A legendary former Supreme Court judge talks about our fundamental freedoms

Join Maclean’s for a Hot Docs Q&A with Ian Binnie to explore our Charter in a unique event, live in Toronto or on macleans.ca on Apr. 29

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A Canadian flag blows in front of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ont., Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Sometimes it takes an anniversary to remind us of some important fact about life in Canada. But sometimes it doesn’t. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms falls in the latter category.

When the document that defines our rights reached its 35th anniversary on April 17, federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould issued the requisite statement marking the occasion. For anyone who follows the news even a little, though, the Charter hardly needs to be celebrating a big birthday to be top of mind.

After all, refugees are crossing the border from the U.S. into Canada, through Quebec woodlot or across Manitoba farm field—and experts remind us that a 1985 Supreme Court of Canada Charter ruling, known as the Singh decision, guarantees their right, once they’ve set foot on Canadian soil, to a hearing. The government is legalizing and regulating marijuana, and proposing new roadside tests to catch those driving drunk or high—and speculation about the inevitable Charter challenges about police powers begins to swirl within minutes of the politicians tabling their proposal.

It’s been like this since soon after the Queen signed the Charter into law on April 17, 1982. But if it’s always in the mix when we’re debating a newsy question about the freedoms we value, occasions when we might pause and consider the Charter from every angle are much rarer.

Here’s a chance: on Saturday, April 29, at 1 PM ET, Ian Binnie, a legendary former judge who served on the Supreme Court of Canada from 1998 to 2011, will be talking about the Charter on its 35th anniversary at an event Maclean’s is co-hosting with the Hot Docs festival in Toronto.

Here at Maclean’s, we’re fascinated, of course, because we cover Canadian news. The Hot Docs festival is engaged because, as North America’s largest documentary film festival, conference and market, they decided to commemorate Canada’s 150th birthday this year by commissioning six short documentaries inspired by the Charter, which will be released as one feature named In the Name of All Canadians on June 28. (We’ll get a peek at a teaser for that film at this Saturday’s event, and on macleans.ca later.)

On stage at the TIFF Bell Lightbox 3, I’ll have the enviable job of putting some Charter questions to Binnie, before we shift to what’s bound to be the more interesting part: audience members posing Charter challenges of their own. “The Charter has made an enormous difference in the lives of Canadians,” Binnie told me today, “and this event gives us a chance to look at the ways that happened.”

He’s promising to cover a lot of ground, and I plan to hold him to it—from police powers, to religious freedom, to unequal treatment based on sexual orientation or disabilities; from the legacy of the judges who handed down the first big Charter decisions, to the thorny matter of balancing the powers of the courts against those of legislatures. If you’re in Toronto this weekend, I hope you’re able to join us—and if you’re not, we’ll have a live stream of the event available right here, on macleans.ca.

Tickets are free, but are first-come-first-serve one hour before the event. For more information, click here.