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Canadian foreign policy after the Westminster Statute of 1931 -The shift from British hegemon to an American one

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2002 34 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Kultur und Landeskunde



1. Introduction

2. Historical introduction – Canada and its Foreign Policy
2.1 Canada until statehood
2.2 Naissance and development of its Foreign Policy until 1931

3. Canada as a sovereign and distinct nation
3.1 A distinguished nation “above” the US
3.2 Political power enhancement for Canada as an actor in International Organizations

4. In Bed with an Elephant - The American Factor
4.1 “The other special relationship”

5. Conclusion

6. Literature

1. Introduction

This paper deals with Canadian foreign policy[1] - as the title implies, it will hereby focus on the relations of Canada with the United States and the shift from one dependency to the next: After having reached an almost entire sovereignty from Great Britain through the Statute of Westminster in 1931, an ever growing intimacy with the USA took place. Until this date, the relations between Canada and other states, especially the U.S., are often described as being triangular, because any external affairs of Canada were at the same instance affairs of Great Britain, which eagerly held its thumb on the Dominion. To give an image to the development of relations and influence in the 20th century, one could picture an extremely slow moving pendulum constituting Canada, and the left and the right turning points Britain and the USA. In the lapse of time it has not yet fulfilled one whole swing. To reach the second turning point would mean to become dissolved in the U.S. or to become integrated into a new American state. There is no surprise in this observation. Using today’s figures, the last remaining superpower has roughly 10 times as many inhabitants as Canada. This massive overweight of human resources and a correspondingly larger GNP is reflected in the amount of power that both countries are equipped with.

“…perhaps the most striking thing about Canada is that it is not part of the United States.” (quoted in Borchard 1997:1) It seems that, as the pendulum keeps swinging in its minimalist speed into the American direction, this word from J. Bartlett Brebner becomes more and more true. But when taking a closer look at the Canadian-American relations since 1931, several questions are striking, and these are to be discussed within this paper. Among the most interesting is the question, in what way the American agenda has developed after 1931- was there a shift towards continental integration that could be viewed as leading to the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)? And, in direct connection to this, how are the chances of an independent Canadian State in the long run?

Social Sciences can do a lot to enlighten events and processes. By making use of the historical approach, one might, among other observations, discover patterns of continuous political acting or blatant ruptures. Here, the goal will be to extract from history, if the integration of North American States can be seen as a process of continuity that has not just started in 1994, or if this is a new beginning in Canadian foreign policy.[2] The paper argues that despite some regularly upcoming waves of anti-Americanism, there can be drawn a line of continuity from even long before Britain lost its dominant status over the dominion, in which the growing cooperation and – assimilation – of Canada, especially in economic matters, are reflected and that points to an even more integrated form of cooperation in future than we witness today in the NAFTA. Still, this does not imply the unalterable finality of a common state. Further, it can be established that the time since 1931 has shown a development towards genuine sovereignty. That political sovereignty has its limits when it comes to realpolitik - against more powerful players in policy fields determined by economic interests is a commonplace though.

The paper starts with a historical introduction from the “beginnings” to Canadian statehood and then proceeds with the preface of a Canadian foreign policy in the state of naissance. Following, some information on an important area of Canadian foreign policy, its international engagement will be given. Then elaboration will focus on the relationship with the United States and afterwards end with the conclusion.

2. Historical introduction – Canada and its Foreign Policy

2.1 Canada until statehood

When taking a look at a world map, Canada stands out as the second largest country in the world after Russia. Geographically, it dominates the North American continent. But in terms of power, be it economic, political or military derived, the picture is somewhat different.

For most of its history, it has been a landmass with a population dependent on decisions made elsewhere. This was true for the areas settled by the French and the English in the beginning, following the founding of the city of Quebec in 1608, when the land was dependent on those two great European powers. And it became no less true after the treaty of Paris at the end of the Seven-Years-War in 1763, when Great Britain remained the single power to rule over the territory of British North America.

The Constitutional Act of 1791 did not bring any change to this situation- not that a majority would have favored any kind of change similar to the breaking of colonial ties with England that had happened earlier in the U.S. The splitting up of British North America into Upper (Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec) made official though, what had long since been an undeniable fact: the division of the population north of the US along linguistic, religious and cultural lines. This faction would prove to be a lasting obstacle in the nationhood yet to establish.

