On a craggy bluff high above the majestic Ottawa River stands the remarkable embodiment of our system of governance: Parliament. Yet, while the vast majority of Canadians recognize the Gothic architecture and many in their millions have made the pilgrimage to the nation’s capital and passed through the brass doors beneath the Peace Tower into the historic rotunda, it has long been evident to me that Canadians are eager to know more about their history, more about their country, and more about their parliamentary institutions and how they function.
SPEAKER JOHN A. FRASER
(The House of Commons at Work, p. ix)
The Parliament of Canada consists of the Crown, the Senate and the House of Commons. Canada’s Parliament was created by the Constitution Act, 1867,1 a statute of the British Parliament2 uniting the provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Canada (Ontario and Quebec).3 The legislation which gave birth to this new political confederation, to be known as the Dominion of Canada, was passed by Westminster4 on March 29, 1867, and came into force on July 1 of that year. The Dominion’s first general elections were held later that summer and the House of Commons assembled at Ottawa for the first time on November 6, 1867. Members proceeded to elect James Cockburn as their Speaker5 and the next day, November 7, the Dominion Parliament met to hear the Governor General, Lord Monck, read Canada’s inaugural Speech from the Throne.6
While the law enacting Canada’s Parliament came into force on July 1, 1867, it would be misleading to conclude that Canadian parliamentary institutions were created at Confederation; they were then neither new nor untried. The provinces of Canada (Ontario and Quebec), Nova Scotia and New Brunswick each possessed sophisticated systems of governance, including legislative assemblies and upper houses, which functioned according to historic, well-understood principles of parliamentary law and practice. While these parliamentary traditions were largely British in origin, they had been adapted over the years as the local political situation required. This body of domestic practices, traditions, customs and conventions grew with the result that, at Confederation, Canada’s parliamentary system was well adapted to meet the needs of governing a young, diverse and growing nation.7
The oldest of Canada’s institutional structures, those found in the maritime provinces, evolved out of the myriad instructions and commissions issued by the imperial government to successive governors over the years of British colonial rule.8 By contrast, the institutional structure which emerged in the territory comprising present-day Ontario and Quebec was from the beginning laid out in statutes, a practice continued at Confederation with the enactment of the Constitution Act, 1867.