Have you ever wondered why the American Declaration of Independence reverberates phrases like: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”…words that are so moving that the Declaration of Independence became the plot driver for an action/adventure movie starring Nicholas Cage? And why the Canadian Constitution is so bland, stoically asserting that Parliament will “… make laws for the peace, order, and good government of Canada, in relation to all matters not coming within the classes of subjects by this Act assigned exclusively to the Legislatures of the provinces”. The only part of this statute that grabs you is its nickname—POGG (Peace, Order, and Good Government). Not even an over-the-hill actor like Harrison Ford would be willing to risk his life for POGG.
The reason Canada asserts bland support for “peace, order and good government” and the US demands the unalienable right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is found in history and is particularly evident this weekend when both countries celebrate their independence.
Canada Day is a birthday party—a festival of food and music, multi-cultural events, face painting and that Captain Canada guy. Independence Day is an act of patriotism. Yes, there is levity and backyard BBQ’s but there is also an element of solemnity which quickly turns to full throated patriotism when the high school marching band leads a procession of veterans from WW2, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq down main street. The crowd is hushed, the people remember.
Our independence day celebrations reflect our separate histories, specifically how and when each of us disengaged from Great Britain. The Americans acted decisively. On July 4, 1776 the US Continental Congress declared that the 13 American colonies were no longer part of the British Empire. The relationship was unilaterally and irrevocably severed. Not a surprising outcome given that the colonies had been at war with Britain for over a year. At issue were Britain’s refusal to allow the colonists to trade with anyone but the British Empire (the increased cost and delays in acquiring essential goods from far flung ports was a continual source of aggravation) and the imposition of taxes on everything from official documents to essential goods like tea and cloth.
After fruitless attempts at resolution, the colonists reacted violently. Britain sent troops and the War of Independence was off to a bloody start. The British viewed the colonists as rebels and traitors. The colonists saw the British as oppressors and invaders. And the Declaration of Independence was conceived—in the cauldron of war. It became the battle cry which mobilized the colonies, setting them firmly on the path to independence.
Contrast this with the Canadian experience almost 100 years later. Unlike the Americans who literally fought their way to independence, Canadians inched toward independence one statute at a time. As a result we were able to pry independence out of the grasp of a reluctant ruler. Britain’s first concession was the passage of the British North America Act* in 1867. The BNA Act united 3 provinces, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and the province of Canada (which later became Ontario and Quebec) to form the Dominion of Canada. PEI and Newfoundland opted out. (Newfoundland, being the contrarian that it is, refused to join Confederation until 1949).
Over the course of the next 60 years Canada continued to negotiate the terms of its independence. The process culminated with the Statute of Westminster, 1931 which formalized Canada’s independence. Also along for the ride and adding to the weight of the negotiations were the Dominions of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and, last but not least, Newfoundland. Curiously, it wasn’t until 1949 that Canada felt its legal system was sufficiently mature to eliminate the final right of appeal to the British Privy Council.
The final act of independence occurred in 1982 when the Constitution was repatriated to Canada and Dominion Day became Canada Day. The repatriation was a bit tricky because of the on-going tension between Quebec and the other provinces. However Prime Minister Trudeau, ever the smooth operator, deftly neutralized the provinces’ objections by watering down the Chart of Rights.** Yet another example of the Canadian willingness to compromise.
The Constitution, unlike the Declaration of Independence, is a complex instrument, contained not in a single document but in many documents which stretch back over hundreds of years. It continues to evolve. A recent example was the recognition of Nunavut.
So back to the words themselves. Yes, the American Declaration of Independence stirs the heart and the Canadian Constitution is almost antiseptically neutral in tone. Each document is a manifestation of its unique history. Our history has led us inevitably to this place—a place of joyful celebration of Canada’s birthday (shared with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge no less). America’s history is more troubled and results in a more solemn celebration of the Fourth of July (also the name of a war movie, starring Tom Cruise).
Be thankful we’re here. Happy birthday Canada!
*The name of the BNA Act was changed in 1982 to the Constitution Act, 1867.
**Prime Minister Trudeau inserted the “notwithstanding” clause which allowed the provinces to opt out of certain obligations.