Welcome to your CLU3M course, Understanding Canadian Law. The goal of the course is to allow you to explore Canadian law and uncover legal issues that are relevant to the lives of people in Canada. As you move through the learning activities, you’ll recognize some areas of law that have already impacted your life, and learn about other areas of law that you’re not so familiar with. You’ll also gain a good understanding of how the law can change to reflect changing values and important issues in Canadian society.

In the first five learning activities, you’ll gain an understanding of the history and factors that make the law in Canada what it is today. Later, you’ll spend some time studying criminal law. Through a variety of activities and readings, you’ll also investigate a range of legal issues involving Human Rights law and Civil law in Canada, and formulate your own opinions about them.

In your first learning activity, you’re going to examine a definition of law and then consider how law manifests itself in our lives every day. By the end of this learning activity, you will have a good understanding of how many areas of law there are, the difference between rules and laws, and how laws have changed over time. So let’s begin …

To stimulate your thinking, and before we start looking at law in everyday life, let’s consider this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., where he explains his view about law and order and its place in society.

Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington D.C.

“Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in that purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is remembered for the way that he tried to end racial segregation in the U.S. South in the 1950s and 1960s. What do you think he is talking about in this quote? What do you think he means? Record your interpretation of his thoughts. Then come back to them at the end of the learning activity and see if your understanding has changed or stayed the same.


To help you, as you make your way through the course, take a look at the “Glossary (Opens in new window).” You might want to download it and keep it handy, as you come across new terms in the learning activities.

What you will learn

After completing this learning activity, you will be able to

  • explain how the law affects your day-to-day life
  • identify the different areas of law
  • explain what the concept “Rule of Law” means
  • explain what factors influence the law

Law in everyday life

You might not realize it, but every day, the law impacts your life. Whether you are planning to buy a house, get married, renew your passport, or are applying for your state pension, all of these actions will require you to comply with the law that’s currently in place in Canada.

The Supreme Court of Canada viewed from the Ottawa River

As you go through all of the learning activities in the course, you’ll need to keep in mind that laws in Canada are the responsibilities of our three levels of government. Have a look at these three photos and then answer the questions on the next page.

Osgoode Hall, Toronto – Home of the Ontario Court of Appeal

Renfrew County Courthouse, Pembroke, Ontario

Which levels of government are represented in these three photos?

Why do you think that we need three levels of government to administer laws in Canada?

As you can see, courthouses representing the law are found in municipal, provincial, and federal centres and cities throughout Ontario. Have a look at the list, which highlights some of the ways that Canadian law may have impacted your life today.

Waking up this morning to the radio, you are reminded that Canadian law tells radio stations how much Canadian content they have to play. You get out of bed and hop into the shower. The law ensures that the water you're using is safe. You get dressed and cook breakfast, knowing that the law is making sure that the food you're eating is safe.
Arriving at work, you begin your job. Canadian Labour law ensures that the conditions that you are asked to work in, and the things that you are asked to do, are both safe. The law also determines the minimum amount that you'll be paid and the maximum number of hours that you can work.
The law also dictates how your employer has to treat you. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms makes sure that no one treats you differently because of your age, your gender, your culture, your religion, or your sexual orientation.
In Canada, the law ensures that you are eligible to receive a number of services, including health care, education, and social security.

(Note: It is important to remember that in order to afford all of these services, the Canadian government legally collects a variety of taxes.)

Now, let’s recall some of the most important laws in Canada:

Now, indicate the law that corresponds to each scenario:

How did you get on? You’ll notice that some laws are determined by the federal government, some by the provincial government, and some by municipal authorities. You’ll learn much more about the different laws in Ontario and Canada as you continue with your learning activities.

Areas of law in Canada

Another way to assess the scope of the laws that protect and govern your everyday life is to look at them in a list. Using your Internet browser, do a search by typing in the words “law of Canada Wikipedia.” You’ll find a list that defines approximately 17 areas of law in Canada, starting with “Aboriginal law.” Take 10 minutes or so to examine the areas that interest you. Then, let’s look at some of the areas of law in Canada that you will be studying in this course.

Criminal law

Criminal law deals with any matters related to the Criminal Code of Canada and other provincial standards. Cases that fall under Criminal law generally involve someone who is accused of breaking the law.

Constitutional law

Constitutional law involves being an expert on how the government interacts with citizens, and how the governments interact amongst themselves. We have seen examples of Constitutional law in Canada on the two occasions when Quebec tried to separate from Canada, most recently in 1995. Because the process was unclear, the federal government passed a law that set out a number of criteria that Quebec (or any other province) had to meet before it would be allowed to leave Confederation.

