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Constitutional History of Canada

The Constitution of Canada is the country’s governing legal framework. It defines the powers of the executive branches of government and of the legislatures at both the federaland provincial levels. Canada’s Constitution is not one legal document. It is a complex mix of statutes, orders, British and Canadian court decisions, and generally accepted practices known as constitutional conventions. The Constitution has been in constant evolution from colonial times to the present day. The story of the Constitution is the story of Canada itself. It reflects the shifting legal, social and politicalpressures facing Canadians, as well as their choices as a society.

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Constitutional Act, 1791

The Constitutional Act, 1791 was an act of the British Parliament. Also known as the Canada Act, it divided the Province of Quebec into  Upper Canada and Lower Canada. The Act was a first step on the long path to Confederation, but its rigid colonial structures also set the stage for rebellion in the Canadas. (See Rebellions of 1837–38.) The Act was also notable for giving women who owned property in Lower Canada the right to vote — a high level of inclusion by the standards of the time.

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Canada West

In 1841, Britain united the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada into the Province of Canada. This was in response to the violent rebellions of 1837–38. The Durham Report (1839) laid out the guidelines to create the new colony with the Act of Union in 1840. The Province of Canada was made up of Canada West (formerly Upper Canada) and Canada East (formerly Lower Canada). The two regions were governed jointly until Confederation in 1867. Canada West then became Ontario and Canada East became Quebec.

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Federal Government

The federal government is the national government of Canada, centred in Ottawa. The term can refer narrowly to the Canadian Cabinet, or more broadly to the Cabinet and the public service.

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Rep by Pop

Representation by population is a political system in which seats in a legislature are allocated on the basis of population. It upholds a basic principle of parliamentary democracy that all votes should be counted equally. Representation by population was a deeply divisive issue among politicians in the Province of Canada (1841–67). Nicknamed “rep by pop,” it became an important consideration in the lead up to Confederation. (See also: Representative Government; Responsible Government.)

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American Civil War and Canada

The American Civil War (1861–65) was fought between the northern (Union) states and the southern (Confederate) states, which withdrew from the United States in 1860–61. The war left cities in ruins, shattered families and took the lives of an estimated 750,000 Americans. The war also involved those living in what is now Canada, including roughly 40,000 who joined the fight. The war played a significant role in how and when Canada became an independent country.

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Province of Canada (1841-67)

In 1841, Britain united the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada into the Province of Canada. This was in response to the violent rebellions of 1837–38. The Durham Report (1839) recommended the guidelines to create the new colony with the Act of Union. The Province of Canada was made up of Canada West (formerly Upper Canada) and Canada East (formerly Lower Canada). The two regions were governed jointly until the Province was dissolved to make way for Confederation in 1867. Canada West then became Ontario and Canada East became Quebec. The Province of Canada was a 26-year experiment in anglophone-francophone political cooperation. During this time, responsible government came to British North America and expanded trade and commerce brought wealth to the region. Leaders such as Sir John A. Macdonald, Sir George-Étienne Cartier and George Brown emerged and Confederation was born.

(This is the full-length entry about the Province of Canada. For a plain language summary, please see Province of Canada (Plain Language Summary).)

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Manifest Destiny

The term Manifest Destiny was first used in 1845 by New York City journalist John Louis O’Sullivan. He used the term in the context of America’s annexation of the Republic of Texas. Manifest Destiny represented the idea that it was America’s right — its destiny, in fact — to expand across all of North America. Politicians and citizens in the United States called for the US to expand by claiming control of British territory. This included the Province of Canada (formerly Upper Canada and Lower Canada), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

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Federalism in Canada

Federalism is a political system in which government power and responsibility is divided between a federal legislature and state or provincial legislatures. A true federation, in the modern sense, is a state in which the smaller parts are not sovereign and cannot legally secede. In practice, Canadian federalism has swung between the extremes of centralizing control and decentralizingit. The federal government has jurisdiction over the entire country. Each provincial government has jurisdiction over its portion of the population and region. Both levels of government get their authority from Canada’s written Constitution; but it includes features that are incompatible with a strict approach to federalism. Canadian federalism has been tested throughout the country’s history. It remains a subject of great debate.

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Canadian Pacific Railway

The Canadian Pacific Railway company was incorporated in 1881. Its original purpose was the construction of a transcontinental railway, a promise to British Columbia upon its entry into Confederation. The railway — completed in 1885 — connected Eastern Canada to BC and played an important role in the development of the nation. Built in dangerous conditions by thousands of labourers (including 15,000 Chinese temporary workers), the railway facilitated communications and transportation across the country. Over its long history, CPR diversified, establishing hotels, shipping lines and airlines, and developed mining and telecommunications industries. In 2001, Canadian Pacific separated into five separate and independent companies, with Canadian Pacific Railway returning to its origins as a railway company. CP, as it is branded today, has over 22,500 km of track across Canada and the United States. It is a public company and trades on the Toronto Stock Exchange and New York Stock Exchange under the symbol CP. In 2016, CP had $6.2 billion in revenue and $1.6 billion in profit and held assets valued at $19.2 billion.

