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Marriage in Canada

Marriage remains one of the most important social institutions in Canada. It has undergone profound changes since the 1960s. The marriage rate is in decline and the traditional idea of a family is being transformed. After the turn of the millennium, the marriage rate fell to 4.7 marriages per 1,000 people (compared to 10.9 in the 1940s). Married couples are still the predominant family structure. But between 2001 and 2016, the number of common-law couples rose 51.4 per cent; more than five times the increase for married couples over the same period. The definition of what constitutes a married couple also changed in 2005 with the legalization of same-sex marriage. In 2016, 65.8 per cent of Canadian families were headed by married couples; down from 70.5 per cent in 2001. Marriage falls under federal jurisdiction, but the provinces regulate marriage ceremonies and grant marriage licences.

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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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Same-Sex Marriage in Canada

In 2003, Ontario and British Columbia became the first two provinces to legalize same-sex marriage. The federal Civil Marriage Act came into force on 25 July 2005, making same-sex marriage legal across Canada. Canada became the fourth country to permit same-sex marriages, after the Netherlands (2000), Belgium (2003) and Spain (2005). Since then, all provinces in Canada have recognized same-sex marriages. Marriage itself falls under federal jurisdiction in Canada. But the provinces regulate the solemnization of marriage (the formal ceremony that is either civil or religious). They also grant marriage licenses. The Supreme Court has ruled that under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a religious official cannot be legally compelled to perform same-sex marriages if it is contrary to their religious beliefs.

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Judicial Committee of the Privy Council

The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is a board of the British Privy Council. It was formed in 1833. In 1844, it was given jurisdiction over all of Britain’s colonial courts. People who had been judges in high courts in Britain served on the Judicial Committee, along with a sprinkling of judges from the Commonwealth. Their decisions were often criticized for favouring provincial powers over federal authority, especially in fields such as trade and commerce. The Judicial Committee served as the court of final appeal for Canada until 1949, when that role was given to the Supreme Court of Canada.  

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Persons Case

The Persons Case (Edwards v. A.G. of Canada) was a constitutional ruling that established the right of women to be appointed to the Senate. The case was initiated by the Famous Five, a group of prominent women activists. In 1928, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that women were not “persons” according to the British North America Act (now called the Constitution Act, 1867). Therefore, they were ineligible for appointment to the Senate. However, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council reversed the Court’s decision on 18 October 1929. The Persons Case enabled women to work for change in both the House of Commons and the Senate. It also meant that women could no longer be denied rights based on a narrow interpretation of the law.

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Peasant Farm Policy

From 1889 to 1897, the Canadian government’s Peasant Farm Policy set limits on Indigenous agriculture on the Prairies. The policy included rules about the types of tools First Nations farmers could use on reserve lands. It also restricted how much they grew and what they could sell. The Peasant Farm Policy was built on the belief that Indigenous farmers had to gradually evolve into modern farmers. It also reduced these farmers’ ability to compete with settlers on the open market. The policy ultimately impeded the growth and development of First Nations farms. As a result, First Nations never realized their agricultural potential.

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Manifest Destiny

The term Manifest Destiny was first used in 1845 by New York City journalist John Louis O’Sullivan. He used the term in the context of America’s annexation of the Republic of Texas. Manifest Destiny represented the idea that it was America’s right — its destiny, in fact — to expand across all of North America. Politicians and citizens in the United States called for the US to expand by claiming control of British territory. This included the Province of Canada (formerly Upper Canada and Lower Canada), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

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British Columbia and Confederation

The colony of British Columbia was founded in 1858 in response to the Fraser River Gold Rush. (See also The Fraser River Gold Rush and the Founding of British Columbia.) The colony established representative government in 1864 and merged with the colony of Vancouver Island in 1866. In May 1868, Amor De Cosmos formed the Confederation League to bring responsible government to BC and to join Confederation. In September 1868, the Confederation League passed 37 resolutions outlining the terms for a union with the Dominion of Canada. The terms were passed by both the BC assembly and the federal Parliament in 1871. The colony joined Canada as the country’s sixth province on 20 July 1871. The threat of American annexation, embodied by the Alaska purchase of 1867, and the promise of a railway linking BC to the rest of Canada, were decisive factors.

