I think that one of the saddest things about the modern world… is that people live in a tiny time-slice of the present moment which they carry forward with them, but nothing remains… and there’s nothing in their experience which reverberates down the centuries, because the centuries to them are completely dark—just unillumined corridors from which they stagger with just a single sliver of light.
Sir Roger Scruton
Canada is known around the world as a strong and free country. Canadians are proud of their unique identity. We have inherited the oldest continuous constitutional tradition in the world. We are the only constitutional monarchy in North America. Our institutions uphold a commitment to Peace, Order, and Good Government, a key phrase in Canada’s original constitutional document in 1867, the British North America Act. A belief in ordered liberty, enterprise, hard work and fair play have enabled Canadians to build a prosperous society in a rugged environment from our Atlantic shores to the Pacific Ocean and to the Arctic Circle—so much so that poets and songwriters have hailed Canada as the “Great Dominion.”
Discover Canada Guide
Canada is defined in modern parlance as a nation. Justin Trudeau called Canada a ‘postnational’ country. Two things about what Trudeau says generally: 1) He’s usually just saying what he’s been told to say, and 2) there is a large cohort of sycophants around him who will affirm anything he says. He’s about maintaining his personal brand, and not much else. Ignore him.
So what is Canada’s self-image? Is Canada a mature and fully aware nation with no delusions? (It is certainly conceited enough to think so.) To answer, let’s start with what Canada might say about itself in its social media accounts.
To begin, Wikipedia:
Canada is a country in North America. Its ten provinces and three territories extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific and northward into the Arctic Ocean, covering 9.98 million square kilometres (3.85 million square miles), making it the world’s second-largest country by total area. Its southern and western border with the United States, stretching 8,891 kilometres (5,525 mi), is the world’s longest bi-national land border. Canada’s capital is Ottawa, and its three largest metropolitan areas are Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.
So far so good. Already we’ve established that it is big, has access to three oceans, and has major metropolitan areas. It is a country, so it is not considered a territory of another state. And, it has three territories, and a bunch of entities called provinces. Here is a convenient map:
The three on top are territories, and the 10 on the bottom are the provinces.
Politically, provinces are best thought of as independent territories (mostly British colonies, but it’s complicated) who joined in Confederation together in a unified country with a central authority that protects their combined interests. Territories are cut from land that was not unto itself a colonial holding per se of the British. It was land held by the Hudson’s Bay Company (by English Royal Charter) called Rupert’s Land, that Canada inherited after Confederation, in 1869.
What is this Confederation I speak of? Think 1867. This is when the nation of Canada began. It was at that stage that the separate colonies of Canada (further separated now into Ontario and Québec), Nova Scotia and New Brunswick combined into one Dominion (but still part of the UK), to protect their common interests. (Notice how close this is to 1865? The colonies were all concerned that since the damn Yankees had just finished their subjugation of the South, at the barrel of a gun by light of the South’s burning cities, the Yankees were going to turn their eye northward.) Prince Edward Island and British Columbia joined soon after. Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba were created from the Rupert’s Land territory already held by Canada and so ostensibly joined Confederation later. Newfoundland and Labrador was the last province to join, in 1949. This is a map showing how the internal political boundaries in Canada have changed over time, if you’re interested.
The deal the colonies agreed to in 1867, in terms of who got what powers, was actually an Act of the UK Parliament, called the British North America Act, 1867. Today, you can find it in the Constitution Act, 1867, as Canada has repatriated all the old UK law that governs the country. The 1867 act describes who gets what powers: skip to section 91 for federal powers, and the 92s for provincial powers. This is akin to the federal structure of the United States, but with many notable differences. (“We’re not Americans!” cries the Canadian.) Put short: if it’s external to Canada or crosses provincial borders, it is federal. If it impacts the daily lives of a province’s population within that province (education, health care, and commerce, but many other areas too), it is provincial. (This is way too simple, as there are other Constitution Acts, but that serves my purpose for now.)
So we’ve got both the political boundaries and jurisdictions covered. How does governance in Canada actually work?
We’ve seen there are two levels of government: provincial and federal. (Territorial governance (Yukon, NWT and Nunavut) is akin to provincial.)
According to the federal government’s Discover Canada guide (the one that recent immigrants and refugees get when they want to apply for citizenship), Canada is a federal state, a parliamentary democracy, and a constitutional monarchy. We’ve discussed the federal state above, so let’s discuss the other two.
Parliamentary democracy is, according to the Guide:
In Canada’s parliamentary democracy, the people elect members to the House of Commons in Ottawa and to the provincial and territorial legislatures. These representatives are responsible for passing laws, approving and monitoring expenditures, and keeping the government accountable. Cabinet ministers are responsible to the elected representatives, which means they must retain the “confidence of the House” and have to resign if they are defeated in a non-confidence vote.
A parliamentary democracy means that the principle law making and government accountability functions are handled by a gathering of elected (House of Commons) and non-elected (the Senate) members. A Member of the House of Commons is elected, in a particular geographic riding in Canada. You only need get more votes than any other single candidate opposing you to win a riding. It is rare for MPs not to be affiliated with a political party. These MPs draft bills which if passed and assented to become law. You need a majority of votes to pass a bill. This is where things get tricky.