The Dominion of Canada was founded through the British North America Act from July 1st 1867. Next to Ontario and Quebec were Nova Scotia and New Brunswick the founding provinces. Manitoba (1870), British Colombia (1871) and Prince Edward Island (1873) followed. Alberta and Saskatchewan, provinces that had been formed out of the territory given to Canada by the Hudson Bay Company in 1869, joined the Dominion at the beginning of the 20th century, leaving Newfoundland to become the last province to participate in the new state. It is an interesting event in history, that after some time of struggling for keeping the closer ties to Britain and only a rather slight majority voting for the Canadian option, this territorial closing of frontiers happened only in 1949. Because this was a time, when Canada first of all had just, by its active and powerful participation in World War II, loosened the dependence on its colonial mother even more. Second, it had for some 20-30 years steadily intensified trade and political relations into a deeply “entangling alliance”[3] with the US, having become obvious already in various respects that will be unfolded in Chapter 4.

2.2 Naissance and development of its Foreign Policy until 1931

So 1867 could have been the date to start the records of a Canadian foreign policy- but for about the next 50 years Britain kept it under its control. The year 1909 might be viewed as the date from which on a Canadian foreign policy came into a natal status: This was due in large part to the work of James Bryce, who in 1907 had been appointed British ambassador to Washington, and Governor General Earl Grey. They made prime minister Wilfrid Laurier create the Department of External Affairs with Joseph Pope as its under-secretary, placing it initially under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of State. The role of the department was modestly conceived as that of a "post office" – “to make it prompt and satisfactory to deal with”, as Earl Grey put it - that would control the flow of documents but would in no way "make" foreign policy, which remained the prerogative of the British. Nor did Pope himself, who strongly supported the imperial connection, aspire to such a role.[4]

However, the groundwork was laid for such an evolution, as Canada gradually and quietly gained increasing control of her foreign relations. Following the elections of 1911, the new prime minister of the Conservative Party, Robert Borden, placed the Department of Foreign Affairs, which so far had been subjected to the Secretary of State, under the control of the prime minister; there it remained until 1946.

While in 1914 war among European nations grew more and more probable, prime minister Borden and his Conservative colleagues in the Canadian

Government remained uninformed and unadvised. Like ordinary Canadians, they learned about the growing crisis from the press. At the time no one thought this extraordinary. Nor was there any question of the Canadian government choosing between war and peace. As a member of the Empire, Canada became a belligerent the moment Britain declared war. When, after more than a year, it became clear that the war was not to be ended within a short time, Borden made first attempts to establish some kind of basis for a certain right to speak in the war related themes, especially when Canadian soldiers were affected: In October 1915, the authorized size of the Canadian force was raised to 250,000, and the prime minister informed the British that "we deem ourselves entitled to fuller information and to consultation respecting general policy in war operations." The Colonial Secretary immediately replied that he could not "see any way in which this could be practically done." But when in 1916 David Lloyd George became prime minister of Britain, the situation for the dominions changed totally in the way Borden had demanded it. He understood, as other British politicians had not, that "it is important that they should feel that they have a share in our councils as well as in our burdens." The Welshman immediately called the dominion prime ministers to London to form an Imperial War Cabinet.

The war also generated some other possibilities for the Canadians to act on a more independent basis: The war had complicated official dealing with the United States. Much of the leg work was handled by Joseph Pope of the Department of External Affairs, who worked closely with the British ambassador in Washington, making frequent visits there. As the British Embassy became overwhelmed by the amount of war-related business, other Canadian government departments and agencies began to work directly with their American counterparts, conducting business outside the official channels.

After the armistice of November 1918 – the successful participation in the war had brought international recognition for Canada - Borden argued for a voice in the foreign relations of the Empire. He strongly demanded Canadian representation at the Peace Conference of Versailles according to her war efforts and losses- WW I had left 60 000 Canadians dead and 173 000 wounded.

The passionate engagement paid for the British Dominions, who mostly had participated in the war with larger contributions than small nations like Belgium- they got their delegation in the Conference. British prime minister Lloyd George had to dispel objections of the Americans who feared the new delegations to turn out to be extra votes for Britain. All major decisions were taken by the big powers though - Britain, France, Italy and the United States. The most important Canadian achievement was the recognition of her status as an independent country in her own right, or, as Bordens foreign policy advisor Loring Christie phrased it, that Canada was "in some degree an international person." This was underlined when the dominions all independently signed the resulting Treaty of Versailles, even though the British signature covered the entire Empire. Borden even insisted that the Canadian Parliament must approve the treaty before the British could say that it had been accepted by the Empire.

