Everywhere we turn, some announcer or politician is telling us it is Canada’s 150th birthday. Every museum, every government department, and every city, town and village seems to be inviting us to make videos, write poems, visit parks, run marathons. Participate! Celebrate!

But everyone seems to have lost sight of what this anniversary really is, except for a few Indigenous commentators who shake their heads in disbelief.

Here are some questions with answers that they don’t teach in law school.

1. What are we celebrating?

Technically speaking, July 1, 2017, will be the 150th anniversary of the British North America Act, an act of Britain’s parliament that states Canada’s purpose is “to promote the Interests of the British Empire.”

The Fathers of Confederation met in Charlottetown, but the law was enacted by Britain.
National Archives of Canada

2. Why was the British North America Act important?

The BNA Act invented a new kind of British colony. A “Dominion” (with a capital D) was a “self-governing” colony designed to promote British imperial interests. Canadians remained British subjects and many saw themselves as British.

The arrangement worked well for Britain because it allowed the settlers to take charge of the messy business of colonization. “Dominion status” was soon granted to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Newfoundland and eventually the Irish Free State.

In 1898, Canada’s first unofficial Christmas stamp incorporated unceded Indigenous territories in the British Empire.
shankar s.

Canada was put in charge of taking land from “Indians.” That’s even how the country got its name.

As far as we know, Jacques Cartier was the first person to write the word “Canada.” On his first trip, he nabbed two of Chief Donnacona’s sons and took them back to France. According to his journal for his second trip in 1535, as the ship approached their home, one said something like “Voila le Canada.” So “Canada” was originally derived from the word meaning an Iroquoian village.

After that, what we call the St. Lawrence River was called “la rivière de Canada.”

3. Did Canada become a country in 1867?

Savvy Canadian judges and media folk carefully avoid claiming that Canada became a state in 1867. That’s because it didn’t. States control their own foreign policy. The Dominion of Canada did not. It was just a colony. It was designed to serve the British Empire by taking control of Indigenous land and resources and by providing soldiers for Britain’s wars.

So commentators hedge and say that Canada became a country. But what fuddle-duddle! If we follow the dictionary definition of a country as an area of land delimited by natural or political boundaries, Canada was already a country in 1543. Check the old maps.

Canada was already recognized on maps as a country in 1543.
Wikimedia Commons

4. How did Canada become a country?

At first, Indigenous people living along part of la rivière de Canada were called Canadians. Soon “Canada” became synonymous with “La Nouvelle-France” on maps.

Then French settlers began to call themselves Canadiens. According to France, the country called Canada ran right down to the Gulf of Mexico.

“Canada” was another name for “la Nouvelle-France.” So in that sense Canada once stretched to the Gulf of Mexico.

Wikipedia Commons

“Canada” became another name for New France.

5. Did the settlers own the country called Canada on maps?

For a time, settlers and Indigenous peoples coexisted in separate, relationally defined polities. The Two Row Wampum, the first treaty between Indigenous people and Europeans (in this case the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch), is an agreement to travel side by side in separate canoes. Indigenous peoples did not agree to become part of any European empire.

6. How did Canada become British?

France gave its interest in Canada to Britain.

James Wolfe did not really beat Louis-Joseph de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham. Both generals died from the battle, but Britain did trounce France in the global Seven Years’ War. With the Treaty of Paris in 1763, France gave up Canada and all its other North American colonies, while regaining control of Guadeloupe, which cost less to maintain and produced a fortune in sugar every year.

7. How did Canada shrink to north of the 49th parallel?

After Britain took over Canada, the Quebec Act of 1774 allowed French settlers to keep their own laws, language and religion. The New England colonies found this act intolerable because it gave administration of the Ohio Valley to Quebec. Britain had negotiated boundaries for its colonies with “Indians” but the colonies wanted to expand, so the settlers revolted. Indigenous peoples wanted to stay neutral but many became allies with the British to protect their land.

The British recognized U.S. independence, and the modern boundary between Canada and the United States was set in the Treaty of Paris of 1783. It was negotiated without the knowledge or consent of Britain’s Indigenous allies, who lost their homelands in the deal. The “Indians” immediately identified this as “an act of Cruelty and injustice that Christians only were capable of doing.”

The newly liberated Americans promptly overrode treaty boundaries to expand.

Westward ho! Canada followed.

8. Was the British North America Act Canada’s first constitution?

No. After it became a British colony, Canada had three different constitutions before the British North America Act.

After France gave all its North American claims to Britain, Canadians became British subjects. They were required to obey the King of England in exchange for the Crown’s protection. Next, the Constitutional Act of 1791 split what used to be New France into Upper and Lower Canada, then the Act of Union in 1840 patched them together again after the two Canadas showed they could work together in the Rebellion of 1837.

