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Canadian Law and Legal Research

Introduction to Canadian Law

Canadian flag

Welcome to the D'Angelo Law Library Guide to Canadian Law and Legal Research.

Our neighbour in the Great White North, despite originating from the same common-law tradition as the United States, has a significantly different lineage of legal tradition, which makes this guide a necessity for American legal researchers to be able to make sense of the system and to be able to access its case law, legislation, and regulations. There is also an enormous body of literature to complement all of the black-letter law, and we will strive to present the best examples.

It is also helpful to point out the major differences between Canadian and American law (with thanks to Ted Tjaden, whose text I am borrowing from - he said it far better than I ever could):

Constitutional rights:

Canada has a recent (1982) Charter of Rights and Freedoms  that has some similarities to the U.S. Constitution. Among other things, the Canadian Charter guarantees "right to life, liberty and security of the person" (s. 7) and the "right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment" (s. 12). One major difference, however, is s. 1 of the Canadian Charter which "guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society". In Canada, therefore, the courts must explicitly balance the rights guaranteed in the Charter against the right of the government to reasonably limit those rights as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.

Criminal law:

In Canada, criminal law is a matter of federal law under the federal Criminal Code, R.S.C. 1985, c. C-46, whereas in the United States, criminal laws are largely a matter of state law, except for matters falling under U.S. federal jurisdiction. Thus, in Canada, most criminal laws are uniform across the countries (some offences, such as motor vehicle offences, may also fall under provincial jurisdiction).

Residual federal powers:

There is a constitutional principle in Canada of residual federal power that states that any matter of jurisdiction not assigned to the provinces under the Constitution Act, 1867 resides with the federal government, at least in matters of national concern. This is opposite to the American situation where residual powers are given to the States.


Canadian federal and provincial legislation is generally not consolidated by subject matter but is instead published in its official version alphabetically by name of the statute or regulation, unlike the situation with the United States Code and many state codes. Some Canadian legal publishers publish unofficial consolidated or annotated editions of Canadian legislation.

Employment law:

Employment at will is not a concept recognized by Canadian courts or federal or provincial legislation in Canada, unlike the situation in the United States. Thus, in most cases, Canadian employees are entitled to receive either "reasonable notice" of termination or the amount of "statutory notice" set out in the applicable employment legislation.

Although the source is cited elsewhere in this guide, it should be noted that the McGill Guide to Unform Legal Citation is the final word on citing Canadian legal material. Unfortunately, the McGill Guide is not available in an online format, but Queens University has a very good "bare bones" guide to Canadian citation.

As always, if further assistance is needed, please do not hesitate to contact a reference librarian.

Parliament of Canada

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