‘People are confused’: Survey suggests Canadians need education on Charter rights

By Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

While one-third of Canadians say they have read the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, many fail to distinguish between its text and that of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, a new survey suggests.

There is also significant division when it comes to whether Canadians agree with the opening line of the Charter, which sets the tone for the rest of the document.

“They feel they know it better than they actually do,” said Jack Jedwab, president of the Association for Canadian Studies, which commissioned the poll along with the Metropolis Institute.

“We need more Charter education, if you’d like. Or more Charter literacy.”

The results are based off of a web survey of 1,502 Canadians in September by the Leger polling firm. Online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error because they are not considered truly random samples.

Jedwab’s association released the findings to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the United Nations adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Dec. 10, 1948.

The survey asked respondents whether they had read the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which was signed in 1982, and 33 per cent answered that they had.

That is compared to 62 per cent of participants who said they had not, and a remaining five per cent who responded that they either did not know or preferred not to answer.

When asked a yes-or-no question echoing the Charter’s introductory statement — “Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law” — 38 per cent of respondents said they agreed, compared to 37 per cent who said they did not. One-quarter said they didn’t know or preferred not to answer.

Jedwab said the results are more striking when narrowed to those who said they had actually read the document.

Those who did were more likely to agree with its opening line, but that still only amounted to 47 per cent.

Of those who said they hadn’t read the document, nearly two-thirds either disagreed with it or said they didn’t know or preferred not to answer.

Jedwab suggested that the division can be traced to how respondents felt about the reference to God, since Canadian society sees itself as secular.

Many Canadians also fail to understand the difference between the Charter and the rights outlined in the U.S Declaration of Independence, the survey suggests.

Asked whether everyone living in Canada has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, 88 per cent of respondents answered “yes,” compared to only nine per cent who answered “no” and three per cent who declined to provide a response.

There is no reference to the “pursuit of happiness” in the Canadian document, which instead refers to “life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.”

“We don’t know our Charter sufficiently well,” Jedwab said. “Even if we purport to know it.”

The survey also tested Canadians’ knowledge of whether the federal government can limit rights.

The Charter allows that to happen under the notwithstanding clause. Provincial governments in Ontario, Quebec and Saskatchewan have stirred debate in recent years for using the clause pre-emptively.

Among those who said they have read the Charter, nearly 65 per cent of respondents answered “yes” when asked whether the Canadian government can limit their rights, compared to 24 per cent who said “no.”

Just over half of those who hadn’t read the document agreed the government can limit their rights, versus about one-third who said it can’t.

When it came to which rights Canadians rank as the most important, Jedwab said the findings show respondents prioritized individual rights ahead of group minority rights.

For example, asked to rank in order which Charter rights need the most protecting, 17 per cent of respondents chose freedom of expression first, followed by the right to privacy and then gender equality at 14 per cent and 13 per cent, respectively.

Freedom of assembly and freedom of religion were each picked first by five per cent of participants, while three per cent of respondents ranked minority language rights as their top selection.

“The rights of vulnerable minorities are not getting ranked as highly on the scale,” Jedwab said.

A separate survey that Leger conducted for the same groups asked Canadians whether they felt everyone is born with an equal chance of succeeding.

The findings suggest a big generational gap on that belief, Jebwab said.

About 51 per cent of respondents between 35 and 44 answered “yes” to the question of whether everyone is born with an equal opportunity to succeed in Canada. That jumps to 60 per cent or higher for those aged 55 and older.

But less than one-third, or 32 per cent, of respondents aged 18 to 34 agreed with the statement.

Jedwab said he thinks the gap reflects the economic challenges younger generations are facing, including with housing affordability.

“The ability to own a home or purchase a home right now is very challenging for that younger generation right under 35.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 10, 2023. 

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