On October 19, 2015, Canada goes to the polls. The hurly burly of the Canadian version of democracy has been on display since early August when Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked the Governor General to dissolve Parliament and to call this election. What many of us do not appreciate is that this spectacle is probably one of the best examples of our constitution at work.
The photo above, taken in 1948, shows young people preparing signs to get the vote out. In doing so, they were exercising their right to express themselves openly and freely (freedom of expression) and collectively (freedom of association). To the extent that they gathered together and held these signs for others to see, they drew upon another freedom, that of peaceful assembly. Some things do not change.
Today, these fundamental freedoms (and others) have now been constitutionalized although many would argue that they were part of our unwritten constitution, even before the Charter’s enactment. And since August we have all been witnesses and participants to the free and open discussion of issues and of policies and of politicians, we have all seen or attended assemblies where politicians have stumped and made the case for their respective parties or election, and we have all been besieged by organizations and groups and individuals working together for their particular candidate, party or set of ideals. Our Canadian constitutional rights have been in full exercise these last few months.
Starting with the Prime Minister’s walk to Rideau Hall to ask the Governor General to dissolve Parliament and to issue a writ for the election, our Constitution has been in full and constant exercise. The dissolution of Parliament itself, of course, is based on part of the Constitution, albeit the unwritten part.
The debates, formal and informal, the involvement of the press, the nomination of candidates for election, the election signs — each and every aspect of the election has been supported by or provided for by the Constitution.
And on Monday, October 19th, we will observe millions of Canadians going to the polls to exercise their constitutional right to vote and we will also observe the thousands of Canadians who will have put their names forward for election, also an exercise of constitutional rights to stand for office.
Likely, by the end of Monday evening, we will watch the ancient unwritten rules of our constitutional monarchy kick in. If Prime Minister Harper does not win sufficient seats, he may resign his position. If that happens, then, after a few hours a few days or even a few weeks, after the dust has settled, eventually a leader of one of the parties will be asked by the Governor General to become the Prime Minister of Canada and to see if he or she can govern with the support of the House of Commons. All of this is governed by our Constitution, written and unwritten.
We must all be careful to protect this Constitution. While it has been durable and steady over the years, we cannot expect it to take all blows and battering without some damage. Our Constitution has given us guidance when the way was otherwise not clear. It provides rules and order for our country in a world where many other countries do not enjoy this same stability and certainty. While there are many things we can do to improve our constitutional health, we must be prudent, all of us (and this includes our political leaders), to respect this body of fundamental legal rules and laws and statutes we call the “Constitution”.
Yesterday, at my Thanksgiving dinner table, I gave thanks for the fact that I live in the constitutional parliamentary monarchy that is Canada. I hope you all have a wonderful remainder of our federal election and that you exercise your constitutional rights to the hilt.