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Posted on 03 May 2017 by admin

 Dr. Hasan Askari

 Political polarization and conflict has increased in Pakistan in the aftermath of the inconclusive judgment of the Supreme Court bench on the Panama Financial Leaks. The PMLN and the PTI are engaged in bitter polemical exchanges and their political discourse is marked by hostility and mud-slinging.

 The PPP has also jumped into the political fray by targeting both Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan. Asif Ali Zardri is leading the charge against them, especially Nawaz Sharif. He is criticizing the Sharif government for corruption, bad governance and electricity shortages with the objective of projecting the PPP as the most active and autonomous opposition party. The PPP is seeking such a role after playing as a “friendly opposition” to Nawaz Sharif during the last four years.

 The opposition’s best case scenario is that all the five judges of the Supreme Court bench have made negative comments on the financial affairs of the Prime Minister and his family and that the Joint Investigative Team (JTI) would not be able to get anything new on sources and money trail of the Sharif family. This will, in the opinion of the PTI leadership, lead to the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif. From the PTI’s perspective, Nawaz Sharif’s doom’s day is around the corner, if he does not resign earlier.

 The PMLN is projecting its own best case scenario. Its leaders are happy that the majority judgment did not disqualify Nawaz Sharif which, in their opinion, is expected to stay as such, making it possible for Nawaz Sharif to complete the final year of his term of office. They would like to use administrative leverage to delay the JTI report, and when the matter is taken up by the new bench of the Supreme Court, the PMLN is expected to seek permission for its lawyers to comment on the report and the related issues, thereby delaying the finalization of the case. If somehow the whole issue of the Sharif family’s financial resources and money trail is kept on hold till the end of the year, Nawaz Sharif may pull through the term of office. What makes the PMLN confident in finding a way out of the Panama case is their success, at least for the time being, in getting away with the negative fallout of the publication of a news item against the Army top brass.

 It is difficult to predict whose future scenario is going to materialize in the Panama case. However, the alarming development is that the mutual hatred between the PMLN and the PTI is on the rise. If these trends persist, no matter what is the final disposal of the Panama case, the political situation between the PMLN and the PTI would become intensely combative, undermining the prospects of amicable resolution of any issue.

 In 2014, when the PTI and the PAT undertook a long sit-in in Islamabad, the National Assembly sustained the Sharif government because, among others, the PPP, supported it. However, the National Assembly could not resolve the issues of political contention between the PMLN and the PTI.

 Now, in 2017, the parliament is not making any effort to discuss the matter, not to speak of resolving the political conflict. On November 21, there was pandemonium in the sessions of the National Assembly and the Senate on the Panama case and the opposition demand for resignation of Nawaz Sharif. Both houses were prorogued indefinitely. There are hardly any chances of the two houses meeting again to discuss the growing confrontation in the political system.

 The Provincial Assemblies are also polarized on party lines. The Balochistan Assembly passed a resolution in support of the Prime Minister because the province has a PMLN led government. In the Punjab Assembly, the Speaker disallowed a PTI resolution for the resignation of the Prime Minister. Though the PMLN has a majority in this provincial assembly but a resolution in favor of the Prime Minister has not so far been approved. The Provincial Assemblies in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa passed resolutions that demanded the resignation of the Prime Minister because both provincial assemblies have non-PMLN majorities.

 The opposition parties are now taking to public rallies and protest marches. The PPP held public rallies in Mardan and Malakand on April 24 and 25 respectively. The PTI held public rallies in Dadu and Islamabad on April 22 and 28 respectively. The Jamaat-i-Islami has so far held more than one public rally, asking the prime minister to quit. Four political parties with limited electoral support have created an alliance against the PMLN on April 23. These include the PMLQ, Sunni Ethehad Council, Majlis Wahadat-ul-Muslemeen and Pakistani Awami Tehrik.

 The PMLN is also active by holding marches in favor of the prime minister in Karachi, Quetta and some other cities. It has held a big rally in Okara on April 29 to mark the beginning of its popular mobilization campaign.

 The growing political divisions and the hardening of the disposition of the competing political interests are making it difficult for the political institutions like the parliament and the political parties to resolve the on-going political confrontation. It is likely to make the Pakistani system more difficult to manage. This will focus the attention of the political leaders on their political survival rather than addressing the problems of the ordinary people and working towards socio-cultural moderation in the society.

