Opinion: Hearts of fallen soldiers still beat in our justice system

To mark Remembrance Day, LAA President and CEO John Panusa writes: "Our nation rallied together to shield our democratic rights, embodied now in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms."

November 10, 2020
LAA President and CEO John Panusa

Lest we forget. Those three words are properly the cornerstone of our Remembrance Day celebrations. I’d like to add several hundred more to them and reflect on exactly what we should not be forgetting.

Countless lives were lost. Countless more injured and broken. Tragic beyond description but our remembrance can’t stop where the headstones begin. They gave us an invaluable gift and each year we have an obligation to carefully open the box to remember what’s inside.

Our nation rallied together to shield our democratic rights, embodied now in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Charter includes powerful words: freedom of religion, thoughts, expressions, life, liberty, security of the person, and so many others.

As formidable as those words are, it is our justice system that breathes life into them. It is the forum where the fundamental purpose of our law – to constrain power – is exercised. Your rights have little meaning if the state or others are not constrained in their use of power against you.

“The Charter includes powerful words: freedom of religion, thoughts, expressions, life, liberty, security of the person, and so many others. As formidable as those words are, it is our justice system that breathes life into them.”

Legal Aid Alberta President and CEO John Panusa.

Legal Aid Alberta President and CEO John Panusa.

Some of the first significant Charter cases to land in our courts called out abuses of power and strongly protected the presumption of innocence (R. v. Oakes), liberty of the person (Reference Re B.C. Motor Vehicle Act), and unreasonable search or seizure (Hunter v. Southam Inc.).

During World War 2, a very different societal construct was put forward. One in which vicious power was exercised against individuals based on their group affiliations: Jewish people, along with other ethnicities, homosexuals, dissidents, those struggling with mental health, and so on. The list of groups was large and captured millions of people who faced no limits on the exercise of power against them, and unimaginable numbers perished.

Is our justice system flawed? It’s far from perfect, no question. But I interact with people across the country who are laser focused on making it better for everyone. At Legal Aid Alberta – and at legal aid plans across the nation – we give a voice to those who would otherwise have none in our courts. We protect the rights of our most vulnerable and by doing so we uphold the tenets of democracy and freedom for all.

So many sacrificed everything, let’s remember and not forget. I have these conversations at the dinner table with my daughters. That’s how we do remembering. Please have these conversations with your friends and family.

And let’s all summon the courage to call out the exercise of unconstrained power that has no place in our glorious country.

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LAA President and CEO John Panusa writes about the pandemic and access to justice in The Globe and Mail.