Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Canada and the League of Nations



[This article was written in 1948. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]

For Canada, as for most countries, the Great War was a watershed in its history. Before its outbreak, Canadian experience in international affairs was almost negligible. Canadian statesmen had participated in only two international conferences, a Radio-telegraphic Conference in 1912, and a Conference on the Safety of Life at Sea the following year. In imperial affairs Sir Wilfrid Laurier, during his long tenure of office as prime minister (1896-1911), had consistently striven to promote Canadian autonomy by opposing vigorously all schemes for imperial federation which would tend to centralize control in London . He had likewise carefully abstained from offering advice on foreign policy, since he realized that advice implied responsibility, and he feared being drawn into what he described as "the vortex of European militarism". Thus Empire foreign policy at the Hague Conferences, and in the creation and development of the Triple entente, was solely the work of the British government. At his last Imperial Conference (1911), Sir Wilfrid, in common with other overseas prime ministers, heard for the first time an exposition of the critical European situation from the British foreign secretary.


When Sir Robert Borden became prime minister, he was less unwilling to assume responsibility and attended in 1912, with some of his colleagues, a special meeting of the Committee of Imperial Defence, where foreign affairs were frankly discussed. Sir Robert's attitude was described from hearsay by the German ambassador in London , who informed his government that "he wishes that the Dominions shall possess a decisive voice in the deliberations upon which peace and war shall depend", and expressed the opinion that "the British government will hardly consent to such conditions". It was agreed, however, that a Canadian cabinet minister should reside in London with the right of attending the meetings of the Committee of Imperial Defence when matters affecting the Dominions were discussed, and with the right of access to information on foreign policy. Since no appointment was made until late in 1914, Canada had no share in the discussions during the fateful weeks before Great Britain entered the Great War.


As Professor Keith has said, the Great War "accelerated in almost in­credible degree" the advance of the Dominions to a new international status. Early in 1915 Sir Robert Borden was honoured by being invited to attend a meeting of the British cabinet. By the close of 1916 the Dominions had raised 700,000 men for overseas service, and these men had proved their worth at the Dardanelles, on the Somme, and before Ypres . On December 19, 1916, the new British prime minister, David Lloyd George, declared, "We feel that the time has come when the Dominions ought to be formally consulted as to the progress and course of the War, as to the steps that ought to be taken to secure victory and as to the best methods of garnering the fruits of their efforts as well as of our own." Accordingly, on March 20, 1917, statesmen from the Dominions joined the British War Cabinet in creating the Imperial War Cabinet, which held fourteen sessions in the ensuing six weeks. Concurrently there were also held sessions of the Imperial War Conference at which India was formally admitted in recognition of her war effort, and, on motion of Sir Robert Borden and General Smuts, the right of the Dominions to "an adequate voice in foreign policy and foreign relations" was conceded.


After such a concession, it is not surprising that the close of the war found the Imperial War Cabinet transformed into the British Empire delegation to the Peace Conference, a body over which Sir Robert Borden presided in the absence of the British prime minister. Even this advance in status did not entirely satisfy the Dominions. With Sir Robert Borden as leader, the Dominions demanded, and, after some demur, received, in view of their special war effort, separate representation as "belligerent Powers with special interests", having the same status as Belgium. The firmness with which the Dominions had pressed their case convinced the British government that they and India should likewise be given separate representation in the League of Nations , although the original drafts of the League Covenant by British and American experts had not contemplated such as arrangement. To this the American delegation agreed, and the Hurst-Miller draft of the League Covenant, which was the basis for the discussions of the special committee set up on the constitution of the League, included the chief Dominions and India among the original members. The Committee was agreeable to this proposal, but later opposition developed when the Dominions asked that they should have the same right of election to the League Council as possessed by other small states, despite the fact that the British Empire as a Great Power would have permanent representation on that body. In vain Lord Robert Cecil explained that the request was put forward to remove any suggestion of discrimination between the Dominions and other Powers and that "they did not expect to be on the Council and did not want to be". The problem was finally solved by a declaration of May 6, 1919, signed by Clemenceau, Wilson, and Lloyd George, in which at the request of Sir Robert Borden the "Big Three" expressed their "entire concurrence" with the view that the Dominions might become members of the Council. Another such struggle was necessary before it was also conceded that the Dominions were eligible to membership on the governing body of the International Labour Office separately from Great Britain . The annex to the Covenant of the League of Nations which enumerates the original members of the League, attempted to indicate the legal difference in status between the Dominions and other League members insofar as the possession of a complete "international personality" is concerned by not ranking the Dominions with the other members in alphabetical order, but by grouping them, in order of seniority, after the British Empire, and about a quarter of an inch further in from the margin.