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The Charter

Posted on 23 June 2010 by .

In the early 1950s, working in the historic East Block of the Parliament Buildings, Pierre Trudeau’s lifelong preoccupation with Canada’s constitution took root. Three decades later, as the country’s prime minister, Trudeau remodelled the Canadian constitution and embedded into it an explicit guarantee of the rights and freedoms of all citizens. That was the Constitution Act of 1982 and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms — the most important part of the framework of rules under which Canadians are governed.

A strong link between human rights and the law emerged after the crimes of the Second World War became fully known. In 1948 the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, affirming that every person had inalienable rights; the document was drafted in its original form by a Canadian, John Humphrey. Saskatchewan was the first of the Canadian provinces to adopt a law protecting human rights and other provincial legislatures followed with similar legislation.

The Parliament of Canada recognized its responsibility to safeguard the democratic liberties of Canadians in a 1960 Bill of Rights that guided Parliament, the courts and the federal government, but was not binding on the provinces. The Bill of Rights was a tentative move towards the Trudeau’s Charter.

Trudeau shared in what has been called the post-Second World War rights revolution. He championed the UN universal rights declaration, worked with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and fought against the domination of Church and government in Quebec. He believed passionately that a just society was one that protected personal liberty and promoted individual freedom.

Yet Trudeau also thought that freedom had to be preserved and extended without destroying order. Balancing the two is a crucial part of his Charter, which combines the defence of citizen freedoms with a concern for the rights of groups within society and the interests of the country as a whole. Thus Section 1 of the Charter states that personal rights and freedoms have reasonable limits.

The Charter does not belong to Trudeau alone. Interest groups and individuals made their views known to the government and the Parliament of Canada, resulting in important protections for gender equality, multiculturalism, and aboriginal rights.

The Charter protects:

  • The fundamental freedoms of thought, speech, religion, and peaceful assembly
  • The democratic rights of every citizen to vote in regular elections
  • Mobility rights to work, live in, or move to any part of Canada
  • The legal rights of presumption of innocence and a fair trial
  • The right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination based on race, national, or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, or mental or physical disability
  • The official languages of English and French in the government and legislatures of Canada and New Brunswick
  • French and English language group rights to education in their mother tongue where there are sufficient numbers to justify it.

Any one of the legislatures of Canada can pass a law that goes against, or overrides, the Charter, except when it affects democratic, mobility, and language rights. Such a law can only be for five years, although it can be reenacted for additional periods of five years. This provision of the Charter, Section 33, was a bitter disappointment to Trudeau, but it was a necessary compromise to get provincial support for the Constitution Act. Canadian legislatures have seldom used Section 33.

A considerable and complex body of Charter law has been built up since 1982, and the Supreme Court of Canada has given opinions in hundreds of cases. In Multani v. Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys in 2006, citing the Charter’s protection of freedom of religion, the Supreme Court ruled that a young Sikh male had the right to come to school with a kirpan, a small sheathed ceremonial sword worn by Sikhs as a religious symbol.

In the 1992 Butler case, the court ruled that freedom of speech under the Charter did not extend to the publication and distribution of pornography. Here the emphasis was placed on the values of and risks to Canadian society.

The Chief Justice of Canada, Beverley McLachlin, uses Butler to explain the difference between how Canadians and Americans interpret rights. Canadian law, she points out, protects language, religions, aboriginal communities and the general public welfare, while in the United States, “the ethic of the individual is foremost.”

Critics complain that the Charter has put too much law in the hands of powerful judges who are not accountable to Parliament or the people. Yet the Charter is popular with Canadians. It has become, in McLachlin’s glowing words, part of how the country defines itself — a forward-looking statement of “the distinctive Canadian values of respectful tolerance, pluralism, and interlocking rights and responsibilities of the individual and the state.”

The best place to read about the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is on the internet. The text of the charter is readily available there, and websites such as those of the Library of Parliament, the Supreme Court of Canada, and the Canadian Encyclopedia have further information.

Author: Norman Hillmer is Professor of History and International Affairs at Carleton University.

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The Constitution Act, 1982

Posted on 16 June 2010 by .