Tort law

Tort law deals with issues where someone has been hurt or property has been damaged. A "tort" occurs when someone commits an act that causes harm to a person or infringes on a person's rights. For example, in 2000, the town of Walkerton's water supply became infected with bacteria. The people of Walkerton could have sued the company or organization involved (in this case, the government) for providing them with water that was unsafe.

Family law

Family law is wide-ranging and covers anything that has to do with the relationship between people in immediate relationships. The Marriage Act, which lays down the process involved in becoming legally married, is an example of Family law.

Contract law

Contract law refers to laws that govern the relationship between people or parties involved in contracts. Think about a contract that you've entered into with a company to provide you with phone, Internet, or television service. Contract law defines the obligations of each party (for example, the company will provide the requested service and you will pay the bill when it is due) and describes what could happen if either party failed to provide the services that they agreed to provide.

Labour law

Labour law deals with issues specific to the relationship between employers and employees. Some labour laws ensure that you have a safe place to work, that the work that you're being asked to do is safe, and that you are not paid less than the minimum amount. Labour law also governs what happens when employers and employees are negotiating a contract and what happens if they fail to reach an agreement.

Property law

Property law deals with the fact that, as someone who lives somewhere, you have the right to enjoy your property and can expect to have a certain level of freedom on your property. The Trespass to Property Act is an example of a property law, as it places restrictions on which individuals can visit your property, and describes what you can do if someone is visiting your property and you want them to leave.

Lots to think about! Have you ever been involved with any of these areas of law? If so, jot down your experiences here. It will help you remember those aspects of Canadian law that you already know.

Specific laws require specialized knowledge

Each of the areas of law you’ve just looked at requires specialized knowledge. For example, if you were to attend law school, you’d be asked to choose which area of law you’d like to specialize in. Because of the subtle differences in laws, and the fact that legal cases decide important issues, it is important that lawyers (and anyone working within the legal system) be very familiar with both the subject area and the specific sets of laws. Use the browser of your choice to search different areas of law. You may search using key phrases like “List of different areas of law” or “Different Canadian laws.” Explore some of the ones that interest you. You probably never thought that there would be so many, or that areas such as Advertising law and Sports law would be included.

Cyberlaw word cloud

What’s the difference between a rule and a law?

Now that you’ve looked at some of the ways that laws are grouped into different areas, it’s important to acknowledge that laws are not the only things that control our behaviour in society. Think about a situation where your actions are influenced by something other than the law. Perhaps you play on a recreational hockey team, or maybe you’ve camped in an Ontario provincial park on a long weekend? Maybe you live in an apartment building? How does society make sure that each of these situations are enjoyable for everyone involved, without using laws?

The answer is: rules and regulations.

“Keep off the grass” sign in front of a large lawn and building

Rules vs. laws

Let’s look some more at the difference between rules and laws. Try this short activity.

Imagine that, while visiting the mine at Science North in Sudbury, you become trapped underground, along with the rest of a tour group. Science North provides your group with enough supplies to last a week, while they launch a rescue effort. What rules will you have to create, to ensure that the supplies last until you are eventually rescued? Try and come up with about 10 different rules that you could suggest the group adopt, in order to survive.

Sudbury’s Big Nickel

In our society, and in day-to-day life, we rely on rules and laws to help maintain order. But, what is the difference between rules and laws?

Signposts reading “Compliance,” “Rules,” “Regulations,” and “Guidelines”

Rules Laws
Rules apply only to people who voluntarily decide to follow them. Laws apply to everyone in a community, whether they're citizens or not.
Rules can be established by any group. For example, a recreational hockey team might have specific rules about who can play on a team. A high school might have rules to dictate student behaviour on a field trip. All laws in Canada must be passed by a government (municipal, provincial/territorial, or federal). Additionally, all laws must be fair to all Canadians; otherwise a court can cancel the law.
When a rule is broken, the consequences can be varied, but as the rules apply to people who participate voluntarily, the consequences might not be that serious. For example, a high school basketball coach might have a rule stating that players cannot play on her team if they are failing a class. When a law is broken, the consequences are far more severe. The two main forms of punishment are either fines, or a restriction on some of your rights. For example, section 172 of the Highway Traffic Act says that anyone caught speeding by more than 50 kilometres an hour above the posted speed limit will have the following restrictions imposed on their rights: a fine ranging between $2000 and $10 000 and/or a possible term of imprisonment of up to six months, an automatic seven-day licence suspension, and an automatic seven-day impounding of the vehicle.
A rule can be enforced by the person or organization that created it. Laws are enforced by some part of the government. Police, by-law officers, and other government officials can enforce certain laws specific to their job.
Rules are created to help people learn how to behave in a certain context. Laws are created to ensure a safe society for us all to live in.

