Canada is the world’s second-largest country in total area, and the largest in North America. Geologically, North America was formed by the rifting of the supercontinent of Pangaea about 200 million years ago. Demographically, it was first inhabited by Aboriginal peoples who scientists believe migrated from Asia into the north and west as long as 30,000 years ago.
The political union that is now Canada had its origins at Confederation. To create Confederation, the old Province of Canada was divided into two new provinces, Ontario and Quebec, and these were joined in a federal pact with the existing provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
Today, Confederation has expanded to include ten provinces and three territories. The census of 1871 counted Canada’s population as 3,689,000 persons; Canada’s population in 2014 is estimated to be about 35 million.
The first Parliament Buildings in Ottawa were built between 1859 and 1866 as the seat of government of the then–Province of Canada. Confederation was successful in achieving many of its founders’ goals, notably the creation of a majority francophone political unit in Quebec, westward expansion to the Pacific Ocean, and the avoidance of political absorption by the expansionist American republic to the south.
The Birth of Confederation
The British North America Act, 1867, known today as the Constitution Act, 1867, is the cornerstone of Canadian Confederation. Its opening words provide that Canada is to have “a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.” With these simple words, Canada imported 800 years of constitutional history and made them its own. By way of exception to the principle of unitary government that was then in place in the United Kingdom, the Act goes on to create a federal-provincial regime and division of powers still in place almost 150 years later. It is common to say that Canada is a new country, but as a political unit it is one of the oldest and most stable democracies in the world. Since the British North America Act, 1867 was passed by the British Parliament, the original is kept in the United Kingdom. This image is of a certified copy provided to Canada by Westminster and kept in the Senate Archives.
The British Empire evolved into the Commonwealth of Nations as certain colonies became self-governing nations. For Canada, this evolution was particularly linked with having taken its place as an equal with others to fight in the First World War. Following the Balfour Declaration of 1926, the Parliament of the United Kingdom enacted the Statute of Westminster, 1931. Through this Act, the British Parliament renounced its capacity to legislate for the dominions, including Canada as the senior dominion. By way of exception, Westminster retained, at Canada’s wish, the power to enact constitutional amendments for Canada, a power that lasted until 1982. As with the British North America Act, 1867 and the Canada Act 1982, the Statute of Westminster, 1931 is an Act of the British Parliament, the original of which is kept in the United Kingdom. This image is of a certified copy provided to Canada by Westminster and kept in the Senate Archives.
It is commonly said that in 1982 Canada “patriated” its Constitution. What actually occurred is that Canada requested that the Parliament of the United Kingdom legislate for it one last time. The Canada Act 1982 enacted the Constitution Act, 1982. Part I of the Constitution Act, 1982 contains the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; Part II of the Act recognizes and affirms the Aboriginal and treaty rights of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada; Part V provides procedures for amending the Constitution of Canada in the future. As with the British North America Act, 1867 and the Statute of Westminster, 1931, the Canada Act 1982 is an Act of the British Parliament, the original of which is kept in the United Kingdom. This image is of a certified copy provided to Canada by Westminster and kept in the Senate Archives.
Enacted as part of the Canada Act 1982 (U.K.), the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms acknowledges that “Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.” Among the freedoms the Charter protects are the fundamental freedoms of conscience and religion; of thought, belief, opinion and expression (including freedom of the press and other media of communication); of peaceful assembly; and of association. The Charter also protects democratic rights, mobility rights, legal rights and equality rights. It builds upon and is a logical extension of the Canadian Bill of Rights enacted by the Parliament of Canada in 1960. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms solidifies Canada’s place in the front rank of free and democratic societies.
