Last year, Marie Reyes gave birth to a beautiful daughter, Selene. But just hours after her birth, Selene was taken away and placed in the care of Marie’s sister, thousands of kilometres away.
Why? Because Marie is in prison for assault, a crime of violence. There is a program in Canadian federal prisons that allows some mothers in prison to keep their young children with them, but a recent change in the law means that women convicted of violent crimes, like Marie, aren’t eligible to participate. Is this fair? What is in Marie’s best interests? What is in Selene’s best interests? What about the public interest? And how can the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms help us to answer these questions?
In this scenario, the change that makes violent offenders ineligible is fictional, but the program that allows some women to remain with their children in some federal prisons is real. So are the issues and questions it raises – so real, in fact, that they were the subject of a legal case decided in British Colombia late in 2013.
When the real world provides questions so rich and important, OJEN is eager to make the most of the opportunity. Across Ontario, more than 500 students are working on this problem in their law classes as part of the Fall 2015 Charter Challenge. Working with their teachers and with support from OJEN, they are applying the facts of Marie Reyes’ case to sections 7, 15 and 1 of the Charter to research and prepare complex legal arguments in support of either Marie or the government of Canada. Using our materials, they are learning about constitutional law, applying real legal tests to the facts and comparing their ideas and getting expert help with their arguments using our on-line message boards. In mid-November, each team will submit their arguments in the form of a factum – the legal world’s equivalent of a persuasive essay.
The authors of the best arguments will be invited to the Court of Appeal for Ontario to make their cases in person before a panel of judges from that court. As impressive as that is, though, the most important part of the program is what happens in classrooms all over the province in the weeks beforehand. People who devote their careers to using education as a tool for personal empowerment and social change think a lot about the relationship between the two goals, and how to encourage their students to take ownership for every part of that relationship. Young people are bright, energetic and optimistic and through exposure to real and sophisticated problems, they can come to see the Charter as what it was intended to be: a system for deciding what we should do when individual freedoms and circumstances clash with the rules by which society operates, and for how to make change if unfairness to an individual threatens the collective values at the heart of those rules.
Working with partners and friends like law schools, the Court of Appeal for Ontario, the organizers of moot competitions for law students and volunteers and educators around the province, we are able to expand students’ grasp of the law – and its place in answering big questions – for individuals like Marie and Selene and for Canadian society broadly. This is what makes the Charter Challenge unique: it is an amazing set of tools for opening minds.
OJEN runs the Charter Challenge twice a year, in the fall and in the spring. To learn more, click here.