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First Nations in Canada

First Nation is one of three groupings of Indigenous people in Canada, the other two being Métis and Inuit. Unlike Métis and Inuit, most First Nations hold reserve lands, and members of a First Nation may live both on and off these reserves. While the term First Nation can describe a large ethnic grouping (e.g. the Cree Nation), in other cases it is synonymous with the term band, a word originally chosen by the federal government and used in the Indian Act. The word band describes smaller communities. Many First Nations prefer the term First Nation over band.

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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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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.)

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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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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.

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Constitution Act, 1982

The Constitution Act, 1982 is a landmark document in Canadian history. It achieved full independence for Canada by allowing the country to change its Constitution without approval from Britain. It also enshrined the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada’s Constitution, the highest law of the land. The Act was passed after a fierce, 18-month political and legal struggle that dominated headlines and the agendas of every government in the country. (See Patriation of the Constitution.)

Editorial

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

The following article is an editorial written by The Canadian Encyclopedia staff. Editorials are not usually updated.

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 Premier Brian Peckford argues that the key intervention in the patriation process came from Peckford and the members of the Newfoundland delegation.

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Royal Proclamation of 1763

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 was issued by King George III on 7 October 1763. It established the basis for governing the North American territories surrendered by France to Britain in the Treaty of Paris, 1763, following the Seven Years’ War. It introduced policies meant to assimilate the French population to British rule. These policies ultimately failed and were replaced by the Quebec Act of 1774 (see also The Conquest of New France). The Royal Proclamation also set the constitutional structure for the negotiation of treaties with the Indigenous inhabitants of large sections of Canada. It is referenced in section 25 of the Constitution Act, 1982. As such, it has been labelled an “Indian Magna Carta” or an “Indian Bill of Rights.” The Proclamation also contributed to the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War in 1775. The Proclamation legally defined the North American interior west of the Appalachian Mountains as a vast Indigenous reserve. This angered people in the Thirteen Colonies who desired western expansion.

This is the full-length entry about the Royal Proclamation of 1763. For a plain language summary, please see Royal Proclamation of 1763 (Plain Language Summary).

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Constitution 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 federal and provincial levels. Canada’s Constitution is not one document; it is a complex mix of statutes, orders, British and Canadian court decisions, and generally accepted practices known as constitutional conventions. In the words of the Supreme Court of Canada, “Constitutional convention plus constitutional law equal the total constitution of the country.” The Constitution provides Canada with the legal structure for a stable, democratic government.

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Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or simply the Charter, is the most visible and recognized part of Canada’s Constitution. The Charter guarantees the rights of individuals by enshrining those rights, and certain limits on them, in the highest law of the land. Since its enactment in 1982, the Charter has created a social and legal revolution in Canada. It has expanded the rights of minorities and criminal defendants, transformed the nature and cost of criminal investigations and prosecutions, and subjected the will of Parliament and the legislatures to judicial scrutiny — an ongoing source of controversy.

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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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Sovereignty

Sovereignty is an abstract legal concept. It also has political, social and economic implications. In strictly legal terms, sovereignty describes the power of a state to govern itself and its subjects. In this sense, sovereignty is the highest source of the law. With Confederation and the passage of the British North America Act, 1867, Canada’s Parliament was still legally under the authority of the British Parliament. By 1949, Canada had become fully sovereign in relation to Great Britain. This was due to landmark legislation such as the Statute of Westminster (1931). The Constitution Act, 1982 swept away Britain’s leftover authority. Questions of sovereignty have also been raised by Indigenous peoples in Canada and by separatists in Quebec. The latter, for a time, championed the concept of sovereignty-association.

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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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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 patriate and 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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Human Rights

Human rights are rights that we all have by virtue of our shared humanity. Depending on the nature of the right, both individuals and groups can assert human rights. Human rights as we understand them today are a relatively modern concept. All human rights are indivisible, interrelated and interdependent. None has automatic precedence over any other. The realization of human rights is a constant struggle on the part of people who suffer injustices and who seek redress. Human rights are an important part of the social fabric of Canadian society. Canadians have also played a role in the evolution of human rights on the international stage.