Canada is part of the Commonwealth ... what does that mean?

I’ve consulted some traditional sources, but I can’t really find a satisfactory (i.e., concise) answer to this question. Canada is part of the Commonwealth, and I understand that is a formality. But to what extent does the formality apply? The Queen is on the coins, is that it? What else does it mean for Canada (and for that matter, Australia?) to be part of the Commonwealth? If pushed, would Canada be expected to follow the U.K. into war, for instance?


Basically, it’s a formality. I will spare you the mind-numbingly boring Constitutional references, but the Queen is the Queen of Canada, and her representative, the Governor-General, is the nominal resident head of state. (Of course, the Governor-General is picked by… Canada’s Parliament!)

The position is ceremonial. The Commonwealth is basically just a club of countries who claim the Queen as their head of state; the United Kingdom does not actually weild any political power over Canada (or Australia, or other examples; maybe in some cases they do, but not in Canada or Australia.) It doesn’t really mean anything beyond the countries being friendly with one another and holding conferences and having the Commonwealth Games, which is by far the most significant thing about the Commonwealth.

We wouldn’t be expected to follow the UK into war. Even though we are part of the Commonwealth we are still our own country, and as such make our own decisions about whather or not we go to war.

I forget exactly, but it was either WWI or WWII that was the last time we were compelled to go to war. (WWI I think, it’s late and my mind is blank) In WWI Canadians went and fought under the British flag and officers, not our own. I believe this was true of Australia as well, but I could just be thinking of some horribly inaccurate movie I saw as a child. My Mom is a big fan of old war movies.

It appears that under certain circumstances Commonwealth citizenshp can help you with “right of abode” in the UK itself. Link.

Reminds me of an old anectdote:

British Sentry, on post in London: Halt! Who goes there?
Pedestrian: Fuck off!
Sentry: Pass, Canadian.

What RickJay said.

Basically, it just gives Australia more chances to kick Canadian and British ass in the sporting arena. :slight_smile:

The Commonwealth Heads of Government meet annually to discuss issues of relevance to member states, but the CHOGM shin-dig is not really important on the scale of world meetings. It’s far less important, for example, than the ASEAN conference, or the G8 meeting.

Actually, given the prevalence of former British colonial holdings from Africa and the Asian sub-continent, a more appropriate term would probably be Commonpoverty. Many members of the Commonwealth really are struggling nations.

About the most significant issue discussed at the most recent CHOGM was the issue of internal strife in Zimbabwe, and that nation’s status as a member of the Commonwealth. The divide over the issue was, unfortunately, rather a racial one, with African member states tending to defend Mugabe (or at least to oppose sanctions and expulsion), while most Western and Asian nations took a harder line.

The Commonwealth has its own website, and if you go to this page you can find out about the member states, and about the history of the Commonwealth.

It was World War I.

Prior to World War I, the British “dominions” (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, and South Africa) were internally self-governing, but Great Britain retained power over their foreign relations. The dominions weren’t represented by ambassadors in foreign countries, nor did they sign their own treaties. Consequently, when Britain declared war on Germany at the beginning of World War I, King and Parliament deemed that the declaration automatically applied to the dominions as well.

As a result of the war, this arrangement became unsatisfactory, and all of the dominions signed the peace treaties of their own accord and gradually attained complete control over their foreign affairs in the 1920’s. The new arrangement was formalized in the Statutes of Westminster in 1931. At the outbreak of World War II, each nation declared war on its own–and so it has been ever since.

This is off-topic but to me is an amusing anecdote about the US-Canada connection early in WWII. Canada had declared war and Germany and the British and Canadians wanted to buy US aircraft. However the US had the Neutrality Act which forbid us to, among other things, carry aircraft directly to either of them in our ships or to Canada by rail.

So this site (way down the page) describesa dodge that was used to get planes to them.

From the site: “What happened? The law was not broken. U.S. aircraft was[sic] flown to airstrips near the Canadian border in Maine and North Dakota. Then they were hitched by rope and/or chain and pulled across the border – sometimes by tractors, sometimes hitched to a team of horses! Thousands of aircraft were delivered onto Canadian soil where both U.S. and Canadian pilots flew them to the war in Europe, following the Great Circle route from Newfoundland to the British Isles.”

Our newsreels showed the planes being hitched to tractors, horses, etc. by ropes and being pulled across the border. This transparent dodge was used until the lend-lease act was passed and we could get materiel to them more directly.

