Youth FAQs – General Questions

What does “age of majority” mean?

Technically, the “age of majority” is the age at which a person becomes an adult – and then has control over one’s own person – in the eyes of the law. That is also the age at which the responsibility of others (whether they be parents or parent substitutes such as guardians or child protection services) generally ends. People under the age of majority are commonly referred to as “minors” (or “infants”).

In Canada, the age of majority varies. Each province or territory determines its own age of majority and restricts the various rights and responsibilities that go along with it. For example: in Alberta the age of majority is 18; in Saskatchewan and British Columbia it is 19.

Last Reviewed: November 2010

What does “legal age” mean, and how is it different from “age of majority”?

The term “legal age” generally refers to the age at which a person can legally do something (also known as “age of licence”).

This can be quite exact if it is dealing with something very specific, e.g. the age at which you get a licence to drive a vehicle, get a job, consume alcohol, or vote. Otherwise it is more open to interpretation. For example, the age at which you can give consent for sexual activity is dependent not only on your own age but the age and “authority status” of your “partner”.

Sometimes the legal age for something is the same as “age of majority”, sometimes it is not.

In addition, legal age is not always the only condition for legal ability to do certain things. For example, entering into a contract requires a certain capacity for understanding (“mental capacity”), regardless of age.

Last Reviewed: November 2010

What does “age of consent” mean, and how is it different from “age of majority” and “legal age”?

The term “age of consent” refers to the age at which a person is said to have capacity to make certain kinds of decisions (it is, in essence, being old enough to agree to something). For example: consenting to medical treatment or sexual activity.

Again, this is not necessarily the same thing as the “age of majority.”

Last Reviewed: November 2010

Is there one age at which I can start making all decisions for myself?

No. It depends on the issue and the laws that govern that issue.

In general, as you get older, you become better able to make your own decisions and be accountable for them. Therefore, the older you get, the more the law will allow you to do things.

Also, generally, the law makes sure that the opinions, interests and viewpoints of children over 12 years of age are listened to by giving them the right to be involved in decisions about their lives.

Sometimes, however, even the “age of majority” may not suffice. For example: even if your province has age 18 as the age of majority, a law could still require that a person be 21 in order to have a certain right or responsibility.

Last Reviewed: November 2010

Why are there all of these differences about the age at which I can do things?

Young people have a unique place in law. They are not yet adults; as a result, they do not have all the same rights and responsibilities of adults and they are often treated differently than adults would be. However, with each passing year, young people develop more and more of the skills and abilities of adulthood. As a result, with each passing year, a young person slowly acquires more of the rights and responsibilities of adulthood. The transition period from childhood to adulthood requires a complex balance of ensuring adequate protection and allowing for increasing independence.

This approach is founded on a three general beliefs.

  • The first is that young people do not have the ability to properly evaluate their options and make sound decisions. Similarly, they may not have enough knowledge and experience to participate in an activity.
  • The second is that it is the parents’ role in the family to guide, protect and make decisions for their children until they can do these things themselves.
  • The third is that that there is no magic age at which a young person leaves adolescence and enters adulthood; it does not happen overnight. As a result, the law needs to gradually increase the rights and responsibilities it gives to young people.

The order in which all of these rights and responsibilities are bestowed is determined by a number of factors, including: the type of activity; the maturity, knowledge and experience required; the benefits; and the hazards.

Last Reviewed: November 2010

But what about human rights? I thought that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects us from such age discrimination by the government?

Yes, the equality provision (s.15) (see link below) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Charter) (see link below) does in fact offer protection from age discrimination. So, too, do many provincial or territorial human rights acts.

However, in Canada, rights and freedoms are not absolute; even Charter rights. They can be limited to protect the rights of others, and balanced against other values. This is written in the Charter itself (s.1) (see link below) which states that Charter rights are subject “to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

As a result, discrimination on the basis of age will be allowed if it is reasonable and justifiable. For example, age discrimination may be required in order to protect the person involved. In many ways, this makes sense: most people would agree that is it not advisable for an 8-year old to drive a car. The question of where to draw the line, however, is not one that everyone agrees upon (hence the all the different age-related laws in Canada).

For a sample case wherein a court decided that it was reasonable to discriminate on the basis of age, see the Fitzgerald materials on LawCentral Schools  (where an Alberta court said it was reasonable to not allow someone to vote until s/he is 18 years old). See link below.

Last Reviewed: November 2010

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