In September 2009, two University of Windsor law students were chatting outside their first-year access-to-justice class about all things legal. One of them mentioned the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and suggested it would be funny for public figures to recite it.
Upon realizing the Charter would turn 30 in the same year as their graduation, they thought it would be a good chance to spread awareness about this important document. And so, with the help of about 30 other Windsor law students, the Charter Project was born.
Two and a half years later, the Charter Project is now a registered charity with the aim of engaging Canadians in a dialogue about the Charter. It was officially launched at Osgoode Hall in Toronto on March 13. Co-founders and 3L students Byron Pascoe and Michael O’Brien expressed their gratitude, especially to the Law Foundation of Ontario, which has provided substantial funding to the project.
Former Ontario chief justice and attorney general Roy McMurtry attended the launch. As one of the Charter’s architects — he was involved in the negotiations of the 1981 Kitchen Accord, which played a key role in the patriation of the Constitution — he reflected on how much politics have changed over the past 30 years.
“I think of the many months that I worked with Jean Chrétien and Roy Romanow to assist in reaching of a consensus,” he said. “It wasn’t until later that I realized that the three of us represented three different political parties, three different regions of the country, three different linguistic and cultural traditions. It was a form of nonpartisanship, which unfortunately I don’t think could exist in Ottawa today given the excessive partisanship that seems to have taken over.”
Ontario Lieutenant Governor David Onley, whose son Robert is studying law at Windsor, was the event’s keynote speaker. He suggested Canadians don’t always realize how lucky they are to have the Charter.
“I believe that most Canadians feel sufficiently confident in our political system . . . so the discussion about rights and freedoms is very much secondary in people’s minds to concerns about things like the economy, the environment, and even our favourite sports teams,” he said. “And I suggest for this we should probably be grateful.”
He added that people around the world are fighting and dying for the rights and freedoms that Canadians enjoy.
Charter Project co-founder O’Brien said it’s important to reflect on the successes and failures of the Charter. “A generation’s about a perfect time to be able to reflect on achievements and question whether or not you’ve met your mark. And if you haven’t met your mark, what can we do in order to get there?”
Although it may not be evident to the average Canadian, O’Brien said the Charter has a huge impact on our lives, and it should be celebrated.
“This is a constitutional document about rights and freedoms that underpin the values of our society and it actually affects our everyday lives. And I think it’s important that people try to find out why and how.”
But he acknowledged that average Canadians — who aren’t in the legal profession or law students — generally don’t have a thorough understanding of the Charter.
“Before I went to law school, I knew very, very little about the Charter, and I had a Charter in my house when I was growing up! It wasn’t until I was in law school that I started to appreciate and understand the way that it impacts your everyday lives,” he admitted.
There are several key initiatives of the Charter Project, including public service announcements featuring Canadian celebrities such as Rick Mercer, Paul Gross, Howie Mandel, and Alex Trebek. As of March 16, Cineplex Media will be airing the videos in theatres leading up to the Charter’s anniversary on April 17. The students are also in discussion with several TV networks to air the videos.
The Charter Project has partnered with the Canadian Bar Association to develop workshops for high school students on Law Day to provide education about the Charter. Another initiative involves on-camera interviews with legal experts such as former Supreme Court of Canada justices Ian Binnie and Frank Iacobucci, Ontario Ombudsman André Marin, criminal lawyer Patrick Ducharme, and several Windsor law professors.
They are also trying to raise funds to establish a social justice fellowship to enable a law student to work for a Canadian social justice organization during the summer months.
As the majority of the students involved with the Charter Project will be graduating this year, O’Brien said they are working on their succession plan but it will definitely continue on.
“It’s important for law students to get involved because we’re getting into a profession that’s a public service profession and we need to be able to serve the public and connect with the public,” he said.