The roots of the Commonwealth are frequently traced back as far as the DURHAM REPORT (1839) and RESPONSIBLE GOVERNMENT in the 1840s. By 1867 the British North American provinces, as well as other British colonies in Newfoundland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, were self-governing with respect to internal affairs. With CONFEDERATION in 1867, Canada became the first federation in the British Empire; its size, economic strength and seniority enabled it to become a leader in the widening of colonial autonomy and the transformation of the empire into a commonwealth of equal nations.
Contingents from all the self-governing colonies freely participated in the SOUTH AFRICAN WAR from 1899 to1902. Canada sent only volunteers, and Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid LAURIER made it clear at the Colonial and Imperial Conferences in 1902, 1907 and 1911 that participation in imperial defence would always be on Canadian terms. In 1914 the king declared war on behalf of the entire empire, but the Dominions (a term applied to Canada in 1867 and used from 1907 to 1948 to describe the empire's other self-governing members) decided individually the nature and extent of their participation. They gave generously: over a million men from the Dominions and 1.5 million from India enlisted in the forces of the empire. There were also huge contributions of food, money and munitions. Although South African nationalists (Afrikaners) and many French Canadians opposed participation in a distant British war, the unity of the empire in WORLD WAR I was impressive.
Despite the extent of their WWI commitment, the Dominions at first played no part in the making of high policy. But Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert BORDEN was especially critical when the war did not go well. When David Lloyd George became British prime minister in late 1916, he immediately convened an Imperial War Conference and created an Imperial War Cabinet, 2 separate bodies which met in 1917 and 1918. The former was remembered primarily for Resolution IX, which stated that the Dominions were "autonomous nations of an Imperial Commonwealth" with a "right ... to an adequate voice in foreign policy and in foreign relations" This was chiefly an initiative of Prime Minister Borden, carried at the conference with the help of General J.C. Smuts of South Africa, and it marked the first official use of the term "Commonwealth."
The Imperial War Cabinet gave leaders from the Dominions and India an opportunity to be informed, consulted and made to feel a part of the making of high-level policy. A similar body, the British Empire Delegation, was constructed at the Paris Peace Conference. Borden and Australian Prime Minister W.M. Hughes also successfully fought for separate Dominion representation at the conference and separate signatures on the Treaty of VERSAILLES. Constitutionally, however, the empire was still a single unit: Lloyd George's was the signature that counted. The Dominions, now members of the new LEAGUE OF NATIONS, remained ambiguous creatures - part nation, part colony, part imperial colleague.
The war pulled each Dominion in apparently opposite directions: widespread hopes for greater imperial unity clashed with intensified feelings of national pride and distinctiveness which resulted from wartime sacrifice and achievement. Borden, a nationalist who wished to enhance Canada's growing international status through commitment to a great empire-commonwealth, tried to reconcile the 2 impulses. He sought a closely knit commonwealth of equal nations that would consult and act together on the big issues of common concern. Resolution IX had called for a postwar conference to readjust constitutional relations along these lines. It was never held.
A nationalism quite different from Borden's took control of the Commonwealth in the 1920s. Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie KING was the heir to Laurier's policy of "no commitments." The CHANAK AFFAIR and the HALIBUT TREATY set the tone, and King was a clear winner at the Imperial Conference of 1923. A trend away from imperial diplomatic unity and towards a devolved, autonomous relationship between Britain and the Dominions was established. King believed that the British connection could be maintained only if it allowed Canadians, particularly the substantial minority of non-British descent, to concentrate on developing a strong North American nation. He was not alone in wishing to emphasize diplomatic autonomy, although the reasons differed. The British had little wish for a co-operative Anglo-Dominion foreign policy that would require the Foreign Office to engage in time-consuming consultation with much smaller powers. South Africa and the Irish Free State, which were granted Dominion status on the Canadian model in 1921, were even more radical than King in pushing for decentralization.
At the Imperial Conference of 1926, South African Prime Minister General J.B.M. Hertzog demanded a public declaration that the Dominions were independent states equal in status to Britain and separately entitled to international recognition. King opposed the word "independent," which might conjure up unhappy visions of the American Revolution in pro-British parts of Canada, but he endorsed the thrust of Hertzog's demand. The conference adopted the BALFOUR REPORT, which led to the passage of the STATUTE OF WESTMINSTER in 1931, establishing the right of the Dominions to full legislative autonomy.