In April 1982, in a public ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau signed the Constitution Act, marking the end of a process that was so unusual that a word had to be invented to describe it. The Canadian constitution had been “patriated” — brought home from Great Britain.

From its beginning, Canada had a constitution, but it did not belong to Canada. The British North America (BNA) Act, an 1867 law of Britain’s Parliament, was Canada’s founding document, yet it could only be changed with the permission of the British Parliament.

Trudeau believed passionately that Canada’s long journey from the embrace of the British Empire was incomplete without constitutional independence. However, Canada is a federal state where political authority was shared between the national and provincial governments. Prime ministers and provinces had been trying for more than half a century to find a consensus solution that would make it possible to Canadianize the BNA Act. Trudeau’s own attempts in the 1970s had been unsuccessful.

After 1980, Trudeau was determined to patriate the constitution, no matter what. He invited the provincial premiers to Ottawa in September 1980, but rapidly concluded that they were demanding far too much in return for their backing. Trudeau warned the premiers that he would ask London to pass the necessary legislation to bring the BNA Act home to Canada without provincial consent, adding to his request a charter defining the inalienable rights and freedoms of every Canadian citizen.

“I am telling you now,” Trudeau angrily told the provinces, “we’re going to go it alone. We’ll go to London, and we won’t even bother asking a premier to come with us.”

The Supreme Court ruled that Trudeau had the legal right to do this but the court warned that to proceed this way would contradict Canadian history and custom. The British themselves gave hints that they might not be willing to send the constitution to Canada unless they had an assurance that there was strong provincial support for patriation.

Trudeau then decided on another federal-provincial conference. In November 1981 he met with provincial leaders in Ottawa, knowing that a coalition of eight of the 10 provinces was against him. The “gang of eight,” as they were called, included René Lévesque, the separatist premier of Quebec and Trudeau’s longtime adversary.

Trudeau and Lévesque had clashed in the 1980 Quebec referendum, in which a proposal for Quebec independence was defeated by a large margin.  That gave Trudeau another incentive to remodel the constitution, as he had promised he would if his fellow Quebeckers rejected independence.

As the participants in the November 1981 constitutional conference bargained, the gang of eight broke apart. Lévesque found himself alone. He woke up on the final morning of the conference unaware that the Canadian government and the other nine provinces had reached an agreement the previous day and night without his knowledge and participation. He left Ottawa feeling outmaneuvered, betrayed and humiliated.

The government and legislature of Quebec did not agree to the patriation of the constitution, and they haven’t yet. Two subsequent efforts to renegotiate the constitution with Quebec’s cooperation, the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, ended in failure.

The British North America Act of 1867 was the basis of the new constitution that Trudeau signed in April 1982, along with all of the amendments to the BNA Act that had gone through the British Parliament over the years as the country grew and changed. The most important innovations in the 1982 Constitution Act were a series of precise formulas for amending the constitution, Trudeau’s Charter with landmark guarantees of rights and freedoms and enhanced powers for the provinces in the area of natural resources.

The Constitution Act is difficult to alter. Most changes require the approval of the Canadian Parliament and seven of the 10 provincial legislatures; the provinces that agree to any amendment must in turn make up at least 50 percent of the overall population of Canada.

Amendments having to do with the Queen, the Governor General and fundamental aspects of the structure of the House of Commons, the Supreme Court and the use of the official languages of French and English can only be authorized with the consent of Canada’s Parliament and the legislatures of all 10 provinces. Any one of the 11 parliaments, for example, could kill a proposal to end Canada’s longstanding ties with the monarchy.

The patriation of the constitution was Trudeau’s greatest victory. He had succeeded in the constitutional wars where others had failed, and Canada finally had its declaration of independence from Britain. Yet there was bitterness in Quebec at having been left aside.

It lingers still.

The Canadian Experience is a 52-week history series designed to tell the story of our country to all Canadians. Sponsored by Multimedia Nova Corporation and Diversity Media Services/Lingua Ads partners, the series features articles by our country’s foremost historians on a wide range of topics. Past articles and author bios are available at

Author: Norman Hillmer Norman Hillmer is Professor of History and International Affairs at Carleton University.

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The Canadian Constitution

Posted on 09 June 2010 by .

