A constitution is a fundamental law or set of laws, principles and conventions that set out the structure of a nation’s government. It establishes the division and allocation of powers among the various branches of government (executive, legislative and judicial) and, in the case of a federal state like Canada, the different levels of government (federal and provincial/territorial).
Some constitutions, like those in Canada and the United States, include a Bill or Charter of Rights that safeguards the rights of the citizens of that country. Constitutions are “living documents”, that can, using an “amending formula”, usually be adapted to changing historical and social circumstances.
Canada’s Constitution is made up of more than one single document. The 1867 British North America Act (BNA Act) brought Canada into being with a “constitution similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom”. For this reason, some of Canada’s most important rules are not matters of law at all but are “conventions” or practices.
The BNA Act was brought home to Canada in 1982. A new statute, the Constitution Act, 1982, renamed it the Constitution Act, 1867. It added all of the amendments that had been made to the BNA Act between 1867 and 1982. It also made the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms a part of Canada’s Constitution. These two “Constitution Acts”, with their various amending statutes, form the written part of our Constitution.
The Constitution prescribes which powers—legislative, executive and judicial—may be exercised by which level of government, and sets limits on those powers. It lays out the powers and authorities of the office of the Governor General, as well as those of the Senate and the House of Commons.
Section 17 of the Constitution Act, 1867 states that “there shall be one Parliament for Canada consisting of the Queen, an Upper House styled the Senate and the House of Commons”.
Under the Constitution, executive authority is vested in the Crown (the Queen) and carried out by the Governor in Council. In practical terms, the Queen is represented by the Governor General, who acts with the advice and consent of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
The Senate is the upper house of the Parliament of Canada, members of which are appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister. The Constitution provides the Senate with all the powers of the House of Commons with the exception of the right to introduce money bills.
The House of Commons, or lower house, is the elected assembly of the Parliament of Canada. The Constitution Act, 1982 provides for the size and distribution of representation in the Commons, as well as for future readjustments or redistributions.