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Stephen Harper says constitutional divisions keep him from celebrating Charter

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SANTIAGO, Chile - The Conservative government has been notably silent on the 30th anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and Stephen Harper says there's a reason for that.

The prime minister was asked during a trip to Chile what he thinks of the Charter and why his government isn't marking it in some way. Liberals in particular have criticized the silence on the Charter — it was entrenched in the Constitution under former Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

Harper offered a qualified response on the significance of the Charter in Canadian history.

"In terms of the anniversary, the Charter was an important step forward in the development of Canadian rights policy, a process that began in earnest with (Conservative prime minister) John Diefenbaker's Bill of Rights in 1960, so it's a little over 50 years old," Harper said.

Diefenbaker's Bill of Rights was not entrenched in the Constitution and did not carry the same weight in the courts as the Charter eventually did.

Harper alluded to the fact that Quebec did not sign on to the Constitution Act of 1982, of which the Charter was a part. Two other attempts to bring Quebec into the constitutional fold — the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords — failed.

"In terms of this as an anniversary, I think it's an interesting and important step, but I would point out that the Charter remains inextricably linked to the patriation of the Constitution and the divisions around that matter, which as you know are still very real in some parts of the country," Harper said.

Harper had also been asked to comment on perceived problems with the application of the Charter in the courts, but he said he didn't want to wade into that issue.

But many Conservatives have criticized the Charter, saying some have taken advantage of the document to drag out court cases. There's also a view that it has allowed judges to make laws rather than parliamentarians.

Former Conservative MP Randy White caused Harper grief during the 2004 election when he complained about the Charter in an interview with an independent filmmaker.

"If the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is going to be used as the crutch to carry forward all of the issues that social libertarians want, then there's got to be for us conservatives out there a way to put checks and balances in there," White said, suggesting the use of the notwithstanding clause.

The Liberals plan to celebrate the Charter's 30th anniversary with a full slate of events on Tuesday.

Interim leader Bob Rae will take part in a panel discussion at the University of Ottawa and will participate in a youth flash mob organized by the Canadian Bar Association.

Chretien is to join his party for a rally to honour the occasion on Tuesday night in Toronto.

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