What is the Dominion of Canada?

Q. What is the Dominion of Canada?

A. "Dominion of Canada" is a title that was used for much of the late 19th and early 20th Century to refer to the nation of Canada in a full, formal capacity.

Just like individuals, most countries have both a "short-form" and "long-form" name, with one for casual use and the other for formal situations. For example, "Germany" would be the casual name, while "The Federal Republic of Germany" would be the formal title. For many years "the Dominion of Canada" was used as Canada's long-form name.

Q. What are the origins of the term's use?

A. Though we usually think of 1867 as the year Canada became a "country," at the time the situation was not so clear-cut. Though the passage of the British North America Act made Canada a self-governing confederation, she was far from being entirely independent. The British Empire and its Imperial Parliament in London still retained a number of key political powers that limited the extent to which Canada could be regarded as truly "sovereign."

Not that this was in any way contrary to the wishes of Canada at the time, however. Most Canadians were content for post-1867 Canada to remain a British colony, albeit a more mature and self-responsible one. "Independence" was a concept that was initially frowned upon, as it implied breaking links to an Empire that the Canadian government still intended to remain a willing participant of.

Because Canada's form of government was a constitutional monarchy under the British (ie, imperial) Queen, the Canadian founders wanted their confederation to be known as "the Kingdom of Canada." However, during negotiations between the leader of the Canadian parliament, John A. MacDonald, and the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Derby, the phrase "Kingdom of Canada" was deemed too provocative to the anti-monarchical United States. As Derby phrased it, the name "would wound the sensibilities of the Yankees." So instead of a kingdom, Canada was to be a "dominion."

Q. What does "Dominion" mean?

A. It's both a noun and a verb, but the root stems from the Latin dominus which means "master." From dominus we also get terms such as dominate, domesticate, and dominatrix, all words which evoke a master making another subservient. Dominion, literally means "that which is mastered."

In the context of Canada, there has been something of an ongoing debate regarding the precise motivations for using the word "dominion" as the country's formal title. As mentioned in the response above, the British did not permit Canada to use the term "Kingdom" to describe itself, so an alternative designation needed to be used.

There is a popular myth regarding the origin of the phrase "Dominion of Canada" that is often cited in discussions of the title. Here's Alfred Brooks, a Progressive Conservative MP offering the traditional tale during a debate in the House of Commons on November 8, 1951:

"There are those who might say that the word "dominion" […] signifies that we are placed in a position which indicates that someone else has dominion over us. I do not think that ever was the intention. When Sir Leonard Tilley suggested the word "dominion" there were four provinces of Canada, the province of New Brunswick, the province of Ontario, the province of Nova Scotia and province of Quebec. When they were looking for a term it was said that he, who was very religious man as most of us are in New Brunswick of course, was reading his bible and he read one of the texts in scripture which said something about dominion from sea to sea. I think the idea was that Canada, we the people of Canada, should have dominion from sea to sea, not that someone else would have dominion over us."

The specific text in question is the bible's Psalm 72:8 which reads, in reference to God:

May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.

The supposed biblical origins of the term "Dominion of Canada" contradicts other evidence, however. It is very likely that the entire story of Leonard Tilley pouring over his bible is simply a patriotic fable that has been invented over time.

In rebuking the story of Brooks, CCF member Angus MacInnis said the following:

"We should not delude ourselves as to what the term "dominion" as applied to Canada, means- or at least what it did mean. It was not in my opinion because Canada holds dominion from sea to sea. That was not the sense in which the term was used. The term generally used was "British dominions beyond the seas," and Canada was one of those British dominions. New Zealand was another of those British dominions; Australia was another[.]"

The fact remains that Canada was not the first country to be described as a "dominion," so the title was not as unique or innovative as the Tilley story suggests. The term already had a long history in the European colonial context. The Swedish Empire of the 17th Century, for example, referred to its Scandinavian possessions as "the Dominions of Sweden," and many of the British colonies in the future United States were similarly lumped together in a collection known as the "Dominion of New England." The American state of Virginia was likewise referred to as a "dominion" when the British ruled it, a legacy that lives on to this day with their "Old Dominion" nickname. Indeed, as far back as the 17th Century Oliver Cromwell was being described as "the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland, and the dominions thereto belonging."

So while the title was an alternative to "Kingdom" it was not a designation invented specially for Canada.

Q. Were there any other dominions?

A. Yes. As MacInnis mentioned in the above passage, several other self-governing colonies of the British Empire were considered dominions equal in status to Canada. Only one other country actually used the title "Dominion of…" in its full name however; the Dominion of New Zealand. The British used "dominion" in a generic context to refer to any colony that was more or less self-governing. On purpose, there was never a very specific constitutional definition.

