The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

GUEST COLUMN: On rights, freedoms, and wearing masks

The Charter guarantees our rights and freedoms ‘only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law’

Corey La Berge | Contributed

Over the past couple of months, I have read and heard people complaining that government restrictions in response to COVID are an infringement of their “rights.” When we are inundated with a great deal of misinformation, please accept the following as the perspective of a practising lawyer.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as a part of the Canadian Constitution, is the highest law of the land. It does include things like the right to life, liberty and security of the person, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. These rights are not absolute.

The government is lawfully permitted to put limits on our rights and do so regularly. Being required to obey the speed limit and wear a seatbelt or a helmet is arguably an infringement on our liberty, likewise when we are incarcerated or subject to a probation order for committing a crime.

However, the first section of the Charter provides that the Charter guarantees our rights and freedoms “only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

Governments can impose limits on our rights and freedoms and do so regularly. We can’t merely claim the freedom to do as we wish. In exchange, we receive the benefits of living in a reasonably peaceful and orderly democratic society.

Our tax dollars shouldn’t pay for the consequences of irresponsible decisions not to wear a seatbelt, or speed, not wear a helmet, or drink and drive. It is somewhat reassuring to know that people can’t rob us in our home or harm us without consequences to their freedoms imposed by the state.

Our provincial legislature is free to enact laws that empower public health officers to make public health orders intended to protect the public. Public health officers doing their best to apply evidence-based decision making in very novel and challenging circumstances are reasonably empowered to impose restrictions on our liberties. We may not always like it or agree with their decisions, but so long as the restrictions can be demonstrably justified, no court will find that we have a right not to wear a mask and flout rules around gathering.

One only needs to look to our neighbours to the east to see a province that has failed to follow the advice of their public health officers, been too lax around imposing restrictions, only to be confronted with unnecessary deaths, suffering, overworked and overrun hospital staff, and conversations about opening Red Cross field hospitals to see that no court is likely to find the restrictions we’ve been experiencing in B.C. to be unjustified or without rational connection to their objective.

As for “natural rights,” like beauty, these tend to be in the eye of the beholder. So no, you won’t find me endorsing, nor will you find any court supporting, a “natural rights” argument that we are being treated unfairly or somehow being violated.

You can arguably claim anything is your “natural right” — as some folks who have tried to claim to be independent sovereign states have attempted to do. Natural rights support your right to be a vigilante, steal property, or anything else you define it to do. They aren’t practical or realistic for any modern society.

Moreover, they are easily countered by the rest of us’ natural rights, claiming that it is our right not to have people in our space, not wearing masks in the middle of a pandemic. Or our right not to have our families exposed to a virus you don’t know if you have or not.

One final thing. The Charter only applies to the government. Charter rights do not apply in the private sector. Please don’t complain to a place of business that they violate your Charter rights – that’s impossible. Instead, it’s the Human Rights Code that applies against businesses to prevent things like discrimination. However, they are free to comply with public health directives and ask you to wear a mask and distance.

Businesses can ask you to wear a shirt, not bring in a backpack, wear a mask or whatever they like so long as they aren’t discriminating per the code.

If you want to support the economy and local business, then do as you are asked, don’t jeopardize the health and safety of owners and staff, don’t hassle them for complying with the law, and don’t expose them to being fined by trying to exercise your definition of natural rights by flouting compliance.

Let’s, please be kind to one another, respect one another’s distance, wear a mask and avoid gathering as we are quite lawfully and rightfully being directed.