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Confederation (Plain-Language Summary)

Confederation began with the union of three regions to create Canada. This happened on 1 July 1867. The three regions that joined together were the Province of Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Today, the Province of Canada is known as Ontario and Quebec. Britain controlled each of these regions before 1867. When they joined together they became an independent country. Manitoba and the Northwest Territories were created in 1870. They became a part of Confederation at this time. The Northwest Territories gradually split into four provinces and territories known today. Yukon formed in 1898. Alberta and Saskatchewan formed in 1905. Nunavut formed in 1999. These provinces and territories have been a part of Confederation since their founding. British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871 and Prince Edward Island in 1873. The last province to join Canada was Newfoundland in 1949.

(This article is a plain-language summary of Confederation. If you are interested in reading about this topic in more depth, please see our full-length entry Confederation.)

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Fenians

Fenians were members of a mid-19th century movement to secure Ireland’s independence from Britain. They were a secret, outlawed organization in the British Empire, where they were known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood. They operated freely and openly in the United States as the Fenian Brotherhood. Eventually, both wings became known as the Fenians. They launched a series of armed raids into Canadian territory between 1866 and 1871. The movement was primarily based in the United States, but it had a significant presence in Canada.

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Constitution Act, 1867

The Constitution Act, 1867 was originally known as the British North America Act (BNA Act). It was the law passed by the British Parliament on 29 March 1867 to create the Dominion of Canada. It came into effect on 1 July 1867. The Act is the foundational document of Canada’s Constitution. It outlines the structure of government in Canada and the distribution of powers between the central Parliament and the provincial legislatures. It was renamed the Constitution Act, 1867 with the patriation of the Constitution in 1982.

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Responsible Government

Responsible government refers to a government that is responsible to the people. In Canada, responsible government is an executive or Cabinet that depends on the support of an elected assembly, rather than a monarch or their representatives. A responsible government first appeared in Canada in the 1830s. It became an important part of Confederation. It is the method by which Canada achieved independence from Britain without revolution.

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Fenian Raids

The Fenians were a secret society of Irish patriots who had emigrated from Ireland to the United States. Some members of this movement tried to take Canadian territory by force, so they could exchange it with Britain for Irish independence. From 1866 to 1871, the Fenians launched several small, armed attacks. Each raid was put down by government forces. Dozens were killed and wounded on both sides. The raids revealed shortfalls in the leadership, structure and training of the Canadian militia, and led to improvements in these areas. The raids also took place at a time of growing concern over the threat posed by American military and economic might. This led to increased support for Confederation.

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Battle of the Plains of Abraham

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham (13 September 1759), also known as the Battle of Quebec, was a pivotal moment in the Seven Years’ War and in the history of Canada. A British invasion force led by General James Wolfe defeated French troops under the Marquis de Montcalm, leading to the surrender of Quebec to the British. Both commanding officers died from wounds sustained during the battle. The French never recaptured Quebec and effectively lost control of New France in 1760. At the end of the war in 1763 France surrendered many of its colonial possessions — including Canada — to the British.

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Upper Canada

Upper Canada was the predecessor of modern-day Ontario. It was created in 1791 by the division of the old Province of Quebec into Lower Canada in the east and Upper Canada in the west. Upper Canada was a wilderness society settled largely by Loyalists and land-hungry farmers moving north from the United States. Upper Canada endured the War of 1812 with America, William Lyon Mackenzie’s Rebellion of 1837, the colonial rule of the Family Compact and half a century of economic and political growing pains. With the Act of Union in 1841, it was renamed Canada West and merged with Lower Canada (Canada East) into the Province of Canada.

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Omar Khadr Case

Omar Khadr is a Toronto-born Canadian, captured by American soldiers after a firefight in Afghanistan in 2002, when he was 15 years old. The only minor since the Second World War to be convicted of purported war crimes, Khadr was imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay and Canada for almost 13 years in total. In 2010, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Khadr’s detainment violated “the principles of fundamental justice” and “the most basic Canadian standards about the treatment of youth suspects.” Despite repeated attempts by the Canadian government to keep him in prison, Khadr was released on bail in May 2015. In July 2017, he received $10.5 million in compensation from the government for Canada’s role in violating his constitutional rights. In March 2019, an Alberta judge declared that Khadr had completed his war crimes sentence, making him a free man.