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This is a page about Dominions of the British Empire/Commonwealth. For other meanings, please see Dominion (disambiguation).

A Dominion is a wholly self-governing or virtually self-governing state of the British Empire or British Commonwealth, particularly one which reached that stage of constitutional development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries such as Canada and New Zealand. Prior to attaining Dominion status these states have always been a Crown colony, under direct rule from Britain and/or a self-governing colony, or they have been formed from groups of such colonies. (Note however, that the phrase Her Majesty's dominions (small d) is a legal and constitutional term used to refer to all the realms and territories of the Sovereign, whether independent or not.)

In the early 20th century, the main differences between a Dominion and a self-governing colony were that a Dominion had attained the status of "nationhood", if not unambiguous political independence, from the United Kingdom. By comparison, a self-governing colony controlled its internal affairs, but did not control foreign affairs, defence or international trade. Initially, Dominions conducted their own trade policy, some limited foreign relations and had autonomous armed forces, although the British government claimed and exercised the exclusive power to declare wars. However the independence of the Dominions in forign policy, including war, was made clear by the passing and ratification of the Statute of Westminster in 1931.

The term "Dominion" is now mostly used only in a historical sense. Many of the distinctive characteristics which once pertained only to Dominions are now shared by other states in the Commonwealth, whether they are republics, self-governing colonies or Crown colonies. Even in a historical sense the differences between self-governing colonies and Dominions have often been formal rather than substantial. Nonetheless Dominion remains a correct term for an independent country where the British monarch is represented by a Governor-General as head of state.


Historical development

The short-lived Dominion of New England (168689) was not a Dominion in the later, generally-accepted sense of the word. It had an unpopular and autocratic president, appointed by London, Sir Edmund Andros. The Dominion of New England did not have the independence from Britain that the later Dominions were given.

All the colonies of British North America became self-governing between 1848 and 1855, except the colony of Vancouver Island. Nova Scotia was the first colony to achieve responsible government in January-February 1848 through the efforts of Joseph Howe, followed by the Province of Canada later that year. They were followed by Prince Edward Island in 1851, New Zealand in 1852, New Brunswick and the Cape Colony in 1854, and Newfoundland in 1855 under Philip Francis Little. However, none of these colonies was referred to as a dominion.

The modern usage of the term Dominion first occurs in connection with the creation of the Dominion of Canada, a term preferred by the Colonial Office instead of the term "kingdom" favoured by some Fathers of Confederation. Canada was called a "Dominion" upon the confederation of the Province of Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in 1867. Some Canadians wanted to call their nation the Kingdom of Canada. However, Americans, especially the yellow press in New York, railed against the idea of a monarchy in North America. Since the United States had recently demonstrated its military prowess in the American Civil War and still harboured resentment at what it perceived to be British favouritism towards the Southern cause, the British took these complaints very seriously. To calm the Americans, the British government successfully resorted to a diplomatic ruse. It explained to Americans that their fears had no foundation because Canada was to become a dominion rather than a kingdom. It then told the Canadians that Dominion meant the same as kingdom (see: Dominion: Canada, Canada's name).

Canada was the first and archetypical Dominion of the Empire; all additional colonies that achieved this status were also eventually called dominions.

Although the term dominion has rarely been used in Australia, it achieved Dominion status with the federation of its six self-governing colonies as the Commonwealth of Australia, in 1901. New Zealand, which chose not to take part in Australian Federation, first became a Dominion on September 26, 1907; the newly-created Union of South Africa in 1910; and the Irish Free State (later the Republic of Ireland) in 1922, after the bitter Anglo-Irish War. All retained the British monarch as head of state, represented locally by a governor-general appointed in consultation with the Dominion government. The Irish Free State, led by W.T. Cosgrave was the first Dominion to appoint a non-British, non-aristocratic Governor-General, when Timothy Michael Healy took the position in 1922. Dominion status was never popular in Ireland, where people saw it as a face-saving measure for a British government unable to countenance a republic in what had previously been the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. This compromise was a direct cause of the Anglo-Irish War. Successive Irish governments undermined the constitutional links with Britain, until they were severed completely in 1949. In 1930, the Australian PM, James Scullin, reinforced the right of the overseas Dominions to appoint native-born Governors-General, when he appointed Sir Isaac Isaacs, against the wishes of the opposition and officials in London.