Can you think of some situations where your behaviour is governed by rules? Read the following scenarios and decide whether the person’s behaviour is governed by a rule or a law. Write your answers and your reasoning below each question.

The board of directors for a condominium building says that you cannot move in after 8 p.m. at night.

Returning from a day of cross-border shopping in the United States, the border guard asks to see your passport.

Your local ski resort has closed for the season, but there is still snow on the hills. You want to get one last run in for the season, but are caught before getting a chance.

To make your neighbourhood more accessible, the local municipality has to lower the sidewalk at intersections.

Here’s another interesting situation to consider. In Spring 2015, a restaurant in Cape Breton posted the following message on social media, informing diners of a new policy.

Poster advertising fresh lobster
Social media post by The Lobster Pound and Moore restaurant announcing a new rule

Needless to say, the post and the rule created a lot of controversy about the restaurant. In order to provide more context about the controversy, and explain why different people in different situations might feel differently about the rule, complete a search online and find at least two different newspaper stories about the incident, as well as two opinion pieces from various sources (for example, blogs and posted comments).

As you complete your research, use “The Lobster Pound and Moore organizer (Opens in new window)” to record your sources.

Now that you can see how the same rule can affect people differently (based on a number of factors), it’s time to reflect on the rule that the restaurant put in place. Are you a supporter of this rule, or are you against it? Use the following text entry box to state your opinion about the rule’s validity and then explain your reasoning. Try to limit your thoughts to three or four sentences.

You’ll notice that, in the previous two activities, you were asked to give your opinion and state your reasoning. You’ll be asked to do that throughout this course because the ability to reason legally is a skill that every lawyer must develop.

It’s not as difficult as it might sound and a lot of it is common sense. But it does require an understanding of just how important the concepts of reason, reasonable, and reasonability are for the application of the law.

Sound reasonable? Take a look at this video.

Now that you’ve looked at the difference between rules and laws, and have tried out your reasoning skills, it’s time to look at the Rule of Law.

What is the Rule of Law?

The clearest way to show what the rule of law means to us in everyday life is to recall what has happened when there is no rule of law.

– Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States of America

To try and understand this concept further, here is an excerpt on “the Rule of Law” according to the United Nations:

The rule of law

The notion of the "rule of law" stems from many traditions and continents and is intertwined with the evolution of the history of law itself. The Code of Hammurabi, promulgated by the King of Babylon around 1760 BC, is one of the first examples of the codification of law, presented to the public and applying to the acts of the ruler. In the Arab world, a rich tradition of Islamic law embraced the notion of the supremacy of law.

Core principles of holding government authority to account and placing the wishes of the populace before the rulers, can be found amid the main moral and philosophical traditions across the Asian continent, including in Confucianism. In the Anglo-American context, the Magna Carta of 1215 was a seminal document, emphasizing the importance of the independence of the judiciary and the role of judicial process as fundamental characteristics of the rule of law. In continental Europe, notions of rule of law focused on the nature of the State, particularly on the role of constitutionalism.


From the description, what does the United Nations suggest that the Rule of Law actually means? Read the notes below and then present your interpretation of the four points made:

The Code of Hammurabi was the first set of laws that were codified (or written down) and shared with the general public. Citizens of Ancient Babylon were able to actually look at a set of laws, understand what was considered right and wrong by society, and then were told how the laws would be applied. Additionally, the Code of Hammurabi suggested that the law applied to all, including the ruler. In Asia, as law developed, there was a natural understanding that the law should reflect the wishes and desires of the citizens of an area and not be created by the ruling class. The Magna Carta (which you will learn more about in learning activity 1.3) furthered this idea to suggest that the judicial system had to be protected from political influences and that there must be a process to enforce justice. In Europe, the idea of a constitution (or laws that would control the government) became more important.

Statement 1 about the Rule of Law:

Statement 2 about the Rule of Law:

Statement 3 about the Rule of Law:

Statement 4 about the Rule of Law:

So, how does the idea of the Rule of Law apply in Canadian society today? Watch the following video to review what you’ve just learned and see how the Rule of Law can apply to other situations.