Oh yes. A newsreel was a 15 minute film containing the news of the day (HA!) that was shown in movie theaters as part of the short subjects before the main feature.

For the record, I did preview. Nevertheless this boner slipped by: “Canada had declared war and Germany …”

It should read: “Canada had declared war on Germany …”

Grumble, grumble.

Of course this has long since ceased to be a worthwhile challenge.

I love these stories of war “secrets” wink wink.
My dad tells a story of an enormous US Warship coming into Sydney Harbour during WWII. It was a spectacular behemoth of a thing, and everybody knew it was coming days in advance, and folks went down to the harbour to see it arrive. Of course, due to the state of war, its arrival was “secret”. So the old guy with the motorboat who was making a bit of beer money by taking sightseers out to the ship had a handwritten sign on the wharf: “A shilling for a trip around the object in the harbour!”

In recent years, similar situations have developed with Nigeria and Pakistan - the latter was only reinstated a few months ago, when Musharraf said he’d step down as head of the military.

The Queen doesn’t need to be on the coins. Singapore, an ex-colony, is part of the Commonwealth, and I haven’t seen the Queen on any of our coins yet. What I didn’t know, however, is just how many Commonwealth countries there were… The empire must have been something to behold way back when…

On Canadian passports, it says that if there is no Canadian diplomatic mission in a country, Canadian citizens should report to British embassies or consulates in case of emergency. Does this have anything to do with Commonwealth membership?

You can see that footage at (although you’ll need to register). Go into advanced search and enter Film ID: 1033.02 :slight_smile:

I am not sure, but I’d say no. Well, that is to say, being all Commonwealthy and friendly is no doubt part of it, but I’d hazard there’s a specific agreement involved (and possibly payment of costs to the British by the Canadians). It’s probably not an automatic thing from just being in the Commonwealth. I am guessing this because the Canadian and Australian governments have a similar deal. when I got my passport, there was a list of countries in which I was to report to the Canadian diplomatic mission in case of emergency, and I believe there are some countries in which the situation is reversed.

They don’t even need to have the Queen as their head of state.

Indeed, yes. The first member of the Commonwealth to become a republic was India in 1950, and since then most new members of the Commonwealth have become republics when they became independent.

And in Australia there is some debate as to exactly who is the head of state: the Queen or the Governor General. Many monarchists argue that the GG is the head of state, because that rebuts the republicans’ argument that they don’t want a foreign head of state. However, my opinion is that the Queen is head of state and the GG is just her representative.

Yeah, the Queen, not the Governor-General, is the formal head of state in Canada… after all, we don’t go putting Adrienne Clarkson on the money.

What is the deal with Canada’a Queen? It’s all tied up in Canada’s political history, its Constitution, and it’s Governor General.

Canada’s most recent Constitutional Amendment was made to build some non-religious schools in Newfoundland, and Canada’s second most recent Constitutional Amendment was to made to build a bridge to Prince Edward Island. Let’s just say that our Constitution is interesting and unique, and is by no means fixed in stone.

Not only do we have a stack of Constitutional Amendments, but we have a whole trunk full of Constitutional Documents which either may or may not have the force of law (depending on whether or not they were made before 1867, or if pre-Confederation, whether they were included by reference), going right the way back to 1670, when a company was given the right to make and enforce laws across much of what is Canada today.

We even have many traditional ways of doing things that are not written down anywhere in any laws. For example, by unwritten convention we have a Prime Minister whose office was only relatively recently was mentioned in a Constitutional Document (in 1982), and even then was only mentioned in passing without speaking of what the office is, what it does, and where it finds its authority.

In short, our Constitution is not just one document, and is not just a set of documents, but rather is it a combination of written documents and unwritten conventions. We have not yet even agreed upon an amending formula, and Quebec has not signed on for the Constitution by which all of Canada is governed. Our Constitution has been developing for hundreds of years, but still is in its infancy.

To keep it as simple as possible, let’s start with the assumption that for whatever reason, Canada has always had a ruling Monarch who did not live here, so the ruling had to be done through an assistant in Canada called a Governor General, and in the provinces (the states within Canada) through Lieutenants Governor. These offices were simply extensions of the pre-Confederation tradition of using Governors in the colonies. The question then is just what these Governors General are authorized to do. To answer this, we have to look at who has the power to make laws.