Newfoundland became a self-governing dominion on September 26, 1907 (same day as New Zealand) by royal proclamation. Until 1931, it was referred to as a colony of the United Kingdom, as for example, in the 1927 reference to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council to delineate the Quebec-Labrador boundary. Full autonomy was granted by the United Kingdom Parliament with the Statute of Westminster in December 1931. However, the government of Newfoundland "requested the United Kingdom not to have sections 2 to 6 [ — ] confirming Dominion status [ — ] apply automatically to it[,] until the Newfoundland Legislature first approved the Statute, approval which the Legislature subsequently never gave." In any event, Newfoundland's letters patent of 1934 suspended self-government and instituted a "Commission of Government", which continued until Newfoundland became a province of Canada in 1949. It is the view of some constitutional lawyers that — although Newfoundland chose not to exercise all of the functions of a dominion like Canada — its status as a dominion was "suspended" in 1934, rather than "revoked" or "abolished".

Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland and South Africa (prior to becoming a republic and leaving the Commonwealth in 1961), with their large populations of European descent, were sometimes collectively referred to as the "White Dominions". Today Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom are sometimes referred to collectively as the White Commonwealth.

Later members of the Commonwealth gained independence, not under the Statute of Westminster but by their own respective independence acts. When British decolonization in Africa began it was hoped the dominion model would again be followed. Ghana, the first new nation was created as a Dominion in 1957, but declared itself a republic three years later. The other British possessions in Africa also agitated for republic status, and upon independence they seldom remained Dominions. Nigeria became a Dominion in 1960 and a republic in 1963, Tanganyika a Dominion in 1961 and a republic in 1962, Uganda a Dominion in 1962 and republic in 1963, Kenya a Dominion in 1963 and a republic in 1964, Malawi a Dominion in 1964 and republic in 1966. Only Gambia (five years), Sierra Leone (ten years), and Mauritius (24 years) stayed Dominions longer than three years.

The United Kingdom and its component parts never aspired to the title of Dominion, remaining anomalies within the network of free and independent equal members of the Empire and Commonwealth. However the idea has on occasions been floated by some in Northern Ireland as an alternative to a United Ireland if they felt uncomfortable within the United Kingdom.

Foreign relations

Initially the Foreign Office of the United Kingdom conducted the foreign relations of the Dominions. A Dominions section was created within the Colonial Office for this purpose in 1907. Canada set up its own Department of External Affairs in June 1909, but diplomatic relations with other governments continued to operate through the governors-general, through Dominion high commissioners in London (first appointed by Canada in 1880; Australia followed only in 1910) and through British legations abroad. Britain deemed her declaration of war against Germany in August 1914 to extend without the need for consultation to all territories of the Empire, occasioning some displeasure in Canadian official circles and contributing to a brief anti-British insurrection by Afrikaner militants in South Africa later that year. A Canadian War Mission in Washington, D.C., dealt with supply matters from February 1918 to March 1921.

Although the Dominions had had no formal voice in declaring war, each became a separate signatory of the June 1919 peace Treaty of Versailles, which had been negotiated by a British-led united Empire delegation. In September 1922 Dominion reluctance to support British military action against Turkey influenced Britain's decision to seek a compromise settlement. Diplomatic autonomy soon followed, with the U.S.-Canadian Halibut Fisheries Agreement (March 1923) marking the first international treaty negotiated and concluded entirely independently by a Dominion. The Dominions section of the Colonial Office was upgraded in June 1926 to a separate Dominions Office. However, initially the same person was appointed as the Secretary of State for the Colonies.

The principle of Dominion equality with Britain and independence in foreign relations was formally recognized by the Balfour Declaration adopted at the Imperial Conference of November 1926. Canada's first permanent diplomatic mission to a foreign country opened in Washington, DC in 1927. In 1928 Canada obtained the appointment of a British high commissioner in Ottawa, separating the administrative and diplomatic functions of the governor-general and ending the latter's anomalous role as the representative of the British government in relations between the two countries. The Dominions Office was given a separate secretary of state in June 1930, though this was entirely for domestic political reasons given the need to relieve the burden on one ill minister whilst moving another away from unemployment policy. The Balfour Declaration was enshrined in the Statute of Westminster 1931 when it was adopted by the British Parliament and subsequently ratified by the Dominion legislatures.

