The Constitution is Canada’s premier political institution, representing the basic “rulebook” by which Canadian politics operate. It is, however, also one of the nation’s more complex political concepts to understand. The purpose of this article is to provide an introduction to the basic nature of the Canadian Constitution. In so doing, this article examines the function of the Constitution as a governmental or national political code, the Constitution’s written and unwritten sources, and the key principles and values contained within the constitutional framework.
Canada’s Constitution is not a single document as in the United States. It is made up of acts of the British and Canadian Parliaments, as well as legislation, judicial decisions and agreements between the federal and provincial governments.
It also includes unwritten elements such as British constitutional conventions, established custom, tradition and precedent. Responsible government, for example, in which the Cabinet is collectively responsible to the elected House of Commons and must resign if it loses a vote of confidence, is a fundamental, but unwritten, element of Canadian parliamentary democracy at the federal and provincial levels.
The Constitution’s basic written foundations are the Constitution Act, 1867, which created a federation of four provinces Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick under the British Crown, and the Constitution Act, 1982, which transferred formal control over the Constitution from Britain to Canada and entrenched a Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and procedures for constitutional amendment.