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Territorial Government in Canada

Under Canada’s federal system, the powers of government are shared between the federal government, provincial governments and territorial governments. The territories — Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon — are governed by their respective governments. They receive their legislative authority (the ability to create laws) from the federal government. Ottawa has given territorial governments authority over public education, health and social services; as well as the administration of justice and municipal government. More and more of these powers have been handed down from the federal government in a process called devolution. Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada is the federal ministry responsible for the territories.

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Distribution of Powers

Distribution of powers refers to the division of legislative powers and responsibilities between the federal and provincial governments. The areas of distribution were first outlined at the Quebec Conference in 1864 (see Quebec Resolutions) and are enshrined in the Constitution Act, 1867. They have been a source of debate and tension between the provinces and the federal government for generations. (See Federal-Provincial Relations.) However, this part of the Constitution has remained remarkably unchanged since Confederation.

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Judiciary in Canada

The judiciary is, collectively, the judges of the courts of law. It is the branch of government in which judicial power is vested. It is independent of the legislative and executive branches. Judges are public officers appointed to preside in a court of justice, to interpret and apply the laws of Canada. They are responsible for adjudicating personal, sensitive, delicate, and emotional disputes; and for resolving major social, economic, and political issues that arise within a legal context. As such, the judiciary helps mold the social fabric governing daily life.

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Constitution 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 federal and provincial levels. Canada’s Constitution is not one document; it is a complex mix of statutes, orders, British and Canadian court decisions, and generally accepted practices known as constitutional conventions. In the words of the Supreme Court of Canada, “Constitutional convention plus constitutional law equal the total constitution of the country.” The Constitution provides Canada with the legal structure for a stable, democratic government.

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Court System of Canada

The court system of Canada forms the judicial branch of the federal, provincial and territorial governments. It is independent of the legislative and executive branches of government. The Constitution Act, 1867 provides for the establishment and operation of Canada’s judiciary, including its courts of law. It gives the federal government exclusive lawmaking power over criminal law and criminal procedure; but not over the establishment of criminal courts. It gives the provinces exclusive power over the administration of justice in each province. Canada has four levels of court: the Supreme Court of Canada; the Federal Court and the Federal Court of Appeal, as well as provincial and territorial courts of appeal; provincial and territorial superior courts; and provincial and territorial (lower) courts. Each type of court has the authority to decide specific types of cases.

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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.

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Charlottetown Conference

The Charlottetown Conference set Confederation in motion. It was held from 1–9 September 1864 in Charlottetown, with additional meetings the following week in Halifax, Saint John and Fredericton. The conference was organized by delegates from New BrunswickNova Scotia and Prince Edward Island to discuss the union of their three provinces. They were persuaded by a contingent from the Province of Canada, who were not originally on the guest list, to work toward the union of all the British North American colonies. The Charlottetown Conference was followed by the Quebec Conference (10–27 October 1864) and the London Conference (December 1866–March 1867). They culminated in Confederation on 1 July 1867.

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Sovereignty

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.

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Charlottetown Accord

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.

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Conscription in Canada

Conscription is the compulsory enlistment or “call up” of citizens for military service. It is sometimes known as “the draft.” The federal government enacted conscription in both the First World War and the Second World War. Both instances created sharp divisions between English Canadians, who tended to support the practice, and French Canadians, who generally did not. Canada does not currently have mandatory military service. The Canadian Armed Forces are voluntary services.

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Patriation Reference

The Patriation Reference, formally known as Re: Resolution to Amend the Constitution, was a reference case of the Supreme Court of Canada. On 28 September 1981, the court decided that it was legal for the federal government to patriateand amend Canada’s Constitution without the consent of the provincial governments. But it also found that to do so in areas that affect provincial powers would be a breach of constitutional convention. The court’s decision concluded that such conventions are of great significance. In the words of the court, “Constitutional convention plus constitutional law equal the total constitution of the country.”