It was only after those three earlier British constitutions that the British North America Act united the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
Meanwhile, Indigenous peoples had their own laws and constitutions, remained independent, and were not referred to as “subjects” in the Royal Proclamation of 1763.

9. Did Canada become independent on July 1, 1867?

For 98 years, Canada proudly flew a flag showing its British colonial status.

Wikimedia Commons

For those of us whose ancestors immigrated here, they were or became British subjects like settlers in other parts of the Empire, which was defined by oaths of allegiance sworn to the monarch.

Back in 1867 and well into the 20th century, Canadians considered themselves British subjects. In 1867, most Canadians did not want to be independent. They wanted to be part of the British Empire (with the exception of the French and Indigenous peoples, of course, who had their own desires for independence and self-determination.)

10. Is Canada 150 something for everyone to celebrate?

Most parts of Canada have not been Canadian for 150 years. In 1867, only the colonies in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the southern parts of Ontario and Quebec joined Confederation. Other provinces were added later — Alberta and Saskatchewan not until 1905, Newfoundland and Labrador not until 1949. Somehow, of course, they all forgot that Canada is on Indigenous land. They only agreed to share.

But why let a few old facts interfere with a good party?

11. How did Canada grow from coast, to coast, to coast?

In 1927, the 50th anniversary of the British North America Act, Canadians were proud of the Dominion’s territorial expansion. Canada had bought the Hudson’s Bay Company’s trading monopoly over Rupert’s Land in 1869. By some kind of sleight of hand, this was treated as a territorial annexation.

Loyal Canadians are not supposed to question this strange conflation of commercial, territorial and governmental rights. But I’m still wondering: If Bell sells its interest to Samsung, does that mean we might all become Korean?

12. Weren’t all those numbered treaties made by Canada?

Canadians generally think the numbered treaties validated the tremendous territorial expansion claimed from 1867 to 1927. But those agreements to share the land were British and made on behalf of the Queen. They don’t include any Indigenous agreement to become British subjects or part of Canada. According to international law, they actually affirm Indigenous sovereignty.

13. How did Canada turn “Indian” land into Crown land?

Indigenous peoples were not consulted or informed about Canada’s expanding self-definition. Some First Nations tried to start court actions to show that they were allies, not subjects, of Britain. So, Canada amended the Indian Act in 1927 to prevent “Indians” from hiring lawyers.

14. How did Canada become independent?

According to Canada’s constitution, the country’s purpose is still to promote the interests of the British Empire. But in 1926 the Balfour Declaration made the Dominions equal to Britain within the Empire, and in 1931 the Statute of Westminster made it official.

Then imperialism went out of style and everyone gradually forgot about the British Empire, even though our passports still said we were British subjects. Most people have forgotten that Canadian citizenship did not become a legal status until 1947, but Canadians were still British subjects even after the hot debates of 1964-5 replaced the British Red Ensign with the current maple leaf flag.

15. What did Canada celebrate in 1967?

Expo 67 in Montreal


The 100th anniversary of the British North America Act was in 1967. Canada had finally picked a flag of its own in 1965. There were lots of opportunities to fly it beside the flags of other countries at Expo 67 in Montreal.

But did that make Canada a state? Canadians were still British subjects and Canada’s purpose was still to promote the interests of the British Empire.

16. What was patriation about?

As anyone who was around in 1982 may recall, the patriation of the constitution did not happen in response to any great groundswell of public opinion demanding independence. Instead we got treated to a lot of bewildered discussion of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

This distracted people from the fact that Canadians were about to lose the privileges once accorded to them as British subjects. Britain had decided that the Empire no longer served its interests and was anxious to divest its colonial holdings, perhaps because so many unwilling subjects were coming to the motherland that places such as Bradford were being called Bradistan.

So, by an act of Britain’s parliament, Canada’s subject status was ended as of Jan. 1, 1983. Yet the Queen remained the Queen of Canada. Britain kicked Canada out of the empire without the knowledge or consent of the Canadian people.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau watches while Queen Elizabeth II signs her assent to the Constitution Act, 1982.

BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives Follow

Bravo, Pierre! You saved us from rancorous debate about historical rights. Canada got the Constitution Act of 1982, and the British North America Act was renamed the Constitution Act of 1867, but Canada’s purpose did not change. Britain might not want its empire any more, but Canada’s constitutional purpose is still to promote it.

The prime minister who wasn’t afraid to pirouette behind the back of the Queen was not afraid to pirouette behind the back of the Canadian public either.

17. So what is it again that we are celebrating?

Since facts don’t count, you tell me!

Dr. Grace Li Xiu Woo, LL.B, LL.M, LL.D, is a retired member of the Law Society of British Columbia and on the board of Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada. She is the author of *Ghost Dancing with Colonialism: Decolonization and Indigenous Rights at the Supreme Court of Canada (UBC Press, 2011.)*