Who prevails in the House of Commons? It cannot just be anarchy. The political party that wins the most seats typically forms a government. If they have a majority of seats, then life is good. They can propose bills and pass them without issue. Any other party whose members propose bills can be defeated just as easily. So what if there is no clear majority? Typically, the winner of the most seats still forms the government, but is in a minority position, and so must rely on other MPs or parties to support them to get anything done. The leader of the party forming the government is made Prime Minister, who is not the most powerful leader in Canada, according to the sources, but is head of the government.
There is also a sword of Damocles over the head of the ruling party. Should they not survive a ‘confidence vote’ (in which all MPs vote whether they still support the government or not), then the House of Commons is dissolved and an election is held. With a majority government, no problem, you’ll always survive a confidence vote if your whips are working. A minority government has to step lightly, in order to try and prevent confidence votes, and if one happens, to survive it.
The Senate is the second house of our bicameral federal legislature. Senators are appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister, and serve until age 75. They seem to have strange alliances, but not party affiliations. There has been some noise about electing them, and Alberta has held elections for Senate candidates in the past. Sometimes the then current Prime Minister has asked those candidates be appointed, but is under no obligation to do so. The Senate is supposed to exercise a level of oversight over the bills passed by the House of Commons, and may propose their own bills too. (This senate is not like the elected US Senate. It is more akin to the UK House of Lords, but not a copy. “See, we’re not Americans!” cries the Canadian.)
(The same basic structure applies to the provinces as well. They all elect assemblies based on the Parliamentary model above, with one basic difference: they are unicameral and have no Senate.)
Just what is up with this Prime Minister? The Prime Minister is responsible for running the government. The buck stops here. They, of course, could not possibly handle running the behemoth that is the Canadian government, so they appoint some of their co-MPs as Ministers, and delegate some government business to them. Together, they form the Cabinet. If that is where bucks go to stop, though, who is the Prime Minister and his cabinet accountable to?
This is where constitutional monarchy comes in. I’m going to get editorial here and say that it is two separate things. According to the guide:
As a constitutional monarchy, Canada’s Head of State is a hereditary Sovereign (Queen or King), who reigns in accordance with the Constitution: the rule of law. The Sovereign is a part of Parliament, playing an important, non-partisan role as the focus of citizenship and allegiance, most visibly during royal visits to Canada. Her Majesty is a symbol of Canadian sovereignty, a guardian of constitutional freedoms, and a reflection of our history.
The Sovereign is represented in Canada by the Governor General, who is appointed by the Sovereign on the advice of the Prime Minister, usually for five years. In each of the ten provinces, the Sovereign is represented by the Lieutenant Governor, who is appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister, also normally for five years.
So, it’s really two things: a Constitution, plus a Monarchy. Our current monarch is Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, and she is the sovereign (“Her Majesty”). She is represented in Canada by the Governor General, and in the provinces by a Lieutenant Governor. (Pronounced “Left-tenant” in the Great White North, much to the befuddled amusement of Americans. “See, totally not Americans!” says the Canadian. “Just stop please” says everyone else.)
Prime Ministers and Premiers are not ultimately passing laws. They are advising Her Majesty, through her local representative, to enact the law they have put forward and passed in their legislatures. In the legislative process, the Governor General may assent to a Bill, in which case it becomes law, but she also has a veto. If Governor General considers a bill to be a bad idea, she can refuse to grant her assent to it, and it goes nowhere. The Governor General may also reserve their decision, to defer to Her Majesty to decide herself. But, I was unable to find where this has happened in Canada.
(So, Her Majesty has eleven representatives in Canada. How does she find time for anything else?)
But Her Majesty’s representatives also have another important role: proroguing or dissolving Parliament or a legislature. Proroguing means to discontinue a session of Parliament without dissolving it, just like sending the school kids home early for the day. They may also dissolve Parliament, which triggers an election. Usually, they dissolve a legislature on advice of the Prime Minister or a Premier. However, it is open for them to dissolve a legislature when Her Majesty feels they can no longer adequately serve her (which has also never happened in Canada).
On to the Constitution. This means the rules on which Canada is based, or the laws that all other laws are subject to. There are two primary written documents: the Constitution Act, 1867, which dictates how powers of government are distributed between Canada and the provinces, and the institutions on which the government is formed, and the Constitution Act, 1982, otherwise known as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This document is basically (put very simply) the codification of the UN Declaration of Human Rights into the supreme law of Canada, with some limitations and extra features that are uniquely Canadian. Other documents are incorporated as well (First Nations treaties, for example), as well as some unwritten principles, conventions, and royal prerogative.
You might notice some odd things. First, our Sovereign, Her Majesty, from where all government authority derives, is not Canadian, and resides in a foreign country. Second, she is not actually sovereign with respect to ruling Canada, as she is allegedly ruling with the Constitution governing her rule. This seems odd and contradictory. If it is true, then she is not sovereign, but actually accountable to those who may amend the Constitution, which are the legislatures of Canada and the provinces. Which she rules over. Seems tautological.
