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Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada

It is difficult to generalize about definitions of Indigenous rights because of the diversity among First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples in Canada. Broadly speaking, however, Indigenous rights are inherent, collective rights that flow from the original occupation of the land that is now Canada, and from social orders created before the arrival of Europeans to North America. For many, the concept of Indigenous rights can be summed up as the right to independence through self-determination regarding governance, land, resources and culture.

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Fathers of Confederation

Thirty-six men are traditionally regarded as the Fathers of Confederation. They represented the British North American colonies at one or more of the conferences that led to Confederation and the creation of the Dominion of Canada. These meetings included the Charlottetown Conference (September 1864), the Quebec Conference (October 1864) and the London Conference (December 1866 to March 1867). Beyond the original 36 men, the subject of who should be included among the Fathers of Confederation has been a matter of some debate. The definition can be expanded to include those who were instrumental in the creation of Manitoba, bringing British Columbia and Newfoundland into Confederation, and the creation of Nunavut. (See also  Fathers of Confederation: Table.)

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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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Quebec Conference, 1864

From 10–27 October 1864, politicians from the five British North American colonies gathered in Quebec City to continue discussing their unification into a single country. These discussions began at the Charlottetown Conference the previous month. The most important issues decided in Quebec City were the structure of Parliament and the distribution of powers between the federal and provincial governments. The broad decisions from the Charlottetown and Quebec conferences were made into 72 resolutions, known as the Quebec Resolutions. These formed the basis of Confederation and of Canada’s Constitution.

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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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First Nations

First Nations is a term used to describe Indigenous peoples in Canada who are not Métis or  Inuit. First Nations people are original inhabitants of the land that is now Canada, and were the first to encounter sustained European contact, settlement and trade. According to the 2016 census by Statistics Canada, 977,230 people in Canada identified as being of First Nations heritage, a growth of 39.3 per cent since 2006. There are 634 First Nations in Canada, speaking more than 50 distinct languages.

For more detailed information on specific First Nations, see Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

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Meech Lake Accord

In 1987, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney attempted to win Quebec’s consent to the revised Canadian Constitution. The result was the Meech Lake Accord. It was an agreement between the federaland provincial governments to amend (change) the Constitution. The Accord proposed strengthening provincial powersand declaring Quebec a “distinct society.” The Accord was never put into effect. Political support for it unravelled in 1990. Many Québécois saw the Accord’s failure in English Canada as a rejection of Quebec. Support for separatism soared in Quebec and led to the 1995 Quebec Referendum.

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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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Judicial Committee of the Privy Council

The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is a board of the British Privy Council. It was formed in 1833. In 1844, it was given jurisdiction over all of Britain’s colonial courts. People who had been judges in high courts in Britain served on the Judicial Committee, along with a sprinkling of judges from the Commonwealth. Their decisions were often criticized for favouring provincial powers over federal authority, especially in fields such as trade and commerce. The Judicial Committee served as the court of final appeal for Canada until 1949, when that role was given to the Supreme Court of Canada.  

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Quebec Resolutions

The Quebec Resolutions are a list of 72 policy directives that formed the basis of Canada’s Constitution. They emerged from the Charlottetown Conference (1–9 September 1864) and the Quebec Conference (10–27 October 1864). Those meetings were held by politicians from the five British North American colonies to work out the details of how they would unite into a single country. (See also: Confederation.) The Quebec Resolutions were finalized at the London Conference (4 December 1866 to March 1867). They formed the basis of the British North America Act — the first building block of Canada’s Constitution — which established the Dominion of Canada on 1 July 1867.

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Confederation

Confederation refers to the process of federal union in which the British North American colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Province of Canada joined together to form the Dominion of Canada. The term Confederation also stands for 1 July 1867, the date of the creation of the Dominion. (See also Canada Day.) Before Confederation, British North America also included Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, British Columbia, and the vast territories of Rupert’s Land (the private domain of the Hudson’s Bay Company) and the North-Western Territory. Beginning in 1864, colonial politicians (now known as the Fathers of Confederation) met and negotiated the terms of Confederation at conferences in Charlottetown, Quebec City and London, England. Their work resulted in the British North America Act, Canada’s Constitution. It was passed by the British Parliament. At its creation in 1867, the Dominion of Canada included four provinces: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario. Between then and 1999, six more provinces and three territories joined Confederation.

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

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Canadian Identity

The question of what it means to be a Canadian has been a difficult and much debated one. Some people see the question itself as central to that identity. Canadians have never reached a consensus on a single, unified conception of the country. Most notions of Canadian identity have shifted between the ideas of unity and plurality. They have emphasized either a vision of “one” Canada or a nation of “many” Canadas. A more recent view of Canadian identity sees it as marked by a combination of both unity and plurality. The pluralist approach sees compromise as the best response to the tensions — national, regional, ethnic, religious and political — that make up Canada.

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Prorogation in Canada

A prorogation is a suspension of Parliament. All parliamentary activity is stopped, but the government remains in power and is not dissolved. Every session of Parliament begins with a summons and ends with prorogation; both are issued by the governor general (or lieutenant-governor at the provincial level) at the government’s request. Throughout Canadian history, governments have at times used prorogation to their own advantage. The main purpose of prorogation is to wipe clean the Order Paper of old or existing business and to set a new legislative agenda. All unfinished business at the end of a session dies on the Order Paper. There are procedures in place to reinstate previous activities in a new session, which begins with a Speech from the Throne.

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Distribution of Powers

Distribution of powers refers to the division of legislative powers and responsibilities between the federal and provincial governments. The areas of distribution were first outlined at the Quebec Conference in 1864 (see Quebec Resolutions) and are enshrined in the Constitution Act, 1867. They have been a source of debate and tension between the provinces and the federal government for generations. (See Federal-Provincial Relations.) However, this part of the Constitution has remained remarkably unchanged since Confederation.

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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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Charlottetown Conference

The Charlottetown Conference set Confederation in motion. It was held from 1–9 September 1864 in Charlottetown, with additional meetings the following week in Halifax, Saint John and Fredericton. The conference was organized by delegates from New BrunswickNova Scotia and Prince Edward Island to discuss the union of their three provinces. They were persuaded by a contingent from the Province of Canada, who were not originally on the guest list, to work toward the union of all the British North American colonies. The Charlottetown Conference was followed by the Quebec Conference (10–27 October 1864) and the London Conference (December 1866–March 1867). They culminated in Confederation on 1 July 1867.

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Charlottetown Accord

The Charlottetown Accord of 1992 was a failed attempt by Prime Minister  Brian Mulroney and all 10 provincial premiers to amend the Canadian Constitution. The goal was to obtain Quebec’s consent to the Constitution Act, 1982. The Accord would have recognized Quebec as a distinct society; decentralized many federal powers to the provinces; addressed the issue of Indigenous self-government; and reformed the Senate and the House of Commons. The Accord had the approval of the federal government and all 10 provincial governments. But it was rejected by Canadian voters in a referendum on 26 October 1992.

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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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Peace, Order and Good Government

“Peace, order and good government” is a phrase that is used in section 91 of the British North America Act of 1867 (now called the Constitution Act, 1867). It offers a vague and broad definition of the Canadian Parliament’s lawmaking authority over provincial matters. Since Confederation, it has caused tensions between federal and provincial governments over the distribution of powers. The phrase has also taken on a value of its own with Canadians beyond its constitutional purpose. It has come to be seen as the Canadian counterpart to the American “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and the French “liberty, equality, fraternity.”