What Happened to Establish the Dominion of Canada?
Canada’s status as a dominion of the British Empire dated from 1867, when the British Parliament in Westminster passed the British North America Act. Dominion status was confirmed in 1926 when an Imperial Conference in London established the principle that each dominion of the British Empire, a category then including Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Newfoundland and Eire (Ireland), held equal status. The British North America Act stayed in place until 1982 when, known as the Constitution Act, 1867, it was superseded by the Constitution Act, 1982.
In the years leading up to 1867, three British colonies existed on part of the area covered by modern-day Canada: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Canada. The province of Canada was sub-divided into Canada West -- modern-day Ontario -- and Canada East, known as Quebec today. Throughout the 1860s, discussions took place about the possibility of uniting the three colonies into one British North America, but each colony had its own priorities and concerns and not all residents believed in establishing a united dominion.
2 London Conference, 1866-1867
Delegates representing Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Canada met in London in December 1867 to discuss the issue of unification. The meeting took place in London because the colonies were still under the control of the British Parliament, meaning the negotiations had to include British delegates as well as those from the colonies. Although most of the discussions centered around education issues, this conference was a crucial stepping-stone towards unification and dominion status.
3 British North America Act, 1867
The Westminster Parliament passed the British North America Act in 1867. The act transformed the three separate colonies into a single entity, “one Dominion under the name of Canada.” The act provided Canada with a constitution, and created the Canadian political system of a bicameral parliament with a cabinet government. However, the British monarch retained many powers, and had a representative at both federal level, in the form of a governor general, and at provincial level, through a lieutenant governor in each province.
4 Enlarging the Dominion
Recognizing that Canada might grow larger in the future, the act made provision for other colonies to join the dominion at a later date. Within six years of the act, Manitoba, Northwest Territories, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island had become part of the dominion, while by 1905, Yukon, Saskatchewan and Alberta had also joined. Newfoundland became part of Canada in 1949, while Nunavut joined 50 years later.
- 1 The National Archives: Legislation, British North America Act 1867
- 2 Encyclopedia Britannica: Statute of Westminster
- 3 Open University: Making Britain, Imperial Conference 1926
- 4 Canadian Encyclopedia: Constitution Act 1982
- 5 Canadian Encyclopedia: Constitution Act 1867
- 6 Canadian Encyclopedia: Confederation
- 7 Canadian Encyclopedia: London Conference
- 8 The British Monarchy: Queen and Canada, History and Present Government