Foundations: The Words That Shaped Canada

Reading Time: 5 minutes

“Fathers of Confederation at the Charlottetown Conference”
George P. Roberts / Library and Archives Canada / C-000733

(Disponible en français : Textes fondateurs : les mots qui ont façonné le Canada)

To mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation, the Library of Parliament opened on 9 March 2017 an exhibit entitled Foundations: The Words that Shaped Canada.

Over the coming months, people visiting or using the services of the Library’s main branch will have the opportunity to view the following six documents on loan from Library and Archives Canada:

  • the British North America Act (1867);
  • Canada’s first Speech from the Throne (1867);
  • the North‑West Territories Proclamation (1869);
  • the Statute of Westminster (1931);
  • the Canadian Bill of Rights (1960); and
  • the Proclamation of the Constitution Act,1982.

As the title of the exhibit suggests, these documents mark important stages in Canada’s constitutional development. But it is worth noting that each one has its own story that deserves to be told.

The British North America Act

  • The pages of the British North America Act on display are from a copy that belonged to the honorable Sir John A. Macdonald. The pages contain few annotations, but on page 2 in the margin beside paragraph 4, which concerns the interpretation of the subsequent provisions of the Act, are the words “meaning of ‘union-’ – ‘Canada’.”

First Speech from the Throne

  • Sir Charles Stanley Monck, 4th Viscount Monck, governor general of British North America from 1861 to 1867, became Canada’s first governor general in 1867. On 1 November 1867, he wrote to his 18-year-old son, Henry, that he would soon open the first session of Parliament and that it would be “a great function.” He also mentioned that a Montreal cavalry regiment would be his escort.
    On Thursday, 7 November 1867, Monck read the Speech from the Throne as per tradition, but he read it twice rather than just the once – first in English and then in French. The opening pages of the English and French copies, which were clearly written by two different clerks, form part of the exhibit.
    Back at his official residence in Ottawa that same day, Monck took pen in hand and wrote to his son about the ceremony that had just taken place. He promised to send him an account of the proceedings and a copy of his speech. In his letter, he explained that he had asked the ladies to sit in the front and the parliamentarians to wear formal dress. Monck wrote that “the whole thing looked very pretty” and that the opening of Parliament was followed by parties and a number of dinners that he faithfully attended.

North-West Territories Proclamation

  • In the fall of 1869, the Honourable William McDougall was to travel to Fort Garry to assume his new position as lieutenant-governor of the North-West Territories. When he tried to cross the border near Pembina (on the present territory of North Dakota), an armed group of Métis prevented him from entering Fort Garry. He remained in Pembina for a month with his family members and entourage. McDougall believed that Rupert’s Land was to be transferred from the Hudson’s Bay Company to Canada on 1 December 1869. He was unaware that the Government of Canada had postponed the transfer owing to political problems in the Red River Colony. As a result, some sources report that McDougall crossed the border in the middle of the night on 30 November 1869 and, in the company of some of his close associates, read aloud the North‑West Territories Proclamation. The proclamation had the effect of aggravating relations with the Métis and was one of the factors that led to the Red River Resistance.

Statute of Westminster

  • Library and Archives Canada acquired its copy of the Statute of Westminster in 1987. It is a photograph of the original, which is preserved in the House of Lords in London. A comparison of the Statute of Westminster with other documents produced around the same time shows that they all include two handwritten elements. First, we can read “le Roy le veult.” This is a Norman expression used by the Clerk of the Parliaments in the House of Lords to indicate that a bill has received Royal Assent. The second handwritten element is the signature of Mr. Edward Hall Alderson, Clerk of the Parliaments (1930−1934) at the time the Statute of Westminster was adopted.

Canadian Bill of Rights

  • The 1960 Canadian Bill of Rights is remarkable for its content as well as its presentation. Artist Yvonne Diceman (née Roberts, 1921−2000) did the calligraphy and illumination. The rights guaranteed by the Bill are represented in four drawings by Diceman. The imagery and symbolism provide a wonderful illustration of the text and the spirit of the Bill of Rights. The artist assigned a place of prominence to the Centre Block, the seat of Canada’s Parliament. The Ottawa River, represented by two blue lines, flows behind Parliament and intermingles with the decorative motifs. A beaver is visible above Ms. Diceman’s signature. The illumination does not include heraldic elements, but the colour and composition of its patterns harmonize perfectly with the Canadian coat of arms.
    Ms. Diceman was born in England and served in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in the Second World War. During that time, she met a young master warrant officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force named Harold Alonzo Diceman (1916−2009), whom she married in 1945. As a young war bride, Ms. Diceman trained in Canada to be an artist. During her career, she was responsible for the calligraphy and illumination of other Canadian documents, including the Books of Remembrance and the Proclamation of the Canadian Flag.

“Queen Elizabeth II signing the Proclamation of the Constitution Act, 1982”
Robert Cooper / Library and Archives Canada / e008300499

Proclamation of the Constitution Act, 1982

  • The Proclamation of the Constitution Act, 1982 that is on display is the one signed by Queen Elizabeth II, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, André Ouellet, Registrar General of Canada, and the Honourable Jean Chrétien, Minister of Justice at the time, in front of the Centre Block on 17 April 1982. Its authenticity is clear from the slight traces of rain drops that it bears, a reminder of the gentle precipitation falling on Ottawa that day.
    A second copy of the Proclamation was also signed by Her Majesty and the Canadian dignitaries. In 1983, an individual intentionally poured red paint on this document by way of protest. Only Jean Chrétien’s signature is covered with red paint, which is why it is the best preserved of the four. It is interesting to note that Mr. Chrétien was not originally supposed to sign the Proclamation.

The exhibit Foundations: The Words That Shaped Canada is an exceptional opportunity to see six of the most important documents in our history together in one place. Visitors can use touch screens to access additional information on the era, the circumstances surrounding the writing of the documents and their impact on Canada’s development.


Library and Archives Canada, “Charles Stanley Monck, 4th Viscount Monck fonds: Henry Monck correspondence,” C-2979.

Library of Parliament, Senate Debates, 1st Parliament, 1st Session: Vol. 1.

CBC, Canada: A People’s History, “The Metis Resistance. John A. MacDonald’s Response.”

Chretien’s unplanned signature of 1982 proclamation,” The Canadian Press, CTV News, 15 April 2012.

Diceman, Harold. Obituary, September 2009.

Diceman, Yvonne. Obituary, May 2000.

Grace, John. “Conserving the Proclamation of the Canadian Flag,” The Archivist, Library and Archives Canada, 1990.

Levitz, Stephanie. “Signed, stained and sealed: Chretien’s unplanned signature of 1982 proclamation,” The Canadian Press, CTV News.

Parliament of the United Kingdom, Clerk of the Parliaments (Lords).

Peel, Bruce. “Emblems of Canada,” Canadian Encyclopedia, 4 March 2011.

Author: Lucie Lecomte, Library of Parliament

Categories: Arts, culture and entertainment, Government, Parliament and politics

Tags: , , ,

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