It was in the summer of 1215 that the Archbishop of Canterbury penned the first version of the Magna Carta which became an essential building block in common law wherever democracy is genuinely cherished.
Only four copies of the original are known to exist today – one preserved and held in Lincoln Cathedral; one in Salisbury Cathedral and two in the British Library. Reprints or extracts flourish, often disguised in trimmed and streamlined modern prose, but echoing what legendary UK Judge Lord Denning once described as “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.”
The Magna Carta informed England’s King John that henceforth “no freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or be disseised (have his property confiscated) of his freehold, or liberties, or free customs, or be outlawed, or exiled or any otherwise destroyed; nor will we not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his deed, or by the law of the land. We will sell to no man; we will not deny or defer to any man either justice or right.”
With minor language changes, it remains law today. To ensure justice was done, the authors of the new treaty made certain King John understood his “lawmakers and peacekeepers” were now out of the brutal dictatorial way of doing business; that the new administrators of the law “will appoint as justices, constables, sheriffs or bailiffs only those who know the law of the realm and who wish to observe it well.”
Some 800 years later, the phraseology may have changed, but the foundational reforms of the Magna Carta remain the same bedrock on which our democratic freedoms stand.
The authors of the Canadian Bill of Rights (1960) acknowledged they were building on and re-endorsing old and sometimes neglected laws: “It is hereby recognized and declared that in Canada there have existed and shall continue to exist without discrimination by reason of race, national origin, colour, religion or sex the following human rights and fundamental freedoms: The right of the individual to life, liberty, security of person and enjoyment of property, and the right to not be deprived thereof except by due process of law; the right of the individual to equality before the law and the protection of the law; freedom of religion; freedom of speech; freedom of assembly and association and freedom of the press.”
The Charter fleshes these freedoms out a little and urges Canadians to be alert and ready to oppose any new laws that could be construed to “impose or authorize the imposition of cruel and unusual treatment or and unusual punishment … or to deprive a person who has been arrested or detained of the right to be informed promptly of the reason for his arrest or detention.”
It may be argued that when legislative clerk Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz were escorted from the Legislature by police and Alan Mullen, an investigator hired by Speaker Daryll Plecas, they were not placed under arrest. True, but,they were arbitrarily denied freedom of movement, banned from their offices and suspended with pay from their duties simply because as yet unnamed informers had suggested they be the subject of a criminal investigation.
The government reacted immediately. In a rare display of unanimity, opposition Liberal MLAs joined the NDP and its three Green camp followers to pass a government motion ordering that James and Lenz be suspended with full pay. Without debate, the bewildered pair were denied freedom of movement, marched to their respective offices – flanked by a policeman and a self-proclaimed private investigator – to collect personal belongings.
The proceedings were recorded on television news cameras for all the world to see the bewildered embarrassment of two highly respected public servants being removed from key positions in the Legislature pending investigation of unconfirmed suspicions. They have been informed they are being investigated, but for what remains a mystery at this writing.
The RCMP and the provincial government, including its three ragged Green standard bearers, piously whimper they are banned from commenting on the incident because it is under police investigation. And the Liberals fume that they were, betrayed, not given all the facts before they voted on the suspension motion.
Not the most inspirational look at a democratic parliament in action, and a far cry from the time in 1642 when King Charles I marched into parliament with an armed guard and demanded the whereabouts of five MPs critical of his policies. Speaker William Lenthall replied with one of the shortest but most powerful speeches ever heard in a British parliament: “I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am.”
I am left with them impression that today’s inhabitants of the BC Legislature lack the ability to clearly understand their role in the protection of the foundations of democracy so hard fought to obtain and to hold for centuries by clerks, Speakers and members of legislative assemblies. They seem to forget they are where they are as servants of the people.
Their actions in recent days do not synchronize well with the guarantees of Magna Carta or today’s Bill of Rights. Unconfirmed rumours, investigations with challengeable authority, refusal to indentify real or imagined causes for concern, are closer to Star Chamber proceedings than they are to what we proudly call “full disclosure” even as our Legislature, to its shame, denies even modest transparency.
(Italics used in text are mine, for emphasis.Jimh)