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Aboriginals: Treaties & Relations
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Pionniers et Immigrants
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Photograph: First official Canadian Citizenship ceremony at the Supreme Court building, 1947 - NAC/ANC PA-129262
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1931 - 1982: Toward Renewal and Patriation

With the passage of the Statute of Westminster, Canada ceased to be a colony of Britain: She was a proper country in her own right. In the next 50 years the balance of power between provinces and federal governments changed a little, but not much. By the end of the 1970s, a major movement in Canadian constitutional history was to patriate the Constitution home. There were also requests from Québec after the Quiet Revolution for a renewal of Confederation.

Topics in this section:

The Statute of Westminster, 1931
Changes in Federal and Provincial Powers
Ottawa's Political and Financial Clout
Newfoundland Enters Confederation
The Supreme Court is Finally Supreme
Renewing the Constitution
Other Interesting or Important Documents

The Statute of Westminster, 1931
The Statute of Westminster was the logical end of years of change and negotiation between Britain and her Dominions (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Newfoundland). It made several key provisions:

  • British parliament could no longer nullify laws in the Dominions.

  • Dominions could make their own extra-territorial laws.

  • British law no longer applied to the Dominions.

Although Canada had already acted on her own in the past, the Statute of Westminster formally put external affairs under the authority of the federal government. Thus, when World War II began in 1939, Canada did not automatically go to war with Britain. As an independent nation, Canada declared war six days after the British.

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Statute of Westminster, 1931
(Courtesy of Department of Justice, Canada)

READ the summary
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Photograph: Strikers from unemployment relief camps en route to Eastern Canada during "March on Ottawa", 1935 - NAC/ANC C-029399
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Changes in Federal and Provincial Powers
The division of powers between the provinces and the federal government was only formally changed three times before 1982. The Great Depression showed that the provinces could not cope with major economic and social crises alone or equally. In particular, weaker provinces fared worse than larger provinces like Ontario, which had more resources.

Many called for unemployment insurance and other measures to protect individuals from economic extremes. In the middle of the Depression, this was impossible because governments had too little money. However, with the increasing prosperity and plummeting unemployment rate of World War II and after, these measures became possible.

The federal government negotiated the responsibility of administering unemployment and pension plans for most of the country.

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Constitution Act, 1940 (Formerly British North America Act, 1940)
(Gives Parliament the power to make laws on unemployment insurance.)
(Courtesy of Department of Justice, Canada)

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British North America Act, 1951
(Gives Parliament power over old age pensions.)
(Courtesy of Department of Justice, Canada)

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British North America Act, 1964
(Parliament's power over pensions extended to supplementary benefits.)
(Courtesy of Department of Justice, Canada)

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Ottawa's Political and Financial Clout
Ottawa had other ways to influence the balance of power between itself and the provinces. The first opportunity happened during World War II, which required a strong centralized effort. Prime Minister Mackenzie King took advantage of strong public opinion in favour of his actions to strengthen the federal government's powers at the expense of the provinces. That the government managed the war and its aftermath well only increased his popularity and power.

The second method the federal government has used to influence the provinces was to use its financial resources to promote programs in the provinces.

The most significant example is in the provision of universal health insurance in Canada. The provinces control the health system within their provinces, but the federal government can use its spending powers to provide payments to provinces that follow the principles established by the 1964 Royal Commission on Health Services and embodied first in the Medical Care Act of 1966 and then in the Canada Health Act, 1985. In recent years, however, provinces have criticized the federal government for failing to pay its share of health costs. Federal payments in the mid-1970s were amounted for 50% of health care; by 2002 they had fallen near to around 15%.

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Canada Health Act, 1985
(Courtesy of Department of Justice, Canada)

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To learn more about Alberta and Saskatchewan's entry to Confederation:

Photograph: Delegation negotiating the union of Newfoundland with Canada, 1947 - NAC/ANC PA-128076
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Newfoundland Enters Confederation
Newfoundland experienced a great deal of change between World War I and its entry into Confederation. The finances of the colony were in a shambles by the early 1930s and reached such a severe state that it gave up responsible government for direct rule by Britain in 1934.

In World War II, the colony prospered again. However, the United States built several large bases on the Island. The Canadian government was worried that the United States would annex Newfoundland.

After the war, Newfoundlanders debated their future. British officials did not support a return to responsible government, as it was worried about costs. They probably favoured Newfoundland's entry into Confederation.

In 1948, two referendums were held. Newfoundlanders narrowly chose entry into Confederation over self-government.

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British North America Act, 1949
(Renamed Newfoundland Act, 1949. Admits Newfoundland into Confederation.)
(Courtesy of Department of Justice, Canada)

READ the summary
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To learn more about Newfoundland's entry to Confederation:

The Supreme Court is Finally Supreme
The Supreme Court of Canada was established in 1875. Until 1949, however, it was still possible to appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Britain. This came to an end in 1949, when the Supreme Court of Canada finally became the last court of appeal.

Photograph: Prime Minister Rt. Hon. Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Mr. Jean Chrétien, Minister of Justice, during Constitutional Conference, 1981 - NAC/ANC PA-141504
Copyright/Source

Renewing the Constitution
In 1968, a process started to renew the constitution and bring it into Canada's hands. The Victoria Conference in 1971 produced a set of proposals, but nothing was done. Other efforts were made in 1975 and 1976, but again there was no success. Meanwhile, many in Québec were calling for a renewed federalism and the Canadian government's failure to achieve this helped the separatist Parti Québécois rise to power. The Québec government called a referendum on "sovereignty-association" in 1980.

During the Québec referendum campaign Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau promised Québecers the renewed federalism they wanted. He called a First Ministers conference as soon as federalist forces won the referendum. After some political wrangling, the federal government indicated that it would patriate the Constitution unilaterally. This was upheld in the Supreme Court and led to a second First Minister's meeting in 1981. An agreement was reached, although without the approval of Québec.

Other Important or Interesting Documents

  • British North America (No. 2) Act, 1949
    (Repealed by the Constitution Act, 1982. Gives the Parliament of Canada powers to amend the Constitution of Canada "in time of real or apprehended war, invasion or insurrection.")
    (Courtesy of Department of Justice, Canada)

  • Statute Law Revision Act, 1950
    (Repeals many laws enacted by in Britain. Some date from before 1800.)
    (Courtesy of Department of Justice, Canada)

  • British North America Act, 1960
    (Renamed Constitution Act, 1960. Sets the maximum age in office for superior court to 75 years of age. Previously, judges in superior courts could serve for life.)
    (Courtesy of Department of Justice, Canada)

  • British North America Act, 1965
    (Renamed Constitution Act, 1965. Sets the maximum age in office for senators to 75 years of age. Previously, senators could serve for life.)
    (Courtesy of Department of Justice, Canada)

  • British North America Act, 1974
    (Renamed Constitution Act, 1974. Sets new rules for calculating the number of MPs to sit in the Parliament.)
    (Courtesy of Department of Justice, Canada)

  • British North America Act (No. 1), 1975
    (Renamed Constitution Act (No. 1), 1975. Gives seats in the House of Commons to the Yukon and Northwest Territories.)
    (Courtesy of Department of Justice, Canada)

  • Final Report of the French Constitutional Drafting Committee
    (This Web site gives the text of many acts and orders from 1867 onward. All texts are available in French and English.)

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