At the time this article was
written Jill Anne Pickard was Executive Assistant to the Clerk of the Senate
A number of milestones are being
commemorated in 1992. It is, of course, the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery
of America, the 350th anniversary of the founding of Montreal, the bicentennial
of representative government in Quebec and the tenth anniversary of the
adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Liberties. In between these
venerable and recent anniversaries is the 125th anniversary of Confederation
which will be celebrated in various ways across the country. Anyone who visits
Ottawa this summer will have an opportunity to view the British statute which
established Canada in its present form.
The British North America Act 1867.
Canadian youths continue to learn about it now just as we did in our own school
days. But how many of us have ever had the opportunity to view the document?
What does it look like? Where is it kept?
In an effort to contribute to
Canada's 125th birthday celebration, the Senate of Canada thought that it would
be appropriate to bring the original BNA Act over from London to be put on
display during 1992. In the summer of 1991, the Clerk of the Senate and Clerk
of the Parliaments, who is the official custodian of Canada's Acts of
Parliament wrote to his British counterpart to broach the idea.
After due consideration, the
British responded that the Lord Chancellor had agreed in principle to the loan
of the Act from the Public Record Office for the whole of 1992. This decision
was made in light of the precedent that had been set when the Public Record
Office loaned the Australia Constitution Act 1900 to Canberra for the 1988
Bicentenary celebrations. The Clerk of the Senate, Gordon Barnhart, was then
asked to approach Michael Roper, British Keeper of Public Records, for formal
approval of the loan.
Formal approval, according to Mr.
Roper, would only be granted once the Senate had shown its ability to comply
with various loan conditions, which principally required that the British North
America Act be kept in an controlled environment not to exceed 20 degrees
Celsius with a constant relative humidity between 50 and 55 per cent, lighting
not to exceed 50 lux, and 24 hour security for the Act.
The site chosen to exhibit the Act
was the Senate foyer, where the loan condition for 24 hour security could be
easily met. A constable is on duty in the foyer daily during public visiting
hours, and a closed circuit surveillance camera could be focused on the exhibit
during after hours, with a security station only a few feet away. The condition
for a controlled environment posed a more challenging obstacle. At this point,
the Senate recruited the assistance of the Conservation Treatment Division of
the National Archives to determine our ability to provide a controlled
Public Works had never before
monitored the conditions in Centre Block, but quickly provided the Senate with
a hygrothermograph which was placed in the foyer to measure the humidity and
temperature in the months leading up to the anticipated display date in January
1992. The National Archives appointed one of its senior conservators, John
Grace, to collaborate with the Senate to make the project a success. As Mr.
Grace and his colleague Denis Roy monitored the conditions, they learned that
the foyer was slightly warmer than desired and suffered very drastic changes in
humidity, far surpassing 65 per cent on rainy days in August while falling well
below 35 per cent on drier days in fall. A plan was in the works to construct
an hermetic case to enclose the Act, at which point the Senate then assured the
Public Record Office of its ability to meet the loan conditions.
Mr. Grace designed an airtight case
constructed of glass, aluminum, plexiglas and a high density pressed wood
product. The case provided a bottom chamber to contain conditioned silica gel,
which would maintain the humidity at the desired level. Since the Act went on
display in January, Mr. Grace has continued to monitor the conditions inside
the case using an electronic datalogger. He changes the silica gel as required.
The case is lined with Senate-red
velvet on which lies the pale yellow Act. The Act itself is unpretentious yet
elegant looking: printed on fine vellum (stretched calfskin), it measures
twelve by seven inches and is tied with a red ribbon down the left hand side.
The leaves are printed on the right-hand side only and the Act contains 47
pages. For the exhibit, the Act has been opened to the first page, which has an
impressive insignia at the top and the words "La Reyne le veult" in
Norman French to signify Royal Assent.
The entire project was carried out
at a nominal cost to the Senate and, thereby, the taxpayer. Even the air
transportation for the Act, which was brought to Ottawa in December by Dr.
Helen Forde, Head of Preservation of the Public Record Office, was provided
free of charge, courtesy of Canadian Airlines.
An average of 850,000 visitors tour
Centre Block and the Senate foyer every year. On this anniversary year, the
numbers will likely surpass a million visitors. The British North America Act
1867 will now seem even more significant, and more Canadian, to all of us who
have had the opportunity to view the original from London.