Ottawa Citizen - A day to celebrate our Constitution

Published on March 29th, 2012 in the Ottawa Citizen

What we don't know can hurt us, and Canadians' lack of constitutional knowledge is troubling to some who see the Constitution as the country's most important document.

According to the Canadian Constitution Foundation, a registered charity that defends constitutional freedoms, a national day to reacquaint ourselves with this under-appreciated document might be just what we need.

In a poll conducted on behalf of the foundation, just 53 per cent of Canadians knew that Canada's original Constitution came into force on July 1, 1867, only 28 per cent of Canadians knew that Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia initially formed the Dominion of Canada in 1867, and just nine per cent of Canadians knew that the Constitution did not include protection for private property.

The Constitution poll of 1,003 Canadians was conducted online by Abacus Data and is said to have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 per cent 19 times out of 20.

"We found that Canadians, especially young ones and high school grads, don't know the simple facts about the Constitution," said Chris Schafer, executive director for the Canadian Constitution Foundation.

The foundation is promoting March 29 - Constitution Day - as the date that all Canadians should celebrate and deepen their understanding of the Constitution.

"The Constitution lays down the form of government and the rule of law," Schafer said.

"Plus our freedoms come from the Charter and when you have stability and freedom you often have a more prosperous society."

Scott Reid, Conservative MP for the riding of Lanark-Frontenac-Lennox and Addington, echoed these sentiments.

"You know what the Constitution is at any given time and therefore what should happen," Reid said. "When you have to guess what the courts are likely to decide, that is not about what the rule of law is, that is the rule of man."

This year features Canada's first Constitution Day and March 29 has been selected because on that date both the British North America Act of 1867 and the Canada Act of 1982 received Royal Assent in their respective years and became Canadian law.

"A Constitution is really important because it not only sets out the rules for our entire political system, but it also has a symbolic importance," said Dr. Kathy L. Brock, a professor in the School of Policy Studies and Department of Political Studies at Queen's University in Kingston.

"Because it also signifies the way we represent ourselves to the rest of the world."

According to Brock, many societies have written constitutions, but not all follow through on them. What makes us special is that in Canada we do.

"We try to live up to those principals," Brock said. "Yes, we have to continually struggle to live up to them, but that is why they are important because they do give us those ideals to aim at and try to emulate. So in that way Canada has a Constitution that has meaning and that people do try to invoke in their daily lives."

Ontario Conservative MPP Randy Hillier is also a believer in the idea of a Canadian Constitution Day and will on Friday table a bill in the Ontario legislature in support of an Ontario Constitution Day.

"I will be tabling a bill called an Act To Proclaim Constitution Day," Hillier said. "I think our Constitution is so extremely important and is not really well known. My bill will be to recognize it, that this is indeed an important day, a day that we should all be aware of."

Schafer is not looking for a national holiday, but hopes that Canadians will celebrate Canada's Constitution Day similar to the way people in the United States celebrate their Citizenship and Constitution Day: by gaining a deeper meaning of the document's importance.

"People often say civic literacy is the lifeblood of democracy," Schafer said. "If citizens don't know simple facts about the Constitution, then Canadians are at a disadvantage in terms of participating in the significant debates of the day that shapes our country."