This week in Canadian history: Was the Statute of Westminster Canada’s lasting contribution to global affairs?

The Statute of Westminster received royal assent in London on December 11, 1931
A statue of former prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King looks over the Parliament buildings Friday, September 13, 2013 in Ottawa. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press.

Candians’ ignorance of our own history is a pervasive and regrettable problem. The Hub is pleased to play a small part in attempting to turn this tide by presenting a weekly column from author and historian Antony Anderson on the week that was in Canadian history.

December 11, 1931: The Statute of Westminister receives Royal Assent in London

“No Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom passed after the commencement of this Act shall extend, or be deemed to extend, to a Dominion as part of the law of that Dominion…No law and no provision of any law made after the commencement of this Act by the Parliament of a Dominion shall be void or inoperative on the ground that it is repugnant to the law of England.”

There it was, laid out in forgettable syllables, no ringing exultations, no glorious proclamations to be shouted from rooftops or memorised in classrooms across the land, just the dry, bare bones of an ongoing peaceful evolution. Here was the Statute of Westminster, a mutually agreed upon arrangement that Britain would no longer muck around in our internal or external affairs—our so-called, by some, declaration of independence. As in so many things Canadian, yes and no. 

The statute was the distillation and culmination of a great deal of constitutional conferencing—Canada’s true national sport—stickhandled through the 1920s by a relentless, insistent Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. The natural governing leader would be indicted later for having no edges, no core, no shape, but in this phase, he was diamond-hard in carving out a Canadian presence on the world stage. He opened up the first Canadian embassies and high commissions, dispatched the first Canadian diplomats, and oversaw “the first treaty independently negotiated and signed by” Canada, all about halibut!1 Hillmer, Norman and Jeff Scott. “Halibut Treaty”. The Canadian Encyclopedia, 20 January 2021, Historica

He told the British again and again Canada was not going to join any imperial defence or foreign policy scheme, driving the foreign secretary, the almighty Lord Curzon, to rage in private: “The obstacle has been Mackenzie King…who is both obstinate, tiresome and stupid.”2 Lord Curzon to his wife in Reminiscences, pp. 181-2. Cited in Robert Macgregor Dawson, William Lyon Mackenzie King (University of Toronto Press 1958) p. 477 Facing furious imperial expectations in London, deep imperial attachment at home and from other Dominion leaders, but backed by South Africa, the obstinate King prevailed and the empire became a commonwealth. All the once somewhat self-governing Dominions—Australia, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland, New Zealand, and South Africa —were transmuted into “autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.” Not bad for a Canadian prime minister. This was possibly our most influential contribution to global affairs in any century.

But this constitutional business was a family affair and if, thanks to the Statute, Canada was now fully autonomous and equal, the Dominion could not manage and indeed did not want full separation. We couldn’t figure out an amending formula with the provinces, so we allowed Westminster to retain the power to amend our constitution. London would still appoint the governor general and continue to provide Canadians with their final court of appeal on civil cases.  The Canadian government even decided that Canadians would remain British subjects for the foreseeable future. And there was no question that in times of great peril, the Dominion would rally to defend Britain. We just wanted the right to make the inevitable decision.

So even after the clarity act that was the Statute of Westminster, Canada remained something of a conundrum, confounding to outsiders and even to ourselves, British North Americans but never fully belonging to either stream, living in two dominant solitudes, flying the Union Jack but sometimes also the Red Ensign, a complex state of being for a complex country with still more geography than history, sovereign and associated, running in and then thankfully out of dead-ends, muddling through with modesty, blessed every now and then by lightning strikes of sheer political brilliance—much like the present day. 

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