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7 defining moments that shaped Canada in the last 150 years

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“The great themes of Canadian history are as follows: Keeping the Americans out, keeping the French in, and trying to get the Natives to somehow disappear” – Will Ferguson, Canadian author and satirist.

Ferguson’s caustic quote from his novel, Why I Hate Canadians, captures Canada’s internal struggle for unique identity, with its inability to reconcile the horrific actions taken against indigenous populations.

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In just 150 years, Canada has made its mark in the the history books as a country that has struggled to emerge from its British-colonial roots, yet has made huge strides to become a beacon of human rights.

“[Canada] has seen the kind of changes from very much a dependence on Britain to a country that stands alone on the world,” said author and historian Christopher Moore.

And although Canada has existed for nearly 500 years, here are 7 defining moments from the last 150 years as put together from interviews with Canadian authors and historians.

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Constitution Act of 1867

Charlottetown Prince Edward Island Sept. 1864 Historical Events – Several of the Fathers of Confederation photographed at the Charlottetown Conference in Sept. 1864 where they had gathered to consider the union of the British North American Colonies. Sir John A. Macdonald and Georges Etienne Cartier are in the foreground (National Archives of Canada)
Charlottetown Prince Edward Island Sept. 1864 Historical Events – Several of the Fathers of Confederation photographed at the Charlottetown Conference in Sept. 1864 where they had gathered to consider the union of the British North American Colonies. Sir John A. Macdonald and Georges Etienne Cartier are in the foreground (National Archives of Canada)

On March 29, 1867, the British North America Act (BNA Act) was passed by British Parliament, creating the Dominion of Canada.

“The basic structure of how this country operates from one side of the country to the other, and the provinces and how we govern ourselves is still based on that document that was put together in the 1860s,” Moore said. “That is a remarkable thing.”

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Holland Liberated: How Canada helped free the Netherlands
Holland Liberated: How Canada helped free the Netherlands

The idea for a union was first created three years earlier by some of Canada’s founding fathers, including John A. Macdonald, George-Étienne Cartier and George Brown, among others.

“We’ve grown from three million to 35 million, and yet somehow we’ve remained basically with that federal structure and that government structure that we’ve had since 1867,” said Moore.

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The BNA Act created a federal state between three colonies — the Province of Canada (Ontario and Québec), Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The act also gave a blueprint for the distribution of powers between the central Parliament and the provincial legislatures.

Manitoba was added in 1870, followed by British Columbia (1871), Prince Edward Island (1873), Alberta and Saskatchewan (1905). Squabbling between the provinces meant Newfoundland wouldn’t join until 1949. The Northwest Territories joined in 1870, then Yukon (1898), and Nunavut in 1999.

Persons Case of 1929

The Famous Five – the group that fought to have women declared persons. (CP PHOTO/Files-Calgary Herald/CP)
The Famous Five – the group that fought to have women declared persons. (CP PHOTO/Files-Calgary Herald/CP)

For Canadian author and historian Charlotte Gray, whose latest book is The Promise of Canada, the work of five women activists stands out as a “crucial” moment for the country and its constitution.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 1928 that women were not “persons” under the British North America Act and could not be appointed to the Senate.

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The group of women, which included Emily Murphy and Nellie McClung, appealed to the Privy Council of England. The appeal led to a stunning reversal of the court’s decision in 1929.

Gray said it wasn’t only a hugely liberating moment for women, but also helped to define Canada’s constitution as a “living” document.

“That our constitution should take into account changes in society, this is a huge difference between Canada and particularly the Supreme Court in the United States, which has this doctrine of [originalism],” said Gray.

The Indian Act and Residential Schools

Residential school and orphanage in St. Anthony
One of the five residential schools named in a class action lawsuit: an orphanage and boarding school in St. Anthony, Newfoundland, c. 1910. Courtesy, Ches Crosbie Barristers

First introduced in 1867, The Indian Act has had a far-reaching and devastating effect on First Nations communities across Canada, said James Daschuk, an assistant professor in health studies at the University of Regina and author of Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life.

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READ MORE: The changing face of Canada, from 150 years ago to today

The Act outlined Ottawa’s responsibilities for deciding Indian status, local First Nations governments and the management of reserve land. Today it still rules around reserves, guardianship of youth and children, and management of band resources and elections.

“It affects First Nations people from cradle to grave,” said Daschuk. “For 140 years, it’s been the legislation that has served to marginalize and impoverish indigenous people.”

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The Indian Act also provided funding for residential schools, a network of schools that removed children from their families and the influence of their culture. Survivors of residential schools have offered disturbing accounts of horrific sexual, physical and psychological abuse.