The Rule of Law is generally something that we take for granted in Ontario and in Canada. Most people would agree that we are all subject to the law and that, for the most part, it is accessible and applies equally to all. When politicians propose laws, they need to make sure that the laws are presented in a way that most people can understand. For example, use your browser to search for the Criminal Code of Canada, section 231. Read sections 231.1–231.4. What does section 231 of the Criminal Code of Canada tell you? The Criminal Code of Canada provides us with an example of how laws must be written so that they are easily understood.

Unfortunately, there are some places in the world where the Rule of Law does not exist. The idea of the Rule of Law, which seems natural to us, might seem unnatural to someone who lives somewhere else. Read “Establishing the Rule of Law in a Country where Justice Hardly Exists (Opens in new window),” and then answer the questions provided. You may find it useful to read the questions before you read the article.

A market scene in Haiti

A map of Haiti

What are some of the reasons why Carlos Hercule thinks that people in Haiti do not respect the Rule of Law?

With no government structures to help train lawyers, which organizations are providing legal training?

What is the difference between a jurist and a lawyer?

What is the mémoire? Why do so few students complete it?

What are two specific examples of how prisoners’ rights in Haiti are different from prisoners’ rights in Ontario?

The Rule of Law is fundamental to our society. It provides the framework within which our society is able to function. When we think about the Rule of Law, it is important to remember that it helps to maintain order in our society, protects human rights, allows people and organizations to resolve conflicts peacefully, and allows society to evolve over time. We’ll look at each of these concepts in more depth, as the course progresses.

Evolving laws

When we looked at the Rule of Law, we learned that the law must be reflective of people’s wishes in order to be considered fair and equitable. Because the ideas of our society change over time for a number of reasons, our laws must change as well. As a result of societal pressure, the law has evolved regarding a number of issues.

Use and sale of marijuana

The use and sale of marijuana is one issue that can help us examine how societal values can alter over time, and how these values can drive changes to the law.

In 1923, the Government of Canada introduced a law to prohibit the use of opium, as well as other drugs. This included marijuana, which previously had been legal to use in Canada. Historians are unsure as to the exact reason why or how cannabis (the technical term for marijuana) was added to the bill, but the bill passed in both the House of Commons and the Senate. However, it was not until 1932 that police officers across the country started to enforce the new law.

Beginning in the mid- to late 1990s, social pressure began to build over marijuana use until some restrictions were lifted. Canadians suffering from a medical condition were allowed to use it to help them deal with pain, or to help them regain their appetite. In 2000, a court case in Ontario (R. v. Parker) ruled that the laws prohibiting marijuana use were unconstitutional. In 2007, another case in Ontario ruled that as there was no legal way for people in medical need of marijuana to receive it, the law prohibiting possession of marijuana must be struck down.

It is important to note that, currently, the three main federal political parties all have different ideas about how marijuana should be controlled in Canada.

As of October 17, 2018, cannabis is legal in Canada. The Cannabis Act creates a strict legal framework for controlling the production, distribution, sale and possession of cannabis across Canada.

What’s your position?

Visit the web pages for the Conservative Party of Canada, the /Liberal Party of Canada, and the New Democratic Party of Canada to read about their stance on marijuana, and then record your answer to the following question in the space provided.

If marijuana possession were the only deciding factor for you in an election, based on your research, which party would you be most likely to vote for? Remember to use your reasoning skills while deliberating.

Your turn

In this learning activity, we’ve looked at a couple of different legal issues that Canada has faced in the past 100 years, and we’ve seen how laws have changed to reflect society’s attitudes toward the respective issue. Now, it’s your turn. Complete the “Evolving law organizer (Opens in new window)” by examining how the law regarding one of the issues listed here has changed. Make sure to find at least four different dates/pieces of evidence to help show the evolution of this law, and record whether the situation was legal or illegal at that point in time.

  • The evolution of copyright laws
  • The evolution of the laws regarding abortion
  • The evolution of the laws dealing with prostitution
  • The evolution of workplace safety laws
  • The evolution of marriage laws

Congratulations on completing Learning activity 1.1! You have learned that the Rule of Law affects how the law applies to us on a daily basis, and that the law is continually evolving to reflect changes in society. At this point in the course, you should have an understanding that law can be grouped into a number of areas. In the next learning activity, we’ll look at some principles of justice and consider specifics about the Canadian court system.