Fundamentals of Canadian Law
|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.
- 1 Canada's laws
- 2 Rights and freedoms
- 3 Your responsibilities
- 4 The rule of law
- 5 Who makes the laws?
- 6 Levels of government
Canada's laws express the values and beliefs of Canadian society. They aim to protect individuals and provide stability for society as a whole. They also aim to make sure there is a peaceful way to settle disputes.
Many Canadians have come to Canada from other countries. Some of these countries have laws and legal systems that are different from Canada's.
When people come to Canada, they bring ideas about the law that they learned in their own countries. They may be surprised to find there are many differences here. It is important for newcomers to know that the laws are not the same, and to understand the differences.
Where do Canadians get their ideas about the law?
Canada's legal system and political system first came from Britain. We also brought our ideas of personal rights and freedoms from Britain. In Quebec, parts of the legal system came from France.
The Canadian constitution is the set of rules that define 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 includes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (often called the "Charter"). The Charter lists Canadians' most important rights and freedoms.
The constitution, which includes the Charter, is the highest law in Canada. This means that governments must respect it whenever they pass a law, make a policy, or have day-to-day dealings with us.
Rights and freedoms
A person’s rights and freedoms are very important to Canadians. All Canadians have some important freedoms. In Canada, 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, and
- participate in peaceful political activities.
Everyone in Canada has legal rights. Some of your important legal rights are:
- the right to be thought of as innocent until proven guilty,
- the right to have a fair trial in court, and
- the right not to suffer cruel or unusual punishment.
All Canadians are equal
Equality is one of the most important values in Canada. Everyone in Canada is equal under the law. Laws in Canada apply to all people, including the police, judges, and those who work for the government.
People in Canada do not get better jobs because of the amount of money they have, their social class or gender. For example, in Canada, women can have the same jobs as men and all the same responsibilities.
There are many Canadian laws that protect your rights. Laws about human rights are one example.
Canada’s human rights laws protect you against unfair discrimination when you:
- use public services,
- buy or rent a home,
- look for a job, or
- deal with any government agency.
Discrimination is against the law in Canada. To discriminate against someone means to treat him or her differently from other people in a way that is unfair.
The law says that no one can discriminate against you because of your:
- race or birthplace,
- sexual orientation (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual or straight),
- marriage or family status (single, married, or living common-law), or
- mental or physical disability.
For example, it is against the law to discriminate against women. Women in Canada are equal to men. They are equal partners in the family, in business, in law, and in government.
Racial discrimination is illegal in Canada. It is against the law for anyone to discriminate against you because of the colour of your skin, or the country you or your ancestors came from.
In the same way that the law protects you from discrimination, the law says you have a responsibility to respect other people’s rights. For example, your right to freedom of religion means you must 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.
- For example: Irena doesn’t approve of gay couples. Her culture and religion doesn’t accept them. However, in Canada, she cannot discriminate against them.
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.
- For example: When you rent a place to live, 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 neighbors. And your neighbors have a responsibility not to make noise that disturbs you.
The rule of law
The rule of law means that we recognize and accept that we need laws to regulate society. We must find a way to live together peacefully. Laws exist to help us do this. The rule of law is a fundamental principle of Canadian democracy. The Charter states that the rule of law is one of the principles upon which Canada was founded.
The rule of law means that the law applies equally to everyone. No one is above the law. Our politicians, police officers, and wealthy individuals must all obey the law. Under the rule of law, Canadians have a responsibility to respect the laws even if they disagree with them. This means you must obey a law even if you don’t like it.
Who makes the laws?
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.
When Canadians vote, we give consent to the party that wins the election to make our 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 in order 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 you want a law to change, you 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 slow, peaceful change is best.
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 BC election, you must 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, online at www.elections.ca.
Levels of government
In Canada there are three levels of government: federal, provincial, and municipal. The Canadian constitution describes what the federal government is responsible for, and what the provincial governments are responsible for. The provincial governments can give some of their responsibilities to the municipalities.
We have a federal government for the whole country. It is called the Government of Canada. 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.
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.
We also have local government in our cities and towns. The elected representatives are called councilors. 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
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 laws about employment.
Municipalities, cities and towns have the power to make local laws about such things as streets, parking and noise. The laws for municipalities, cities and towns are called bylaws.
Canada has a Queen
Queen Elizabeth II, who lives in Britain, is the Queen of Canada. The elected representatives have the political power in Canada. The Queen’s role is symbolic.
Canadians often say “The Queen” to mean the elected government of Canada and all of its laws. This is because the Queen and her representative in Canada, the Governor-General, are the symbolic head of Canada.
All new Canadians promise to be loyal to the Queen and her laws.
|This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by People's Law School, 2013.|
|Learning about the Law Wikibook © People's Law School is, except for the images, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.|