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Patriation of the Constitution
In 1982, Canada fully broke from its colonial past and “patriated” its Constitution. It transferred the country’s highest law, the British North America Act (which was renamed the Constitution Act, 1867), from the authority of the British Parliament to Canada’s federal and provincial legislatures. The Constitution was also updated with a new amending formula and a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These changes occurred after a fierce, 18-month political and legal struggle that dominated headlines and the agendas of every government in the country.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Rights Revolution in Canada
The time between the end of the Second World War and the signing of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 is often referred to as the Rights Revolution in Canada. During this period, awareness of and support for human rights increased. At the grassroots level, women, queer communities, Indigenous peoples, and disability activists pushed for greater inclusion and made significant rights gains. At the same time, both federal and provincial governments passed laws that prohibited discrimination and protected human rights for more people across Canada.
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.