The passage of a statute 80 years ago in December is an extremely signifcant event in Canadian history. On December 11, 1931, the Statute of Westminster was passed by the British Parliament, removing the last vestiges of colonialism and creating a truly independent nation in North American. With the passage of the statute, Canada became legislatively independent from the British Parliament. Importantly, Canada was for the first time in control of its own foreign policy, and thus finally free to pursue its own interests on the world stage without interference from Britain. Prior to the statute, when Britain went to war in 1914, Canada was also at war. The Canadian Parliament could neither vote for or against joining the overseas conflict.
“Here and there some quivering voice ancient voice is lifted in lamentation over the passage of colonial status,” said an editorial in the December 11, 1933, Winnipeg Free Press, marking the second anniversary, “... but the people as a whole have welcomed the independence of Canada, of which the Statute of Westminster is the legal expression as the only status that could be acceptable to them.”
On the 80th anniversary, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the Statute of Westminster was one of the most important documents in Canada’s history. “The Statute removed the United Kingdom’s ability to make laws for Canada, effectively enshrining Canada’s equal status as a nation.
“This important milestone reminds us foremost of how Canadians who came before us earned our country’s independence through bravery and merit, particularly in the First World War.”
What Harper failed to also mention was that it was a peeved prime minister who also significantly contributed to the British acceptance of the independence of Canada, the Irish Free State, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Liberal Prime Minister Mackenzie King had long been a champion of Canadian legislative independence from Britain. In September 1922, Britain was embroiled in another foreign crisis that threatened to drag Canada into war. Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill sought the help of the dominions when the Dardanelles were threatened by Turkish nationalists. King wrote in his diary that he was “convinced that it was not right to take this country into another European war, & I shall resist to the uttermost.” Before the crisis passed without incident, King declared that only the Canadian Parliament would decide when Canada again went to war.
Another incident involving British interference that gained the ire of the Canadian prime minister was the 1926 “Byng-King Affair.” To avoid a non-confidence vote in the House of Commons that the Liberals were sure to lose, King approached Governor General Lord Byng, appointed by the British government, to prorogue parliament and issue a writ for a general election. Byng refused and asked Arthur Meighen, the Conservative leader, to form the government. Although the Conservatives had more seats in the House than the Liberals, Meighen’s government was overthrown three days later by a 96-05 vote by a coalition of Liberals and Progressives. King got the election he wanted. During the campaign, he claimed Byng’s interjection into Canadian politics had usurped the power of the people. The alleged constitutional crisis resonated with voters and the Liberals regained the government.
By winning the subsequent election, King forever changed the role of the governor general in Canada, who then became solely the representative of the Queen rather than the British Parliament. The governor general, by convention, would henceforth have to act on the advice of the Canadian prime minister.
At the 1926 Imperial Conference, King helped draft the Balfour Declaration which described 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 foreign affairs, though united by common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.” The declaration paved the way for the complete independence of the dominions.
Canada then took control over its own foreign affairs, whether the British liked it or not. King appointed diplomatic representatives to foreign countries, such as Vincent Massey, a Canadian and future governor general, to Washington. Massey was not placed under the authority of the British ambassador, but was solely a representative of Canada.
“In conformity with the undertaking given to the representatives of my Dominions in 1930 a measure will be laid before you to give statutory effect to certain of the Declarations and Resolutions of the Imperial conferences of 1926 and 1930,” said King George V in the Speech from the Throne at the opening of the British Parliament on November 10, 1931. “This measure is designed to make clear the powers of the Dominion Parliaments and to promote the sprit of free co-operation among the members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.”
With the world in the depth of the Great Depression, some British parliamentarians considered the statute an uncalled for distraction. Others ridiculed the legislation in order to maintain Britain’s status as an “Empire.” Lord Salisbury didn’t think “there was a measure proposed to Parliament, the country and the Empire which was received with so little enthusiasm.” He said the dominions were “practically free” — he preferred the word “free” to “independent.”
The statute passed third reading in the British House of Commons on November 24 by a 350-50 vote, and was accepted by the House of Lords on December 2. It was given Royal assent by King George V and became law on December 11.
One British politician commented that after the statute became the law of the land, “Britain” was similar to “the parent of a healthy family and as with many parents had found it difficult to recognize that her children had grown to manhood. She had, therefore, given them the latchkey but reserved the right to bolt the door.”
But Canada and the other dominions now had the power to ignore the musings of British politicians prepared to interfere with their domestic and foreign policies. Using its new autonomy, the Canadian House of Commons voted on September 10, 1939, to declare war on Nazi Germany, seven days after Britain had declared war. For the first time, Canada was not automatically at war when Britain was at war.
The Statue of Westminster gave Canada the wherewithal to create the legislative foundation for the independent nation that exists today.