The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is part of Canada's Constitution - the supreme law of Canada. The Charter holds our common values as a nation.
Governments are guided by the Charter in making laws. Courts are guided by the Charter in applying laws. Individuals, associations or the government can ask the courts to decide how the Charter applies to different situations.
Before the Charter, there often was little that could be done about unfair laws passed by an elected government. Sometimes there was no protection for minority rights or fundamental freedoms. Think about the difference that the Charter would have made to pre-Charter events in our history. For example:
1884 - Indian Act outlaws cultural and religious ceremonies, like potlatches
1900 - Chinese Immigration Act sets head tax at $100
1900 - Dominion Elections Act prevents minorities from voting in elections
1928 - Supreme Court rules that women are not "persons" under the law
1928 - Alberta government passes a law ordering sterilization of patients in psychiatric hospitals
1940 - Communist Party is outlawed under the War Measures Act
1942 - Japanese Canadians have their property taken away and are sent to internment camps
1960 - Status Indians were not allowed to vote until 1960. Under the pre-Charter Indian Act, Aboriginal women lost their Indian status if they married non-Aboriginal men.
The Charter has brought changes to laws that discriminate against people because of personal characteristics or prejudices. With the Charter, Canadian society has a clearer recognition of human rights and freedoms, and ways to enforce these rights.
The Charter gives us tools to see that our rights and freedoms are respected by governments and laws. If a law or government action violates the Charter, we can ask a court to address this. The courts can strike down laws that violate the Charter.