Enough government. Let’s briefly talk about the Canadian legal system. All of Canada, except Québec, adopted the English Common Law, as well as Equity, at some point in the past. This is all judge made law, or law that evolved over time based upon rulings by judges. For instance, Ontario adopted English Common Law around 1792. So, all that judge made law was made Ontario’s law as well, but does not remain identical to English Common Law, but evolves on its own course, based on rulings by Ontario judges (rulings after 1792 by English Common Law judges can be influential, but are not authoritative). Canada itself also adopted Common Law, and has a parallel system of courts to what the provinces have. Québec did not adopt Common Law, but rather has a Code Civil de Québec, which is like Napoleon’s Code Civil, but has been modernized and adopted English law of Trusts.
One big thing to note though is that the final court of appeal for Canada, no matter what jurisdiction, is the Supreme Court of Canada. They can give rulings that impact the entire country, not just one province or federal law.
Also, legislatures can pass laws that override the Common Law, to “cure a mischief ” in those laws when necessary.
The guide is pretty much good enough on its own as a social media description of Canada. Notice though that the reference to Canadian culture is not what makes us all alike, but all about our separate origins. We know that origins matter, but for a government run by blank-slaters for last 50+ years, this seems odd.
English and French
Canadian society today stems largely from the English-speaking and French-speaking Christian civilizations that were brought here from Europe by settlers. English and French define the reality of day-to-day life for most people and are the country’s official languages. The federal government is required by law to provide services throughout Canada in English and French.
Today, there are 18 million Anglophones—people who speak English as a first language—and 7 million Francophones—people who speak French as their first language. While the majority of Francophones live in the province of Quebec, one million Francophones live in Ontario, New Brunswick and Manitoba, with a smaller presence in other provinces. New Brunswick is the only officially bilingual province.
Quebecers are the people of Quebec, the vast majority French-speaking. Most are descendants of 8,500 French settlers from the 1600s and 1700s and maintain a unique identity, culture and language. The House of Commons recognized in 2006 that the Quebecois form a nation within a united Canada. One million Anglo-Quebecers have a heritage of 250 years and form a vibrant part of the Quebec fabric.
The basic way of life in English-speaking areas was established by hundreds of thousands of English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish settlers, soldiers and migrants from the 1600s to the 20th century. Generations of pioneers and builders of British origins, as well as other groups, invested and endured hardship in laying the foundations of our country. This helps explain why Anglophones (English speakers) are generally referred to as English Canadians.
But, also included is this little nugget:
Some Canadians immigrate from places where they have experienced warfare or conflict. Such experiences do not justify bringing to Canada violent, extreme or hateful prejudices. In becoming Canadian, newcomers are expected to embrace democratic principles such as the rule of law.
Plus, a nod to those Others:
Many ethnic and religious groups live and work in peace as proud Canadians. The largest groups are the English, French, Scottish, Irish, German, Italian, Chinese, Aboriginal, Ukrainian, Dutch, South Asian and Scandinavian. Since the 1970s, most immigrants have come from Asian countries.
Okay, got it. English settled the English speaking parts of Canada. The French settled most of Québec. The First Nations are here, but not mentioned as part of Canadian Society. There were others involved too, somehow.
The great majority of Canadians identify as Christians. The largest religious affiliation is Catholic, followed by various Protestant churches. The numbers of Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and members of other religions, as well as people who state “no religion” are also growing.
In Canada the state has traditionally partnered with faith communities to promote social welfare, harmony and mutual respect; to provide schools and health care; to resettle refugees; and to uphold religious freedom, religious expression and freedom of conscience.
And, then these little paragraphs immediately follow:
Canada’s diversity includes gay and lesbian Canadians, who enjoy the full protection of and equal treatment under the law, including access to civil marriage.
Together, these diverse groups, sharing a common Canadian identity, make up today’s multicultural society.
There seems to be some omissions. First, what is the Canadian identity? They’ve just finished parsing out every single group that resides in Canada, but nothing describing what Canadian identity might be, except that you are First Nations, English or French. Also, what is surprising is that no mention of the United States of America, being a source of immigrants, culture, religion, trade, or economic relations is mentioned. One would expect that with the dominant Empire on the continent and in the hemisphere, as well as the entire world, it would have some influence on Canadian identity and culture. But, none mentioned here, so wow, I guess we somehow managed to do what no other nation, RIGHT NEXT DOOR to the dominant cultural, economic and military power in the world has ever been able to do before: be completely isolated from it. And that, right there, is enough evidence, on its own, to show the guide is full of shit.
Alright, it’s time to stop this nonsense. I’ve dragged you through this muck to get to the thesis of this blog going forward: all of the above, while readily accepted by Canadians, is not true or is true in a manner of speaking, but not the manner they say it in. Much of Canada’s law or legal structure may be true de jure but is not de facto true. Foreigners observing from outside have a much better understanding of Canada than Canadians. I suspect this is because they are not swimming in the water of propaganda that Canadians do. I’ll be explaining this more in the future.
My purpose here for the next while is to hold up the actual Canada for Canadians and the world to see. There will be rants.