Search for "Constitution"

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Constitution of Canada (Plain-Language Summary)

The Constitution is Canada’s supreme law. It gives the country its legal framework. It defines the powers of both the federal and provincial governments. It overrides any other laws. The Constitution is not one document. It is a complex mix of British and Canadian laws. It also contains unwritten rules known as constitutional conventions.

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

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Constitution Act, 1867 (Plain-Language Summary)

The British North America Act (BNA Act) created the Dominion of Canada. The Act was passed by the British Parliament on 29 March 1867. It came into effect on 1 July 1867. The Act is the foundation of Canada’s Constitution. It outlines how governments in Canada are to be structured. It also says which powers are given to Parliament and to the provinces. The BNA Act was renamed the Constitution Act, 1867 in 1982. This took place when the Constitution was patriated (taken back) from Britain.

(This article is a plain-language summary of the Constitution Act, 1867. If you are interested in reading about this topic in more depth, please see our full-length entry, Constitution Act, 1867.)

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Statute of Westminster, 1931 (Plain-Language Summary)

The Statute of Westminster, 1931 is a British law. It was passed on 11 December 1931. It made all the Commonwealth countries independent and equal with Britain. They now had full legal freedom except in areas of their choosing. The Statute also clarified the powers of Canada’s Parliament and those of the other Dominions.

(This article is a plain-language summary of the Statute of Westminster, 1931. If you are interested in reading about this topic in more depth, please see our full-length entry, Statute of Westminster, 1931.)

Editorial

Editorial: Newfoundland’s Contribution to the Patriation of the Constitution

In the decades since 1982, politicians and the media have recounted the same story about the patriation of Canada’s constitution and the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Most of the credit in this version goes to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Three others are credited with breaking an impasse in the 1981 negotiations: federal justice minister Jean Chrétien, Saskatchewan attorney general Roy Romanow, and Ontario attorney general Roy McMurtry. But in his memoirs, former Newfoundland PremierBrian Peckford argues that the key intervention in the patriation process came from Peckford and the members of the Newfoundland delegation.

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Crown

In a monarchy, the Crown is an abstract concept or symbol that represents the state and its government. In a constitutional monarchy such as Canada, the Crown is the source of non-partisan sovereign authority. It is part of the legislative, executive and judicial powers that govern the country. Under Canada’s system of responsible government, the Crown performs each of these functions on the binding advice, or through the actions of, members of Parliament, ministers or judges. As the embodiment of the Crown, the monarch — currently Queen Elizabeth II — serves as head of state. The Queen and her vice-regal representatives — the governor general at the federal level and lieutenant-governors provincially — possess what are known as prerogative powers; they can be made without the approval of another branch of government, though they are rarely used. The Queen and her representatives also fulfill ceremonial functions as Head of State.

Editorial

Editorial: The Statute of Westminster, Canada's Declaration of Independence

In the fall of 1929, Canada’s Minister of Justice, Ernest Lapointe, travelled to England. He took with him Dr. Oscar Skelton — the “elder statesman” of the Canadian civil service, as William Lyon Mackenzie Kingonce described him. When Lapointe and Skelton were done their negotiations, they had confirmed that Canada would have its independence from the British Empire.

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Dominion of Canada

Dominion of Canada is the country’s formal title, though it is rarely used. It was first applied to Canada at Confederation in 1867. It was also used in the formal titles of other countries in the British Commonwealth. Government institutions in Canada effectively stopped using the word Dominion by the early 1960s. The last hold-over was the term Dominion Day, which was officially changed to Canada Day in 1982. Today, the word Dominion is seldom used in either private or government circles.

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Statute of Westminster, 1931

The Statute of Westminster is a British law that was passed on 11 December 1931. It was Canada’s all-but-final achievement of independence from Britain. It enacted recommendations from the Balfour Report of 1926, which had declared that Britain and its Dominions were constitutionally “equal in status.” The Statute of Westminster gave Canada and the other Commonwealth Dominions legislative equality with Britain. They now had full legal freedom except in areas of their choosing. The Statute also clarified the powers of Canada’s Parliament and those of the other Dominions. (See also Editorial: The Statute of Westminster, Canada’s Declaration of Independence.)

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Patriation of the Constitution (Plain-Language Summary)

In 1982, Canada patriated (took control of) its Constitution from Britain. An amending formula (a method for making changes) and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms were added. These changes took place after a fierce, 18-month struggle. It dominated the agendas of every government in the country. Patriation was complete when Queen Elizabeth II signed the Constitution Act, 1982 on 17 April 1982.

