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Constitutional History
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Aboriginals
1608 - 1759
1749 - 1759
1759 - 1763
1763 - 1774
1774 - 1791
1791 - 1837 (1)
1791 - 1837 (2)
1837 - 1839
1839 - 1850
1850 - 1867
1867 - 1931 (1)
1867 - 1931 (2)
1931 - 1982
1982 - 2002
Documents

Aboriginals: Treaties & Relations
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Pionniers et Immigrants
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Photograph: Centre Block, Parliament Buildings under construction, 1865 - NAC/ANC C-003039
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1867 - 1931: Becoming a Nation

With the passing of the British North America Act in 1867, Canada became a Dominion in the British Commonwealth and John A. Macdonald became Canada's first prime minister. This did not mean that it was a fully independent country, though. It remained a colony of Britain for many more years.

Growing independence from Britain and early struggles between the provinces and the federal government are hallmarks of this period.

Topics in this section:

The British North America Act, 1867
Resistance to Confederation
The Provinces Flex their Muscles
Growing Independence from Britain
The Crucible of War
Other Interesting or Important Documents

The British North America Act, 1867
Three provinces joined the new Confederation: the Province of Canada (which later became Ontario and Québec), Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The British North America Act was intended to balance the forces that were pushing the old Province of Canada apart with the forces that had pushed all the provinces together. Important elements included:

  • The power of the Governor General in Council to disallow any provincial law within a year of getting a copy of the legislation.

  • A division of powers between the federal parliament and the provinces.

  • Parliament could assume any powers that were not specifically allocated, and had the power to act for "peace, order and good government."

Thus, the provinces had secure power over some areas such as education. Québec could keep its civil law and its distinctiveness was recognized. The federal government, however, was theoretically stronger than its counterparts in the United States or Switzerland, increased by the power of the Governor General in Council to appoint Senators.

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British North America Act, 1867 (bilingual version)

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Chain of authority after Confederation


Did you know?

The British North America Act, 1867 is now called the Constitution Act, 1867. This happened because the Schedule of the Constitution Act, 1982, changed the names of many Acts. (These acts will be called by their original names on this site, with a note referring to the new name.)


A Proclamation for Uniting the Province of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into one Dominion, May 22, 1867 - NAC/ANC C-060281
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Resistance to Confederation
Not everyone welcomed the British North America Act. Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland opted out and did not join until 1871 and 1949, respectively.


In 1868, a strong repeal movement gained force in Nova Scotia. A repeal government won 36 of 38 seats in the provincial legislature, and 18 out of 19 federal Members of Parliament were separatists. They argued that the province could not join Confederation without a popular vote (say, a plebiscite).

The French-speaking population of Canada was also sharply divided, a fact that was reflected in the first election after Confederation in 1867.

Debate on the union of the provinces in the House of Assembly of Nova Scotia, March 16th, 18th, and 19th, 1867

The British government disagreed. Given the choice of rebellion against British authority and submission, most Nova Scotians chose submission.

The Provinces Flex their Muscles
The division of powers between the provinces and the federal government was far from settled by the British North America Act, 1867. The provinces fought federal intervention on several occasions by turning to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) in Britain. The JCPC ruled on several key occasions.

In 1889, Ontario won its battle with Manitoba over the western boundary of the province. Manitoba, supported by the federal government, had sought to keep the boundary at the eastern point of Lake Superior, giving it access to the Great Lakes.

Photograph: Dutch settlers clearing bush before ploughing new land, ca. 1886-1950 - NAC/ANC C-024878
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In 1930, the federal government handed the western provinces control over the resources and land that had been withheld at the time of their entry into Confederation.



Canada (Ontario Boundary) Act, 1889
(Extends the boundaries of Ontario to meet Manitoba west of Lake Superior)
(Courtesy of Department of Justice, Canada)

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British North America Act, 1930
(Renamed Constitution Act, 1930. A collection of agreements made with the western provinces.)
(Courtesy of Department of Justice, Canada)

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Photograph: Canadian delegates attending the Imperial Conference, 1926 - NAC/ANC C-001001
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Growing Independence from Britain
As Canada was growing and maturing as a nation, its independence from Britain was also increasing. In 1865, Britain had passed the Colonial Laws Validity Act, which made it impossible for colonies to make laws that were "repugnant" to (i.e.: contradict or have the effect of acting against) British laws that extended to the colonies.

In 1895, Britain was still arguing that the colonies could not make their own treaties. Just ten years later, though, things were changing quickly. British officials did not intervene when Canada negotiated a treaty with the United States in 1905. Then, in 1926, the Imperial Conference laid the groundwork for a new arrangement - one based on equal status between the Dominions and Great Britain.

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Marquis of Ripon to the Governor-General of Canada, etc., June 28, 1895
(Colonies must still make treaties through Britain.)

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Sir E. Grey to Chargé d'Affaires at Paris, July 4, 1907
(Canada does not have to negotiate treaty with United States through London.)

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The Imperial Conference, 1926
(Discusses issues relating to relations between Britain and the Dominions.)

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Photograph: Canadian machine gunners dig themselves in, in shell holes on Vimy Ridge, 1917 - NAC/ANC PA-001017
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The Crucible of War
One of the key events in the development of Canada's national identity and independence was the tragedy of World War I. The dependence of the British on the Dominions (including Newfoundland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) for men and raw materials gave greater leverage to those governments. The heroism and sacrifice of the men in the war also gave greater moral strength to arguments for greater independence from Britain.

Other Important or Interesting Documents

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