December 11, 1931 – Parliament Passes the Statute of Westminster

On this day in history, the Statute of Westminster officially ended the British Empire (at least on paper) and created the Commonwealth of Nations.

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When the Dominion of Canada was created in 1867 it was granted powers of self-government to deal with all internal matters, but Britain still retained overall legislative supremacy.  [Other British colonies were constituted in their turn as Dominions, including Australia (1901), New Zealand (1907), the Union of South Africa (1910), Newfoundland (1919), and the Irish Free State (1922).]

The original Constitution Act of 1867 stipulated that “The Executive Government and Authority of and over Canada is hereby declared to continue and be vested in the Queen.”  The Dominions were thus quasi-autonomous states of the British Empire that deferred to London with respect to external affairs and their constitution. 

The process of independence for Canada began in 1919, with Canada’s separate signature of the Treaty of Versailles.

Although the Statute of Westminster gave legislative sovereignty to the Dominions, it did not place any legal impediment in the way of the Imperial Parliament passing laws for the whole Empire.  

In 1982, the British Parliament passed the Canada Act, which provided for the first time a process by which Canada’s basic constitutional laws could be legally amended without action by the British Parliament. It also declared that no British law passed thereafter would apply to Canada. 

Signing of the Constitution,  April 17, 1982

Signing of the Constitution, April 17, 1982

Peter Hogg, the constitutional law scholar who has written what is said to be the definitive work on Canadian constitutional law, argues that regardless of the views of British courts on the ability of the Imperial Parliament to repeal legislation such as the Statute of Westminster or the 1982 Canada Act, “it is inconceivable that the Supreme Court of Canada would accept the resuscitated power and uphold the new law.” As Canadian Political Science Professor Andrew Heard writes, “Even though Canada only gained control of its own constitutional amendment in 1982 and the very last legal traces of its colonial past have yet to be formally extinguished, it is quite evident that Canada has been a fully independent state for a number of decades.”

Many Canadians celebrate the Anniversary of the Statute of Westminster on December 11 each year to mark the establishment of the statute. Both the Canadian flag and the Royal Union flag are flown together on this day.

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