Canada's First Act: The History and Role of the Interpretation Act
Chris Hunt, Lorne Neudorf & Micah Rankin (eds), Legislating Statutory Interpretation: Perspectives from the Common Law World (2018: Carswell) 1
24 Pages Posted: 10 Jul 2019 Last revised: 15 Oct 2020
Date Written: 2018
When Canada’s freshly minted Parliament convened in Ottawa in 1867 to establish foundational legislation for the new country, its members set to work on drafting a statute that would become Canada’s first Act and lay the groundwork for the important task of interpreting all future federal legislation. The resulting Interpretation Act, entitled ‘An Act respecting the Statutes of Canada’, has been described as the “lamp by the light of which our Statutes must be read” and has played a key role in illuminating the meaning of federal laws that have been made ever since. At the time of writing, its provisions, and those of similar provincial and territorial statutes, have been cited nearly 10,000 times by all levels of court in the country, making interpretation statutes some of Canada’s most frequently cited laws. Although its provisions have been amended and entirely new sections have been added over the years, the Interpretation Act continues to play an important role in the legal system by supplying a package of interpretive rules that extend to all federal statutes. The Interpretation Act is accurately characterised as a ‘statutory workhorse’, with its definitions and rules of construction filtering into and underpinning all federal legislation, including statutes and regulations ranging from the criminal offences to human rights, taxation, intellectual property, immigration and banking (to name but a few). Despite the importance of the Interpretation Act to the Canadian legal system, and the call for similar federal legislation in the United States, the statute has largely escaped academic commentary, except where a particular provision has become important to the interpretation of another statute.
This chapter examines the history and role of Canada’s federal Interpretation Act. First, it considers the enactment of the Interpretation Act in its historical and constitutional context. Second, it provides an overview and analysis of the contemporary Interpretation Act to better understand its role and function in federal law. Finally, it concludes by considering future directions of the statute, arguing that it is time for Parliament to give the Interpretation Act a ‘creative reboot’ by updating and expanding its provisions to strengthen the coherence of modern federal law.
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