In the League of Nations, Canada has followed a policy which well illustrates the effect of geography upon international relations. Her membership in the British Commonwealth has inevitably widened her interest in world politics, which affects the destiny of such a far-flung Empire, but her position as a North American state, living, as Senator Dandurand once said, "in a fireproof state far from inflammable materials", has made her inclined to pursue a policy that has in kind but not in degree resembled that of the United States. This is well illustrated by the Canadian attitude towards Article Ten, which drew such hostile comment from the American Senate, even though it had been sponsored by President Wilson. This article, which requires the members to respect and preserve the existing political independence and territorial integrity of all members against external aggression, and which authorizes the Council "to advise upon the means by which this obligation shall be fulfilled", had been criticized by Sir Robert Borden at Paris as too sweeping in its terms. He added that "there may be national aspirations to which the provisions of the Peace Treaty will not do justice and which cannot be permanently repressed". Sir Robert's objections were not known in Canada when the House of Commons debated the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, but the Liberal party, then in opposition, was even more critical and proposed an amendment to prevent "any impairment of the existing autonomous authority of the Dominions". The amendment was defeated, but the Canadian delegates to the first Assembly of the League startled the delegates by proposing the deletion of Article Ten. The motion was referred to a special committee, which reported to the Second Assembly, where the Canadian delegation refused the suggested concession of an interpretative resolution to clarify the meaning of the offending Article. Again decision was postponed, and in the Third Assembly the Canadian delegates from the new Liberal government announced a willing­ness to compromise by accepting an amendment to the Article which would incorporate the phrase "taking into account geographical considerations", and which would make it clear that no member should be under any obligation to engage in war without the consent of its parliament. This concession was opposed by France , and for the third time the question was postponed. In the interval before the Fourth Assembly, the Council circularized the members for an expression of opinion upon the Canadian proposal. The replies were generally critical of the suggestion, only four states unqualifiedly endorsing the proposal, three of them being ex-enemy states. On that account, the Canadian delegation to the Fourth Assembly announced its willingness to accept simply an interpretative resolution containing the gist of its previous amend­ment. Of the forty-eight states present, eighteen abstained from voting, twenty­nine accepted the resolution, and one, Persia , voted in the negative. The vote of the latter blocked acceptance, but the president of the Assembly declared, in announcing the result, "I shall not declare the motion rejected, because it cannot be argued that in voting as it has done the Assembly has pronounced in favour of the converse resolution". Since then Canada has pressed the question no further, and her resolution has been accepted by the Council as a guide in its policy, and was quoted by the British government in 1928 as a resolution "in harmony with the views of His Majesty's Government in Great Britain ". The Canadian government has also consistently. stressed its belief . in the supreme importance of public opinion as "the final and effective sanction for the maintenance of integrity of international agreements", and in the words of Sir George Perley at the opening of the World Disarmament Conference in 1932, has argued that "the organization of peace can best be achieved at this time by emphasizing the prevention of conflict rather than the punishment of aggression; by building up machinery for conciliation rather than providing for sanctions; by using the League of Nations as a channel through which international public opinion can express itself rather than by developing it into a super-state". On the other hand, the effect of the Manchurian incident has been to align Canada with the United States in support of the Stimson doctrine by its determination not to recognize as valid any acquisition of territory brought about by the use of force in disregard of Article Ten. Canada was among the few states that participated in the final debate in the Assembly in February, in support of the resolution condemning Japan, and was made a member of the special advisory committee to watch over developments in the Far East .


