About the exhibition

Magna Carta – Law, Liberty and Legacy” is on display at the CMHR from August 15 to September 18, 2015. This national travelling exhibition was developed by Magna Carta Canada. The Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest are on loan from Durham Cathedral in the United Kingdom, and the tour has been organized by Lord Cultural Resources, with the generous support of the Government of Canada. The Winnipeg portion of the tour is generously supported by the Paul Albrechtsen Foundation.

Canada’s Magna Carta: Meanings and Misconceptions”  is a unique companion exhibition developed by the Research and Curation team at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, including historic documents loaned by Library and Archives Canada. One highlight is a page from Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s original handwritten draft of the British North America Act of 1867, a key document in Canada’s Confederation. This exhibition also includes a family activity area.

Magna Carta – Law, Liberty and Legacy

Eight hundred years ago, the King of England reluctantly placed his seal on a document that would, for the first time, limit the absolute power of the monarchy. It planted seeds that would eventually grow to support democracy and human rights. During this 800th-anniversary year, Magna Carta (the Great Charter) and its companion Charter of the Forest are travelling across the country, giving Canadians a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view these treasures and learn about their influence.

Originally sealed in 1215 during the reign of King John, Magna Carta was revised by several of John’s successors. The document in this exhibition is the best-preserved of the seven surviving copies of the final Magna Carta sealed by King Edward I in the year 1300. The Charter of the Forest is also the final version from 1300. Both documents are on loan from Durham Cathedral in the United Kingdom.

Exhibition highlights:

  • The centuries-old Magna Carta is exhibited in a protective case, in a setting that recreates King John’s tent at Runnymede, the field in England where the original version of the Magna Carta was sealed in 1215.
  • Life-sized representations of King John, a baron and a commoner include audio clips that relay their diverse perspectives.
  • Touchscreens allow visitors to explore translations of the Great Charters and learn more.
  • An interactive 3D globe traces the influence of Magna Carta around the world.
  • Visitors can engage in activities to create their own Magna Carta clauses, vote on modern-day clauses, and compare their thoughts with those of other visitors.

The exhibition is built around three themes:

  • History: Of Kings, Barons and the Commons

This section provides historical context about what caused Magna Carta to be created. Under the feudal system of the time, wealthy barons ruled large tracts of land granted to them by the king, who claimed a third of England as his own private royal forest.

Most Britons were commoners, who were bound to work the land for life, could not own property and had no protection under the law. By 1215, King John was demanding more money and men for his military campaigns against France than the barons were willing to give. They rebelled, capturing London and forcing King John to accept their terms, set out in Magna Carta.

While the 1215 Magna Carta was not applicable to commoners, and only addressed the barons’ specific grievances, several clauses expressed fundamental principles that eventually had application for all citizens:

  • No-one is above the law, not even the monarch.
  • One cannot be detained without cause or evidence (habeas corpus).
  • A right to trial by a jury of one’s peers.
  • A widow cannot be forced to marry and give up her property.

The Charter of the Forest, first issued in 1217, complemented Magna Carta by substantially reducing the area of the royal forest and giving free men (who had more rights than commoners) the right to use it to graze animals and forage for food, fuel and building materials.

  • Legacy: The Great Charter Beyond Britannia

This section shows how achievements in rights, justice and governance – seeded in England by Magna Carta – spread to other locations of the world. It introduces key Canadian documents that shaped the evolution of law and governance in Canada, and surveys the global influence of the Charters.

  • Justice Today: An Ongoing Project

In this interactive section, visitors will see how principles of the Charters are being applied to contemporary human rights issues – from democratic principles, to legal practices, to land claims, to the rights of women and minorities.

Canada’s Magna Carta: Meanings and Misconceptions

Over its history, Canada’s constitution has evolved to reflect the values and needs of its people. In this companion exhibition, visitors are invited to become better acquainted with some of our nation’s key foundational documents.  The Canadian constitution is comprised of written documents and unwritten traditions that define how our government and society function, and how our rights and freedoms are protected.  And, just as with Magna Carta, it has been used in various ways, taking on different meanings and sometimes leading to misconceptions.

A life-sized narrator comes alive as a projection on fabric banners, welcoming visitors to examine key Canadian constitutional documents on loan to the CMHR from Library and Archives Canada. The intent is to encourage reflection and discussion about the process of creating law. In addition to the artifacts, a touch-screen game has been developed to engage visitors in thought and discussion.

Royal Proclamation of 1763

  • This 250-year-old original document – printed for use as a public “poster-type” announcement -- was the first key governing statement issued by Britain in North America.
  • It includes an acknowledgement by the British colonial authorities of Indigenous Nations’ pre-existing rights to land. It shows how documents like this have been used over time to both safeguard and restrict Indigenous peoples’ rights.

The Constitution Act of 1867 (also known as the British North America Act)

  • This page, dating from 1866, is from a draft written in Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s original handwriting.  The draft was among papers found in Macdonald’s overflowing desk after his death.
  • Visitors are encouraged to think about the role of democracy and public participation in the creation of our constitutional documents, and in the creation of Magna Carta.

The Kitchen Accord of 1981

  • These two handwritten note pages, written by former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow during a meeting in a kitchen of the Ottawa National Conference Centre, outline an agreement that broke a deadlock over patriating Canada’s constitution.

Proclamation of the Constitution Act, 1982*

  • This original document, bearing the signatures of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Queen Elizabeth II, is compared to Magna Carta to show that both were born of political instability and both have been interpreted beyond their original intents.
  • Over time, this document which established our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, has come to symbolize shared values such as freedom, human rights and democracy – as has Magna Carta.

*This document is housed in a protective case in the Museum’s Level 3 gallery, called “Protecting Rights in Canada”.

Family activity area

The Museum has developed a set of engaging family activities to accompany this exhibition.  They includes:

  • Medieval costumes and photo area. Try on some historic costumes and props and take pictures against a special backdrop.
  • Giant chessboard. Play the Game of Kings on a huge chessboard with three-foot pieces. You can also learn to play chess with the Manitoba Chess Association on Sundays, August 23 & 30, September 6 & 13, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Calligraphy and sealing. Sign your name and seal a letter, in the style of medieval nobles.
  • Reading lounge. Books about the Magna Carta for all ages, in French and English will be available to read. Storytelling takes place on Tuesdays, Thursday sand Sundays at 11:30 a.m. in English and at 1 p.m. in French.
  • Runnymede stone. See a stone from the fields at Runnymede in England, where the original Magna Carta was sealed in 1215. This stone was gifted to the Museum by Queen Elizabeth II during a 2010 visit to Winnipeg.