Quebec HistoryMarianopolis College
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Events, Issues and Concepts of Quebec History


Last revised:
23 August 2000


Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College

A constitution is usually defined as the supreme law of a country, that which subordinates and governs every other law passed by its representative assemblies; thus it is frequently referred as the fundamental law of a country. It is, in a way, a set of rules which determines the form of government, defines the territory it governs, fixes the organisation and the functioning of public bodies, limits their rights and responsibilities in the face of individual rights of the citizens. These rules are usually set down in one or more documents as in the case of France or the United States or could be totally or partially unwritten as in the case of Great Britain. In the British system these unwritten rules are called Conventions of the Constitution and they are as binding on the political actors as if they had been written. Nowadays, the rights of the governed have a tendency to be defined in Charters of Rights. When a law conforms to the Constitution we say that it is Intra Vires (constitutional); when it violates one or more of its provisions we say it is Ultra Vires (unconstitutional). In Canada’s case our constitution is partly written (especially those parts that touch on federalism and individual rights) and partly unwritten (for example the position of Prime Minister and the principle of Responsible Government). Between 1763 and 1867, five major constitutions were written for Canada. They are: the Royal Proclamation (1763), the Quebec Act (1774), the Constitutional or Canada Act (1791), the Union Act (1840-41) and the British North America Act (1867). Each of them, in some way, aimed at creating conditions to generate prosperity, assure the security of the territory and handle effectively the issue of the distinctiveness of Quebec. The short term nature of four of these constitutions suggests that one or more of these components were not handled effectively. All of our constitutions were written and enacted in Great Britain until 1982 when we effected the ‘patriation’ of the Constitution.

© 1998 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College