The Canadian view of sanctions in general, and of Article Ten in particular, has been criticized in Canada and else­where as reactionary and unhelpful. Canada readily accepted the sanctions applied to Italy in November, 1935; but her government was not prepared to take the initiative in proposing further sanctions, such as the embargo on oil which her own delegate had suggested. On questions of arbitration and judicial settlement, however, Canada has taken a liberal position. At the time of her rejection of the Geneva Protocol in 1925, Canada announced her willing­ness to consider acceptance of the compulsory jurisdiction of the Permanent Court of International justice in justifiable disputes and to consider the adoption of other methods for settling non-justiciable disputes. This was in advance of the British position, which, during the tenure of the Foreign Office by Sir Austen Chamberlain, was hostile to either the compulsory jurisdiction of the Permanent Court or "all-in" arbitration. At the Imperial Conference of 1926 it was agreed that no member of the Commonwealth should sign with the optional clause of the Court without prior consultation with the others. After Canada signed the Peace Pact of Paris (1928), which bound the signatories to settle all disputes by peaceful means, the government circularized the other governments of the Common­wealth with a view to signing the option­al clause. Action was postponed until the advent of a Labour government in the spring of 1929 changed British policy, but at the Tenth Assembly Canada had the satisfaction of seeing her policy adopted by all members of the Commonwealth. The Canadian reservations were the same as those made by Great Britain, and expressly excluded disputes between members of the Commonwealth from the purview of the Court.


Further evidence of Canada's willingness to aid in strengthening the alternatives to war was given when Canada acceded in May, 1931, to the General Act for the Peaceful Settlement of International Disputes, which contains detailed provision for the peaceful settlement of disputes by conciliation, arbitration, or judicial settlement.


There have inevitably been occasions when it was necessary for Canadians to remind European delegates that the League as a world organization must not overlook the problems of overseas countries. Thus in 1930 and in 1931 it was necessary for the Dominions, led by Canada, to protest against any League endorsement of the proposal to secure a Western European preference for cereal products of Central and South-­Eastern Europe. As the Canadian representative said in committee, "We cannot be expected to associate ourselves with an expression of approval by the Assembly of a policy, which, to say the least, is not in harmony with the past pronouncements of the League." In the World Disarmament Conference, Canada opposed the proposed internationalization of civil aviation as u­suitable for North American conditions, and secured the cooperation of the United States, Japan, and Argentina in issuing a joint statement which opposed the plan for extra-European countries, while offering certain concessions about publicity, licensing of exports, etc. The Canadian delegation also opposed that section of the British Draft Plan for Disarmament for standardizing overseas armies as contrary to the "traditions, environment, and practice of the Canadian people."


It is not too much to say that Canada has been in Geneva, as in London, at the Imperial Conferences, a leader among the Dominions. She was the first Dominion to create an Advisory Office in Geneva to better her League contacts, and the head of that office, Dr. W. A. Riddell, is the dean of the diplomatic corps in Geneva. To Senator Dandurand in 1925 fell the distinction of being the first British statesman to act as president of the Assembly. In the Jubilee Year of Confederation, Canada was honoured by election to the League Council in the face of keen competition for that distinction. The success of that innovation may perhaps be measured by the fact that, after her three years of service, the Irish Free State and Australia were likewise successively elevated to Council rank for a term. In 1932 Senator Gideon Robert­son, the minister of labour, was elected chairman of the International Labour Conference. Another Canadian, Tom Moore, was for some years one of the workers' representatives upon the governing body of the International Labour Conference.


On three occasions, in 1928, 1934, and 1936, Canada has been represented in Geneva by her prime minister as head of the Canadian delegation. Normally, the delegation consists of cabinet ministers and the high commissioner in London, or the minister in Paris, or the advisory officer in Geneva; but in the past five years there has been a tendency to send also other distinguished citizens not active in political life as delegates. Almost a score of Canadians have served in the League Secretariat or the International Labour Office, one of them, Sir Herbert Ames, acting as treasurer of the League between 1919 and 1926.




W. E. Armstrong, Canada and the League of Nations: The problem of peace (Geneva, 1930) ; Sir R. Borden, Canada in the Commonwealth (Oxford, 1929); D. H. Miller, The drafting of the covenant (New York, 1928); C. A. W. Manning, The Policies of the British Dominions in the League of Nations (Geneva, 1932); F. H. Soward, Canada and the League of Nations (International Conciliation, New York, 1932); and A. J. Toynbee, The conduct of British Empire foreign relations since the peace settlement (Oxford, 1928). [See the speech before the Empire Club of Toronto of the Rev. C. A. Seager on Canada and the League of Nations .]


  [Article X of the League of Nations read as follows:

"The Members of the League undertake to respect and preserve against all external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all members of the League. In case of any such aggression or in case of any threat or danger of such aggression the Council shall advise upon the means by which this obligation shall be fulfilled".]


Source: F. H. SOWARD, "League of Nations", in W. Stewart WALLACE, The Encyclopedia of Canada , Vol. 4, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 400p., pp. 48-53.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College