The Birth of New Regions
Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, the four founding provinces, had barely united in 1867 before the country experienced a vast expansion with the purchase of Rupert’s Land (now comprising all or parts of the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Yukon, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec and Ontario). Other provinces later joined Confederation: Manitoba, in 1870 (although its current boundaries were not defined until 1912); British Columbia, in 1871; and Prince Edward Island, in 1873. The North-West Territories and Yukon were organized in 1870 and 1898 respectively. Canada’s westward population expansion gave rise to the reduction in size of the North-West Territories and the creation of the Provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta, in 1905. Both Ontario and Quebec also expanded northwards after Confederation, reaching their current extent in 1912. And in 1948, Newfoundland held a referendum in which its residents voted to join Canada as the country’s 10th province; the province’s entry into Confederation took place formally the following year, in 1949. Some provinces were admitted by Acts of Parliament, the originals of which are held in the Senate Archives; others were admitted by order of Her Majesty in Council. The current map of Canada was completed in 1999, when the Territory of Nunavut was created by separating it from the Northwest Territories.
The First Years
Canada is a country of settlers and immigrants. The Immigration Act, 1869 was Canada’s first piece of immigration legislation. The Act sought to ensure the safety of passengers on board immigrant ships and to prevent diseases from entering Canada.
The Constitution Act, 1867 gives Parliament sole jurisdiction over criminal law in Canada, making criminal law a unifying social force across the land. In 1892, Parliament adopted its first Criminal Code, which has been amended since and codifies most of the criminal offences and procedures that are in force.
The Canadian Red Cross Society was established in 1896, as an affiliate of the British Red Cross Society. The Society’s mission is “to improve the lives of vulnerable people by mobilizing the power of humanity in Canada and around the world.” The 1909 Act to incorporate the Canadian Red Cross Society legally established the Red Cross as the body in Canada responsible for providing volunteer aid in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.
Introduced in January 1910, the Naval Service Bill proposed to establish a Department of the Naval Service that would construct a naval college and operate a small Canadian navy.
The World Wars and the Great Depression
The War Measures Act, 1914 was enacted in the opening year of the First World War. The Act provided for the types of emergency measures that could be taken as a consequence of a declaration of war, invasion or insurrection. The Act has been brought into force three times in Canadian history: the First World War, the Second World War, and the 1970 October Crisis. The Act was repealed in 1988 and replaced with the Emergencies Act.
The Military Service Act, 1917 was enacted in an effort to recruit more soldiers during the First World War, in the face of enormous casualties and diminishing manpower. The Act gave the federal Government the power to conscript men for military service.
October 29, 1929, “Black Tuesday”: The start of a severe worldwide economic depression that was to last about a decade, until the beginning of the Second World War. Millions were left unemployed and hungry throughout the country. For residents of the Prairies, drought and the Dust Bowl synchronized disastrously with the Great Depression—the “Dirty Thirties” indeed. No unemployment insurance or social welfare programs existed, but shifts in social values wrought by the circumstances would cause that to change. Legislatively, the decade began with the enactment of the Unemployment Relief Act, 1930. It provided $20 million for relief in 1930 and 1931, of which $16 million was directed towards spending on public works to create jobs and $4 million was directed to immediate relief. The decade ended with a constitutional amendment that added unemployment insurance to the list of exclusive federal legislative powers.
Immediately after the general election of 1930, Parliament met to discuss the overriding issue of unemployment. As part of the relief program, an upward revision of the tariff was undertaken and an Act to amend the Customs Tariff was enacted. Duties were increased across the board, and for a while Canada stepped into the ranks of high-tariff countries. In 1932, an Imperial Economic Conference was held in Ottawa to discuss the Great Depression. In attendance were representatives of Canada, Australia, India, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland, New Zealand, Southern Rhodesia, South Africa and the United Kingdom. In 1935, Canada signed a trade agreement with the United States, placing trade with that country on a more stable foundation.
In Canada, banking falls under federal jurisdiction. Canada’s first banking Act was passed in 1871. Not to be confused with today’s Bank Act is the Bank of Canada Act, first enacted in 1934, which created a central bank for the country. In 1961, in the context of a public disagreement between the Government of Canada and the Bank of Canada over monetary policy, the House of Commons passed a bill to remove the Bank’s second governor, James Coyne, from office, and sent it to the Senate. Governor Coyne was invited to appear before a Senate committee to defend his views. Satisfied, he then resigned.
