Missing: The Canadian Constitution
Have you seen the Canadian Constitution?
Would you like to see it?
Well you can't.
Our founding document, the British North America Act, 1867 (also known as the Constitution Act, 1867), isn't on exhibit. In fact, it's stored behind closed doors in London, England. As planning begins to celebrate the 150th anniversary of our constitution in 2017 and the creation of the modern Canadian Confederation, it's time to finish the patriation of our original constitution. It's time to place the BNA Act on public exhibit in Ottawa at the heart of an engaging public presentation on how we govern ourselves.
Experts remind us that there are many documents which together define our constitution, but at the very heart of these, legally, historically and symbolically, is the British North America Act. It embodies the vision of John A. Macdonald, George-Etienne Cartier and all the Fathers of Confederation. The original of that law, like those for all British legislation, is well preserved by the British government, but as Canada moves towards its 150th birthday party it's time to bring home to the country that it created.
The first constitutional homecoming
On April 17, 1982, Queen Elizabeth II of Canada, came to Parliament Hill and signed the formal Proclamation of the Constitution Act, 1982 ending centuries of constitutional arrangements developed overseas. As she signed it began to rain. Several drops blurred the careful handwriting of the text and provide a reminder that the Canadian climate respects no authority. The rain drops add a distinctive Canadian character. That Proclamation was on exhibit in the Hall of Honour in the Parliament Building during the summer of 2000, marking the Millennium. It is normally securely preserved in the vaults of Library and Archives Canada in its state of the art preservation centre in Gatineau. The older key documents, including the BNA Act are in England. All are well preserved but are far from public view.
A home of its own
The BNA Act should provide the centre piece of a major national exhibition focused on our constitution. Just bringing it to Canada to lock it in a vault is pointless. The Supreme Court has referred to our constitution as a living tree. It's not a fossil, frozen in time but evolves in response to the changing needs of society. The BNA Act is the very trunk of that tree. It must become a living presence in our national life, permanently available to every Canadian. Ideally, it should be here in 2014, arriving in Charlottetown to mark the 150th anniversary of the conferences held there and in Quebec City which led to Confederation. Then it can travel to all parts of the country, carefully exhibited, to stimulate discussion about our Confederation, its past and future. And then to Ottawa on July 1, 2017 to be placed on permanent exhibit for all to see.
Why any of this matters?
The BNA Act illuminates all of our constitutional inheritance. The other acts together with maps showing our changing borders, and the treaties with aboriginal peoples can be included as a powerful and engaging exhibition and learning environment. The focus must be on citizenship and our governing institutions: the role of the Crown as represented by the Governor General, of Parliament, Cabinet and the Supreme Court. Our institutions cannot be separated from the individuals whose vision and energy created them and continue to shape them. We can add in the personalities who made this history.
We have a compelling story to tell but it must be rooted in authenticity. We need the foundation of original documents to reflect the importance of our constitution. In the process we can encourage our young people to understand that the constitution is truly a living tree on which they can build and thrive as Canadians.