Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Canada's Constitution

Between now and October 14, the date of the upcoming Canadian general election, I plan to write a series of posts profiling that country’s political parties, and those parties’ leaders. But first, I will discuss the history of Canada’s relationship with the United Kingdom, and the Canadian Constitution.

Canada dates its independence from 1867. It maintains formal ties to the U.K., which have diminished during the years following 1867. However, Canada has been largely self-governing through that entire period.

British control of Canada was secured through its victory over France in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), which is known in America as the French and Indian War.

Britain subsequently governed Canada as a colony. However, from 1791 to 1841, there were two colonies: Lower Canada (mostly consisting of parts of present-day Quebec) and Upper Canada (in part of what is now Ontario).

They were combined into the Province of Canada, in 1841. Issues related to combining largely French-speaking Quebec with the mostly English-speaking areas of Canada, have existed since the 18th century, and continue today.

In 1867, the U.K. Parliament passed the British North America Act. That legislation created the Dominion of Canada. The act served as Canada’s constitution until 1982. One implication of that was that constitutional amendments required the approval of the British Parliament.

In 1931, the British Parliament gave up its right to control ordinary legislation in Canada, as well as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Irish Free State. Canadian constitutional amendments, however, still required U.K. approval until 1982.

In 1982, Canadians adopted their own constitution. While, as I noted earlier, the British monarch is still Canada's head of state, I think it can be said that the adoption of the 1982 constitution signalled full independence.

The Quebec issue continued to complicate the picture. That province failed to ratify the constitution, but that did not constitute a veto. However, efforts were made to amend the constitution to satisfy Quebec's concerns.

In 1987, then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney met with the premiers (heads of government) of Canada's 10 provinces, at Meech Lake in Quebec, to negotiate constitutional amendments that would be acceptable both to Quebec, and to the other nine provinces. They came up with a document that recognized Quebec as a "distinct society", and would have given Quebec greater autonomy within the Canadian confederation.

The Meech Lake Accord failed to receive sufficient support from the other provinces, and was never ratified. That gave further impetus to the campaign for Quebec independence. However, that province's voters twice rejected independence in referenda that were held in 1980 and 1995.

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