This is the first part of what will be a short series comparing the Canadian form of governing to that of the United States. My contention is that “responsible government” (Canada) leads to a more practical, more responsive and more moderate approach to government than does Checks & Balances (US).
The United States was designed as a grand social experiment. At its inception, it was the largest modern republic in human history – in both size and population. How long it would last was an open question. The liberal experiment of the American republic started at year zero – when the republic was formed upon adoption of the new Constitution in 1789. In place of the Articles of the Confederation an entirely new form of political regime was developed. It was an idealistic and grand experiment.
In contrast, Canada hasn’t had a year zero. Facing the development challenge of Northern climate and the history of New France under British control, and then the challenge of a rapid English-American migration to Upper Canada following the American Revolution, Canada’s system of government has been an evolving process. In fact, changes to constitutional law in Canada still required the Parliament of the United Kingdom’s assent until patriation in 1982 – when the Constitution Act (an act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom) placed future amending powers with the Dominion of Canada. The closest thing to year zeros could be 1982, or 1867, or 1949.
But before 1867 and 1982 and 1949, Canada was governed. And in 1982 – when Canada became “free” to amend its own Constitution – little changed in terms of the actual relation between Canada and the United Kingdom. While in theory Canada was a colony of the United Kingdom all the way up to 1982, by the time this was no longer the case (1982, in theory) it had long been the case in fact. The fact is that the same could have been true in the lower British colonies (the US): at the time of the Revolution many practical powers had already devolved to the individual colonies. The Parliament of the United Kingdom had, over time and through convention, provided for a gradual – and pragmatic – transfer of power from the United Kingdom to its American colonies.
When the United Kingdom passed the Constitution Act, 1982 the biggest concern to the United Kingdom was that the process it was passing into law reflected the will of the Canadian people. Given that not all of the provinces had assented to the new Constitution, there was some question as to whether the United Kingdom should hand back the act to Canada for further consideration, until national consensus could be established. (A vast majority did assent to the new Constitution, and since the Constitution was for the federal government, the claim was made that assent of Canada as a whole sufficed.) Notice in all of this, a bit of murkiness. Ideas like “convention,” and notions of written reality and actual reality are woven throughout.
Such was the case with the US – up to the Revolution and the Constitution. Even under the Articles of the Confederation, the powers of government were derived from earlier precedence. States inferred the power of government onto the Articles of Confederation, and most of the states (former colonies) were derived by British charter. But the Constitution, in a bold and radical stroke, was derived by “We the People.” It was newly formed, from it’s own claim of reflecting the will of the governed. Year zero.
NEXT: The value of a Governor General, of an unelected Senate, of the notwithstanding clause and of a very powerful Head of Government and Cabinet.