Confederation and Canada Day

Confederation and Canada Day

Canadians marked the 151st anniversary of Confederation on July 1 — including the massive Canada Day celebration on Parliament Hill:

But what was actually being commemorated?

Here’s more on what happened in the months leading up to July 1, 1867, when the British North America Act came into force, creating the Dominion of Canada and its four provinces: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Quebec.



Queen Victoria gave royal assent on March 29, 1867. The British North America Bill had become the British North America Act:

Before that, though, the bill had to pass Parliament.

The Earl of Carnarvon, British secretary of state for the colonies, introduced the plan for Confederation in the House of Lords on Feb. 19, 1867. Read the debate from that day and subsequent sittings at Westminster — and more information in our footnotes:




Here’s a look at more key constitutional moments since Confederation:


Canada achieves its own representation within the British Empire delegation to the Paris Peace Conference following the First World War. Canada signs the Treaty of Versailles along with the other British Dominions and later sits in the League of Nations. Canadians had automatically gone to war in 1914 with the British Empire.


An Imperial Conference results in the Balfour Report, which defines British dominions as autonomous communities.


The Statute of Westminster confirms Canada’s legislative autonomy, though the power to amend the constitution continues to reside with the United Kingdom. But Canadian politicians could not agree on a suitable amending formula. at conferences in 1927 and this year. Amendments to the BNA Act still need a formal vote in British Parliament.


John Diefenbaker’s government passes a Bill of Rights. It is not entrenched in the constitution, however, and only applies to federal jurisdiction.


The Victoria Conference gives hope to an agreement between Ottawa and the provinces. Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, however, rejects the plan.


Two first ministers’ conferences end in failure, following meetings in 1975 and 1976.


A May referendum on Quebec sovereignty wins only 40.4-per-cent support.

Later that year, Justice Minister Jean Chrétien kicks off debate on unilateral patriation of the Canadian Constitution on Oct. 6:


The Supreme Court rules that Ottawa has the legal right to push forward alone on patriation, but historical convention requires substantial consent from the provinces.

A constitutional conference takes place in Ottawa in early November. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, supported by Ontario and New Brunswick, has to contend with the “Gang of Eight” of premiers who oppose patriation without their consent.

The so-called “kitchen accord” between Attorney General Jean Chrétien and his Ontario and Saskatchewan counterparts (Roy McMurtry and Roy Romanow) leads to agreement on the “notwithstanding clause” in exchange for the premiers dropping their demand to “opt out” of federal programs and receive equivalent funding. Quebec Premier René Lévesque refuses to sign the accord.

On Nov.5, Trudeau addresses the House of Commons after reaching the agreement. Opposition Leader Joe Clark and NDP Leader Ed Broadbent respond to the prime minister’s speech:

On Nov. 20, Chrétien, Clark, and Broadbent take part in the debate on the final resolution concerning patriation:

Here is how the federal government described those tense days in “The Constitution and You,” a pamphlet designed to inform Canadians about patriation:

“It wasn’t easy. Along the way, we were subjected to long and often angry debate .. the 11 first ministers resumed bargaining in early November of 1981, and in our uniquely Canadian way the breakthrough came with the kind of consensus that had eluded our leaders for more than half a century. The constitutional impasse was at last broken. Canada was finally able to complete the process of gaining full independence that had begun nearly 115 years ago.”


The Canadian Constitution formally comes home on April 17, 1982. Canada finally acquires full national sovereignty and the ability to amend the country’s most fundamental laws without the say or approval of the British Parliament at Westminster.

Trudeau calls it “not the completion of our task, but the renewal of our hope. Not so much an ending, but a fresh beginning.”

Queen Elizabeth travels to Ottawa to sign the Constitution Act, severing Canada’s legislative link to Great Britain. Patriation was one aspect of the new constitution; the other was the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — a protected set of rights and freedoms that went beyond previous legislative measures.

The Queen signs a proclamation to bring the Constitution Act into force. It incorporates the BNA Act and adds several items, including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, an amending formula, the equalization principle, and greater provincial control over natural resources.


The Meech Lake Accord fails after a multi-year process. The measures included recognition of Quebec as a “distinct society” and a constitutional veto for the provinces. Aboriginal groups protested that they were left out of the negotiations.


Canadian voters reject the Charlottetown Accord in a national referendum.


The “NO” side narrowly wins a Quebec referendum on independence from Canada:


The House of Commons passes a motion by a vote of 265 to 16: That this House recognize that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Michael Chong resigns from cabinet in opposition to the motion.

Watch CPAC’s full coverage from that historic day:


The life of Sir John A. Macdonald, a Father of Confederation and Canada’s first prime minister:

Danielle Young looked at Sir George-Étienne Cartier, another Father of Confederation, ahead of the 200th anniversary of his birth in 2014:

The Senate hosted the Canada 150 Symposium in May 2017, with a variety of renowned speakers discussing the past, present, and future of Confederation.

Also watch the Symons Lecture on the State of Canadian Confederation, an annual speech held in Charlottetown: Former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed in 2007Chief Justice Beverley MacLachlin in 2008 Governor General David Johnston in 2010 / David Suzuki in 2012 / Former prime minister Paul Martin in 2013 / Stephen Lewis in 2014 / Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2017

The Senate passedbill in June 2017 to formally recognize Charlottetown as the “Birthplace of Confederation.”

P.E.I. Senator Diane Griffin presented the bill at committee, along with historian Edward MacDonald:

-Andrew Thomson

TOP PHOTO: Charlottetown Conference, Sept. 11, 1864. George P. Roberts/Library and Archives Canada