It all took more than a century
Over a century of history lies behind the Canadian Constitution. Here's a brief tour through the long, labyrinthine path that led to last month's breakthrough. 1867 The British Parliament passed the British North American Act (BNA), establishing the Canadian federation, uniting what were then the British Colonies in North America. This act was and is the heart of the Canadian written Constitution. But in 1867 it could be changed only in London. The long process of independence, once Britain was ready to let go, was to find a way to patriate (bring home) the Constitution under terms that Canadians themselves could agree on.
1931 The Statute of Westminster, passed by the British Parliament, recognized Canada's equal status with Britain and its complete legislative autonomy. But the federal Government in Ottawa and the provincial governments could not agree as to how the BNA Act could be adopted by Canada and amended there. So the power of amendment was again left with the British Parliament, this time at Canada's request. Several key issues divided the Canadians. One was the balance of power within Canada, involving such questions as ownership of mineral rights, trade, and procedures for amending the Constitution.
1971 Most of Canada's Provinces agreed at Victoria, British Columbia to a formula for deciding on constitutional amendments. This signified concessions by most of Canada's Provinces, but Quebec rejects it. Language rights were a key issue.
1976 The separatist Parti Qu'eb'ecois, led by Ren'e L'evesque, came to power in Quebec. His government proclaimed and worked toward the goal of sovereignty for this largely French-speaking Province. (Only in November 1984 would he finally say that economic issues were more important to Quebec than the sovereignty issue.)
1981 Canadian Parliament agreed to a government resolution on patriation of the BNA Act, including adoption of a charter of rights. The details had been litigated in provincial courts, and subsequently reviewed by Canada's Supreme Court, letting the constitutional package move ahead. In December of 1981 the plan received final approval by the Canadian Parliament. The British Parliament adopted the plan in March, 1982, and it formally took effect in April, 1982. Special rights for native peoples were included. Quebec maintained its opposition.
1987 On April 30 of this year, Quebec agreed to sign the Constitution on May 29, 1987. Since 1982, however, the courts in Canada have been making historic decisions regarding individual rights, and the positive economic effects of a common market between the Provinces are being felt. Sources: The Europa Yearbook 1986; Keesing's Contemporary Archives 1982