The Statute of Westminster, 1931, is a piece of legislation of the British Parliament written in the usual exact, if inelegant, language of such a law. There are no stirring pronouncements or rhetorical embellishments, no exhortations to divine Providence, yet it is a vital part of Canada's journey to state-hood and is the closest thing the country has to a Declaration of Independence. Today, Dec. 11, marks the 75th anniversary, then, of Canada's achievement of independence. It is a national disgrace that it will pass with only perfunctory official notice, and nothing in the way of celebration.
In a country with a citizenry in need of remedial civics lessons, today offered the federal government a rare opportunity. It was 75 years ago that the parliaments of Canada and other British dominions, including Newfoundland, achieved legal status as equals to the Imperial Parliament. The change arose not from armed insurrection at home but, at least from this country's standpoint, from the blood spilled by Canadian soldiers on thebattlefields of Europe during the First World War. It was Vimy Ridge in 1917that helped lay the groundwork for Canada's being a separate signatory to the Treaty of Versailles. That, in turn, produced pressure to codify this hard-won status for Canada, and for the otherdominions.
The Statute of Westminster was the result of more than a decade of negotiations at imperial conferences, most notably the Balfour Declaration of 1926, which stated that Canada and the other dominions were "equal in status, in no way subordinate to one another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations."
When King George V gave royal assent to the Statute of Westminster on Dec. 11, 1931, he gave Canada formal control over external affairs, declared that British laws no longer applied to Canada (with the notable exception of the British North America Act, 1867), affirmed that the Parliament of the United Kingdom could no longer nullify Canadian laws, and established the basis for the development of the Canadian Crown.
This is a major anniversary of a pivotal day in Canada's history. Yet it has been, in the words of Rudyard Griffiths, director of the Dominion Institute, "relegated to the dusty attic of our collective memory." Mr. Griffiths argues that this is a "disservice to the 600,000 Canadians whose sacrifices in the Great War led to the statute's passage," as well as to Canadian soldiers stationed in Afghanistan today who continue to "articulate for Canada an independent voice on the world stage."
Mr. Griffiths is right. In many respects, the Statute of Westminster completed the work of Confederation in 1867. R. B. Bennett, Canada's prime minister in 1931, said, "I realize that this is the culmination of a long, long effort that has been made since we were a colony, to become the self-governing Dominion." How unfortunate that this realization seems to have been lost on the Canadian government of today. If you happen to see an MP today, wish the member a happy Statute of Westminster Day.