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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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Dominion of Canada

Dominion of Canada is the country’s formal title, though it is rarely used. It was first applied to Canada at Confederation in 1867. It was also used in the formal titles of other countries in the British Commonwealth. Government institutions in Canada effectively stopped using the word Dominion by the early 1960s. The last hold-over was the term Dominion Day, which was officially changed to Canada Day in 1982. Today, the word Dominion is seldom used in either private or government circles.

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Emergencies Act

In July 1988, the War Measures Act was repealed and replaced by the Emergencies Act. The Emergencies Act authorizes “the taking of special temporary measures to ensure safety and security during national emergencies and to amend other Acts in consequence thereof.” In contrast to the sweeping powers and violation of civil liberties authorized by the War Measures Act, the Emergencies Act created more limited and specific powers for the federal government to deal with security emergencies of five different types: national emergencies; public welfare emergencies; public order emergencies; international emergencies; and war emergencies. Under the Act, Cabinet orders and regulations must be reviewed by Parliament, meaning the Cabinet cannot act on its own, unlike under the War Measures Act. The Emergencies Act outlines how people affected by government actions during emergencies are to be compensated. It also notes that government actions are subject to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Bill of Rights.

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Statute of Westminster, 1931

The Statute of Westminster is a British law that was passed on 11 December 1931. It was Canada’s all-but-final achievement of independence from Britain. It enacted recommendations from the Balfour Report of 1926, which had declared that Britain and its Dominions were constitutionally “equal in status.” The Statute of Westminster gave Canada and the other Commonwealth Dominions legislative equality with Britain. They now had full legal freedom except in areas of their choosing. The Statute also clarified the powers of Canada’s Parliament and those of the other Dominions. (See also Editorial: The Statute of Westminster, Canada’s Declaration of Independence.)

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Abortion in Canada

Abortion is the premature ending of a pregnancy. Inducing an abortion was a crime in Canada until 1988, when the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the law as unconstitutional. Since then, abortion has been legal at any stage in a woman’s pregnancy. Abortion is publicly funded as a medical procedure under the Canada Health Act. (See Health Policy.) However, access to abortion services differs across the country. Despite its legalization, abortion remains one of the most divisive political issues of our time.

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Canadian Bill of Rights

The Canadian Bill of Rights was the country’s first federal law to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms. It was considered groundbreaking when it was enacted by the government of John Diefenbaker in 1960. But it proved too limited and ineffective, mainly because it applies only to federal statutes and not provincial ones. Many judges regarded it as a mere interpretive aid. The bill was cited in 35 cases between 1960 and 1982; thirty were rejected by the courts. Though it is still in effect, the Bill of Rights was superseded by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982.

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Rep by Pop

Representation by population is a political system in which seats in a legislature are allocated on the basis of population. It upholds a basic principle of parliamentary democracy that all votes should be counted equally. Representation by population was a deeply divisive issue among politicians in the Province of Canada (1841–67). Nicknamed “rep by pop,” it became an important consideration in the lead up to Confederation. (See also: Representative Government; Responsible Government.)

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Morris Pearlman (Primary Source)

Morris Pearlman was a captain in the Royal Canadian Dental Corps during the Second World War. He served in various prisoner of war camps in Canada. Learn how Pearlman, a Jewish dental officer, set aside resentment and hostility as he treated German POWs.

Please be advised that Memory Project primary sources may deal with personal testimony that reflect the speaker’s recollections and interpretations of events. Individual testimony does not necessarily reflect the views of the Memory Project and Historica Canada.

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Francis William Godon (Primary Source)

Francis William Godon was only 19 years old when he first served with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles during the Second World War. As an anti-tank gunner, the young Métis soldier was one of 14,000 Canadians who invaded Normandy on 6 June 1944. Read and listen to Godon’s first-hand account of the horrors of that day and the important role the Allies’ victory played.

Please be advised that Memory Project primary sources may deal with personal testimony that reflect the speaker’s recollections and interpretations of events. Individual testimony does not necessarily reflect the views of the Memory Project and Historica Canada.

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Editorial: Canadian Art and the Great War

Canadian painting in the 19th century tended towards the pastoral. It depicted idyllic scenes of rural life and represented the country as a wondrous Eden. Canadian painter Homer Watson, under the influence of such American masters as Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt, created images that are serene and suffused with golden light. In On the Mohawk River (1878), for instance, a lazy river ambles between tall, overhanging trees; in the background is a light-struck mountain. In Watson’s world, nature is peaceful, unthreatening and perhaps even sacred.

