The Statue of Westminster
Facts and Details
The Statute of Westminster is a law that was passed by the British Parliament at Westminster,
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The first page of the Statute of Westminster (Library and Archives of Canada / Manuscripts)
Great Britain on December 11, 1931. The Statute clarified the powers of Canada’s Parliament and other Dominions (ex. Australia, New Zealand, etc.). It also granted full legal freedom, except those that chose to stay subordinate.
Some of the most important points in this statute were:
  • Britain could no longer nullify laws of other Dominions
  • Dominions could make their own extra-territorial laws
  • British law no longer applied to all Dominions
  • Canada could make laws except those that directly amended the British North America Act​

This is a link to the selected text in the Statute of Westminster

Reasons:
There were several reasons why this Statute was created. Before that Britain had ill-defined powers and overriding authority. For example in the First World War Canada had no choice but to join the war despite the small number of military personnel and equipment. However because of this war Canadians proved themselves to be courageous and excellent soldiers, and loyal friends. Not only Canada realized that it already acts like a nation but other countries as well; Canada gained more international recognition and status.
Unfortunately Canada did not “completely” become independent because of two major issues:
  • Provincial and the federal governments could not agree on a method for amending the British North America Act. That power remained with the British government
  • The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Britain was still the highest court for Canadians, not the Supreme Court of Canada

Major figures involved:

  1. Sir Robert Borden was the first Canadian prime minister who dreamed of independent Canada with its own completely autonomous powers. After the First World War he insisted on a presence of the Canadian signature in the treaty of Versailles and a seat in the League of Nations.
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    O. D. Skelton (standing right) and W. L. Mackenzie King were the major figures in the creation of the Statute of Westminster (Library and Archives of Canada / PA-200350)
    Sir William Lyon Mackenzie King was the successor of Robert Borden in becoming the next prime minister (in 1921) and in making Canada more independent. He started to sign treaties, agreements, bills, and other important documents without the British countersignature. When the Second World War broke out King refused to automatically join the Allied Forces but declared the war on Germany only six days after. He was also present at the signing of the Statute of Westminster.
  3. Dr. Oscar Douglas Skelton, a professor at the Queen's University was appointed by the prime minister Mackenzie King to be the Head of Department of External Affairs in 1925. His mandate was to build a better Canadian expertise about foreign affairs. He traveled to England with Ernest Lapointe for the Conference on the Operation of Dominion Legislation. Skelton was also present at the signing of the Statute.
  4. Ernest Lapointe was Canada's Minister of Justice at that time. He was the Quebec Lieutenant and prime minister's closest confidant. He became a very powerful ally of Dr. Skelton and brought him to the Conference on the Operation of Dominion Legislation.

Process of creation:
  1. The Imperial Conference of 1926 began to give a legal substance to the Balfour Report (Britain and other Dominions were all part of the Commonweath Nations and constitutionally “equal in status”).
  2. Conference of the Operation of Dominion Legislation of 1929 and the Imperial Conference of 1930 worked on fundamentally changing the Commonwealth's legal system. Before that there were certain British laws that applied to Canada but could not be changed by Canada. Much of the accomplishments in these conferences were the results of O.D. Skelton's hard work.
  3. Britain was reluctant to give an autonomous power to Canada but O. D. Skelton and Sir Maurice Gwyer, a collegue in the British Parliament, worked together to build strong coalitions that made passing of the final act possible. On December 11, 1931 the royal assent was given to the Statute of Westminster.

Significance of this topic in Canadian History and/or World History

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Mackenzie King with the premiers of Ontario and Quebec at Dominion-Provincial Conference (Library and Archives of Canada / PA-125133)
The Statute of Westminster technically was just the legal document that granted authority and legal power to Canada and other British Dominions. But to Canada it was as important as the United States' Declaration of Independence. Even though Canada did not become completely self-governing it was still a significant point in the Canadian history in a sense that it was a start of our country's growth as the nation. Canadian Parliament could make laws without the usual permission of British Parliament. Canada had a right to decide for itself and not necessarily following an advice, sometimes an order from Britain. Canada did become more independent and I think Canadians at that time were very proud of this achievement.
After the Statute was given a royal assent Canada ceased to be the British colony and the Canadian Parliament did not haste to use its new freedoms. There were still changes to be made and problems to be resolved such as the process of amending the British North America Act or the judicial authority but despite all of these problems Canada was now on its own.
Here are some long-term effects on Canada:
    • New laws were introduced (ex. Constitution Act of 1940, British North America Act of 1951, British North America Act of 1964, Canada Health Act of 1985, etc.)
    • Changes were made in the division of powers between provincial and federal governments
    • Both governments finally found the way to amend the British North America Act and Canada completely became independent (Constitution Act of 1982)
    • Territorial accomplishments (ex. Newfoundland joined the Confederation in 1949)
    • The Supreme Court of Canada became the last court of appeal in 1949

Canada was recognized internationally as the new independent nation. We developed closer relations with other countries at the same time, especially with the closest neighbour—USA, partly because Americans no longer saw Canada dependent on Britain.

The Statute of Westminster was also an important part in the histories of other British Dominions that were granted new independence (ex. Australia, New Zealand, parts of South Africa, etc.).