Opinions differ over year Canada became sovereign
Independence didn’t come in 1867, says Jack Jedwab.
Exactly when Canada became a sovereign nation — its own real country — is a matter of some debate.
There are legal arguments and philosophical ones.
Nearly three out of four Canadians apparently believe it happened in 1867. Jack Jedwab, president of the Association for Canadian Studies, says they’re wrong. But he also recognizes there isn’t an easy answer.
A national survey found that 74 per cent of Canadians believe the country achieved independence 150 years ago. According to the poll, conducted for Postmedia by the Association for Canadian Studies and Leger Marketing, 14 per cent said it was in 1982, when the Queen and then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau signed the Constitution Act.
Only five per cent of respondents chose 1919 as the milestone year. Six per cent said it was 1931.
The poll was conducted online between Dec. 19 and 22 and received responses from 1,518 Canadians aged 18 and older. There is a margin of error of 3.9 points, 19 times out of 20.
The real date lies somewhere between 1919 (the year Canada joined the League of Nations) and 1931, when Canada ceased to be under the rule of the British Empire, according to Jedwab.
“We usually associate nations as things that are sovereign and independent. From that standpoint, Canada was not sovereign and independent in 1867, but it is probably one of the most critical events in its eventual emergence as a nation state in a contemporary understanding of those things,” he said.
Most Canadians are missing this “critical nuance”, but it doesn’t mean the 150th anniversary of Confederation this year shouldn’t be celebrated, he added. He just thinks Canadians need to know the difference.
Baby boomers and francophone Quebecers were more likely to choose the year of patriation of the Constitution — 1982 — when Canada reached independence, the poll found.
It also appears that more millennials seemed to think Aboriginal Peoples were among the Fathers of Confederation.
The ACS-Leger survey showed 40 per cent of Canadians between 18 and 34 said Aboriginal Peoples, the French, and the British best described their view of the founding partners, an increase of five per cent from January 2016 when respondents were asked the same question.
Almost one third (30 per cent) of millennials and 39 per cent of people 55 and older chose the four provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick as their answer.
In 2017, Canada will mark the 150th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation. It certainly merits the big celebration that will take place. July 1, 1867 is perhaps the most critical date in the evolution of Canada towards its eventual independence. A recent Association for Canadian Studies-Leger Marketing survey reveals that some three in four Canadians believe that it was in that year Canada become an independent nation.
The reality, however, is that we became neither independent nor sovereign with the adoption of the 1867 British North America Act. Rather, the three separate colonies of Canada were constituted as four provinces that formed a single Dominion in the British Empire. A Dominion was the title the British Empire conferred to semi-independent entities.
In 1867, in nearly all aspects of government, Canada was subjected to political and legal subjugation to British imperial supremacy. The imperial Parliament at Westminster could legislate on any matter to do with Canada and could override any “local” legislation. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London was the final court of appeal for Canadian legislation. The British monarch had extensive authority, and as the official representative, the Governor General played a vital role in the exercise of power.
Identifying the precise date when Canada achieved its independence is not easy. One of our leading constitutional experts, the late Frank Scott, contended that at no time prior to the Second World War was the full international personality of the Dominion, as distinct from Great Britain, established beyond equivocation.
Some observers point to the 1926 Balfour Declaration as the turning point, with its recognition of the colonies as autonomous communities within the British Empire, and others point to the 1931 Statute of Westminster, which accorded considerable legislative independence.
Indeed, in 1967, the judges of Canada’s Supreme Court declared that the country’s “sovereignty was acquired in the period between its separate signature of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and the Statute of Westminster.”
Canada’s transition from a self-governing British dominion into an independent state was an evolutionary process. Indeed, important vestiges of Canada’s colonial status were only shed with the 1982 passage of the Canada Act by the British Parliament.
Only with that act was a process introduced that permitted the amending of Canada’s basic constitutional laws without action by the British Parliament, and it declared that no British law passed thereafter would apply to Canada.
Not surprisingly, therefore, one in five Canadians recently surveyed selected 1982 as the date that the country achieved its independence.
It’s worth noting that it took a century after Confederation before the official adoption of our own flag and anthem, the symbols most frequently associated with sovereign nationhood. Not until 1965 did we adopt the lovely red maple leaf that adorns our flag and that many other countries came to associate with our identity as a nation. Prior to that time, the British Ensign flew across much of Canada.
In the late 1960s at Edinburgh elementary school in Montreal, I vividly recall beginning my day with a rendition of God Save the Queen, which many of my classmates sang grudgingly. It was not until 1967 that our Parliament recommended that O Canada be designated as our “national” anthem and God Save the Queen be designated the royal anthem.
It was not until 1980 that, via legislation, the former tune — which describes the true north as strong and free — became our national anthem.
We should proudly mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation. But it should be done without generating myths about our nation’s history.
We’ve evolved enormously since 1867 and there is much to commemorate in the sovereign nation that we’ve become and that is today widely respected in so many parts of the world. Jack Jedwab is President of the Association for Canadian Studies.
Identifying the precise date when Canada achieved its independence is not easy.
The Queen signs Canada’s constitutional proclamation in Ottawa in 1982 as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau looks on. With the stroke of a pen, Canada had its own Constitution, one of the many dates Canadians see as the beginning of sovereignty for the...