The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the Charter) is an important part of Canada’s constitution and is the ultimate law in Canada. It transformed Canada into a constitutional democracy and is our most significant legal accomplishment. Under the Charter, the constitution (as interpreted by the courts), rather than government, is the supreme source of all law. This is achieved through s. 52, which states that any law which is inconsistent with it “is of no force or effect.” The Charter applies to governments and others acting on their behalf.
As stated by the Supreme Court of Canada in Reference re Secession of Quebec,  2 SCR 217 at para 72:
The essence of constitutionalism in Canada is embodied in s. 52(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982, which provides that “[t]he Constitution of Canada is the supreme law of Canada, and any law that is inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution is, to the extent of the inconsistency, of no force or effect.” Simply put, the constitutionalism principle requires that all government action comply with the Constitution. The rule of law principle requires that all government action must comply with the law, including the Constitution. This Court has noted on several occasions that with the adoption of the Charter, the Canadian system of government was transformed to a significant extent from a system of Parliamentary supremacy to one of constitutional supremacy. The Constitution binds all governments, both federal and provincial, including the executive branch (Operation Dismantle Inc. v. The Queen,  1 S.C.R. 441, at p. 455). They may not transgress its provisions: indeed, their sole claim to exercise lawful authority rests in the powers allocated to them under the Constitution, and can come from no other source.
The Charter’s purpose is to protect basic rights and freedoms that are essential to maintaining Canada as a free and democratic society. Those rights and freedoms are not to be intruded on by the state unless it is able to demonstrate to the court’s satisfaction that to do so was “demonstrably justified” in a free and democratic society. The onus of demonstrating this is on the state.
The rights and freedoms protected by the Charter include freedom of religion and conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of peaceful assembly, the right to a democratic government, the right to live and seek work anywhere in Canada, rights to life liberty and security of the person, legal rights for people accused of committing crimes, rights for Indigenous peoples, the right to equality including gender equality, the right to use Canada’s official languages and the right to an education in the minority language of French or English.
Some of the Charter’s provisions have been considered in numerous lengthy and involved Supreme Court of Canada decisions. Others remain in their infancy. Still others remain quickly developing areas of law.
A common misconception is that the Charter only applies to legislation. This is not correct. Even assuming constitutionally valid legislation, the state’s conduct in and if itself can be challenged under the Charter.
The Supreme Court of Canada has stated on many occasions that the Charter must be viewed as “a living tree capable of growth and expansion.” For example, in Reference Re Provincial Electoral Boundaries (Sask.),  2 SCR 158, Justice McLachlin stated at 180 that:
The doctrine of the constitution as a living tree mandates that narrow technical approaches are to be eschewed… It also suggests that the past plays a critical but non-exclusive role in determining the content of the rights and freedoms granted by the Charter. The tree is rooted in past and present institutions, but must be capable of growth to meet the future. As Dickson J. stated in R. v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd., supra, at pp. 343-44:
…the Charter is intended to set a standard upon which present as well as future legislation is to be tested. Therefore the meaning of the concept of freedom of conscience and religion is not to be determined solely by the degree to which that right was enjoyed by Canadians prior to the proclamation of the Charter. [Emphasis in original.]
Never has the “living tree” been more relevant than in recent years, as the lives of so many Canadians have been ravaged in the wake of severe government policies arising from fears over covid-19. As of the time of writing, many of those policies have yet to be meaningfully adjudicated in the courts.
In spite of certain statements by politicians and the media, large numbers of Canadians do not support vaccine mandates or harsh public policies. The ripple effects of these policies may last for decades. Some who have been charged or otherwise punished for violating such restrictions have achieved success or partial success fighting them in court or in administrative hearings, or have been successful in out of court efforts to have such charges or sanctions dropped.
Our rights are only as good as the extent to which we enforce them. If you have been detrimentally impacted by harsh policies of a public body, whether in relation to covid-19 or otherwise, seek legal advice immediately.