Strange Politics: Canada

Canadian flag image from Wikipedia

July 4 may be America’s holiday, but July 1 is Canada Day, the day where our northern neighbors (or, rather, neighbours) throw their own patriotic party celebrating their country’s history.

On the surface, Canada seems a bit odd to us Americans. Having met a few Canadians myself, I must admit I wouldn’t have known they were Canadian if they hadn’t told me. Canadians and Americans are so close that many American professional sports leagues have Canadian teams. It’s a fairly common occurrence to find the odd Canadian coin accidentally mixed in with our cash registers. So, why isn’t Canada a part of the United States?

Actually, America’s Founding Fathers asked that same question during the American Revolution.

How Canada became, well, Canada

The Arrival of the French Girls at Quebec, 1667 by C.W. Jefferys

A large part of what is called “Canada” today was originally a French colony named New France. For 158 years French colonists lived in the land, building their economy off of the fur trade with local Indians. Then, in 1763, the British conquered the colony in the French and Indian War. Suddenly, a well-established French-speaking population with more than a century and a half of history to their name was now under foreign rule.

In the opening of the American Revolution, the leaders of the patriots’ cause thought that these French-Canadians might make a natural ally against the British. Why wouldn’t they want to throw off the shackles of British rule? To that end, the Continental Congress authorized an invasion of Canada in 1775, to drive out the British forces there.

What the Founding Fathers hadn’t anticipated was that the British had beaten them to the punch a year prior. The 1774 Quebec Act granted religious freedom to Roman Catholics, restored the French colonial civil law system the locals were used to, and restored the French-Canadian colonists’ land rights. This meant the Americans marching into Canada were not greeted as liberators; instead, the locals helped the British drive them out. For the rest of the war, the British used the colony as a base from which to attack the Americans, and thousands of American Tories who had stayed loyal to the British crown throughout the war took refuge in Canada when American independence was secured.

The aftermath of the American Revolution saw Canada change from a French-speaking Catholic province that happened to be ruled by the British to a diverse, bilingual, multicultural society that had chosen British rule. However, it would be another war that would forge Canada’s identity as a nation. When the United States declared war on the British in 1812, in part to invade and conquer Canada, the British were too busy dealing with Napoleon in Europe to be bothered with North America. Consequently, Canadians had to defend their country from the American invader themselves. Led by one of their own, a New Jersey-born Tory named George Prévost, the Canadians organized local militias to fight the Americans and successfully thwarted their campaigns. It was here that Canada got one of its first historical heroes: a housewife named Laura Secord, who walked 20 miles through the wilderness to warn the Canadian forces of an impending American attack.

Eventually, the British did arrive, and that's when they burned Washington, D.C.

Eventually, the British did arrive, and that’s when they burned Washington, D.C.

The war ultimately ended in a stalemate, but to Canadians, it was a victory, as they had successfully defended their homeland. However, in the years that followed, many Canadians grew tired of being governed directly by British officials with no say in their own laws. In 1837, various Canadians attempted armed uprisings against the British. The revolts failed, but they got the attention of the British and led to new laws giving Canada more self-government.

Still, there was mounting public pressure for a more thorough reform that would unite all the British colonies north of the United States and give this unified body complete self-government, a sort of “independence in all but name”. In 1867, the British Parliament gave in to these demands, enacting the British North America Act. It is the passage of this act that created modern Canada as we know it today, on July 1, 1867.

Does that make Canada a Country or a Colony?

Queen Elizabeth II signs the Constitution Act in 1982 image from the National Post

For 115 years, the answer was “Um….. well…. huh.” British kings and queens appointed an official called the “Governor-General” to act in their name as Canada’s head of state. No law could be passed or government official appointed or dismissed without the Governor-General’s consent. The Governor-General chose each province’s governor, and also appointed all the members of the Canadian Senate, the upper house of the country’s Parliament. Not only that, but the Governor-General also acted as the go-between for the British and Canadian governments, at least at first. All of this made Canada look like it was still a colony.

