A Brief History of the British North America
(BNA) Act, Canadian Bill of Rights, and
Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

Be sure to test your knowledge with our free printable (available at the bottom of this article)
after reading. 

On July 1, 1867, the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada – later the provinces of Ontario and Quebec – along with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick united to form the Dominion of Canada, by the British North America (BNA) Act coming into effect, and became the first four provinces of Canada. 

Before taking a look at Canada’s important documents, it can be helpful to know the meaning of the words.

The Noah Webster 1928 American Dictionary of the English Language defines charter as “any instrument, executed with form and solemnity, bestowing rights or privileges” and constitution as “the established form of government in a state, kingdom or country; a system of fundamental rules, principles, and ordinances for the government of a state or nation. In free states, the constitution is paramount to the statutes or laws enacted by the legislature, limiting and controlling its power…” 

British North America (BNA) Act (renamed the Constitution Act in 1982)

The BNA Act was first drafted by the colony of Canada in 1864. Three years later in 1867, it was passed by the British Parliament That same year on March 29, Queen Victoria signed the Act, and it then came into effect on July 1, 1867.

In 1982, with the passage of the Canada Act, the BNA Act was renamed the Constitution Act, 1867. These are the opening lines of the Constitution Act.

“An Act of the Union of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, and the Government thereof; and for Purposes connected therewith (29th March 1867).

Whereas the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick have expressed their Desire to be federally united into One Dominion under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom:

And whereas such a Union would conduce to the Welfare of the Provinces and promote the Interests of the British Empire…”

Some of the topics covered in the BNA Act include the number of senators for Canada, the requirements for being a senator, and the distribution of legislative powers.

The first prime minister of Canada was John A. Macdonald who was knighted on July 1, 1867, to become Sir John A. Macdonald.

Canadian Bill of Rights

In 1960, during Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker’s time in office, the Parliament of Canada enacted a federal statute and bill of rights known as the Canadian Bill of Rights. The opening lines of the Canadian Bill of Rights are

“The Parliament of Canada, affirming that the Canadian Nation is founded upon principles that acknowledge the supremacy of God, the dignity and worth of the human person and the position of the family in a society of free men and free institutions;

Affirming also that men and institutions remain free only when freedom is founded upon respect for moral and spiritual values and the rule of law…”

As can be understood from the Canadian Bill of Rights, Canada’s history includes the recognition and acknowledgement of the supremacy of God and the value of individual life.

Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

On April 17, 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into effect under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. These are the opening lines of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law:

Guarantee of Rights and Freedoms

1. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms goes on to include sections covering the official languages of Canada, mobility rights, and legal rights.

Important Dates

1867 - British North America (BNA) Act
1960 - Canadian Bill of Rights
1982 - Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

Where Can You Learn More?

If you and your family are interested in reading and learning about Canada’s Constitution (British North America Act), Bill of Rights, and Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, ask at a bookstore or library near you about purchasing or borrowing a copy of The Canadian Constitution. It will be a great way to learn more about the history of Canada, including its founders, important locations of signings, and prime ministers.

You can also see the complete acts and charters online at the links below.

Constitution Act, 1867 (formerly British North America Act)

Bill of Rights

Canadian Charter of Right and Freedoms

For a downloadable copy of the Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, see the Government of Canada website where you can also purchase a printed copy to be mailed.

The Canadian Schoolhouse also has articles and resources to learn more about Canada’s history.

Canada’s History Through the Prime Ministers

Canadian History Through Read Alouds

History of Canada Day

Test your knowledge after reading with this printable!

This article has been written by homeschooling staff writers of The Canadian Schoolhouse (TCS). Enjoy more of our content from TCS contributors and staff writers by visiting our themes page that has a new theme topic added every month!

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"Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6).