The National Resources Mobilization Act, 1940 was the basis for the entire organization of Canada’s wartime production. Passage of the bill permitted the Government to appropriate whatever services and property it felt were necessary for the home defence of Canada. Conscription for overseas service followed in 1944.
The Modern World
The Supreme Court of Canada is now Canada’s highest court. Created in 1875, its decisions could at first be appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. In 1929, in what is commonly called the “Persons Case,” the Privy Council overturned a decision of the Supreme Court of Canada and recognized women as persons entitled to be Senators. The “Famous Five” monument outside the Senate precinct on Parliament Hill commemorates the event. (See page 48 for more information about the Famous Five.) It was in 1949 that An Act to amend the Supreme Court Act abolished appeals to the Privy Council. The role of the Court with respect to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, enacted in 1982, launched a third era in the history of the Court.
In 2015, it will have been 800 years since the Magna Carta was signed. Canadians have inherited and enjoy a great legal tradition of freedoms and liberties. The two highlights of the codification process in Canada were the enactment by the Parliament of Canada of the Canadian Bill of Rights in 1960 and the enactment by Westminster, at Canada’s request, of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982.
On December 15, 1964, the House of Commons resolved to adopt the Maple Leaf Flag. The Senate adopted its own resolution two days later. Queen Elizabeth II proclaimed the new flag on January 28, 1965, and the flag was inaugurated on February 15 of the same year.
Health care in Canada today is delivered through a publicly funded system that is mostly free at the point of use. Canadians strongly support this public health care system. Before the Second World War, health care in Canada was for the most part paid by individuals. In 1947, Saskatchewan became the first province to put into place universal hospital care; in 1962, the province introduced a universal provincial medical insurance plan to provide doctors’ services to all its residents. Today, all provinces and territories have publicly funded universal health care. In 1957, Parliament passed the Hospital Insurance and Diagnostic Services Act, and it passed the Medical Care Act in 1966. This latter Act offered to reimburse or cost-share with the provinces half of the covered costs for medical services provided by doctors outside of hospitals. Previous federal health care legislation was consolidated and replaced in 1984 by the Canada Health Act.
“O Canada” is the national anthem of Canada. The lyrics were originally written in French and translated into English, but today’s official English version is not a literal translation of the French. “O Canada” had served as the de facto national anthem since 1939; in 1980, Parliament gave it legal status by enacting the National Anthem Act. The Act received Royal Assent on June 27, 1980, in time for that year’s Dominion Day (now Canada Day) celebrations.
Canada and the United States are big trading partners. In fact, each country is the other’s largest trading partner. As early as 1855, when a reciprocity agreement was reached, free trade in North America was being promoted. From 1935 to 1980, the two countries entered into a number of bilateral trade agreements, including the famous Auto Pact of the 1960s. Free trade was further advanced by the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement, implemented in Canada by the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act. The Free Trade Agreement has since been largely superseded by the trilateral North American Free Trade Agreement, which includes Mexico.
Much of the structure of the Government of Canada is codified in statute. This is particularly true for federal government departments. One example is the Department of Canadian Heritage Act. Canada is a bilingual and culturally diverse country, and the Department supports our two official languages, culture, arts, heritage, sports and communities across the country in a number of direct and indirect ways. The Department partners with thousands of organizations.
Also known as the Regional Veto Act, the 1996 Act respecting constitutional amendments was a significant change in Canada’s constitutional processes.
9/11! An expression engraved in the minds and hearts of all North Americans forever. The attacks of September 11, 2001, led to rapid action by Parliament. By December 18 of that year, Parliament had studied and adopted a legislative response to protect domestic and international peace and security. Its name says it all: the Anti-terrorism Act.