Magna Carta and Canada

Magna Carta, one of the most famous documents in English history, turns 800 years old this month. It’s importance goes far beyond the British Isles, including to Canada, where a new book and exhibition are highlighting the impact the medieval charter made on the country.

Magna Carta and Canada

Canadians will get to see one of the earliest surviving copies of Magna Carta as part of the Magna Carta – Law, Liberty and Legacy exhibition, which begins today at the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa. From June 12th to July 26th, visitors will be able to see original copies of both Magna Carta and its companion document, the Charter of the Forest – issued in 1300 – on loan from England’s Durham Cathedral. The exhibition will also make stops in Winnipeg, Toronto and Edmonton later this year.

“We are proud to be the first institution to present these foundational documents to Canadians on this national tour,” says Mark O’Neill, President and CEO of the Canadian Museum of History. “Visitors will gain insights into the forces that shaped the Charters, their impact in Britain and around the world, and their enduring power today as symbols of justice and democracy.”

The importance of the document to Canadians can be found in the new book, Magna Carta and its Gift to Canada: Democracy, Law and Human Rights, by historian Carolyn Harris. In an interview with, she notes how this document has been reinterpreted over the centuries and has “meant different things to so many people.”

While at the times Magna Carta had faded almost into obscurity, it began a process for creating a constitutional monarchy, both in England and in Canada. As a colony of the United Kingdom, Canada inherited many of the traditions of the British government, as well as English Common Law and the importance of due process in trials. While in the United States this document has been treated more literally by its political elite, Canadians have approached it more symbolically.

Harris, who is currently touring around the country speaking about her book, and will this fall be teaching a course on Magna Carta and the Making of the Modern World at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies, has greatly enjoyed being able to research and write this book. “It’s been a really great experience to immerse myself in 800 years of history and the impact of Magna Carta on the medieval and modern worlds,” she explains.

Harris has also worked on the Magna Carta Canada website, which has been one of the driving forces in the exhibition and is leading efforts to educate Canadians about the issues and legacies that resonate from Magna Carta.

Suzy Rodness, Co-Chair, Magna Carta Canada, explains, “Canada will use this incredible opportunity to engage in a national dialogue to examine the legacy of these foundational documents. Durham Cathedral’s Magna Carta and Charter of the Forest will be welcomed and recognized as transformative documents that have, combined, cast one of the brightest lights in human history.”

You can learn more about Carolyn Harris on her website on Twitter @royalhistorian. You can also see her talk on King John and the Making of Magna Carta

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