•••

Corey La Berge is a B.C. lawyer.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Rachna Singh, MLA for Surrey-Green Timbers, is the Parliamentary Secretary for Anti-Racism Initiatives. (Photo courtesy of flickr.com/photos/bcgovphotos)
A micro brewery is being eyed for Jordan River. However, the site where the brewery is proposed still needs to go through the rezoning process. (Black Press Media file)
Micro brewery proposed for Jordan River

Jordan River Brewing Company envisions to build wholesale, sit-in brewery along Highway 14

Traffic waits at the intersection of Highway 17 and Beacon Avenue. A study found failing levels of service at the intersection of Highway 17 and Sidney’s Beacon Avenue for multiple movements during morning peak traffic and for all left-moving traffic during afternoon peak traffic. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
Province supports potential interim improvements to Sidney intersection

Province says interchange is the long-term plan for intersection of Beacon Avenue and Highway 17

Oak Bay local Lachlan Kratz (red, middle) has signed with pro rugby team NOLO Gold in Louisiana. (Contributed photo)
Oak Bay local signs with pro rugby team

Lachlan Kratz at 21 is now NOLO Gold’s youngest member

Vancouver resident Beryl Pye was witness to a “concerning,” spontaneous dance party that spread throughout social groups at Kitsilano Beach on April 16. (Screen grab/Beryl Pye)
VIDEO: Dance party erupts at Vancouver’s Kitsilano Beach to the dismay of onlookers

‘It was a complete disregard for current COVID-19 public health orders,’ says Vancouver resident Beryl Pye

Lord Tweedsmuir’s Tremmel States-Jones jumps a player and the goal line to score a touchdown against the Kelowna Owls in 2019. The face of high school football, along with a majority of other high school sports, could significantly change if a new governance proposal is passed at the B.C. School Sports AGM May 1. (Malin Jordan)
Power struggle: New governance model proposed for B.C. high school sports

Most commissions are against the new model, but B.C. School Sports (BCSS) and its board is in favour

Russ Ball (left) and some of the team show off the specimen after they were able to remove it Friday. Photo supplied
Courtenay fossil hunter finds ancient turtle on local river

The specimen will now make its home at the Royal BC Museum

Pall Bearers carrying the coffin of the Duke of Edinburgh, followed by the Prince of Wales, left and Princess Anne, right, into St George’s Chapel for his funeral, at Windsor Castle, in Windsor, England, Saturday April 17, 2021. (Danny Lawson/Pool via AP)
Trudeau announces $200K donation to Duke of Edinburgh award as Prince Philip laid to rest

A tribute to the late prince’s ‘remarkable life and his selfless service,’ the Prime Minister said Saturday

B.C. homeowners are being urged to take steps to prepare for the possibility of a flood by moving equipment and other assets to higher ground. (J.R. Rardon)
‘Entire province faces risk’: B.C. citizens urged to prepare for above-average spring flooding

Larger-than-normal melting snowpack poses a threat to the province as warmer weather touches down

Vancouver-based Doubleview Gold Corp. is developing claims in an area north of Telegraph Creek that occupies an important place in Tahltan oral histories, said Chad Norman Day, president of the Tahltan Central Government. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO)
B.C. Indigenous nation opposes mineral exploration in culturally sensitive area

There’s “no way” the Tahltan would ever support a mine there, says Chad Norman Day, president of its central government

Stz’uminus Elder George Harris, Ladysmith Mayor Aaron Stone, and Stz’uminus Chief Roxanne Harris opened the ceremony. (Cole Schisler photo)
Symbolic red dresses rehung along B.C. highway after vandals tore them down

Leaders from Stz’uminus First Nation and the Town of Ladysmith hung new dresses on Sat. April 17

A Western toadlet crosses the centre line of Elk View Road in Chilliwack on Aug. 26, 2010. A tunnel underneath the road has since been installed to help them migrate cross the road. Saturday, April 24 is Save the Frogs Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Progress File)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of April 18 to 24

Save the Frogs Day, Love Your Thighs Day and Scream Day are all coming up this week

The Attorney General’s Ministry says certain disputes may now be resolved through either a tribunal or the court system, pending its appeal of a B.C. Supreme Court decision that reduced the tribunal’s jurisdiction. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Court of Appeal grants partial stay in ruling on B.C. auto injuries

B.C. trial lawyers challenged legislation brought in to cap minor injury awards and move smaller court disputes to the Civil Resolution Tribunal

Most Read