The Statute of Westminster (1931): Canada’s “Declaration of Independence”

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The Statute of Westminster

It is very fitting, yet also odd, that our neighbo(u)r to the north has its own independence day in the same week as our July 4th. I cannot think of two nations that have shared such a similar heritage but yet are, metaphorically speaking, as different as night and day, than Canada and the United States. Both were once part of the British Empire, and both nations achieved their independence from it, but through entirely different methods. One gained its independence through an 18th century revolution based mainly on economic grievances, with battles galore; the other through a lengthy, pragmatic, legal, progress which culminated in the Statute of Westminster. (I’m trying to resist my yawns. 🙂 ) In the long run, both achieved the same results, but the separate processes created two different nations with two entirely different national identities.

The difference between the American (USA’s) mantra of “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” and the Canadian idea of good governance and law and order is striking. A couple of years ago, when America was considering President Clinton’s national health care system, I read an article in a major publication which raised the cultural difference between Americans and Canadians. The article was a critique of national health care, and in particular, the Canadian single-payer system. The author argued that a similar plan in America would cause many Americans, not accustomed to waiting on line, to fume and vent, whereas Canadians mainly tended to take it in stride. I honestly don’t know how accurate this was, but while we’re on the subject on the differences between Canada and the United States, one of the most significant is the political systems of the two.

Technically today, Queen Elizabeth II is Canada’s head of state — and technically Canada is still part of the British Empire/Commonwealth of Nations. Yet if QE II suddenly dies tomorrow, Canada can technically decide that Prince William, her grandson, will be Canada’s next King instead of his father, Prince Charles, next in line for the British throne. It also can at any time, leave the British Commonwealth of Nations. And to those of you who don’t think all of this is possible, may I point you to the recent political debate afoot in Australia over whether to turn it from a constitutional monarchy to a republic.

Before 1931, however, none of this could have happened. Before 1931, despite the Dominion Acts of 1867, which granted Canada limited autonomy, the British could, if it wanted to, still run Canadian affairs. For one, the Dominion Acts only applied to domestic affairs; the British Empire still controlled Canada’s foreign affairs. Thus, on August 3, 1914, at 10:30 p.m., King George V met in Privy Council in Buckingham Palace and declared war on Germany. With this simple declaration, all of the British Empire, including Canada, automatically entered the First World War. (1) Without any consultation, Canadians found themselves bound to support the “Mother Country.”

Twenty-five years later, however, on September 3, 1939, at 11 a.m., the British ultimatum to Germany expired, and the British Empire went to war again. Again the entire Empire went to war, but this time the Dominions, which included Canada, were excluded. They were free to decide for themselves. (2) And this the Dominions did. The Irish Free State decided to become neutral, whereas Australia and New Zealand entered the war immediately. The other two Dominion countries waited until their Parliaments were called, and Canada declared war on September 10. (3)

What had transpired in the twenty-five years between the two declarations was the passage of The Statute of Westminster in 1931, which was the first stage in the transformation from the British Empire to the Commonwealth of Nations. The Act removed whatever vestiges of power the UK Parliament still had over Canada. It was Canada’s “Declaration of Independence.”

As in the American story, however, Canada’s “Declaration of Independence” did not come easily. From 1867 until 1931, each law passed by the Canadian Parliament had to be formally approved by the British Parliament, and technically, although this was rarely done, any could be vetoed. In addition, this independence only applied to select domestic policies – the British Empire retained control of all foreign and military policy pertaining to Canada. One example of this was the border dispute between Canada and the United States over the border of Alaska in the 1890s. Britain decided to grant the US almost all of what it wanted, without much heeding the concerns of Canada.

This all changed after the First World War. During the First World War, many heroic services were provided by Canadian troops, especially at the battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917. At the Versailles Treaty Conference, the Canadians were separate participants, and after the war, an ambitious politician, William Mackenzie King, became Prime Minister.

One of King’s major goals was virtual independence of Canada from the British Empire. His first major act in this direction was his refusal to Lloyd George’s request for help during the Chanak crisis of 1922. (4) The second was the negotiating of a separate fisheries treaty with America without Britain — a technical violation of the Dominions Act, but the British Government at the time mostly looked the other way.

Unlike America, King and the Canadians did not have to really struggle that much to get their independence after the First World War. De-facto independence had been theirs for a while; now formal independence was largely handed to them by a British Government, desperate to keep them in the Empire, if only in name. In 1926, Michael Balfour, the Colonial and Dominions Secretary in the second Baldwin Government, devised a mechanism — the Commonwealth of Nations, that did just that. He redefined Great Britain and the Dominions as

“autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic and internal affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.”
(5)

Five years later, this statement was translate into law — the Statute of Westminster. Canada finally had its “Declaration of Independence,” although it has technically never actually left, metaphorically speaking, the home of its parents. Even today, it’s a proud member of the British Empire…oops, the Commonwealth of Nations!!! This should all give us something to think about when we celebrate on both sides of the border.

Footnotes:

  1. (1) A.J.P. Taylor, English History, 1914-45, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), p. 2.
  2. (2) Ibid, p. 452.
  3. (3) Ibid., pp. 452-53.
  4. (4) Ibid., p. 191.
  5. (5) Ibid., p. 253.
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