British North America Act (1867), legislation, now known as the Constitution Act, 1867, the basis of the Constitution Act, 1982, which is Canada's fundamental law, determining the structure of government, the allocation of powers between federal and provincial authorities, and the interpretation of other statutes. Its operation is modified by custom and precedent derived from Canada's British legacy and legal decisions.
The British North America Act was passed by the British Parliament in 1867. It created the Dominion of Canada out of the United Province of Canada (which became Québec and Ontario), New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia and provided for entry of other colonies or British possessions into the new federation. The act had originated in negotiations among colonial politicians in 1864. It established a system of government modeled on British parliamentary practice with Britain's monarch as Canada's sovereign. The most important sections defined the powers of the federal and provincial governments, in theory giving more authority to the Parliament of Canada.
Over the years, court decisions, compromises, and amendments served to modify the provisions of the act. A series of decisions by Britain's Judicial Committee of the Privy Council legitimated a move away from the centralism intended in 1867. Canada secured full control of its foreign affairs in 1931 as a result of the Statute of Westminster (see Westminster, Statute of). The Supreme Court became the country's final court of appeal in 1949.
Although the 1867 constitution did establish a workable system of government, it did not prevent disputes over the division of powers in overlapping areas of authority such as taxation and in new areas such as broadcasting, social policy, and language rights. The conviction gradually grew that the constitution required major revision, but efforts to secure provincial agreement on how to amend it repeatedly failed.
In the 1970s, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau took up the cause anew and eventually all the provinces except Québec endorsed a new agreement, which became the Constitution Act of 1982. This act established an amending formula and added a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney attempted to secure Québec's approval of the new constitution in 1987 with the Meech Lake Accord, which required the unanimous assent of all provinces within a three-year period. As a result of a new language dispute and concerns from English-speaking Canadians over identification of Québec as a “distinct society,” however, the accord was never ratified. The constitutional crisis continued, even after Mulroney forged another compromise among all the parties, when the Charlottetown agreement was defeated in a national referendum in October 1992.