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The Charter 25 Years Ago

The McGill Institute for the Study of Canada set a new high standard for all conferences (serious or otherwise) when it packed the Omni Hotel Conference Centre in Montreal last Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to discuss the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms of 1982 at the “Charter @ 25” Conference.

It was a serious and informative look back at the great changes which took place 25 years ago to our Canadian Constitution, when the Charter was added, thus reversing en bloc the disenfranchisement of immigrants, aboriginal Canadians, religious and language groups, and the general public, at the hands of foreign and local corporations. And the greatest winners would seem to have been women, who were also predominant at the conference and who, for example, now compose about 60% of Canadian university students.

The Director of the McGill Institute is a woman - Dr. Antonia Maioni – herself a mother of young children and a bundle of energy, enthusiasm and optimism.

The opening speeches last Wednesday - late afternoon and evening - by Thomas Axworthy (Trudeau’s advisor), Louis Bernard (René Lévesque’s advisor), Senator Hugh Segal (Brian Mulroney’s advisor) and Edward Goldenberg (John Chrétien’s advisor) set a high tone for the conference. Then followed a lively question and answer period, concluded by excellent wine and hors d’oeuvres, which reached an even higher level.

The next two days of the program began punctually at 08:30 in the morning and continued until late in the evening, with wine, lunch, dinner and frank, lively discussions by such persons as former Prime Minister Joe Clark, former cabinet ministers, past and present justices, drafters of the Charter and participants in legal battles of historical importance. It was a serious and fun conference, ending up with a light-hearted, yet thought-provoking debate between Canadian Supreme Court Justice Ian Binnie and U.S. Supreme Justice Antonin Scalia.

There were, of course, notable absences, in particular Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Robert Bourassa and René Lévesque, but their influence was omni-present. Also absent was a whole panoply of modern separatist stalwarts, in particular Jacques Parizeau, Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry. But their influence should be front and centre when the Institute presents next year’s program, which could well be “The Charter 25 Years Hence!”

Most interesting were throw-away probes into the future by some of the speakers, who expect great changes in the Canadian Constitution. For my part, may I prophesy that 25 years from now, separatism and even federalism will be much less important in Canada because of foreign influences such as China, India and the emerging nations of Africa and South America, which even now impose their economic muscle on our federal and provincial businesses. Will not China and India, 25 years from now, exercise more influence over our lumber and aluminum industries than the Province of Quebec or Canada? It was a thought-provoking conference!

William Tetley, C.M., Q.C.
McGill Law Faculty
3644 Peel Street
Montreal, H3A 1W9

(Mr. Tetley was MNA for NDG from 1968-1976 and a cabinet minister in Robert Bourassa’s first Cabinet from 1970 to 1976.)

(514) 398-6619 (McGill)
(514) 733-8049 (residence)
Email: william [dot] tetley [at] mcgill [dot] ca (William Tetley)
Website: http://www.mcgill.ca/maritimelaw

WT/ Feb. 18, 2007. The Charter 25 Years Ago – The McGill Institute For The Study of Canada Conference (Wednesday, Thursday & Friday, February 14, 15 & 16, 2007)