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

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Dominion of Canada (Plain-Language Summary)

The title “Dominion of Canada” was first applied to Canada at Confederation in 1867. It was also used to describe other countries in the Commonwealth. The federal government stopped using the word Dominion by the early 1960s. The last hold-over was the term Dominion Day. It was changed to Canada Day in 1982. Today, the word Dominion is seldom used to describe Canada.

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

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Senate of Canada

The Senate is the Upper House of Canada’s Parliament. Its 105 members are appointed and hold their seats until age 75. The Senate’s purpose is to consider and revise legislation; investigate national issues; and most crucially according to the Constitution, give the regions of Canada an equal voice in Parliament. The Senate is a controversial institution. It has long been regarded by many Canadians as a place of unfair patronage and privilege. An unresolved debate continues about whether it should be reformed into an elected body accountable to the voters, or abolished.

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Patriation Reference

The Patriation Reference, formally known as Re: Resolution to Amend the Constitution, was a reference case of the Supreme Court of Canada. On 28 September 1981, the court decided that it was legal for the federal government to patriateand amend Canada’s Constitution without the consent of the provincial governments. But it also found that to do so in areas that affect provincial powers would be a breach of constitutional convention. The court’s decision concluded that such conventions are of great significance. In the words of the court, “Constitutional convention plus constitutional law equal the total constitution of the country.”

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Constitution Act, 1982 (Plain-Language Summary)

The Constitution Act, 1982 is a landmark document. It allowed Canada to change its Constitution without the consent of Britain. This meant Canada had full independence. The Act also added the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to the Constitution. The Act was passed after a fierce, 18-month struggle. The Act was signed by Queen Elizabeth II on 17 April 1982.

(This article is a plain-language summary of the Constitution Act, 1982. If you are interested in reading about this topic in more depth, please see our full-length entry, Constitution Act, 1982.)

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Charlottetown Accord (Plain-Language Summary)

The Charlottetown Accord of 1992 was a failed attempt to add Quebec’s consent to the Constitution. The Accord would have recognized Quebec as a “distinct society.” It would have given many federal powers to the provinces; addressed the issue of Indigenous self-government; and reformed the Senate and the House of Commons. The Accord was approved by the federal government and all 10 provinces. But it was rejected by the public in a referendum on 26 October 1992.

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

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Notwithstanding Clause

Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is known as the notwithstanding clause. Also known as the override clause, it is part of the Constitution of Canada. The clause allows federal, provincial or territorial governments to temporarily override, or bypass, certain Charter rights. These overrides are subject to renewal after five years. Although the clause is available to governments, its use is politically difficult and therefore rare. It is known colloquially as the “nuclear option,” because its use is considered extremely severe. Since the Constitution was patriated in 1982, the clause has been used only a handful of times by various provinces. The federal government has never invoked the clause.

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Meech Lake Accord (Plain-Language Summary)

The Meech Lake Accord was a failed attempt to add Quebec’s consent to the Constitution. It would have made provincial powers stronger. It also would have declared Quebec a “distinct society.” Support for the Accord fell apart in 1990. Many Québécois saw this as a rejection of Quebec. Support for separatism soared there. It eventually led to the 1995 Quebec Referendum.

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

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Administrative Law in Canada

Administrative law is one of three basic areas of public law dealing with the relationship between government and its citizens; the other two are constitutional law and criminal law. (See also Rule of Law.) Administrative law ensures that government actions are authorized by Parliament or by provincial legislatures, and that laws are implemented and administered in a fair and reasonable manner. Administrative law is based on the principle that government actions must (strictly speaking) be legal, and that citizens who are affected by unlawful government acts must have effective remedies. A strong administrative law system helps maintain public confidence in government authority.

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Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Plain-Language Summary)

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is an important part of Canada’s Constitution. Among other things, constitutions outline the rules and laws of a country. They also outline the kind of government a country has and how it should work. A right is something a person has. It is also something a person can do.

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

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Indigenous Peoples and Government Policy in Canada

For most of the history of political interaction between Indigenous people and the Canadian government (and its colonial predecessors) government policy has focused on First Nations. The Inuit were barely acknowledged until the 1940s, while special responsibility for Métis and Non-Status Indians was largely denied until 2016. The early history of Indigenous policy in Canada is characterized by the presence of both France and Britain as colonizing powers. British colonial policy acknowledged Indigenous peoples as sovereign nations. Post-Confederation Canadian Indigenous policy initially was based on a model of assimilation, with one of its main instruments being the Indian Act. Since the late 1960s, government policy has gradually shifted to a goal of self-determination for Indigenous peoples, to be achieved through modern-day treaties and self-government agreements.