The British Parliament used to have power to make laws over Canada, and the British Courts and the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council used to have the power to interpret laws in Canada. Through a gradual process lasting well over a hundred years, Canada slowly took over all these powers. There was no single event that gave us independence.

Our fist big step, oddly enough, was the incorporation of a company in England back in 1670, in which the King gave the corporation the power to make and enforce laws in what is now much of Canada. The company was named “The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England tradeing into Hudsons Bay”, and is now known as the Hudson’s Bay Company. The territory was known as Prince Rupert’s Land, because the company was owned by the King’s brother and his buddies. The territory consisted of the Hudson’s Bay watershed (much of northern Ontario and north-western Quebec, and a tad of Minnesota). At the time, the Maritimes and the St. Lawrence were held by France. (Or to be truthful, all of Canada was held by numerous First Nation’s, France had a few villages, and England had nothing.) The document (which no longer holds Constitutional authority) was the Royal Proclamation (Proc., Charles II, Eng., 1670).

The next big step was a period of colonization, primarily in the Maritimes, and then up through Upper and Lower Canada (today’s Ontario and Quebec). That took a couple of hundred years of fighting and trading with France. Along the way, the colonies each developed greater or lesser degrees of legislative and judicial self-determination. The Maritimes developed representative government early on through legislative assemblies: Nova Scotia in 1758, Prince Edward Island in 1773, and in New Brunswick in 1786. Quebec obtained representative government later in 1791, for it’s political development had been hampered by the Quebec Act (G.B., 1774) after Great Britain won Quebec from France in the Seven Years War.

The impetus to bring representative government to Quebec was due to American refugees, who flooded across the border in and about 1783. Many were placed in the western wilderness of Nova Scotia, which was severed to form New Brunswick, and many were placed in the western wilderness of Quebec (in what is now southern Ontario). To tidy things up, Great Britain’s Constitution Act (G.B., 1791) split Quebec into Upper Canada (now Ontario) and Lower Canada (now Quebec), granting representative government to both.

Even with representative government (elections), there were problems with Governors and their councils not doing what the elected representatives asked them to do, and further problems with the limits on who could vote (landowners rather than landless). Representative government was not necessarily responsible government, for the Governors were not responsible to the elected representatives. After the defeating the Americans in 1813, there was a booming economy and significant expansion into the wilderness through Crown land grants. Those who held the colonial Governors’ ears obtained land grants, and became ever more rich and powerful.

This led to struggles for responsible government in the early and mid-19th century. In Lower Canada, Louis Joseph Papineau led a revolt against le Chateau Compact in 1837, and shortly thereafter in Upper Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie led a revolt against the Family Compact. The first colony to win responsible government was Nova Scotia in 1848, through the efforts of Joseph Howe, a poet, newspaper man, dueller, and politician, who took a more peaceful approach.

Responsible government meant that the Governors now had to be responsible to the elected representatives. The elected representatives now had the right to not only to be listened to by the Governors, but also to demand that the Governors put in place the laws they had passed.

The next big step was the Confederation of some of the colonies into the Dominion of Canada in 1867 through the United Kingdom’s British North America Act (U.K., 1867) (but now called the Constitution Act (U.K., 1867) following its recent incorporation by reference into Canada’s Constitution Act (Can., 1982) from is Schedule B to the United Kingdom’s Canada Act (U.K., 1982) – simple, huh? Don’t worry, well come back to it later).

This document (the British North America Act (U.K., 1867), now the Constitution Act (U.K., 1867) as part of the Constitution Act (Can., 1982)), is arguably Canada’s most important Constitutional Document, for it defined which powers the federal government holds and which powers the provinces hold. It set out that we should have a British style Parliament (thus no one bothered to actually specify a Prime Minister, simply because it was implied). It set out the role of the Governor General (and provincial Lieutenants General), who pretty much carried on as the colonial governors had done after responsible government had been variously instituted. The long and short of it is that through this act, the Monarch was confirmed as being the head of Canada’s government (s.9), was represented in Canada by the Governor General (s.10), was head of our Armed Forces (s.15), and most importantly, was responsible to the Canadian Parliament (s.12): “All Powers, Authorities, and Functions . . . shall, as far as the same continue in existence and capable of being exercised . . . be vested in and exerciseable [sic] by the Governor General . . . subject nevertheless . . . to be established or altered by the Parliament of Canada.” Since then, the role and powers of the Monarch have not changed that much.

