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Canadian Bill of Rights

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The Canadian Bill of Rights was enacted by the Parliament of Canada on August 10, 1960 under the leadership of Prime Minister Diefenbaker, who had been campaigning for the protection of human rights since he became a Member of Parliament in 1945. Concern for civil liberties had surfaced during this time partly in response to the atrocities and human suffering which occurred during the Second World War. Further impetus for human rights protection under domestic law came in 1948 with the adoption of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights which had a clear and significant influence on the Bill of Rights. For example, the original wording of Section 2(b) of the Bill was identical to Article 5 of the Declaration.

The preamble of the Bill of Rights affirms the dignity and worth of the human person. Part I declares that there exist in Canada, without discrimination, certain human rights and fundamental freedoms such as the right to equality before the law and equal protection of the law, freedom of religion, speech, assembly and association, and the right to be free from arbitrary detention or punishment. In guaranteeing these rights and freedoms in law for the first time, the Bill of Rights was an important step towards advancing and protecting the human rights of Canadians.

The landmark case decided under the Bill of Rights was the 1970 decision in R. v. Drybones. In this case, the defendant challenged a provision of a federal statute as being inconsistent with his right to "equality before the law" as guaranteed in Section 1(b). The Supreme Court of Canada held that the Bill of Rights could have the effect of rendering other federal statutes inoperative in the face of an inconsistency. In this case, a provision of the Indian Act provided for harsher penalties for Aboriginal persons intoxicated off a reserve than for non-Aboriginal persons intoxicated in a public place. This provision was clearly found to be discriminatory and rightfully rendered inoperative by the court.

A notable articulation of the legal rights of prisoners was expressed in the 1969 case of R. v. Institutional Head of Beaver Creek Correctional Camp. In a disciplinary hearing, a federal inmate claimed that he had been denied his right to a fair hearing as guaranteed in Section 2(e) of the Bill of Rights. In rendering judgement, the Ontario Court of Appeal commented that "an inmate of an institution continues to enjoy all the civil rights of a person save those that are taken away or interfered with by having been lawfully sentenced to imprisonment". The court held that the principles of natural justice had to be observed when the civil rights of a prisoner as a person were impaired and that such decisions were reviewable by the courts. Following this judgement, the Correctional Service of Canada amended some of its policies relating to inmate discipline to provide for better procedural due process.

Most provisions of the Bill of Rights have been replicated and enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, 1982. The Charter, being entrenched in our Constitution, is the supreme law of Canada and applies to both federal and provincial acts of government. However, the Bill of Rights remains in force today and still has application to federal statutes.