On this Day, 143 Years Ago

March 8, 2010: The Historica-Dominion Institute reminds us that on this day, 143 years ago, the Westminster Parliament passed the British North America Act (1867). Queen Victoria gave it royal assent on March 20 and on July 1st it came into effect (National Post, AL7).

“The Act joined the colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in one federal union and outlined the distribution of powers between the central Parliament and the provincial legislatures.”

It’s hard to squeeze Confederation’s story into a sentence or two. But surely, the Institute’s statement is too concise. It says nothing about the origin of that “central Parliament.” The provinces had parliaments before 1867. But there was no “central Parliament.” To unite the colonies, to make this country, the Fathers of Confederation had to make the Parliament of Canada.

Historians and political scientists typically see Confederation as a “deal,” the result of squabbles among self-serving politicians. They dwell on quarrels about the division of constitutional power; they suppose that the Fathers somehow muddled their way into a union. They don’t view the Fathers as true constitution makers. There was no Canadian “founding.” The United States had a “founding.” We did not.

That’s the usual view. It misses the extraordinary character of what was done in 1867. It misses the greatness. Locke teaches that creating a parliament, “placing the legislative power”) is an act of political founding. It is, for the political philosopher, the act of founding.

In 1982, Canadians changed the name of their original document. What was once the British North America Act (1867) is now known in law as the Constitution Act (1867). Think about it. Any country can have a Constitution Act. Only this one country, ours, among all the countries in human history, had the right to call their original document, the British North America Act.

First we forgot our history. Then we rewrote it.

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