On the other hand, the actual power was in the hands of officials elected by the Canadian people. Though the Senate could block bills passed by the democratically-elected House of Commons, it almost always chose not to do so – between 1867 and 1987 the Senate only blocked two or fewer bills per year. The Governor-General’s role was largely ceremonial, and the Prime Minister, who was elected by and responsible to the House of Commons, handled all of the actual policy and administration of the government. This was demonstrated in 1879, when the Marquess of Lorne, Canada’s governor-general of the time, gave in to Prime Minister John A. MacDonald’s demands and dismissed an unpopular governor of Quebec even though he personally liked the guy. The following year, Canada won the right to send an ambassador to the United Kingdom. In 1910, Canadian citizenship was established as a separate legal category from “British subject”.

Still, Canada was treated like a British colony when World War I broke out, as the British dragged Canada into the conflict. Many Canadians fought and died for the British Empire during the war, and this galvanized public support for the idea that Canada should be treated with equal respect as a country, not a colony. Canada was not alone in this desire, either; in 1926, an Imperial Conference in London bringing together officials from various British imperial domains asked to be given equal status to the United Kingdom. In 1931, the British Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster, wherein it abdicated any right to pass laws for Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, or South Africa without their consent. In other words, the law gave these countries their independence. Later that year, Canada opened its first foreign embassy in Washington, D.C., and in 1952, Canada got its first ever Governor-General who was actually Canadian.

So Canada was now an independent country, right? Well, there was one problem. Canadians could not agree on how to amend their own constitution. This was especially problematic since Canada’s “constitution” was a collection of British laws and documents, as well as a number of unwritten traditions. In essence, Canada still depended on the British Parliament to make constitutional amendments, so they weren’t fully independent of the British quite yet. Finally, in 1982, the British Parliament passed the Canada Act, a law that gave Canada’s government the right to decide on its own constitution for itself without having to bother the British. Now, at last, Canada was a truly and fully independent and sovereign country.

Wait, if Canada is independent, why is the Queen on all their coins?

Canadian coins image from Daily Tech

Let me introduce to you the concept of a “personal union”. This is when someone is reigning monarch of two or more countries at the same time, but those countries are still fully sovereign and independent nations. The two countries have their own, separate laws and governments, and the fact that they share a monarch has no real bearing on how the two countries function. There are many historical examples, such as when Canute the Great was king of both Denmark and England in the Middle Ages, or when the Korean king Chungseon was also prince of the Chinese province of Shenyang.

Queen Elizabeth II is Queen of the United Kingdom and also Queen of Canada. These are legally two separate and distinct titles and roles. She is also Queen of Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, and 11 other countries.

The Queen still appoints a Governor-General to represent her, as it would be impractical for her to be in Canada all the time, but this position is largely honorary, just as the Queen’s role in the United Kingdom is largely honorary. When she is in town, she will use a special Canadian flag and coat of arms, as will any other member of the Royal Family visiting Canada.

The Queen's Canadian flag

The Queen’s Canadian flag

An interesting detail in this arrangement is that there is no law requiring Canada to share the same monarch as the United Kingdom. At any time, Canada could decide to pick its own monarch, or if the British decide to change their laws on the succession to the throne, Canada could decide to ignore that decision. Thus, it is easily conceivable that Canada might end up with its own, separate monarch who is only King or Queen in Canada and nowhere else.

It turns out, this is not a hypothetical situation. In 2013, with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge expecting their first child, the British Parliament passed a law that said the line of succession would be based on birth-order and not gender. Previously, princes always took precedence over princesses. Canada passed its own law stating that it agreed to the change, but that law has been challenged in court. The argument is that any change to the Canadian monarchy requires a full constitutional amendment, not merely the simple passage of an ordinary law. The Supreme Court of Canada is going to be deciding this case soon, so we shall see what happens.

In summary, Canada is not a part of the United States because it never wanted to be part of the United States and fought to stay British. It is now a sovereign and independent nation, but it achieved this status gradually over more than a century of incremental change, and even now it shares the same monarch as the United Kingdom, and will continue to do so as long as it chooses to. Canadian politics sure are strange!

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