The Commonwealth of the 1930s was a study in contradiction, a mixture of the national and the imperial, and confusing to outsiders. To some extent Commonwealth countries conducted their own external affairs and managed their own defences. Yet a common head of state, common citizenship and substantial common legislation remained. Association with a vast and apparently powerful empire - then at its greatest extent, covering over 31 million km2 - brought the Dominions prestige, prosperity and protection. The OTTAWA AGREEMENTS of 1932, although falling far short of creating the self-sufficient unit some had dreamed about, bound Commonwealth countries tighter in an interlocking series of bilateral preferential trading agreements. There was also substantial military co-operation, of enormous benefit to the Dominions' fledgling ARMED FORCES. Newfoundland, proudly "Britain's oldest colony," had long had responsible government, was represented at Colonial and Imperial Conferences and had fought with distinction in WWI, but financial crisis brought about the return of British rule (see COMMISSION OF GOVERNMENT) from 1934 to 1949, at which time it became part of Canada.
Dependence and gratitude did not necessarily lead to commitment, and in peacetime the Dominions were wary of European entanglements. When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, Australia and New Zealand did not hesitate to become involved in WORLD WAR II. Canada waited one week before Parliament endorsed the King government's decision to fight. South Africans split on the issue and Prime Minister Hertzog resigned, but the final response was positive. Only Eire (as the Irish Free State became in 1937) stayed aloof. Immense contributions of men - over 2 million from the 4 Dominions and 2.5 million from India - and material were made. The BRITISH COMMONWEALTH AIR TRAINING PLAN, which trained 131 553 aircrew, was a major Canadian contribution. Such efforts were all the more important and valued because the Dominions alone fought at Britain's side from the first day to the last. But there was no Imperial War Cabinet this time, no Commonwealth consensus on the need to strengthen ties. British power was waning and Dominion confidence was on the rise, weakening traditional links. Britain's subject peoples in Africa and Asia also looked increasingly to themselves for solutions to their problems.
The "old" Commonwealth, made up of Australia, Canada, Britain, New Zealand and South Africa, was often likened to a club. By 1949, a "new" Commonwealth had emerged which was quite different. Eire left in 1949. India, which had been lurching towards responsible government and Dominion status for decades, achieved independence in 1947, although at a price: it was divided on religious grounds into the Dominions of India and Pakistan. Neighbouring Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Burma (Myanmar since 1989) achieved independence in 1947-48, the former obtaining Dominion status and choosing Commonwealth membership. Through the London declaration of 1949, India was allowed to remain in the Commonwealth after declaring itself a republic. Adopting a formula suggested by Lester PEARSON, the King was declared "the symbol of the free association of its member nations, and as such Head of the Commonwealth." The Commonwealth was no longer predominantly white and British; allegiance to a common crown was no longer a prerequisite of membership, and the concept of common citizenship was fading fast.
There were high hopes for the "multiracial" Commonwealth, which many believed could be a force and example for understanding among nations. A bigger grouping, however, was more difficult to keep together, particularly when members were moving more than ever before in different directions, partly in order to develop responses to a COLD WAR world dominated by hostility between the US and USSR. Britain began the long road to eventual membership (1973) in the European Economic Community, to the consternation of much of the older Commonwealth. Canada, Australia and New Zealand looked increasingly to the US as an ally and trading partner. India preached the doctrine of nonalignment with either of the superpowers. The SUEZ CRISIS of 1956, over which the Commonwealth was badly split, underlined the decline of Britain's power.
But the Commonwealth did not die. During the 1950s it was assumed that some 30 countries could never qualify for independence and that for Commonwealth membership a country would need a population of at least 2 million. Cyprus became the critical test case. With a population of only 500 000, it became independent in 1960 and joined the Commonwealth in 1961. This was the precedent for the small states. From 1960 to 1980 the decolonization of the empire was virtually completed and small states (one million or less in population) made up the majority of Commonwealth members. The decision to create the Secretariat in 1965 was made by 21 members. The first secretary-general was a Canadian, Arnold SMITH. By 1970 there were 31 members, by 1980 the total was 44 and in 1990 the 50th joined. South Africa was not a member between 1961 and 1994, nor was Pakistan between 1973 and 1989. Fiji's membership lapsed between 1987 and 1997.
Periodic prime ministers' meetings, held in Number 10 Downing Street in London between 1944 and 1961, were succeeded by large Commonwealth heads of government meetings (Chogms) at different venues every 2 years, beginning in Singapore in 1971. Canada hosted 2, in Ottawa (1973) and Vancouver (1987). They have returned to Britain only twice, in 1977 and 1997. A valuable tradition, started by Pierre TRUDEAU in 1973, is the Retreat, when heads of government and their spouses spend the weekend away from their officials during Chogms.
