Reflecting on the 90th Anniversary of the Statute of Westminster

REFLECTION: The Statute of Westminster

With contribution from Karl Salgo and Stephen M. Van Dine.

Autonomy? Not Yet.

December 11th will mark the 90th anniversary of the British statute to which Canada owes its autonomy as a nation. This refers not to what was once known as the British North America Act (BNA) and is now the Constitution Act, 1867, but to a (yet) less well-known act entitled the Statute of Westminster – a crucial piece of legislation.

While Canada did become a country in 1867, it’s a common misconception that we gained our independence at the time.

Britain mostly left us to our own devices on domestic matters but played a not-always-helpful role in our international affairs. They sided with the United States on such significant matters as the Alaska boundary dispute of the early 1900s.

The right to appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) had a significant impact on Canada’s constitutional jurisprudence. Perhaps even more to the point, the British Parliament retained an ill-defined right to legislate for Canada.

The Path to Sovereignty.

Fast forward to the Imperial Conference of 1926 and the Balfour Declaration that came out of it.

The Balfour Declaration stated that “autonomous communities within the British Empire” were equal and “in no way subordinate to one another”. In other words, Britain was no longer in charge.

It’s important to appreciate that the Declaration had been proposed by Canada’s own Mackenzie King. King was a far stronger and more effective champion of Canadian sovereignty than is sometimes recognized. 

King had famously struggled with Governor General Byng earlier in 1926, so it’s interesting that the Declaration recommended that Governors General cease to be representatives of the British government to the dominions.

Legislative Loopholes.

The provisions of the Balfour Declaration were enacted in legislation as the Statute of Westminster in 1931. The Statute of Westminster declared that no act of the British Parliament would have any impact on a dominion without the dominion’s express desire and consent.

This was a profound moment of maturation in Canada’s history, not least because we had shown leadership in bringing it about.

In fact, ties were not severed all that cleanly. Canada continued to allow appeals to the JCPC until 1949 in civil matters. Our written constitution, the BNA, remained a British statute until 1982 essentially because we couldn’t agree on an amending formula.

Canada’s Constitutional Consent.

Even that was not quite the end of it.

The nations affected by the Statute of Westminster remained subjects of the Crown – their consent was required for any amendments to the law of succession.

Before passing the Succession to the Crown Act in 2013 , the British government made a point of securing the approval of the Commonwealth – Canada included.

After some hand wringing about whether this triggered the amending formula under our own constitution, Canada’s government gave its consent to bringing the monarchy into the 21st century.

December 11th is also the anniversary of the 1997 Supreme Court of Canada decision referred to as Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, where Aboriginal title over traditional use and occupancy of lands was recognized and defined by the court. This paved the way for land claim settlements across Canada. 

Sharing the anniversary date with the Statue of Westminster, while coincidental, is nevertheless symbolic of a special day of the Crown recognizing the rights of Nations.

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REACTION: Speech from the Throne

As originally published in iPolitics Wednesday, November 25th 2021.

With contribution from Karl Salgo and Rhonda Moore.

A time-honoured tradition.

A Speech from the Throne or Throne Speech is a highly ceremonial element of the parliamentary process, the centerpiece of the opening of any new session of Parliament following an election or a prorogation. The Governor General, as the representative of the Queen, reads the speech on behalf of “her” government, in which the latter seeks the support of parliamentarians for its legislative agenda for the session.

Parliament debates and votes on the throne speech, which is a matter of confidence, meaning that it must receive majority support if the government is to continue in office.

Canadian throne speeches tend to differ somewhat from their British counterpart, the Queen’s Speech, most conspicuously in length. In recent times the average duration of the Queen’s Speech is about 10 minutes, which means about 1000 words or less.

Our throne speech tends to be much longer – typically in the 3,000 word range (Tuesday’s speech being a bit over 2,700). Arguably, that reflects a greater tendency for Canadian governments to use the speech as a communications tool. Or perhaps it’s just that no one dares to tax Her Majesty with the additional verbiage.

The need for a public statement of strategic direction.

From a governance perspective, the throne speech is one of the more significant manifestations of a core principle: the need for public statements of strategic direction. By strategic direction we mean that specific government initiatives should be part of a broader, coherent agenda.

Such forward planning contributes to effective performance, while the public nature of the plans contributes to accountability, two other core governance principles. Canadian governments have a relative handful of comprehensive strategic statements – electoral platforms for those who have recently been to the polls, throne speeches which often and justifiably resemble electoral platforms, or the federal budget, to name a few.

What’s at Stake?

The Governor General’s concluding remarks gave clear marching orders to Parliamentarians when she said “[the] priorities for this 44th Parliament are clear: a more resilient economy, and a cleaner and healthier future for all of our kids.”

In a mandate that will be marked by an aggressive push for a “return to normal” and “building back better”, we see rich opportunities for action informed by scientific evidence and innovation. 

Emerging from the pandemic will require vaccines for children, COVID-19 “booster shots” for the rest of us. “A cleaner healthier future” is undeniably a reference to transitioning to a low carbon future and investing in measures to adapt to or mitigate the impact of climate change. Science and innovation have key roles to play to achieve these visions. 

But science and innovation alone will not deliver the government’s new mandate. Progress requires the willingness of society to accept the knowledge science provides, and to act on that knowledge. That requires trust. Her Excellency gave a clear directive on that topic, too, when, in her concluding benediction she said: “may you be equal to the profound trust bestowed on you by Canadians, and may Divine Providence guide you in all your duties.”

Accountability comes next.

These points considered, it would be surprising if this throne speech did not resemble the government’s recent campaign platform, which is arguably a reflection of its accountability (i.e., is the government doing what it said it would?). The next step in accountability will be the debate and confidence vote, and the longer term manifestation will be how well the government delivers on this agenda.

When it comes to accountability for public statements, leaving themselves a bit of wiggle room is a time-honoured tradition among Canadian governments.

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