Yukon’s Bill 1: The weird parliamentary artifact that’s key to everything the Legislative Assembly does
Buried deep within the Yukon Legislative Assembly’s agenda is a bill a with a highfalutin title: Bill 1: Act to Perpetuate A Certain Ancient Right.While Yukon MLAs passed 11 bills into law during their just-wrapped fall session, Bill 1 just sits there on the order paper. It’s never debated and, in all likelihood, it will never come up for a vote.So what is Bill 1? And what the heck is a certain ancient right?The principle of the bill dates back to the earliest days of the Westminster parliamentary system, the basis for Canadian legislatures.”All it basically does is create a space between state and Crown where state can actually criticize the Crown without having someone come in and lop your head off,” says Ted Adel, the Liberal MLA for Copperbelt North and the sponsor of this edition of Bill 1.”Basically, what people have to realize is these older traditions sometimes get lost, sometimes can change,” Adel says. “What that means in a nutshell is we have a throne speech [but] we don’t necessarily have to go with everything that’s in the throne speech. There is the space in there to change or just dissent.”Queen unavailable for commentThat’s why Adel, who is a backbencher, is the sponsor. The reasons for this gets a little complicated, but in short, Bill 1 can’t come from a cabinet minister. It has to be separate from the government.The thing to remember is that while the throne speech is written by the government of the day, it’s delivered by the Crown’s representative. In Yukon’s case, that’s Commissioner Angélique Bernard.But do we really need to worry about Queen Elizabeth interfering with Yukon politics? Her Majesty was not available for comment, but Dan Cable, clerk of Yukon’s legislature, said it’s unlikely.”She probably ponders Yukon on very rare occasions,” he said. “And when she does, she just thinks glowingly of all of us.”Cable says similar pro-forma bills can be found in most Canadian legislatures (Alberta and Quebec are exceptions). While assemblies will recognize the Queen as head of state, these types of bills also serve as a warning to the Crown not to meddle in legislative affairs. “By just saying it in this little act, which is the act to perpetuate a certain ancient right, that’s as far as you usually need to go,” Cable says. “And that’s been the way it has been for 400 years. So presumably it’s worked.”Bill probably wouldn’t actually do anythingStill, it’s not really a scary threat. Cable says even if MLAs were to pass Bill 1 into law, it wouldn’t really change anything.”Do we really need these things? Probably not,” he says. “But parliaments are all about traditions. And certainly the traditions are rooted in conflicts of the past. And one of the conflicts of the past, of course, was between parliamentary powers versus sovereign powers.” Adel says he enjoys being the steward of such an obscure parliamentary tradition. “To me, it’s part of the cornerstones of the fabric of our society, right?” he says. “And so for me to do it, I consider it an honour. Backbenchers, we do a lot of work behind the scenes, but it’s kind of nice every once in a while to stand up in the legislature and be able to do something that’s so steeped in tradition.”So to sum up: that long-ago tension between the Crown and elected officials creates the space where democratic politics can happen. That’s the ideal. Other institutions—political parties, cabinet, the civil service and many others—also have a hand in how well or poorly Canadian democracy functions. And like all institutions inhabited by human beings, they don’t always live up to the ideals they set for themselves.But as arcane and flawed and imperfect as our system may be, the idea behind Bill 1 is to give the people the right to be more than just royal subjects, it gives people the right to govern themselves.