Magna Carta in Canada: The chance of a lifetime

Posted: 09/25/2015

Magna Carta Canada 2015Magna Carta celebrates its 800th anniversary this year. The original “Great Charter” was sealed by England’s King John in June 1215, marking his acceptance that even he, as king, was not above the law.

In the centuries that have followed, this fundamental principle of the rule of law has not only survived, but has supported the establishment and growth of democratic nations around the world, Canada included.

Canadians have a chance to see an original copy of Magna Carta, painstakingly hand-written in Latin and preserved carefully in Durham Cathedral in England all these years. Thanks to the work of Magna Carta Canada, the Great Charter and the accompanying Charter of the Forest will travel to Winnipeg, Toronto, and Edmonton between now and the end of the year.

The copy of Magna Carta on tour in Canada is a single sheet of vellum (calf skin) parchment, covered to the edges with 3,550 words in hand-scripted Latin. The parchment, the quill, the ink, are all unique parts of the exhibit in their own right.

As is the language—even in translation, there are many words lost to modern usage. “Diseised,” as an example, means dispossessed; “socage” is a form of land tenure of rent from feudal times.

Magna Carta provides a rich source of antiquity, as well as a rare look at life in England 800 years ago. For instance, it speaks of the practice of “amercement,” an arbitrary financial penalty imposed by a court or by peers in place of a prison sentence. Another chapter commands the removal of fish weirs from the Thames and Medway rivers.

Taken as a whole, the Great Charter can be read as a broad summary of the potential abuses of power by a king and the negotiated terms the nobility imposed on him to protect themselves and their property.

Among those negotiated terms, the rule of law stands as the foremost principle. From it flows a number of other fundamental rights and responsibilities, some dated or discarded over the centuries, but some still vital and fully alive today wherever there is a legacy of British common law. The freedom from unlawful detention without cause, the right of a trial by jury, and the restriction on taxation without consent are just three examples that continue to resonate in courtrooms around the world today.

It is the supremacy of the rule of law, however, that remains Magna Carta’s most lasting legacy. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the American Constitution, and countless other charters and declarations of rights—all of them borrow from this fundamental principle. It is the touchstone of democracy and of freedom, given a formal public script 800 years ago, sealed by a king, and continually reinforced for all these centuries in courts of law and justice systems throughout the world.

Indeed, even the seal of The Law Society of Upper Canada, founded in 1797, includes a ribbon bearing the inscription “Magna Carta Angliae” to reflect the charter on which our legal system is based. “By making that connection with Magna Carta, our founders underlined the legislated obligation given to our Law Society to support the rule of law and the right of everyone to fair access to justice,” said Law Society Treasurer Janet Minor.

“Magna Carta celebrations typically occur only once every 50 years, meaning for most of us that this opportunity to view the Charter in our own country is truly once in a lifetime.

“I hope as many members of the public as well as law students, lawyers and paralegals, will all take the opportunity to see the Magna Carta exhibit while it’s in Canada,” she said.

The Magna Carta exhibit can be seen in Toronto from October 4 to November 7. Full details can be found on the Magna Carta Canada website