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Studies on the Canadian Constitution and Canadian Federalism


Last revised:
26 February 2001

The British Constitution

Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College

Canada is said to have a constitution "similar in principle to that of Great Britain." Britain does not have a document that could be properly called a constitution. Its constitution is made up of several documents, and of decisions and conventions that are for the most part unwritten. The British constitution was the result of a long historical evolution.

This evolution can be divided into two phases: 1) A long period through which Parliament wrested power away from the monarch and established itself as the supreme authority in the kingdom. 2) A second period, from1800 to today, where parliament became more democratic (universal suffrage, supremacy of Commons over the House of Lords etc.).

The main characteristics of the British constitution applicable to Canada are that: 1) It is a constitutional monarchy. 2) It has Cabinet (or responsible) government. 3) Its Parliament is supreme (this was so until 1982). 4) The rule of law is established. 5) It is governed largely by conventions and usages that are binding on the participants.

The British constitution is said to be non-rigid because it can be changed at will by a simple act of Parliament. In reality, it has a fixity that is predetermined by decades, if not centuries, of accumulated experiences that bind the political actors of the country more solidly than the most elaborate constitution does in another country.

For a further discussion of the application of British constitutional practices to Canada, see Eugene Forsey, Freedom and Order. Collected Essays, Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1974, 332p.; and by the same author The Royal Power of Dissolution on Parliament in the British Commonwealth, Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1968 [1943], 324p.

© 2001 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College