You’re probably wondering why I inserted so many ellipses in the citation of s.12 of the British North America Act (U.K., 1867). That’s because despite having its own Constitution, Canada still was subject to laws which had been made in the United Kingdom, and which were yet to be made by the United Kingdom. In other words, although we had responsible government for all intents and purposes, the United Kingdom could still make laws which we would have to follow if they wanted us to. Our protection against the Crown was really just a reflection of the protections in the United Kingdom’s own Constitutional democracy, which by then had pulled the teeth of the Monarchy.

Over the next century, the United Kingdom gradually lost the authority to make laws binding on Canada. Their Statute of Westminster (U.K., 1931) removed the legislative authority of the United Kingdom Parliament over the Dominion of Canada (as well as the Dominions of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Newfoundland, with the exception that the United Kingdom retained the power to amend our Canadian Constitution’s amending formula. Then, as now, Canada was not able to agree internally on an amending formula, so that issue was left alone for another time.) Specifically, the Statute of Westminster (U.K., 1931) tossed out the Colonial Laws Validity Act (U.K., 1865); permitted Canada to make laws that might be repugnant to the United Kingdom; greeted Dame Opal; permitted the Canada to repeal Canadian jurisdiction for United Kingdom laws repugnant to Canada; permitted Canada to make its own treaties; and prohibited the United Kingdom from making any more laws with jurisdiction in Canada unless Canada specifically agreed.

Note that the Statute of Westminster (U.K., 1931) would have been meaningless unless the Governor General was entirely responsible to the Canadian Parliament. Without such Constitutionally enshrined responsibility (both through the British North America Act (U.K., 1867), and through the Constitutional Conventions developed in Colonial times and continued since then) it would have been possible for the Governor General to bring in British law against the wishes of Canada’s Parliament. Fortunately, responsible government through the Constitutional Conventions and the British North America Act (U.K., 1867) were well established by the time of the Statute of Westminster (U.K., 1931), so there was no question of the Governor General having any power at all to go against the Parliament of Canada.

It still took some time to become clear of British laws and the British legal system. In general, the old British laws still applied until they were either specifically revoked, or became outdated as new Canadian laws took their place. Amendments to the British North America Act (U.K., 1867) had to be made for us in the United Kingdom at our request for housekeeping matters and also to let us bring in more of the colonies and territories into Canada. This was because we had not taken care of the amending formula back in 1931. There was never any question of the United Kingdom not passing anything we requested pertaining solely to Canada, so it is debatable if by Constitutional convention they had the power to refuse us. Fortunately, the issue was never raised.

Even then, we were not totally free of the United Kingdom. Although we had the power to establish a Canadian Court of Appeal through the Constitution Act (U.K., 1867), and did just that a few years later in creating the Supreme Court of Canada (Supreme Court Act (Can., 1875)). Even then, however, our Supreme Court of Canada decisions could still be appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in the United Kingdom. This foreign Judicial Committee’s superior appellate jurisdiction over Canada for criminal appeals ended in 1933, but due to the depression and the war getting in the way, its jurisdiction over our civil appeals did not end until 1949.

Just to tidy up things like this, in 1947 the King executed “Letters Patent Constituting the Office of Governor General of Canada” (George VI, Can., 1947). We’ve always had Governors or Governors General, so there is nothing special about the date, and the document was not definitive, for it was made by Royal Prerogative within a Constitutional context, but more than any other document, it set out how the Monarch does business in Canada. It pretty much reflected the British North America Act (U.K., 1867), and the similar Letters Patent (George V, Can., 1931) made in anticipation of the Statute of Westminister (U.K., 1931). Notably, it specified that the powers were limited to powers authorized by Canada: “And We do hereby authorize and empower Our Governor General, with the advice of Our Privy Council for Canada or of any members thereof or individually, as the case requires, to exercise all powers and authorities lawfully belonging to Us in respect of Canada, and for greater certainty but not so as to restrict the generality of the foregoing to do and execute, in the manner aforesaid, all things that may belong to his office and to the trust We have reposed in him according to the several powers and authorities granted or appointed him by virtue of the Constitution Acts, 1867 to 1940 and the powers and authorities hereinafter conferred in these Letters Patent and in such Commission as may be issued to him under Our Great Seal of Canada and under such laws as are or may hereinafter be in force in Canada.”