“Residential schools were the most tragic and cruel establishments,” Gray said. “Very, very quickly these institutions became just agents of the state to try and eliminate and eradicate native culture.”

READ MORE: What was the ‘60s Scoop’? Aboriginal children taken from homes a dark chapter in Canada’s history

Second World War

Members of the Royal Canadian Medical Corps evacuating Allied soldiers from the beach after the Dieppe, France raid during the Second World War.
Members of the Royal Canadian Medical Corps evacuating Allied soldiers from the beach after the Dieppe, France raid during the Second World War. The Associated Press

Canada fought valiantly at battles in the First World War — including Vimy Ridge and Hill 70 — but its decision to enter the Second World War of its own accord helped define itself as an independent country.

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At 11 a.m. on Sept. 3, 1939, Britain declared war on Germany two days after more than 250,000 Nazis marched into Poland. But rather than Canada rushing to join Britain, like Australia and New Zealand, Ottawa waited a full seven days before it officially entered the fray.

READ MORE: More than half of First World War records now online

Between 1939 and 1945, more than one million Canadian men and women served full-time in the armed services, according to Historica Canada, with more than 43,000 people killed. Canada’s sacrifice during the war was embodied in heroic campaigns from Dieppe to Ortona and Juno Beach.

READ MORE: Mapping 6,160 Torontonians killed in three wars

Discovery of oil

Alberta’s first oilsands operation (called Bitumont) on the shore of Athabasca River, is seen from the air near Fort McMurray, Alta., Monday, Sept. 19, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Alberta’s first oilsands operation (called Bitumont) on the shore of Athabasca River, is seen from the air near Fort McMurray, Alta., Monday, Sept. 19, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

In 1875, Canada’s Geological Survey discovered the presence of a black, gooey substance in Alberta. The oilsands would have a dramatic impact on the country’s economy and political landscape.

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“The discovery of oil in Alberta confirmed that this country had resources for the 20th century,” Gray said. “We were set to have a fairly healthy economy throughout the 20th century.”

WATCH: Alberta takes steps to cap oilsands emissions

Alberta takes steps to cap oilsands emissions
Alberta takes steps to cap oilsands emissions

Canada’s oilsands, which attracted $34 billion in investment in 2014 alone, have been at once an economic driver of the 20th century and source of major political tension between the federal government and provinces.

The industry has created enormous wealth for Canada and Alberta, but has also been targeted by environmental groups as contributing to climate change.

Universal health care

Former NDP leader Tommy Douglas poses in Ottawa in this Oct. 19, 1983 file photo.
Former NDP leader Tommy Douglas poses in Ottawa in this Oct. 19, 1983 file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Schwarz

Canadian medicare was borne out of fiery debate in the 1960s, when Saskatchewan Premier Tommy Douglas held up a belief that all residents should have a basic level of health care.

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“[Douglas] just overrode the established interests of the insurance companies, the status quo of financial companies and the doctor’s union,” Gray said, adding that doctors in the province went on strike for 23 days as the province was thrown into chaos.

READ MORE: Is Canada’s health-care system ready for our rapidly greying population?

Douglas would go on to lead the newly formed NDP, and 10 years later all provinces would adopt similar health care systems.

Charter of Rights and Freedoms, 1982

The Queen signs Canada’s constitutional proclamation in Ottawa on April 17, 1982 as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau looks on. With the stroke of a pen by the Queen in Ottawa, Canada had its own Constitution, one of the many notable dates in the history of the country. Canada marks its 147th birthday July 1.
The Queen signs Canada’s constitutional proclamation in Ottawa on April 17, 1982 as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau looks on. With the stroke of a pen by the Queen in Ottawa, Canada had its own Constitution, one of the many notable dates in the history of the country. Canada marks its 147th birthday July 1. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ron Poling

On April 17, 1982, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau looked on as the Queen signed Canada’s Constitution and its Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“The [Constitution and Charter of Rights] is hugely important,” Dashcuk said, noting that it granted greater equality and civil rights for all Canadians.

READ MORE: Canada’s Charter remains a flawed document that no politician dares try to fix

The Charter protects freedom of expression, the right to a democratic government, the right to live and seek work anywhere in Canada, the legal rights of people accused of crimes, indigenous peoples’ rights, the right to equality (including gender equality), among many other rights.

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And while some Canadians hold this document up above all others, Global News’ chief political correspondent David Akin points out that for many Quebecers, Conservatives, New Democrats and indigenous Canadians, the Constitution and the Charter can be problematic documents that need to be challenged.

*With files from the Canadian Press

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