Canada was originally settled by the French and the British, remaining a British colony up until the passing of the British North America Act (also known as the Constitution Act, 1867).¹ Although in many ways Canada was still a creature of the British government, the Act established Canada as a federation and defined the three branches of the Canadian government. In 1982, Canada’s constitution was ‘patriated’ from Britain and a second constitution document was passed, known as the Constitution Act, 1982. An entrenched bill of rights known as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was incorporated into the constitution.¹ The Charter writes into the constitution important Canadian values such as democracy, equality, language rights, and minority rights.
As a federation, the constitution divides government powers in Canada between one central government and each of the individual provinces. Under this structure, the central government cannot legislate in areas that encroach or limit the powers held by the provinces under the constitution, and vice versa.¹ Because of the voluntary nature by which each province joined the federation, a deep respect for provincial autonomy continues to be an important element in Canadian politics. Provincial autonomy is an especially important issue when considering the province of Quebec. It is also important to compare provincial rights with the lessor rights granted to aboriginal nations, considered to be founding nations of the Canadian federation as well.
Powers exclusive to Parliament, as outlined in Section 91 of the Constitution act include public debt, trade, federal taxation, postal service, the census, national defence, marriage, copyrights and banking.¹ Powers exclusive to provincial legislatures, as outlined in Section 92 of the Constitution act, include direct taxation, municipal institutions, transportation infrastructure such as railways, healthcare and education and all matters of local or private nature in the province.¹
Front page of the Act from 1867.
1. Constitution Act, 1867