In other words, the Monarch rules in Canada through the Governor General, and the Governor General is bound by the Constitution of Canada. Note that there are no ellipses in this cite this time, for by 1947 Canada was well past the Statute of Westminster (U.K., 1931). What is amusing and important about this document is that it specified that the Governor General can not quit or leave without the permission of the Canadian Prime Minister, and that the execution of the Letters Patent was performed at the command of the King by the Prime Minister of Canada, despite the Office of the Prime Minister of Canada never once having been mentioned in any Constitutional Document up to that time, thus reminding us that in addition to written Constitutional Documents, we are have unwritten Constitutional Conventions of tremendous importance.

What is also important about Letters Patent Constituting the Office of Governor General of Canada (Geo.VI, 1947) is that it confirms that the Governor General appoints judges (obviously within the Constitutional context of having been chosen by the Canadian government). This helps reinforce that the judiciary is bound not only by the laws of the day, but also by the common law, which has tremendous depth and stability. A discussion of the differences between provincial courts (which are pretty much statute driven) and superior courts (which can make full use of common law, equity, and whatever else can be pulled out of the corners of the world’s judicial systems) can wait for another time, but for now just go by my word that having the powerful judges appointed through the Governor General at the direction of the government gives them broader power and greater independence than if the Crown was not part of the equation.

Finally, what is important about the Letters Patent Constituting the Office of Governor General of Canada (Geo.VI, 1947) is that it sets out a chain of command in case the Governor General is unable to continue (remember that the Governor General represents the Crown as Head of State and as Head of the Armed Forces). The next person in line is not some other appointee by either the Crown or the Government. That would be too risky, for what if either the Queen or the Prime Minister wanted to make a power grab? To provide some stability, the temporary replacement is to be the most senior member of the Supreme Court of Canada. If anyone makes an unconstitutional power grab and in the process eliminates the Governor General, then the top Judge steps in. Since Supreme Court Judges are very secure in their tenure, it is unlikely that they would have been removed prior to such a crisis.

In 1982, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Eliot Trudeau made the most recent big step forward with our Constitution. He put an end to this business of Canada going to the United Kingdom to have it make amendments to our Constitution. He arranged for the Canada Act (U.K., 1982) to be passed in the United Kingdom, and the Constitution Act (Can., 1982) to the passed in Canada. It took some fancy and confusing writing (thus this business of schedules within schedules of acts within acts), but the net result was that the British North America Act (U.K., 1867), as amended, became the Constitution Act (U.K, 1867), as amended, and was rolled into the Constitution Act (Can., 1982), by way of the Canada Act (U.K., 1982), along with a new Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Part I, Schedule B to the Canada Act ( U.K., 1982) as incorporated in the Constitution Act (Can. 1982)). There, I promised we would get through that, and now we have. And yup, the official name of our hugely important Charter of Rights and Freedoms is “Schedule B” to some other country’s law. Sort of Canadian, don’t you think?

At last, for better or worse, Canada had cut the umbilical from the United Kingdom Parliament. From this point in 1982 on, the only tie to the old world is that the Queen of Canada happens to live in a foreign country, rather than in Canada. That foreign country has no legislative, executive or judicial involvement or power concerning us, and has no potential for such power. When the Queen got on the plane to fly back to the United Kingdom after irrevocably proclaiming (Proc., Eliz. II, Apr. 17, 1982) our Constitution as a fully independent nation, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau pirouetted on the Tarmac.

It makes no difference whether the Queen of Canada lives in a Castle in England with the Royal Family, or in a mansion in Ottawa with her Governor General, or in isolation in a tent at the abandoned York Factory on Hudson’s Bay where the Royal Charter was first proclaimed in Canada over three hundred years ago (Proc., Charles II, Eng., 1670). The Queen of Canada is now entirely a Canadian creature, with only powers as permitted by the Canadian Constitution, and with limitations of the Canadian Constitution.

Is this a good or a bad thing? That remains for another discussion. Some find the thought of a hereditary non-resident monarch to be offensive by its very nature. Some simply find the Royals off-putting by their personal habits. Others prefer the stability that such a Constitution affords by way of providing a brake on unconstitutional acquisitions of power by governments, and by providing a stable framework and procedure during times of governmental transition or Constitutional crisis. Either way, the Crown is now a Canadian Crown, fully under Canadian Constitutional control, to be modified as we please.