A foreign concept

July 7, 2017

Canada may be celebrating 150 years as a country, but its foreign policy is much younger

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This article is part of a series of stories connected to Canada’s 150th anniversary. Watch for pieces tied to the theme “the Canada you didn’t know” throughout the rest of 2017.


When you factor in the European arrivals to Canada some 500 years ago and Indigenous people’s history in the many centuries before then, Canada is much older than 150 years.

In one area in particular to becoming a sovereign nation, we’re a tender 86 years old—our foreign policy.

In 1867, the British North America Act established Canada as its own dominion, but one little thing was missing: a clear directive about how the fledgling country would interact with the rest of the world. It was presumed that Britain would continue to oversee Canada’s foreign policy and keep Canada under the wing of the British Empire.

“The assumption was the British government in London would handle Canada’s foreign policy,” explains Dr. Jean-Christophe Boucher, assistant professor in political science at MacEwan University. “From 1867 to roughly 1931, Britain was legally responsible for conducting Canada's foreign policy. During that time, Britain would sign and negotiate treaties on behalf of Canada—and it would be Britain that would declare war on behalf of Canada. So during the First World War, for example, Canada didn't declare war on Germany. Britain did on Canada’s behalf, and Canada learned that afterwards. We were at war before we actually knew it.”

Foreign policy—who needs it?

In 19th century Canada, the assumption—in English Canada at least—was that being part of a big empire was positive. But in the 1890s, French-Canadian nationalism rose, and French-Canadians wanted the country to have its own voice and began pressuring the government for more control over foreign policy decisions.

It wasn’t until World War I that Canada’s government began to make the argument that “if we’re good enough to die for Britain, we’re good enough to get involved in policy matters—especially foreign policy,” explains Jean-Christophe.

Not surprisingly, the British government didn’t think that was a good idea. While the war began the dissolution of the British empire, Britain felt pressure from the global community—despite being only one voice at the table. By maintaining control over its colonies’ foreign affairs, Britain could ensure a louder voice (and more votes) in international decisions.

“However, with that road to sovereignty during the First World War, the genie was out of the bottle and it was difficult to put it back in,” says Jean-Christophe.

Throughout the 1920s, Canada pushed for more sovereignty, but it wasn’t until the end of 1931 that the British parliament signed the Statute of Westminster, which granted Canada and the other colonies full autonomy of their foreign policies.

But wait!

“Well, technically that’s not true either,” adds Jean-Christophe. “We became fully autonomous in all areas, including foreign policy at that time—however, only the British could amend the Constitution. It was only after the patriation of the Constitution in 1982 under the Trudeau government, that Britain didn’t have any capacity to amend the Constitution. But technically we gained our full sovereignty in 1931.”

Jean-Christophe says Canada’s transition to a fully autonomous nation is not unlike a teenager slowly but surely gaining independence from their parents. “As soon as a nation starts to realize that its identity is different from the mother country, there is naturally a desire to master its own domain. You want to make your own laws and decide what kind of society you want to be. So, for Canada, it was just a natural progression toward sovereignty and statehood.”



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