The History of the Centre for Constitutional Studies

The Centre for Constitutional Studies was established in 1988 with funding from the Alberta Law Foundation, which continues to generously support the Centre.

How the Centre was Established

In May 1985, the Alberta Minister of Advanced Education, the Honourable Dick Johnston, and other members of the Alberta Legislature discussed establishing a chair or institute in constitutional law in Alberta. They had a number of different ideas – that the chair or institute could be hosted by a law school, or political science department, or by both; that it could be hosted by the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary, or the University of Lethbridge, or that the institute could instead bring together various universities. No final decision was made. The Minister noted that discussions with universities were needed.

Discussions in the Legislature came to the attention of the Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Alberta and he contacted Myer Horowitz, President of the University. On June 5, 1985, the President wrote to the Minister of Advanced Education, expressing interest in establishing the chair or institute at the University of Alberta, noting that the University of Alberta had expertise in both the Faculty of Law and the Department of Political Science.

In 1986, the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Law submitted a proposal for an Institute of Constitutional Law to the Alberta Law Foundation. The proposal was approved and the Institute was founded in 1988.

The Centre’s Purpose and Structure as Proposed in 1986

Purpose

The idea of an institute that crossed disciplinary lines and built on institutional cooperation between different post-secondary institutions was reflected in the Centre’s purpose and structure when it was first founded – and is apparent in the Centre’s purpose, structure, and activities to this very day.

The main purpose of the Centre when first established was to undertake, encourage, and facilitate research and study into contemporary constitutional issues.[1] The Centre was to share research, by publishing a journal, which would include interdisciplinary perspectives. As well, it was envisioned the Centre could also publish abstracts of research.

Along with research and publication, the Centre was to facilitate educational activities both for people working in constitutional or governmental fields but—importantly—also for the general public.

In addition to all these activities, the Centre was envisioned as a resource for information and materials on constitutional law and policy. To facilitate this, it was proposed the Centre could house a database of relevant abstracts, cases, articles, and other such materials.

Structure

The Centre was to be headed by a Chair of Constitutional Law, who would also be the Director of the Centre and supported by a full-time administrative assistant. The Centre would have research fellows who were University of Alberta graduate students conducting research in constitutional law or policy.

An advisory board, composed of thirteen people, would oversee the Centre’s work. They were to include: the Director, 3 representatives from the Faculty of Law at the University of Alberta, 1 representative each from the University of Calgary and University of Lethbridge, 1 representative from the provincial government, the Vice President (Academic) of the University of Alberta or a designate, and three representatives from other University of Alberta departments.

Why Establish a Centre in 1988?

The 1980s were a very exciting time for Canada’s Constitution. The Constitution of Canada was patriated with the signing of the Constitution Act, 1982 on April 17, 1982. The patriation of the Constitution took many years and a great deal of negotiation between premiers and the Prime Minister, and members of the public who were concerned about what would be included or excluded from the Constitution Act, and specifically, in the new Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The negotiations between the premiers and the Prime Minister in the 1970s and 1980s leading up to patriation included concerns about provincial and federal powers, sparking further interest in the distribution of powers between the different levels of government. While the Constitution Act, 1867 delineates the division of powers between the provincial and federal governments, questions about the jurisdiction of each government were furiously debated during the patriation negotiations.

While patriation was achieved, unresolved issues continued. Among the myriad ongoing concerns was the fact that Québec had not agreed to the patriation. Starting in 1985, further discussions took place and the government of Québec made a number of proposals, which included recognition of the distinctiveness of Quebec in the Canadian federation, and a greater role for the provinces in their relationship with the federal government. This package became known as the Meech Lake Accord. With the debates around the Meech Lake Accord ongoing at the time, the Alberta government was keen to develop a university-based institution that could provide reliable constitutional research.

Having a Centre in Alberta affiliated with a university or universities provides a resource for unbiased, nonpartisan, information on constitutional issues – a benefit not only to law-makers but to the public at large.

[1] Proposal for Institute of Constitutional Law in Memorandum from Professor Anne McClellan (28 February 1986) at 3. Copies of this document remain in the Centre’s possession.