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Saskatchewan Bill of Rights

The Saskatchewan Bill of Rights came into force on 1 May 1947. Written primarily by lawyer and human rights advocate Morris Shumiatcher, it was enacted by the CCF government led by Premier Tommy Douglas. While critics have debated its efficacy, it remains important because it was Canada’s first bill of rights; it predated the Canadian Bill of Rights (1960), Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms (1975) and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982).

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Goaltender Masks

The first goaltender to wear a mask in an organized ice hockey game was Elizabeth Graham of Queen’s University in 1927. The first National Hockey League (NHL) goalie to wear a mask full-time was Jacques Plante of the Montreal Canadiens; he wore a face-hugging fibreglass mask created by Bill Burchmore beginning in 1959. The construction and design of goalie masks gradually improved to include a caged section over the eyes and nose. This hybrid-style fibreglass mask was adapted for use in baseball by Toronto Blue Jays catcher Charlie O’Brien in 1996. However, concerns have arisen over the safety of goalie masks and goalie-style catcher masks, particularly their ability to protect against concussions.

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The Tragically Hip

The Tragically Hip have been called “the most Canadian band in the world” by the BBC. The New York Times described them as “the band that for many has come closest to defining [Canada]’s cultural identity.” Between 1987 and 2016, they cemented themselves as the most popular Canadian band ever — despite having limited success outside the country. Their records have sold over six million copies in Canada. Nine of the band’s 13 studio albums topped the Canadian sales chart. The Hip amassed 46 Juno Award nominations and 15 trophies, including three wins each for Entertainer of the Year, Group of the Year and Rock Album of the Year. They also received the Juno’s Humanitarian Award and were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and Canada’s Walk of Fame. After lead singer and songwriter Gord Downie announced he had terminal brain cancer in 2016, the band undertook a farewell tour that rivetted much of the country. Downie was named the Canadian Press Newsmaker of the Year in 2016 and 2017 — the first entertainer to receive the honour.

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Quebec Act, 1774

The Quebec Act received royal assent on 22 June 1774. It revoked the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which had aimed to assimilate the French-Canadian population under English rule. The Quebec Act was put into effect on 1 May 1775. It was passed to gain the loyalty of the French-speaking majority of the Province of Quebec. Based on recommendations from Governors James Murray and Guy Carleton, the Act guaranteed the freedom of worship and restored French property rights. However, the Act had dire consequences for Britain’s North American empire. Considered one of the five “Intolerable Acts” by the Thirteen American Colonies, the Quebec Act was one of the direct causes of the American Revolutionary War (1775–83). It was followed by the Constitutional Act in 1791.

This is the full-length entry about the Quebec Act of 1774. For a plain language summary, please see The Quebec Act, 1774 (Plain-Language Summary).

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Canadian Citizenship

Canadian citizenship was first created in 1947 by the Canadian Citizenship Act. Today's version of the law says both Canadian-born and naturalized citizens are equally entitled to the rights of a citizen, and subject to the duties of a citizen. In 2014, the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act brought about the first significant amendments to the Citizenship Act since 1977. However, these changes were repealed or amended by legislation passed in 2017.

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Sleeping Car Porters in Canada

Sleeping car porters were railway employees who attended to passengers aboard sleeping cars. Porters were responsible for passengers’ needs throughout a train trip, including carrying luggage, setting up beds, pressing clothes and shining shoes, and serving food and beverages, among other services. The vast majority of sleeping car porters were Black men and the position was one of only a few job opportunities available to Black men in Canada. While the position carried respect and prestige for Black men in their communities, the work demanded long hours for little pay. Porters could be fired suddenly and were often subjected to racist treatment. Black Canadian porters formed the first Black railway union in North America (1917) and became members of the larger Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1939. Both unions combatted racism and the many challenges that porters experienced on the job.

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Political Party Financing in Canada

The financial activities of political parties in Canada were largely unregulated until the Election Expenses Act was passed in 1974. Canada now has an extensive regime regulating federal political party financing; both during and outside of election periods. Such regulation encourages greater transparency of political party activities. It also ensures a fair electoral arena that limits the advantages of those with more money. Political parties and candidates are funded both privately and publicly. Election finance laws govern how parties and candidates are funded; as well as the ways in which they can spend money. (See also Canadian Electoral System.)