In 1867, when British colonies in North America united into a single country, the British Parliament issued a birth certificate, the British North America (BNA) Act. The BNA Act was a constitution for the new Canada, setting out the basic structure of government and law, and making it explicitly clear that the Canadian parliamentary system would be based on British principles. Great Britain was the mother country, the model on which Canadians expected their new state to grow and develop.

The BNA Act was made in Britain, but it was written by Canadians. The politicians who brought British North Americans together drafted their constitution before it was submitted to the Parliament in London for approval. Having watched the neighbouring Americans fight a terrible civil war in the 1860s, the founders of Canada were determined to create a strong central government that could take charge of events and give leadership, discipline, and cohesion to a young country.

Yet Canada consisted of distinct provinces that had all compromised to find common ground in 1867. Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, would have preferred a single national government, but he accepted the need for separate provincial jurisdictions as well. The BNA Act provided for a federation, with political power divided between the national government in Ottawa and the provinces.

But it did not parcel out the duties of government equally. Ottawa was given a broad responsibility for the “peace, order and good government of Canada,” as well as control of 29 specific areas of administration, including defence, shipping, and trade. The provinces had command of schools, hospitals, roads, and other subjects that were closer to people’s everyday concerns.

Macdonald described the BNA system as “a general government and legislature for general purposes and local governments and legislatures for local purposes.”

That is what Macdonald planned, but that is not what happened. The BNA Act was open to interpretation. Provincial leaders vigorously promoted the interests of their provinces, which they insisted went beyond a narrow reading of the BNA document. They often appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the British Empire’s highest court where the British judges sided with the provinces, expanding the scope of provincial rights. Responsibilities such as health and education, given to the provinces by the BNA Act, also took on more importance as the years passed, further increasing the role of the provinces in the lives of Canadians.

Power at the centre did not disappear. Particularly in times of crisis, such as war or economic depression, Ottawa asserted itself as the government that mattered most to Canadians. It became the most important of the unwritten rules of Canada’s constitution that the relationship of the national government with the provinces was a complex balancing act, under constant negotiation.

Canada’s connection to Great Britain proceeded in the same way, as a delicate bargain between competing impulses. Canadians took immense pride and comfort from their close and continuing association with Britain and its empire, but they also wanted to shape their own destiny and forge their own way in the world. The flexible Canadian constitution, made up of the BNA Act, Canadian and British laws and judicial rulings, and the unwritten rules built up over decades, evolved as Canada moved cautiously away from Britain and towards a separate identity.

By the early 1930s, Canada was prepared to take a major constitutional step forward. Until that time, Canadian law was tangled up with British law, with Canada the junior partner. The British could, and sometimes did, strike down any Canadian law that conflicted with British legislation. The Statute of Westminster of 1931, a British act of Parliament, established Canadians’ freedom to make laws without Mother Britain looking over their shoulder. Canada was a British colony no more, said Prime Minister R. B. Bennett.

The Statute of Westminster left two important matters unresolved. The Judicial Committee remained the top court for Canadian constitutional cases. Not until 1949 did Canada’s Supreme Court truly become supreme as Canadians’ final court of legal appeal.

The 1931 statute also kept the BNA Act in Britain, because Ottawa and the provinces were unable to agree on how to amend it. Without this, there was no point in having it as a Canadian law. The country’s most important constitutional document would be frozen in time, impossible to change when circumstances changed. Amendments to the BNA Act continued for many more years to be made by the British Parliament, acting on Canada’s behalf.

A half century after the Statute of Westminster, the Constitution Act of 1982 brought the BNA Act home, along with a series of amending formulas and a Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

It had been a long wait.

Author: Norman Hillmer Norman Hillmer is Professor of History and International Affairs at Carleton University

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The Senate

Posted on 02 June 2010 by .

Senator Serge Joyal loved the place where he worked, but he realized that Canadians did not. Appointed to the Senate of Canada in 1997, he discovered that it was “likely the least admired and least well known of our national political institutions.” Most Canadians thought that the Senate was “an outdated relic that had outlived its usefulness.” It attracted little interest from the media, scorn from the public, scant respect from elected politicians, and next to no curiosity from scholars.

