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Celebrating Canada's slow independence


July 1 is Canada Day, which means our friends to the north are celebrating 152 years as a country.

I’m hesitant to say it’s the anniversary of Canada's independence from Britain and the moment it became a nation, because that has been a long, gradual process that is still incomplete and complicated.

In 1867 only four provinces were part of Confederation: Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The first three were the eager participants in the new union. Nova Scotia was a reluctant member and anti-Confederation politicians still held influence in its legislature. Most of the first Members of Parliament it sent to Ottawa were not enthusiastic about being Canadian either.

Prince Edward Island, where the first conference to discuss Confederation was held in 1864, held out and did not join until 1873, two years after British Columbia joined. Manitoba joined in 1870 and there was a gap in the country until 1905 when Alberta and Saskatchewan joined. Newfoundland and Labrador was a separate country under the British crown until 1949 when it became the 10th province. 

As for independence, that process has been even slower. Unlike the U.S., Canada's constitution is not one, single document. Canada was established by an act of the British Parliament: the British North America Act. It sets out basic roles and responsibilities of government, but like the British, so much of the constitution is based on old unwritten conventions and customs that get carried on out of tradition.

The Prime Minister is the leader of the government, but there is no law saying Canada actually has to have one. The same goes for cabinet ministers. The upper chamber of parliament - the Senate of Canada - is modeled after the British House of Lords. Canadian Senators are appointed, not elected, which is a source of considerable controversy. The only way a Senator leaves office is if they resign, die or serve until the mandatory retirement age of 75. Before the 1960s, they served for life.

Credit Chris Lund, National Film Board of Canada / Library and Archives Canada PA-129262
Library and Archives Canada PA-129262
Canadian citizenship has existed only since 1947. Before then, all Canadians were considered British subjects. This is a photo of the first officially naturalized citizens of Canada after a ceremony at the Supreme Court of Canada building in Ottawa on January 3, 1947.

In 1931, the British Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster. It granted legal autonomy to Canada and the other “dominions” such as Australia and New Zealand. Canada has had a Supreme Court since 1875, but it isn’t truly supreme. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in the British Parliament was the highest court in Canada until the statute was passed. Canada could still not amend its own constitution until 1982. Before then the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council was responsible for that. 

The “patriation” of the constitution in 1982 was contentious. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau sought the consent of all provinces, but Quebec, then led by separatist Premier Rene Levesque, refused. Trudeau asked for the Supreme Court to rule if patriation could still happen without the consent of all provinces. It said yes, even though it was a politically risky move. 

Canada did not have complete control over its foreign relations and citizenship until 1947. Before then, all Canadians were considered British subjects and suddenly became instant citizens of their own country. The Department of External Affairs was the original name of the now Department of Foreign Affairs.

And let’s not forget the indigenous communities across Canada. Colonialism was not always kind to them and the long process of reconciliation has only just begun. The evolution of Canadian independence will depend heavily on the relationship between Canadian and indigenous governments.

The monarch of Great Britain is still Canada's head of state. Interestingly, when the constitution was patriated in 1982, the constitutional monarchy was retained, but the terminology changed. Since then, The Queen and her successors are referred to as “The Queen of Canada” or “The King of Canada.” Before then, it was just another unwritten convention that the British monarch was usedy. If, or when, Canada decides to become a republic and have its own resident head of state does not seem to be a high political priority right now. 

Canada was not instantly independent in 1867, but has instead undergone a gradual independence. On Monday, the nation will gradually celebrate it with parades, cook-outs, music and fireworks.

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