Review: Our Law In Plain English

“I admit it. I love the Canadian Constitution,” enthuses Professor Adam Dodek. So few Canadians do. In this we are not unique. A U.S. Rasmussen poll once found only 51 percent of Americans would actually vote for their Constitution; 63 percent thought it was an “excuse” to ban school prayer. And a U.K. study by the Hansard Society confirmed only 26 percent of Britons know what the House of Lords does. Forty-nine percent could not tell the difference between “parliament” and “government.”

In Canada the Constitution is so unloved, Dodek recalls the main textbook on our supreme law once went out of print for months “and nobody seemed to notice.” Dodek, dean law at the University of Ottawa, has a solution: his readable, 176-page account of the constitution and its meaning, written in plain English.

“A constitution can be thought of as an official rule book for hockey or Monopoly,” Dodek explains. “But a constitution is much more than a book of rules. A constitution can also be a symbol and a source of values. It can inspire, or it can disappoint.” In The Canadian Constitution readers learn that:

  • • Only the Queen can designate a city other than Ottawa as the capital;
  • • Senators must be at least 30 years old;
  • • The Commons can pass a bill with as few as 20 MPs in attendance;
  • • A Supreme Court judge must live within 40 kilometres of Ottawa: “It used to be 25 kilometres but it was changed at the request of Chief Justice Brian Dickson, who had a farm beyond the 25 kilometre limit.”

How many Canadians know they have a constitutional right to live in any province? Or that if charged with a crime, they have a right to a trial within a reasonable time?

Dodek’s Constitution has one unfortunate lapse, though he’s not the first to make it. A glossary of terms contains this misleading definition: “Executive: The branch of government that carries out the law. One of three branches that comprise the government – the other two are the legislative and the judicial.”

In fact the “branch” analogy is an Americanism. In Canada we have only a single Parliament that rules above all with the ability to sack any prime minister, fire any staff or void any court ruling. The reluctance of MPs to exercise these powers does not alter the fact.

Our constitution, as Dodek notes, is much more than a collection of bylaws. It says something of who we are, and has great moments.

By Holly Doan

The Canadian Constitution by Adam Dodek; Dundurn Publishing; 176 pages; ISBN 97814-5970-9317; $12.99

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