When the Senate gets attention, it’s almost always negative: the appointment of another batch of senators who will cost the taxpayers millions; exposés of privileges; very public scandals (including a senator who lived in Mexico); prime ministers putting their lackeys in the Senate to do as they are told; or, conversely, senators delaying legislation sent to them by the democratically elected members of the House of Commons.

This was not what the founders of the country had in mind. The Senate was established as an indispensable branch of the Canadian parliamentary system, along with the House of Commons and the Governor General, who acts on the advice of the prime minister and cabinet. No law can be enacted without the consent of all three parties.

Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister saw the Senate’s role as both ambitious and modest. It was to be a safeguard against hasty legislation coming from the House of Commons, but it must never violate the clear wishes of the people.

The Senate was a crucial element in the negotiations that brought together the British North American colonies to create Confederation in 1867. Central Canada had so many people that it was bound to dominate the House of Commons, based on the principle of representation by population. The Senate was to protect the smaller provinces and ensure a voice for regional concerns, at the same time guaranteeing French-speaking Quebec a fixed number of senators. Without the Senate, there would have been no Canada.

The founders designed the Senate as a place of calm second thought: stable, independent, and conservative. Senators were appointed for life by the Governor General on the advice of the prime minister. Only men of property, owning land in the province they represented, could be considered for membership.

The Senate was soon dismissed. Senators, the critics said, were unelected friends of the government. They were out of touch — two senators managed to pass the age of 100. The cabinet and the courts turned out to be better protectors of the regions and the provinces. It seemed an almost universal view that the Senate was a backwater that ought to be abolished, or at least reformed to reflect the popular will of Canadians.

“I have today signed my warrant of political death,” said a once powerful cabinet minister about to disappear in the Senate.

Today, there are 105 seats in the Senate, representing seven regions: 24 members each from Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes, and the western provinces; six from Newfoundland and Labrador; and three from the north.  Women have served since 1930, and as of 1965, senators must retire at the age of 75.

The Senate is not powerful, but it is important. This is demonstrated in a study of recent Senate activities by C. E. S. Franks, a noted authority on Canada’s Parliament. Franks uncovered a Senate where House of Commons legislation was carefully revised and improved in committees. Nor is the Senate a swamp of privilege. Its banking committee responds as often to the concerns of consumers as to big business and industry.

“I found myself time and again surprised and even taken aback,” Franks concluded, “by the thoroughness, level-headedness, insight, and thoughtfulness of the Senate’s review of legislation and investigations into a wide range of social, economic, and other issues.”

Franks distinguishes between the dismal public image of the Senate, which has undermined its credibility, and the real work of the institution, characterized by efficiency, responsibility, and non-partisanship.

Embedded in a constitution that is very difficult to amend, the Senate is likely to be with Canadians for a long time. Senator Joyal insists that senators take very seriously the responsibilities given them by the country’s founders.  The record suggests that he is closer to the truth than the Senate’s many critics.

Norman Hillmer is Professor of History and International Affairs at Carleton University. Further Reading: Serge Joyal and C. E. S. Franks defend the Senate in Joyal’s Protecting Canadian Democracy: The Senate You Never Knew (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003), while the case for the prosecution is made by Larry Zolf, Survival of the Fattest: An Irreverent View of the Senate (Toronto: Key Porter, 1984) and Claire Hoy, Nice Work: The Continuing Scandal of Canada’s Senate (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1999).

Next Instalment: The Canadian Constitution

The Canadian Experience is a 52-week history series designed to tell the story of our country to all Canadians. Sponsored by Multimedia Nova Corporation and Diversity Media Services/Lingua Ads partners, the series features articles by our country’s foremost historians on a wide range of topics. Past articles and author bios are available at The Canadian Experience is copyright © 2010-2011 Multimedia Nova Corporation.

Author:: Norman Hillmer is Professor of History and International Affairs at Carleton University.

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The Governor General

Posted on 19 May 2010 by .

In December 2008, at the height of the most explosive political crisis in Canada since the Quebec referendum of the mid-1990s, Governor General Michaëlle Jean had to decide whether the Conservative government of Stephen Harper would live or die. For a moment, the Governor General stepped to the centre of Canadian political life.

The crisis hit without warning. With Christmas only days away, the national capital of Ottawa was fast asleep. Prime Minister Harper had won the 2008 federal election a month before. He did not possess a majority of seats in the House of Commons, but he had substantially more backing than any other party leader. He seemed likely to govern with ease.

