The British North America Act is one of Canada’s most important historical documents: it’s the basis for the country’s constitution, but, it’s kept an ocean away in Britain. We take a closer look at the BNA Act, its significance to this country and how a group of prominent Canadians is now campaigning to bring it to Canada.
“BringBackTheAct.ca is national, grassroots movement launched by a group of Canadians from all walks of life. Our intent is to gather thousands of names to petition Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the British government to allow the original Canadian Constitution (The documents of the BNA Act) to be entrusted to the Canadian Government to be displayed for all Canadians to see. This will be the last step we take to finally “repatriate” our Constitution.”
The campaign is the brainchild of Lori Abittan, President and CEO of Multimedia Nova Corporation. Her 52-week history series The Canadian Experience(http://www.cdnexperience.ca) now running in over 70 multicultural publications, was the inspiration to launch BringBackTheAct.ca to invite all Canadians to help gain access to the basic documents which are the foundation of our nationhood.
Over 70 newspapers and websites serving the many communities of Canada have embracedThe Canadian Experience. Their support of this initiative speaks to a joint desire to provide every Canadian with information relevant to our shared democracy and the history of Canada. We believe that central to democracy is access to information. The initiative to patriate The BNA Act is an extension of this earlier project and arises out of a further desire to unite Canadians under our flag. Canada is our home. The fact that The Canadian Experience has been embraced so enthusiastically by the widest audience in the country reaffirms a shared passion for Canada that must be nurtured promoted and encouraged. We are proud to call Canada our home. Let’s not be shy about it.
BringBackTheAct.ca is an affiliated project of The Canadian Experience which was developed and made available to a select network of multilingual publications by Multimedia Nova Corporation, Canada’s diversity publisher/printer-of-choice and a communications company operating in the areas of publishing, multicultural marketing, diversity recruitment, new media, printing and distribution, and Canadian civic literacy and outreach.”
- Precedence exists for the transfer of original documents constituting Acts of British Parliament used to establish a former British Colony into a self-governing entity to the former colony in recognition of ongoing co-operation and friendship between sovereign nations.LINK: Documenting a Democracy: National Archives of Australia
- Australia’s independence was secured with the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act introduced in British Parliament in 1900. In 1988, the original of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act from the Public Records Office in London was lent to Australia and the Australian government requested permission to keep the copy in 1990. The British Parliament agreed by passing the Australian Constitution (Public Record Copy) Act 1990.
Why Bring Back the Act?
Have you seen the Canadian Constitution?
Would you like to see it?
Well you can’t.
Our founding document, the British North America Act, 1867 (also known as the Constitution Act, 1867), isn’t on exhibit. In fact, it’s stored behind closed doors in London, England. As planning begins to celebrate the 150th anniversary of our constitution in 2017 and the creation of the modern Canadian Confederation, it’s time to finish the patriation of our original constitution. It’s time to place the BNA Act on public exhibit in Ottawa at the heart of an engaging public presentation on how we govern ourselves.
Experts remind us that there are many documents which together define our constitution, but at the very heart of these, legally, historically and symbolically, is the British North America Act. It embodies the vision of John A. Macdonald, George-Etienne Cartier and all the Fathers of Confederation. The original of that law, like those for all British legislation, is well preserved by the British government, but as Canada moves towards its 150th birthday party it’s time to bring home to the country that it created.
The first constitutional homecoming
On April 17, 1982, Queen Elizabeth II of Canada, came to Parliament Hill and signed the formal Proclamation of the Constitution Act, 1982 ending centuries of constitutional arrangements developed overseas. As she signed it began to rain. Several drops blurred the careful handwriting of the text and provide a reminder that the Canadian climate respects no authority. The rain drops add a distinctive Canadian character. That Proclamation was on exhibit in the Hall of Honour in the Parliament Building during the summer of 2000, marking the Millennium. It is normally securely preserved in the vaults of Library and Archives Canada in its state of the art preservation centre in Gatineau. The older key documents, including the BNA Act are in England. All are well preserved but are far from public view.
A home of its own
The BNA Act should provide the centre piece of a major national exhibition focused on our constitution. Just bringing it to Canada to lock it in a vault is pointless. The Supreme Court has referred to our constitution as a living tree. It’s not a fossil, frozen in time but evolves in response to the changing needs of society. The BNA Act is the very trunk of that tree. It must become a living presence in our national life, permanently available to every Canadian. Ideally, it should be here in 2014, arriving in Charlottetown to mark the 150th anniversary of the conferences held there and in Quebec City which led to Confederation. Then it can travel to all parts of the country, carefully exhibited, to stimulate discussion about our Confederation, its past and future. And then to Ottawa on July 1, 2017 to be placed on permanent exhibit for all to see.
Why any of this matters?
