Thursday Thinkpiece: Dodek on the Canadian Constitution

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The Canadian Constitution
Adam Dodek
Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2013

Excerpt: pp. 11-12

I admit it. I love the Canadian Constitution. Sometimes I just don’t feel the love back. There was the time when I ordered the only existing Canadian Constitution book for my students and it got lost in transit (maybe it was sent to Ottawa, Ohio, or Ottawa in Africa). Or the time when that same book of the Canadian Constitution was out of print for months and nobody seemed to notice. That was the point when I knew I had to write this short book.

I was drawn to the Canadian Constitution as a 19-year-old undergrad studying political science at McGill University with Professor Christopher Manfredi who is now the Dean of Arts. It was the first decade of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and a time of great excitement and uncertainty regarding this new constitutional project. Manfredi was one of the rare breed of teachers who seem to have almost an innate ability to inspire students. I take great pride that I now teach some of his students. After McGill, I went to law school in the United States, worked in Israel and the U.S. before returning to Canada. Along the way, I studied the American, Israeli and South African constitutions and learned a little about constitutional law in other countries such as England, Australia and New Zealand. But I kept coming back to Canada. I think I finally realized that the Canadian Constitution spoke to me in a different way because it is the story of my roots and history as a Canadian, even if its’ story started long before my grandparents came to this country. It is the story of all of us.

The word “constitution” comes from the verb “constitute,” which means “to establish” or “to compose or to form.” A constitution helps to provide the gel that keeps a country together as a political unit. It provides the foundational law for a country. In this way, a constitution can be thought of as a rulebook for a country in the same way that there is an official rulebook for hockey or for Monopoly. But a constitution is much more than a book of rules. A constitution also can be a symbol and a source of values. It can inspire or it can disappoint.

In many ways our Constitution helps to form all of us. It is often said in legal and political circles, somewhat disappointingly, that our Constitution gave us “peace, order and good government” (Constitution Act 1867, s. 91) while the Americans got “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” In Canadian constitutional lingo, “peace, order and good government” is known as “POGG.” POGG symbolizes Canada and without knowing a single thing about the Canadian Constitution, millions of immigrants have been drawn to Canada since 1867 because of their belief that Canada would offer them a place of peace, order and good government. For all that ails us in this country, there is great truth in this belief.

I think we can identify “a Canadian constitutional model.” Our Constitution and our constitutional structure are the envy of people around the world and Canadians have been involved as advisors in constitution-making in places such as South Africa, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and Israel. Yet, our Constitution is much more than the written documents that are contained in this book. It is the living breathing experience of Canadians in their daily lives. It is that spirit of democracy and tolerance that makes Canada the great country that it is.

An American judge named Learned Hand once said that, “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it.” We take far too much for granted in this country. It is my hope that this short book will help contribute to Canadians’ greater appreciation about our Constitution and our country.

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