For a long time, the Governors Generals were British aristocrats. In 1952, recognizing that Canada was by now fully independent from Britain, Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent chose Vincent Massey to be the first Canadian to hold the office.

Present Governor General Michaëlle Jean

Then Harper miscalculated. He appeared indifferent to the deep recession that was rocking the Canadian and world economy, and he combined that indifference with an announcement that his government would end the public financing of political parties, a direct attack on his rivals in Parliament.

The Liberals and the New Democratic Party declared that they would combine with the Bloc Québécois to defeat Harper in the House of Commons and replace him with a Liberal-NDP coalition that could govern with the support of the Bloc. Taken together, the Liberals of Stéphane Dion, Jack Layton’s NDP, and the Bloc under Gilles Duceppe could deploy 163 Commons seats to Harper’s 143.

Facing disaster in the House of Commons, Harper went to the Governor General to request that she prorogue Parliament, a way of saying that it would take a recess and meet again in several weeks time. That would give the Prime Minister the chance to find a strategy to save himself.

Governor General Jean accepted Harper’s advice, and he was able to survive when Parliament met again in January 2009. The prime minister concocted an economic stimulus package that won the support of the House of Commons, and the coalition dissolved as quickly as it had been created.

Jeanne Sauvé became the first woman Governor General in 1984.

The Governor General could have said no. She might have sent the prime minister back to face the House of Commons and certain defeat. That would probably have brought Harper back to the Governor General with a request for another election. She could have refused that appeal too, and called instead on the coalition, led by Stéphane Dion, to form a government.

Governors General do not ordinarily go against the advice of a prime minister, but they have the power to do so if the stability or integrity of the democratic process is in question. As one expert, Frank MacKinnon, puts it, the Governor General’s responsibility is to be like a fire extinguisher in a time of emergency. Fire extinguishers are seldom used, but that does not make them useless.

At the birth of the country in 1867, its founders created Canada as a constitutional monarchy. The new country would maintain the link to Britain’s Queen Victoria, and a Governor General would represent her in Canada. The first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, wanted the Governor General to be “looked up to by the whole people as the head and front of the nation.” American presidents were both the head of state and the head of government, so that when the president got in trouble the United States itself was in trouble. Governors General were to stand above partisan politics.

For a long time, the Governors Generals were British aristocrats. In 1952, recognizing that Canada was by now fully independent from Britain, Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent chose Vincent Massey to be the first Canadian to hold the office. Jeanne Sauvé became the first woman Governor General in 1984. Adrienne Clarkson, appointed Governor General in 1999, and Michaëlle Jean, her successor, originally came to this country of immigrants as immigrant children.

Most Canadians, when they think of the Governor General at all, associate the office with speech-making (governor generalities, people joke), ribbon-cutting or tree-planting to mark important occasions, the greeting of foreign visitors, and presiding over grand events such as the opening of Parliament.

But the Governor General’s responsibilities go beyond the public and the ceremonial. She signs all the bills that Parliament passes, and they do not become law until she has done so. The Governor General authorizes the sending of diplomats to foreign countries, dispenses honours such as the Order of Canada, and has the title of commander-in-chief of the Canadian military. She does not control the Canadian Armed Forces, but she is a regular presence in the military life of Canada.

Governors General, presiding over the nation’s business in the name of the people, are the symbols of Canadian democracy, but they are also its protector. As the constitutional crisis of 2008 demonstrated, the Governor General is an essential part of how Canada is governed.

Norman Hillmer is Professor of History and International Affairs at Carleton University. The best short accounts of the Governor General’s role and responsibilities are Jacques Monet, The Canadian Crown (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1979) and Frank MacKinnon, The Crown in Canada (Calgary: McClelland and Stewart West, 1976).

Next Instalment: The House of Commons

The Canadian Experience is a 52-week history series designed to tell the story of our country to all Canadians. Sponsored by Multimedia Nova Corporation and Diversity Media Services/Lingua Ads partners, the series features articles by our country’s foremost historians on a wide range of topics. Past articles and author bios are available at

Author: Norman Hillmer

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The Geography of Canada

Posted on 12 May 2010 by .