The BNA Act illuminates all of our constitutional inheritance. The other acts together with maps showing our changing borders, and the treaties with aboriginal peoples can be included as a powerful and engaging exhibition and learning environment. The focus must be on citizenship and our governing institutions: the role of the Crown as represented by the Governor General, of Parliament, Cabinet and the Supreme Court. Our institutions cannot be separated from the individuals whose vision and energy created them and continue to shape them. We can add in the personalities who made this history.
We have a compelling story to tell but it must be rooted in authenticity. We need the foundation of original documents to reflect the importance of our constitution. In the process we can encourage our young people to understand that the constitution is truly a living tree on which they can build and thrive as Canadians.
Lists of Canadian symbols always mention the maple leaf, the flag, the heraldic arms, the beaver, some assorted tartans and the Great Seal. Yet, there is no mention of a constitution or the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Our constitution is complex. Unlike that of our neighbours to the south, it isn’t even a single document. It’s comprised of Acts of both the Canadian and British Parliaments, centuries of unwritten precedents and our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In fact, there are over 30 documents, 10 amendments since 1982, and countless unwritten rules that are the Canadian Constitution.
For example, The Quebec Act, 1774, recognized the special conditions in the newly acquired colony enabling Catholics to hold public office and recognizing French civil law alongside British criminal law. These provisions were unique in their day and in them one can see the tentative beginnings of a new society able to live with and respect cultural differences.
“Responsible government” refers to the binding tradition in our unwritten constitution by which the Crown only acts on the advice of an executive council responsible to an elected assembly. It was implemented first in Nova Scotia (1848) and then in the United Canadas (today’s Ontario and Quebec). In the latter case, the Governor General of the day, the Earl of Elgin, upheld this new principle at considerable risk to his personal safety. A mob in the then capital, Montreal, angered by legislation to compensate those who suffered losses in the Rebellion of 1837-38, stoned Lord Elgin’s carriage as he left the meeting of the executive council. He had accepted the advice of his executive and approved this extremely controversial act. The mob burned the Parliament Buildings in Montreal on April 25, 1849. But Elgin and his executive decided not to call out the militia and no lives were lost. The constitutional precedent was established in the most trying circumstances. Canada showed it could manage dissent without calling on military force.
There are other key documents, each with its own story and lively characters, necessary to understand the constitution we have inherited. These include the edict issued by French King Louis XIV in March 1663 that established the Sovereign Council of New France, then embracing a large portion of North America; the British Royal Charter that seven years later granted to the Hudson’s Bay Company the full powers of government over much of northern and western Canada; the Treaty of Paris in 1783, that gave international recognition to the United States following their revolution, establishing the eastern section of our common border; and the treaties signed by the Government with our First Nations that define the relationship between aboriginal peoples and Canadian society.
Oh yes, our constitutional development has indeed been complex.
But of all these, what evidence do we have in Canada? The raindrop-marked royal proclamation of the Constitution Act, 1982 and similar formal proclamations of the new Canadian flag (1965) and the National Anthem (1980) are carefully kept in Library and Archives Canada’s modern preservation centre. But for our constitutional development prior to 1982, Canada holds only facsimile reproductions of original legislation in the United Kingdom. These are careful reproductions, inscribed by hand on parchment, presented to Canada by the British Government in 1982. Beautifully done but not the real thing for a self-respecting nation.
Canada needs its constitution. There are many parts to this. These and the human stories around them can be assembled in a compelling public exhibit. But at its heart must be the British North America Act. This is the closest we have to an historic constitution, setting out as clearly as they could, the vision and hopes of the Fathers of Confederation. It evolves and shifts as each generation wrestles with its circumstances but it is on this document that we Canadians have built our country.
Each generation also needs to understand this story, complex as it may be, in order to continue to develop our constitution and our society. It’s time to complete the patriation of our constitution by placing the British North America Act on public display in Ottawa.
Let’s make this a national project for our 150th birthday in 2017.
“I’m profoundly patriotic, even though I’m an immigrant to Canada…”–Lori Abittan
I would submit that immigrants are the MOST patriotic, as firstly, they CHOSE to be Canadian, and secondly, the sheer novelty of their new identity would make them far more interested in all things Canadiana–which of course would include history.
I have never met anyone more ‘Canadian’ than my father who immigrated here in 1965. He is more politically, historically and culturally aware than most who were born here.
Being born any ‘Nationality’ allows one the luxury of laziness and taking much for granted. Waving a flag and honking your horn once a year does not a patriot make. It is a relationship with and an understanding of the history that made your country what it is today. The decisions and paths that were taken that wove a journey that results in where we all are today. Without this understanding and respect, you may as well just be cheering for the local curling club, hockey team or high school football squad.
Sign the Petition: