The U. S. Constitution and Canadian History and Culture

J. M. Bridgeman

Canada exists because of the United States and in reaction to the U.S. Constitution. After 1763, both nations (their earlier eastern seaboard versions) were under British rule. In 1776, when the thirteen colonies could take the imperial abuse no longer, they declared their independence. However, in the Quebec Act of 1774, Great Britain had guaranteed French language and culture would be maintained. Thus, Quebec declined to join the revolution and British North America remained loyal during the American War of Independence. If this had not happened, Canada as a bilingual nation would not exist today.
U.S. Constitution of 1787 clearly placed the power with "we, the people." By giving the elected legislators primary power, the U.S. Constitution set up a system which risked becoming a tyranny of the people, a system which could permit the domination or abuse of minorities by the majority. In the decade after the war ended, citizens who held alternative views no longer felt welcome in their homeland. One hundred thousand left the newly independent states--half of this number immigrating north to the remaining British-controlled territories of Nova Scotia and Quebec. For the first time, with these "United Empire Loyalists," BNA became a refuge for ex-Americans. The Loyalist exodus suggests a gap between rhetoric and reality in the new American nation. Citizens were free to believe what they chose to believe. However, if they did not believe in a republic, they were better off leaving. This "my way or the highway" attitude lives in phrases such as "un-American activity" and in U.S. foreign policy which punishes non-democracies such as Cuba.
Within one man's lifetime (four score and seven years minus eleven), the new American democracy was wracked by civil war. BNA watched a young nation destroy itself. From an outsider's perspective, the American Civil War was a result of the U.S. Constitution. In one sense, it was another dispute about majority rule versus minority rights. The compromises before the Civil War attempted to balance "slave states" with "free," to avoid the inevitable tipping of the balance when the mostly Northern "free states" would outvote the mostly Southern "slave states" and attempt to impose laws and beliefs. Or the Civil War was a battle between "states' rights" and "federal power" (another constitutional issue), with the federal winning. As the U.S. Constitution decrees that states must honour the laws of other states even if they disagree, the second influx of American refugees arrived in Canada via the underground railway.In a very real sense, Canada is a result of the American Civil War. Discussion about Confederation, the joining of British North American colonies in a form of gradually devolving independence, began in the 1860s, while American states were fighting each other. Britain feared the cost of defending scattered colonies far from home against unemployed American armies. She encouraged BNA colonies to unite for self-defense. The first four colonies joined as Canada on July 1, 1867. Others joined in 1870, 1871, 1872, 1905 (two), and 1949.

the colonies were negotiating what the law creating Canada would say, the spectre of the U.S. Constitution loomed large. "The more perfect Union" had imploded. Canadians did not want any system that could result in parts of the federation declaring war on other parts. The goal would be "Peace, Order, and Good Government." The monarch and executive systems took precedence, stressing the importance of leadership. In the legislative system, "rep by pop" was combined with regional representation. And there is a clear division of powers, with the provinces having the right to tax to pay for provincial services. Provinces/territories/colonies choose when to opt in and (possibly) whether to opt out. No one joined under duress; nor is it likely that arms would be used internally to enforce compliance. As recently as 1997, a separatist party, the Bloc Quebecois, formed "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition," the party with the second-largest number of seats elected to federal parliament in Ottawa.
George versus Jean/President or Prime Minister? In devising a Canadian system also, there was a reaction to the role of the American President. The U.S. Constitution did away with a monarch but it chose to elect a president with many powers similar symbolically to a king. To an outsider viewing far too much American news, it seems that the American President is expected to behave like a regal figurehead but his electors are not expected to behave as loyal subjects towards him. Canada opted to retain the monarch and to have an appointed vice-regal representative to serve the figurehead and sober-advisor roles. The Prime Minister is now the leader of the party with the majority in Parliament. The Prime Minister can change between elections if the majority of his party votes him out (as they did to Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain) or if he simply chooses to retire when he feels the time is right. This avoids the long lame-duck periods of the last years and months of a President's term. And it avoids smearing the Head of State with the emotions of partisan politics.
Bill of Rights: The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1791, constitute the Bill of Rights. The freedoms listed in the Bill of Rights cannot be taken away without "due process of law." The law takes precedence. Citizens can be executed as long as the state uses "due process." Soldiers could be drafted even when they objected to the war. (The Vietnam War era saw the third great influx of Americans seeking sanctuary in the democracy to the north.) In Canada, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) guarantees certain rights of individuals and groups. The Charter attempts to protect human rights from the tyranny of majority rule by making the passing of laws to take away protected rights (whatever the "due process") illegal. (It hedges a bit, with the phrase "notwithstanding," and has yet to be really tested.)
In 1920 and 1964 U.S. voting rights were extended to women and certain excluded groups. In Canada, women won the right to vote federally in 1918 and excluded groups were enfranchised in 1949 (all Asians), 1950 (Inuit) and 1960 (North American Indians.) In 1865, a U.S. amendment abolished slavery. Slavery had been abolished in Great Britain and all her colonies in 1833, before Confederation. Probably the U.S. constitutional amendment that had the greatest influence on Canada was XVIII. Many Canadian entrepreneurs made fortunes selling alcohol to Americans during Prohibition. We learned that: not all American citizens agreed with their own Constitution; that Prohibition does not work; and that every time you close a door, windows, tunnels, skylights open.
The term "British North America" did not exist in the 18th century. No public figures of the day used it. But you could say, "North American became British."

Similar Threads

Is It Really About Canadian Culture?
by NorthrnMystique | Apr 3rd, 2008
Canadian Culture
by SaintLucifer | Aug 4th, 2006
Canadian Culture
by Said1 | Mar 15th, 2006
Canadian Culture Section
by BC Bob | Oct 9th, 2005