As the second largest country in the world, larger than all of Europe, Canada’s geographical statistics are truly impressive. Canadian territory is immense, spanning six time zones, stretching 5,500 km from west to east and 4,600 km from north to south and encompassing over 9,000,000 square kms of land, and a further million square kms of surrounding waters. At 244,000 km, its coastline is the longest of any nation, touching three oceans.  The landscape consists of seemingly endless mountains, prairie, forest and Arctic tundra. A Canadian prime minister once lamented that Canada had too much geography — over the years, more than a few Canadians have agreed — but along with her people, that geography remains Canada’s greatest resource.

Nowhere is that more obvious when considering the country’s riches of fresh water. Two million lakes and giant glaciers hold seven percent of the world’s total fresh water resource. But this apparent abundance is misleading. Nearly two-thirds of this fresh water drains into the Arctic Ocean, far from population centres or areas of economic development. Water shortages in southern Canada, for both human and industrial uses, are growing more critical by the year, and much fresh water is polluted.  Meanwhile, losses of environmentally critical wetlands continue.

Geography has also left the country rich in other resources. The Pre-Cambrian Shield, among the oldest rocks on earth, is a treasure trove of mineral wealth, from gold and silver to iron, nickel, and uranium, while huge boreal and temperate forests sustain another industry. Largely in the form of tar sands, northern Alberta contains among the largest petroleum reserves in the world, though their extraction is environmentally costly. Canada’s hydro-electric potential is almost as vast.

Although agriculture is a major industry, only eight percent of Canada’s land is suitable for farming or grazing. The cereal-producing great plains of southern Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are by far the largest farmed area, but the richest farm land is found in British Columbia and southern Ontario and has suffered from urban sprawl. A once abundant fishery on both coasts has been imperiled by overuse and the impact of climate change.

If geography has dictated economic development and settlement, it has just as fundamentally shaped Canada’s history. The sheer size of the country imposed enormous obstacles to exploration, settlement and economic development, and shaped Canada’s distinct regions every bit as much as economic, political, and social forces did. It was control of the few river routes linking east to west during the fur trade period of the 1700s and 1800s that in large measure accounted for Canada remaining British rather than becoming American.

Climate and geography have been partners. The Canadian climate varies from temperate in the south to Arctic in the far north. But for newcomers, Canada all too often seems to be “10 months of winter and two months of hard sledding,” and indeed, every part of the country, except the West Coast, endures severe cold for at least several months of the year. Surviving winter with a minimum of complaint is a badge of honour, and snow-shoveling is a skill mastered by all. Ottawa holds the unhappy distinction of being one of the coldest capital cities in the world. No one revels in the spring thaw, or a warm summer day, like a Canadian. Not surprisingly, there has never been any illusion in Canada that the climate can be mastered. Canadians battle the harsh winter elements as they battle an unforgiving geography but for us to endure is to triumph. Not surprisingly, that capacity for endurance, that patience in the face of adversity, is central to the Canadian character.

In the Canadian heart, The North is as much a concept as a place. Fully 72 percent of Canadians live within 150 km of the United States, 80 percent in cities. At the dawn of the 21st century, most of Canada is hardly removed from wilderness. Even residents of the largest cities can quickly go canoeing, hiking, camping or fishing in solitude. But in truth, the great majority of Canadians have been no closer to the country’s vast north than the window of an airliner jetting to Europe. Nevertheless, it is The North — the “great lone land” of Canadian writers and painters — that defines Canada and its people. Even the words of the national anthem — “the true north, strong and free” — serve to remind Canadians that they live in a country defined by its northern character.

Our northern geography also defines Canada’s greatest challenge: the impact of relentless global warming on a fragile environment as glaciers and permafrost melt and sea ice disappears. And when in a few decades the Arctic becomes a navigable ocean, the very claims of Canada to the vast island archipelago and interior waters of the high Arctic will likely be challenged.

Next Instalment: The Governor General

The Canadian Experience is a 52-week history series designed to tell the story of our country to all Canadians. Sponsored by Multimedia Nova Corporation and Diversity Media Services/Lingua Ads partners, the series features articles by our country’s foremost historians on a wide range of topics. Past articles and author bios are available at The Canadian Experience is copyright © 2010-2011 Multimedia Nova Corporation.

Author: Patrick Brennan

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