For 30 years the Commonwealth was dominated by racial conflicts. South Africa's policy of apartheid incurred such disapproval that pressure from member governments (in which John DIEFENBAKER played a major part) forced South Africa to leave in 1961. The unilateral declaration of independence by a white minority regime in Rhodesia in 1965 led to great pressure on Britain to withhold granting legal independence until there was majority rule. This was achieved, finally, in 1980 when, after British-run elections, Zimbabwe joined the Commonwealth. Throughout the 1980s increasing pressure was exerted on South Africa to abolish apartheid. In this, most Commonwealth members wanted to go further than Britain. After the ending of apartheid in the early 1990s and the all-races election in 1994, South Africa returned to the Commonwealth as the 51st member. By 1997, largely francophone Cameroon and luxophone Mozambique had become members and Fiji had returned, making a total of 54. Nigeria's membership was suspended in 1995 because of serious human rights violations.
The benefits of Commonwealth membership can be summed up at 3 levels. Politically, the habits of consultation foster understanding between nations, regions and cultures. The developed minority gains some appreciation of the problems of the developing nations. The small states use the Commonwealth as their major forum. At the functional level, technical assistance is made available through various flexible channels. Starting with the COLOMBO PLAN in 1950, the Commonwealth went on to develop the Scholarships and Fellowships Plan in 1960, the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation in 1971 and the Commonwealth Youth Programme in 1973. The Commonwealth of Learning (a university for co-operation in distance education, founded in 1988) is located in Vancouver, BC. In 1995 the Commonwealth Private Investment Initiative was begun to channel investment capital through regional funds.
Finally, there is the level of the "people's Commonwealth," involving hundreds of voluntary, independent, professional, philanthropic and sporting organizations. Members of educated elites share expertise and uphold professional standards. A few of these unofficial organizations date from before WWI, but since 1966 over 30 new professional associations have come into being with support from the Commonwealth Foundation, an autonomous body housed in the Secretariat. Sport is the most popular element in the Commonwealth. At the national, regional and pan-Commonwealth levels, sport has become an agent of development and grassroots support. The COMMONWEALTH GAMES, the association's best known event, are held every 4 years.
Author NORMAN HILLMER Revised: W. DAVID McINTYRE
N. Mansergh, The Commonwealth Experience (2 vols, 1982); W. David McIntyre, The Commonwealth of Nations: Origins and Impact, 1869-1971 (1977); Norman Hillmer and P. Wigley, eds, The First British Commonwealth (1980); P. Wigley, Canada and the Transition to Commonwealth (1977); W. David McIntyre, The Significance of the Commonwealth, 1965-1990 (1991); A. Smith, Stitches in Time (1981).
Links to Other Sites
Monarchy in Canada
This website describes the components of Canada's constitutional monarchy, including the role of Queen Elizabeth II as Queen of Canada and Canada's Head of State. Click on the links for more information on related topics. From Canadian Heritage.
Commonwealth Parliamentary Association
An organization of Commonwealth Parliaments and Legislatures. Its mission is to promote parliamentary democracy.
Commonwealth Games Canada
The website for Commonwealth Games Canada. View the latest updates, features about Canadian athletes, and results from previous games.
The website for the Commonwealth Secretariat, the main intergovernmental agency of the Commonwealth, an association of 53 independent states.
Commonwealth of Learning
The website for the Commonwealth of Learning, an intergovernmental organization that promotes the development and sharing of open learning knowledge, resources, and technologies throughout the Commonwealth family of nations. Click on the link to “Resources” for program information.
Exhibiting a Nation: Canada at the British Empire Exhibition, 1924–1925
A detailed paper on the Canadian contribution to the 1924 and 1925 British Empire Exhibition, where Canada asserted "its national identity" in the "British imperial family of nations." From York University.
Commonwealth Games Federation
The website for the Commonwealth Games Federation. Catch the latest news and information about sports venues and teams from participating countries. The "Media Library" features video highlights of daily events during the games.
A quarterly Canadian magazine devoted to peacemaking, disarmament, conflict resolution, global stability, and related concerns. Offers online articles and letters from current and previous editions (from January 1983 to present). Also, the first Canadian magazine to be produced with desktop publishing software. From the Canadian Disarmament Information Service.
John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham
A biography of John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
The Memory Project: British Commonwealth Air Training Plan
Listen to interviews with Canadian veterans about their wartime military service. See also related digitized artefacts and memorabilia. From the Historica-Dominion Institute.
See the text of a rousing 1919 speech that celebrated Empire Day and the state of the British Empire. From the website for the Empire Club of Canada.
High Commissioner for Canada
The website for the High Commissioner for Canada to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. From the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.