Happy Birthday, Statute of Westminster

December 11, 2014 § 6 Comments

My Google calendar tells me that today is the 83rd birthday of the Statute of Westminster.  But, oddly, I don’t think parades are being planned across Canada, nor are there any fireworks shows scheduled.  I always find the idea of Canadian independence rather interesting.  We celebrate 1 July 1867 as the date of Canadian Confederation, as if it meant anything.  I’ve never really been convinced that it does.  On that date, the Dominion of Canada was created, that much is true.  This was a confederation of the the province of Canada (today’s Ontario and Québec), with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

But, for the most part, aside from the new government of the (now) four united provinces, not much else changed.  British North America had gained responsible government (for the most part) in 1848, meaning that the democratically elected governments of the colonies could now legislate for themselves independent of the whims of the British Parliament in Westminster, London.  But, the new Dominion of Canada had no control over its foreign affairs.  This was made patently clear in boundary disputes along the Alaska/British Columbia and New Brunswick/Maine borders where the British, unwilling to upset their new American allies, back the American claims to the detriment of Canada.  When the First World War broke out on 28 July 1914, when the British declared war, the Canadians were automatically at war.

The First World War, or so we’re told in Canada, was the time when our country came of age.  Nevermind the fact that conscription was an incredibly divisive issue, exploiting fissures in Canada that remain to this day, or that the Unionist government of Sir Robert Borden won the 1917 general election through trickery, disenfranchisement, and gerrymanders.  But, fine, let’s just accept the argument that this was Canada’s coming out ball.  In the aftermath of the war, Borden and the South African Prime Minister, Jan Smuts, argued that their nations had bled for the war, and deserved their own seats at the Paris Peace Conference.  Canada, in particular (as the senior Dominion) continued to agitate throughout the 1920s for more control over its foreign affairs, joined for awhile by the new Irish Free State.

Thus, in 1931, the Parliament in Westminster passed the eponymous statute.  Amongst other things (most notably, it established the relationship between the Commonwealth that persists to today), Canada gained complete legislative independence, including over its foreign affairs.  In 1909, Canada had created its own Department of External Affairs, reluctantly, under the Liberal premiership of Sir Wilfrid Laurier.  In the 1923, under the Liberal William Lyon Mackenzie King (the longest serving PM in British Empire/Commonwealth history, he was office 1921-6, 1926-30, 1935-48), signed its very first international treaty (with the United States) without the involvement of the British.  So, in many ways, the Statute of Westminster confirmed the status quo.

Canada used its new legislative independence proudly.  When the Second World War began on 1 September 1939, with the German invasion of Poland and the 3 September declaration of war by the British upon Germany, Canada waited a full week to declare war on Germany itself.  My history prof in a class on the history of Canadian foreign policy at the University of British Columbia sniffed that this was done simply to point out that Canada could.  Knowing Mackenzie King, it wouldn’t surprise me.

But this still does not mean that Canada was a fully independent and sovereign nation.  On 1 January 1947, Canadian citizenship came into existence.  Prior to that, Canadians were subjects of the British Crown.  In 1949, the Supreme Court of Canada became the highest court in the land.  But, even then, the Canadian constitution was an act of a foreign legislature, i.e.: Westminster.

In 1982, after much wrangling, and ultimately without Québec signing on, the Canadian constitution was patriated under Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau.  And with that, one could conclude that Canada was finally a sovereign, independent nation.  Maybe.  There is still the argument that occasionally surfaces in Canada about the role of the monarchy, since the British monarch is still sovereign over Canada.

But, either way, Canada did not, like many other former colonies (like the one I now call home), spring into existence as a fully independent and sovereign nation; rather, in Canada, this was a long, drawn-out process, beginning in 1848 and ending (maybe) in 1982.

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