedoms all Canadians enjoy. For example, you can:
- speak freely
- believe in any religion or no religion
- meet with or join any group (except a terrorist organization)
- live and work anywhere in Canada
- participate in peaceful political activities
The Charter also spells out key legal rights. For example, everyone in Canada has the right:
- to be thought of as innocent until proven guilty
- to have a fair trial in court
- to not suffer cruel or unusual treatment or punishment
The Charter also sets out equality rights. Everyone in Canada has the right to the equal protection and benefit of the law, without discrimination. This means that the laws in Canada must be applied equally to all people, regardless of personal characteristics such as race, sex, sexual orientation, age, or disability (among others).
Laws against discrimination
Canada's laws help protect you against unfair discrimination when you (among other things):
- use public services
- buy or rent a home
- look for a job
- deal with any government agency
To discriminate against someone means to treat them badly or unfairly because of certain parts of their identity. These include:
- race, colour, ancestry, Indigenous identity, or place of origin
- sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression
- marital or family status
- physical or mental disability
Discrimination is against the law in Canada. For example, it is against the law to discriminate against women. Women in Canada are equal to men. They can have the same jobs as men. They are equal partners in the family, in business, in law, and in government.
That all said, the reality is that people living in Canada are not always treated equally. For example, women often face wage discrimination. The law says this is not okay.
As well, there are laws, policies, and practices that create and uphold discrimination. This is called systemic discrimination. For example, anti-Indigenous racism is embedded in many of our laws and institutions. Governments are starting to come to terms with this. In BC, the Office of the Human Rights Commissioner works to shift discriminatory laws, policies, and cultures.
The law offers you protections, such as from discrimination and unfair treatment by others. The law also places responsibilities on you.
When you rent a place to live, for example, you have the right to the quiet enjoyment of your home. Your neighbours also have this right. This means you have a responsibility not to make noise that disturbs your neighbours. And your neighbours have a responsibility not to make noise that disturbs you.
In a similar way, your freedom of religion means you must also respect the beliefs of others. You must respect the rights of other people even if you don’t like or don’t approve of those rights.
“My co-worker Iryna used to disapprove of LGBTQ+ couples. Her culture and religion doesn’t accept them. I and others helped her learn that in Canada, it’s against the law to discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation, or their gender identity or expression. She has become much more accepting of people who identify as LGBTQ+.”
– Nina, Burnaby, BC
You also have responsibilities to the community as a whole. Because you can make use of social services in Canada, you must pay your share of the taxes that finance those services. Canadian laws aim to balance rights and responsibilities.
How laws are made
Canadians vote for people to represent us in government. The people who get the most votes become our elected representatives. It is their job to make the laws.
To vote in any election, you must:
- be a Canadian citizen,
- be at least 18 years old on election day, and
- be on the voters’ list.
To vote in a British Columbia election, you must also have lived in the province for the six months before voting day. To find out how to get on the voters list for a federal election, go to Elections Canada at elections.ca.
Who makes the laws
When Canadians vote, they give consent to the party that wins the election to make the laws.
The elected politicians can propose new laws or bills. A bill is what a law is called before it becomes a law. These bills are debated to decide whether or not they should become laws. The goal of the debate is to explore all possible effects of a bill, both good and bad. After the debate, there is a vote. If the majority of our elected representatives vote for the bill, it can become a law.
Changing the laws
If someone wants to change a law, they can work with other Canadians to seek change through peaceful means. Canadians write letters, organize political protests, work with political parties, or join groups of people who have the same ideas as they do. Working in this way, groups may succeed in persuading the government to change a law. Changing a law takes a lot of time and work but Canadians believe that peaceful change is best.
In Canada, there are different levels of government: federal, provincial, and municipal.
Levels of government
The federal government, called the government of Canada, acts for the whole country. The elected representatives of the federal government are members of Parliament, often called MPs. They meet in Ottawa. The leader of the federal government is called the prime minister.
The Parliament in Ottawa has two sections: the House of Commons and the Senate. The House of Commons is where members of Parliament debate and vote in order to make laws. The purpose of the Senate is to review proposed laws to make sure they are the best they can be.
Provinces and territories have their own governments. British Columbia, like other provinces, has a provincial government. In BC, the elected representatives of the provincial government are members of the Legislative Assembly, often called MLAs. They meet at the legislature in Victoria. The leader of the provincial government is called the premier.
Canada also has local (municipal) governments in cities and towns. The elected representatives are called councillors. They meet at city hall or town hall. The leader of the municipal government is called the mayor.
Each level of government has different responsibilities
Each level of government makes laws on what they are responsible for. The federal government has the power to make laws that affect the whole country. Examples are citizenship and immigration laws, and criminal laws.
Provincial governments, such as the province of British Columbia, have the power to make laws that apply only in that province. Examples are landlord and tenant laws, and most laws about employment.
The provincial governments can give some of their responsibilities to municipalities.
Municipalities, cities, and towns have the power to make local laws about things such as streets, parking, and noise. These laws are called bylaws.
Canada has a king
King Charles III, who lives in Britain, is the king of Canada. But the king and his representative in Canada, the governor-general, are the symbolic heads of Canada. It is the elected representatives (described above) who have political power and make laws in Canada.
Governance in Indigenous communities
Indigenous Peoples have the inherent right to self-determination. The source of this right is not Canadian law. Indigenous Peoples have been self-determining for thousands of years. Indigenous communities have their own ways of organizing themselves and resolving disputes.
When Europeans arrived, they forced foreign systems of governance on Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous communities are working to regain control over matters that are essential to their ways of life. Each community has unique needs and goals.
Some Indigenous communities have chosen to negotiate self-government agreements with the federal government. These communities have control over their own affairs. This can include making their own laws, deciding how to spend money, and delivering services within their community.
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