Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
June 2005

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


The Development of Canadian Control

over External Affairs


[This article was written in the 1930's and published in 1948; for the precise citation, see the end of the document.]

External Affairs. It was not until long after Confederation that Canada began to acquire a voice in the control of foreign (or external) affairs and international relations. It was laid down by Lord Durham in his famous Report on the affairs of British North America that one of the points "on which the mother country requires a control" was "the regulation of foreign relations, and of trade with the mother country, the other British colonies, and foreign nations"; and this view died hard. Canada's control of her external trade may be said to begin with the customs tariff of 1859, which for the first time levied duties on goods imported from the mother country. But her control of her external relations in the diplomatic sphere is of much more recent growth. The first step in the process was probably the appointment of a Canadian high commissioner in London in 1879. This not only gave Canada a representative who was available for immediate consultation by the British government in regard to imperial affairs; but it also marked the beginning of a new era in Canada's relation with other countries. The Canadian high commissioner came naturally to be employed, either in an advisory capacity or as a diplomatic representative, in the negotiation of treaties affecting Canada ; and thus the right of Canada to be consulted in foreign affairs came to be tacitly admitted. Under Sir Wilfrid Laurier, some further steps were taken. In 1908 the principle was conceded that, so far as political treaties were concerned, Canada was not to be bound by any imperial treaty unless she signified her assent to it; and in regard to commercial matters, Canada had before this asserted her right to negotiate, direct with foreign states. The statement, which is frequently made, that Canada acquired under Sir Wilfrid Laurier "the treaty-making power" is perhaps not strictly true; what she acquired was the right to make informal agreements with foreign countries to bring is concurrent legislation. A further step ayes the assertion by the Immigration Act of 1910 of the right of Canada to limit and control even British immigration into Canada. These were all steps toward complete autonomy in Canada 's relations with other countries, including the mother country and the sister dominions.


The greatest impulse toward Canada's control of her external affairs came, however, from the Great War. The part which Canada played in this struggle entitled her to a voice in the making of peace. As early as 1917 Sir Robert Borden moved at the Imperial War Conference of 1917 a resolution regarding the future constitutional ar­rangements of the Empire, that laid down the principle that "any readjust­ment of relations . . . must be based on the complete recognition of the Dominions as autonomous nations of an Imperial Commonwealth, and must fully recognize their right to a voice in foreign policy and foreign relations"; and at the Peace Conference of 1919 he succeeded in obtaining for Canada, together with the other self-governing Dominions, separate representation in the Assembly of the League of Nations, and even the right to have her representative elected to the Council of the League. This made Canada at last a unit in the sphere of international politics.


In line with these developments, there was created at Ottawa in 1916 a new Department of External Affairs, with Sir Joseph Pope as permanent under-secretary of state for external affairs; and in 1917 Sir Robert Borden was sworn in as secretary of state for external affairs, as well as prime minis­ter. It is significant of the importance of the new department that the portfolio of secretary of state for external affairs has since that time been invariably attached to the office of prime minister. In 1925 the beginnings of a Canadian diplomatic service were created with the appointment of the Hon. Vincent Massey as Canadian minister at Washington; in 1928 the Hon. Philippe Roy, who had been for many years general commissioner of Canada in France, was appointed first Canadian minister to France; and in 1929 the Hon. (later Sir) Herbert Marler was appointed first minister plenipotentiary to Japan.


The literature relating to Canada's external affairs is extensive; but reference should .be made especially to gone or two recent publications. For Canada's relations with the United States , see H. L. Keenleyside, Canada and the United States (New York, 1929). For her relations with other countries and the League of Nations, see F. H. Soward, Canada and the League of Nations (Ottawa, 1931).

Source  : W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. II, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 411p., pp. 311-313.


© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College