Written by Emily Cuggy
— Posted October 20, 2011
Canada did not enjoy full legal autonomy until the Statute of
Westminster was passed on December 11, 1931. The signing of the statute
was Canada’s own declaration of independence.
The Statute of Westminster is a momentous, yet often overlooked,
occasion in Canadian history. Despite being granted the right to
self-government in 1867, Canada did not enjoy full legal autonomy until
the Statute was passed on December 11, 1931. 2011 marks the eightieth
anniversary of the signing of the Statute of Westminster — Canada’s own
declaration of independence.
The Statute of Westminster finds its origins at the Imperial Conference
of 1926. Lord Balfour, Britain’s Foreign Minister, suggested that all
Dominions be granted full autonomy in their legislations. This would
establish equality amongst Britain and the Dominions. These nations
included the Dominion of Canada, the colony of Newfoundland, the
Commonwealth of Australia, the Dominion of New Zealand, the Union of
South Africa, and the Irish Free State.
Prime Minister Mackenzie King and the head of the Department of External
Affairs, O.D. Skelton, were determined to achieve autonomy for Canada.
In 1929, Skelton attended the Conference on the Operation of Dominion
Legislation in London. After two months of negotiations, recommendations
were made that would set the resolutions made at the 1926 Imperial
Conference in motion. In 1930, the issues were revisited and governments
submitted terms of the future Statute to their Parliaments.
It was made clear under the Statute that each of the Dominions would
have the right to choose which of the new resolutions it would accept,
and which would be rejected in favour of past regulations. All but one
of the Dominions chose to adopt every resolution and thus sever all
legal ties to Britain; Canada was not fully prepared for complete
independence. Government ministers were unable to agree upon a method
which could be used to amend the Constitution, so it was decided that
Britain would temporarily retain the power to do so. This remained in
effect until the Constitution Act was passed in 1982.
Four years after Lord Balfour first suggested independence for the
Dominions, negotiations were complete and the Statute of Westminster was
signed on December 11, 1931. The act proclaimed that although the
Dominions were to remain in allegiance with the Crown, each would be
granted full legal autonomy. Britain and its now autonomous Dominions
became known as the British Commonwealth of Nations.
Under the Statute, nations were granted the freedom to pass their own
laws without the consent of British Parliament, and Britain was no
longer able to void or alter laws made in its Dominions. Dominions were
also free to amend and repeal their own laws, including ones already in
existence. In addition, laws passed by the British government would no
longer extend to the Dominions unless the Dominion wished to adopt it.
The governments of each Dominion now held the power to build their own
legislation without British interference.
It may not be as widely acknowledged as Confederation in its
contribution to Canada’s independence, however the Statute of
Westminster is arguably a more momentous occasion in Canada’s journey to
The Statute granted Canada independence from British regulations and the
freedom to pass, amend, and repeal laws within an autonomous legal
system. Full autonomy gave the government the independence it needed to
build a legislative foundation upon which Canada still stands today.
You can read the words of the Statute of Westminster on the
Government of Canada’s Department of Justice website.