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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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Fenian Raids

The Fenians were a secret society of Irish patriots who had emigrated from Ireland to the United States. Some members of this movement tried to take Canadian territory by force, so they could exchange it with Britain for Irish independence. From 1866 to 1871, the Fenians launched several small, armed attacks. Each raid was put down by government forces. Dozens were killed and wounded on both sides. The raids revealed shortfalls in the leadership, structure and training of the Canadian militia, and led to improvements in these areas. The raids also took place at a time of growing concern over the threat posed by American military and economic might. This led to increased support for Confederation.

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Middle Power

In international relations, the term middle power refers to a state that wields less influence on the world stage than a superpower. As the term suggests, middle powers fall in the middle of the scale measuring a country’s international influence. Where superpowers have great influence over other countries, middle powers have moderate influence over international events. Canada was considered to be a middle power during the postwar period — from 1945 until about 1960. Though Canada was not as powerful or prominent as the United Kingdom or the United States during this time, it was an international player that influenced events through moral leadership, peacekeeping and conflict mediation.

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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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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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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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Smallpox in Canada

Smallpox is an infectious disease caused by the variola virus. The disease arrived in what is now Canada with French settlers in the early 17th century. Indigenous people had no immunity to smallpox, resulting in devastating infection and death rates. In 1768, arm-to-arm inoculation became more widely practised in North America. By 1800, advances in vaccination helped control the spread of smallpox. Public health efforts also reduced rates of infection. In the 20th century, Canadian scientists helped the World Health Organization eradicate smallpox. Eradication was achieved in 1979, but virus stocks still exist for research and safety reasons.

Click here for definitions of key terms used in this article.

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The Great Flag Debate

The long and often bitter debate over the new Canadian flag began in the House of Commons on 15 June 1964. It ended by closure on 15 December 1964. Feelings ran high among many English Canadians. Opposition leader John Diefenbaker demanded that the flag honour Canada’s “founding races” and feature the Union Jack. Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson insisted on a design that conveyed allegiance to Canada while avoiding colonial association. A prolonged, heated debate ensued. Historian Rick Archbold described it as “among the ugliest in the House of Commons history.” The new flag, designed by George Stanley with final touches by graphic artist Jacques Saint-Cyr, was approved on 15 December 1964 by a vote of 163 to 78. The royal proclamation was signed by Queen Elizabeth II on 28 January 1965. The national flag was officially unfurled on 15 February 1965.

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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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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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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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Gold Rushes

Gold rushes occurred in the mid- to late-19th century, primarily along North America’s West Coast from California to Alaska. In Canada, key events included the Fraser RiverCariboo and Klondike gold rushes, as well as the Fraser Canyon War and the founding of British Columbia as a colony in 1858. The worldwide production of gold tripled between 1848 and 1898, though this had relatively little impact on the Canadian economy. The gold rushes opened large territories to permanent resource exploitation and settlement by White people. They also resulted in the displacement and marginalization of many of the Indigenous communities in the region (see also Northwest Coast Indigenous Peoples; Central Coast Salish).

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Three Day Road

Joseph Boyden’s first novel, Three Day Road, made him one of Canada’s most prominent writers of fiction. It won multiple awards and drew attention to an overlooked aspect of Canada’s history, namely the role Indigenous people played in Canada’s military history. Inspired by the story of Anishnaabe First World War sniper Francis Pegahmagabow, Three Day Road follows a wounded soldier’s journey home. The novel parallels the death that hangs over the battlefields of the First World War with the destruction of traditional Indigenous cultures. The book won the McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year Award, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award.

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Massey Commission

The Massey Commission was formally known as the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences. It was officially appointed by Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent on 8 April 1949. Its purpose was to investigate the state of arts and culture in Canada. Vincent Massey chaired the Commission. It issued its landmark report, the Massey Report, on 1 June 1951. The report advocated for the federal funding of a wide range of cultural activities. It also made a series of recommendations that resulted in the founding of the National Library of Canada (now Library and Archives Canada), the creation of the Canada Council for the Arts, federal aid for universities, and the conservation of Canada’s historic places, among other initiatives. The recommendations that were made by the Massey Report, and enacted by the federal government, are generally seen as the first major steps to nurture, preserve and promote Canadian culture.

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War Measures Act

The War Measures Act was a federal law adopted by Parliament on 22 August 1914, after the beginning of the First World War. It gave broad powers to the Canadian government to maintain security and order during “war, invasion or insurrection.” It was used, controversially, to suspend the civil liberties of people in Canada who were considered “enemy aliens” during both world wars. This led to mass arrests and detentions without charges or trials. The War Measures Act was also invoked in Quebec during the 1970 October Crisis. The Act was repealed and replaced by the more limited Emergencies Act in 1988.

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Canadian Identity

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.