In an ultimately unsuccessful effort to avoid a repetition of the war, the peace treaty signed at Versailles provided for the establishment of the League of Nations. Again, Canada's ambiguous position as a member of the British Empire became a complicating factor, particularly for the Americans. The British seat was formally an Empire seat, and the British persisted for some years in asserting that they spoke for the Empire as a whole. In the end, Canada did get its own membership in the League.

Ironically, Canada sought from the beginning to weaken the League she fought so hard to enter. The heart of the League covenant was Article X, which obliged members to "respect and preserve against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence" of all League members. Canadian delegates at the peace conference argued against this clause, which they feared would involve Canada in all future European wars, no matter who the aggressor was.[5] For the Canadians this seemed to be an unpromising and unnecessary devotion- their own country’s border having been peaceful for more than a century, it was unfair to expect them to go to war for others. These arguments reflected Canadian war-weariness, but also demonstrated a certain lack of maturity in international affairs. Future Canadian governments would continue to obstruct Article X.

prime minister Borden retired in July 1920 and was replaced by Arthur Meighen, who had little experience in foreign affairs, and who relied even more heavily on Christie's advice than had Borden. One of Christie's main objectives was to foster British-American friendship, which he believed would be severely damaged by the renewal of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. At the 1921 Imperial Conference Meighen successfully argued against the Alliance which was then substituted by a four-power treaty between the USA, Great Britain, Japan and France. The Imperial Conference also saw the end of the attempt to forge an imperial foreign policy by consensus.

Meighen was defeated in the 1921 election, and the Liberals, under William Lyon Mackenzie King, returned to power. A disciple of Laurier, and dependent upon support from Quebec, King would take a very different approach to imperial relations. The costs of the First World War left Canadians wary of further international involvement. Although not confined to Quebec, this sense of isolationism was strongest in that province, embittered by the imposition during the war of conscription for military service. When the Dominions were once again asked to send troops to defend the Empire at the Dardanelles, the Colonial Secretary, W. Churchill let them again know this by the press. Besides the anger about this obvious setback in formal relations with London, King strongly objected to the sending of more Canadians into another European war. He was determined to push Canadian autonomy even further.

Another step into that direction was made in March when it came to a precedent for independent treaty-signing authority: Canada and the United States signed a treaty for the protection of the Pacific halibut fishery. At King's insistence, the treaty was signed by the Canadian fisheries minister with no counter signature by the British ambassador in Washington. The British government protested strongly, but gave in when King threatened to appoint a fully independent diplomatic representative in the American capital.

Thus invigorated, in the 1923 Imperial Conference he tenaciously opposed the view of Britain's foreign secretary, that British foreign policy "is not that of these islands alone, but that of the Empire." King also resolutely blocked all attempts to organize collective defence co-operation, particularly among the naval and air forces of the Empire. He feared this would only assist those who opposed any imperial connection whatsoever. In 1923 O.D. Skelton replaced the Chief Advisor in foreign policy, L. Christie. In 1925 King made him under-secretary of state for external affairs in succession to the retiring Sir Joseph Pope. Over the years Skelton became King's chief adviser in all areas, not merely foreign affairs, functioning effectively as King's "deputy prime minister."


[1] This being a field of affairs that, following a former German ambassador in Ottawa, is not particularly one which leading Canadian politicians and officials – exemptions allowed – grant very much interest, exclusively when dealing with the United States. (Behrends 1997: 34)

[2] Already in 1889, the Week, the leading Canadian periodical came to the conclusion that some form of union of the two states would be inevitable. The book The Americanization of Canada was written in 1907 by Samuel Moffett who stated that Canadians protesting this process “…are already Americans without knowing it.”(Smith 1994: 68-71)

[3] Recalling the warning rest of George Washington’s famous quote out of his Farewell Address, its usage is probably quite proper in the views of Canadians fearing the loss of own identity coming alongside the “American hug”. (That G.W. had different reasons for his advice is negligible.)

[4] This and all following quotes are taken from the website of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade- www.dfait-maeci - http://www.dfait-

[5] Obviously, this would be the place where the earlier mentioned quote out of G. Washington’s Farewell Address could be recalled in it’s original sense.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
556 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Ernst-Moritz-Arndt-Universität Greifswald – Anglistics/American Studies
2,3 (B)
Canadian Foreign Policy



Titel: Canadian foreign policy after the Westminster Statute of 1931 -The shift from British hegemon to an American one