In the fall of 1929, Canada's Minister of Justice, Ernest Lapointe, traveled to England. He took with him Dr. O. D. Skelton, the country's top public servant. When they were done their negotiations, they had extracted an undertaking from their British hosts. Canada would have its independence from the British Empire.
It was a long time coming. Confederation in 1867 made Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into a single self-governing dominion, but also left Canada as a British colony with firm ties and obligations to the Mother Country.
|O.D. Skelton (standing right) and Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, major figures in Statute of Westminster agreement (photo by Walter J. Turnbull, courtesy Library and Archives Canada / PA-200350).|
Automatically committed to the First World War in 1914, Canada fought bravely and brilliantly. Yet everywhere they turned Canadians realized that Britain was in the way. Theirs was a nation that was not yet a nation.
More freedom and international recognition were urgently demanded. Prime Minister Robert Borden's wartime government insisted upon a Canadian signature of the peace treaty, and a seat in the new League of Nations. Liberal leader W. L. Mackenzie King, taking power in 1921, signed treaties without a British countersignature and refused to go along automatically with the empire's foreign and defence policies.
King brought Skelton from Queen's University to head the Department of External Affairs. Taking up the position in 1925, Skelton's mandate was to build an independent Canadian expertise about world affairs, along with a foreign service populated by the best and brightest.
Skelton pushed the King agenda harder than King himself, and he found a powerful ally in Lapointe, the Prime Minister's Quebec lieutenant and closest political confidant.
When Lapointe and Skelton arrived in London in 1929 for the Conference on the Operation of Dominion Legislation, there was still much to do in the work of independence. There was a parcel of British laws that applied to Canada and could not be changed by Canada. And London could still after all these years override Canadian legislation.
The ODL Conference, as it quickly came to be called, was convened to examine the empire's legal structure and make recommendations for improvements. The British greeted contingents from Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the Irish Free State with sweet promises and dire warnings.
The ODL opened in the Moses Room at the House of Lords, with its huge mural depicting the biblical handing down of the Tables of the Law. It was a very impressive atmosphere to be in for the first five minutes, Skelton wrote to the Prime Minister, but winter was coming and the heating dated "from the time of King Alfred, minus the fireplace that is sometimes associated with his name."
Two months of difficult discussions ensued, and at different stages right up to the final day the conference's complete disintegration seemed possible. The British identified Skelton as the villain-in-chief, but the Canadian's own candidate for the title was the South African head of delegation, "about the most obstinate Dutchman in history."
Skelton had wide latitude for bargaining. The meetings pivoted around him and Sir Maurice Gwyer, the ablest of the British government's legal minds. They served together on the conference's key committee, drafted much of the final report, and built the coalitions that made ultimate consensus possible. Skelton got tough from time to time, but compromised to make a settlement possible, in part because he knew that the British were needed to pass the legislation "granting what we want."
In the end, the conference recommended the passage of an act by the British Parliament which would completely eliminate Britain's authority to make laws for Canada except in certain areas agreed to by both countries, the Canadian constitution in particular.
The British tried to resist for a while longer, but the ODL's findings had weight and momentum and therefore inevitability. Two years later, on December 11, 1931, royal assent was given to the Statute of Westminster, ensuring that decisions about Canada's future would now be Canada's alone.
The Statute was enacted in Britain, not Canada. It was a dry, brief lawyer's document, with no rhetorical flourishes or promises of great things to come.
But it was Canada's declaration of independence.