What it Means
Section 32 - What does the Charter apply to?
The Charter applies to all government laws and actions. All laws in Canada must respect the rights and freedoms that people have under the Charter.
If an institution is carrying out a government program, it may have to meet the requirements of the Charter. For example, agencies like school boards, human rights commissions and labour relations boards are covered by the Charter because their authority is from government laws. The Charter can apply to the delivery of health care service by a public hospital because the health services are regulated under government laws to achieve government goals. If a government has given a professional society the legal power to regulate its profession (like lawyers or doctors), the Charter can apply to the professional regulation.
All parts of the Charter, except section 15 (equality rights), came into force on April 17, 1982. Section 32(2) delayed section 15 by three years so that governments had time to update laws and programs to meet equality rights requirements.
Private disputes and human rights
The Charter is not used directly in disputes between private businesses or individuals, but government human rights laws must reflect the values of the Charter. Provincial human rights laws apply to individuals and private business. Such laws are used to make sure that equality rights are respected in daily life. There are links to human rights commissions in the "Resources" located on the top menu of this website.
Section 33 - Can governments avoid the Charter?
The Charter applies to the federal and provincial governments. When people speak of the "notwithstanding clause" in the Charter, they are referring to section 33. This section gives the federal parliament and provincial governments a limited way to avoid Charter requirements of fundamental freedoms, legal rights or equality rights.
To use section 33, a government has to formally declare that the law being passed is not covered by a particular section of the Charter. Such a declaration can last up to five years. If a government wants such a law to continue after five years, it must make a new declaration.
Section 33 was added at the last moment in late 1981 when the Charter was being created (see History). By adding this section, there was sufficient agreement from provinces to have a Constitution for Canada that included a Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Section 33 is not often used by provinces. The Quebec government used it to override Charter rights to freedom of expression, when it passed a "French only" law for public signs.
A government cannot use section 33 to ignore democratic, mobility or language rights under the Charter.