Britain's declaration of hostilities against Germany in September 1939 tested the issue. Most took the view that the declaration did not commit the Dominions. Ireland chose to remain neutral. At the other extreme, the conservative Australian government of the day, led by Robert Menzies, took the view that it was legally bound by the UK declaration of war — which had also been the view at the outbreak of World War I — although this was contentious within Australia. Between these two extremes, New Zealand declared that as Britain was or would be at war, so it was too. Canada issued its own declaration of war after a recall of Parliament, as did South Africa after a delay of several weeks. Ireland, which had negotiated the removal of British forces from its territory the year before, chose to remain neutral throughout the war. There were soon signs of growing independence from the other Dominions: Australia opened a diplomatic mission in the US in 1940 and Canada's mission in Washington gained Embassy status in 1943).

From Dominions to Commonwealth realms

World War II, which fatally undermined Britain's already weakened commercial and financial leadership and heightened the importance of the United States as a source of military assistance, further loosened the political ties between Britain and the Dominions. Australian Prime Minister John Curtin's unprecedented action (February 1942) in successfully demanding the recall for home service of Australian troops earmarked for the defence of British-held Burma demonstrated that Dominion governments might no longer subordinate their own national interests to British strategic perspectives. To ensure that Australia had full legal power to act independently, particularly in relation to defence, Australia formally adopted the Statute of Westminster in October 1942 and backdated the adoption to the start of the war in September 1939.

The Dominions Office merged with the India Office as the Commonwealth Relations Office upon the independence of India and Pakistan in August 1947, and the term Dominion fell out of general use as India's adoption of republican status in January, 1950 signalled the end of the former dependencies' common constitutional connection to the British crown (although Ireland had already dropped its oath of allegiance in 1932): henceforth continuing willing members of what was subsequently styled the Commonwealth agreed to accept the British monarch as head of that association of independent states. Ireland had formally ceased to be a member seven months on the declaration that it was to be described officially as the Republic of Ireland.

Recently, when referring to a nation that has the British Monarch as its head of state the term Commonwealth realm has come into common usage instead of Dominion to differentiate the Commonwealth nations that continue to recognize the Crown (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Jamaica, etc.) from those which do not (India, Pakistan, South Africa, etc.). The term Dominion is still to be found in the Canadian constitution where the term is mentioned four times, most notably the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick shall form and be One Dominion under the Name of Canada. However, the Canadian government does not use it. The term "realm" does not appear in the Canadian constitution. Present-day usage prefers the term realm because it includes the United Kingdom as well, emphasising that they are equal to and not subordinate to the United Kingdom.

For example, in a move that emphasised the independence of the separate realms, after the accession of Queen Elizabeth II in 1952, she was proclaimed not just as Queen of the U.K., but also Queen of Canada, Queen of Australia, Queen of New Zealand, and of all her other "realms and territories" etc.

The Queen now functions as the independent monarch of sixteen different countries, and any changes to the laws governing the succession to the Crown must be approved by all of these nations' parliaments.


See also: Canada's name

Dominion is the legal title conferred on Canada in the Constitution of Canada, namely the Constitution Act, 1867 (British North America Acts), and describes the resulting political union. Specifically, the preamble of the BNA Act indicates:

Whereas the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick have expressed their Desire to be federally united into One Dominion under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom...

and, furthermore, sections 3 and 4 indicate that the provinces:

... shall form and be One Dominion under the Name of Canada; and on and after that Day those Three Provinces shall form and be One Dominion under that Name accordingly.
Unless it is otherwise expressed or implied, the Name Canada shall be taken to mean Canada as constituted under this Act.

Usage of the term Dominion of Canada was sanctioned as the country's formal political name, and some still read the BNA Act passage as specifying this phrase – rather than Canada alone – as the name.

References to the Dominion of Canada in later acts, such as the Statute of Westminster, do not clarify the point because all nouns were formerly capitalized in British legislative style. Indeed, in the original text of the BNA Act, "One" and "Name" were also capitalized.

Starting in the 1950s, the federal government began to phase out the use of dominion, which had been used largely as a synonym of "federal" or "national" such as "Dominion building" for a post office, "Dominion-provincial relations", and so on. The last major change was renaming the national holiday from Dominion Day to Canada Day in 1982, itself brought about by the earlier Canada Act 1982 (which mentions Canada and is ambivalent regarding the title). Official bilingualism also contributed to disuse of dominion, as it has no acceptable equivalent in French.

While the term may be found in older official documents, and the Dominion Carilloneur still tolls at Parliament Hill, it is rarely used anymore to distinguish the federal government from the provinces or (historically) Canada before and after 1867.

Defenders of the title dominion – including monarchists who see signs of creeping republicanism in Canada – take comfort in the fact that the Constitution Act, 1982 does not remove the title (by not mentioning it), and contend that a constitutional amendment is required to change it.

See also


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