After the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931, however, the definition of dominion became lot more precise, with the British drawing a clear line of separation between what was a "dominion" and what was a "colony." From henceforth, a "dominion" was declared to be an independent country, united in "free association [as] members of the British Commonwealth of Nations" which were in turn "united by a common allegiance to the Crown." After 1931 the Imperial Parliament gave up most of its power to pass laws for the dominions, which in turn gave rise to the status quo of today, where we have a number of independent countries who nevertheless recognize the British monarch as their head of state and form a symbolic union with one another.

The Westminster Statute formally recognized the following six countries with "dominion" status in this regard:

• The Dominion of New Zealand
• The Irish Free State
• The Commonwealth of Australia
• The Union of South Africa
• Newfoundland

Nowadays, the term "dominion" has been phased out, however, even in Britain. Today the term most commonly used to describe independent countries under the British Crown is "Commonwealth Realm" or just "realm." For example, where the British monarch was once titled as ruler of "the British Dominions beyond the seas," today Elizabeth II is simply known as Queen of "her other Realms and Territories." Since the Westminster Statute there has been a massive increase in the number of countries operating independently under the British crown. For a list of current Commonwealth Realms, past and present, you can see my full chart here.

Q. Is it still correct to use "Dominion of Canada" as Canada's proper, long-form name?

A. No. The Canadian government no longer regards "Dominion of Canada" as the country's proper name, and has deliberately not used the title in several decades.

Presumably there is no higher authority than the Canadian government capable telling us what is and is not Canada's proper name, but regardless, most other bodies respect this convention as well. For example, the CIA World Factbook lists "Canada" as the country's "conventional short form" name, noting that there is no "conventional long form." So too do most other encyclopedias in both the United States and Canada.

Q. But I have heard people say it is still technically Canada's legal name, if it is not widely used.

A. It depends on your method of determining what a country's "legal" name is. The country's constitution would be the most obvious place to look, but the phrase "Dominion of Canada" does not appear anywhere in the original 1867 British North America Act (now known as the Constitution Act). The word "Dominion" only appears four times in the entire document, twice in the preamble, and twice in Article II, which declares, in part:

"the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick shall form and be One Dominion under the Name of Canada [...] those Three Provinces shall form and be One Dominion under that Name accordingly."

Fans of the phrase "Dominion of Canada" often point to this clause as "proof" that the country's official name is Dominion of Canada. However, the clause doesn't really say that, it simply says that Canada is a dominion (stop) and its name is Canada. The US constitution refers to the country being a "republic" but America's full name is not "The Republic of the United States."

Furthermore, Article II goes on to state:

"Unless it is otherwise expressed or implied, the Name Canada shall be taken to mean Canada as constituted under this Act."

...which seems to define "Canada" as the country's only legal name quite clearly.

A good contrast to consider is the Royal Proclamation of 1907, an act of the British Imperial Parliament which made New Zealand into a self-governing realm. Look at the much more explicit language:

"Whereas We have [..] determined that the title of Dominion of New Zealand shall be substituted for that of the Colony of New Zealand as the designation of the said Colony, We have therefore by and with the advice of Our Privy Council thought fit to issue this Our Royal Proclamation [...], the said Colony of New Zealand and the territory belonging thereto shall be called and known by the title of the Dominion of New Zealand."

Constitutional scholars will be quick to point out that Canadian constitutional law is made up of more documents than simply the Constitution/BNA Act of 1867. There are over a dozen other acts of the British Imperial parliament that have the force of constitutional law in Canada, such as the acts of union between the federal government and the provinces that joined Canada after 1867.

It's worth noting that many of these "Documents do use the phrase "Dominion of Canada." For example, references are made to provinces "joining the Dominion of Canada" or actions of the "Dominion government." The more broad term "Union or Dominion of Canada" was often used as well.

There can be little debate that, legally speaking, Canada is a dominion, as many statutes and laws, including the BNA Act, do use term to describe the nature of what Canada is. We can define the spirit of the term "dominion" however we want, but the fact remains that when we study constitutional documents we do come across the title rather frequently. Though the phrase may not be used today, all modern legal scholars must still be aware of the simple fact that references to "the dominion" in old Canadian laws refer to the Canadian state.

However, the fact that Canada may be a dominion in the constitutional sense does not alter Canada's legal name. The Constitution Act is very clear that the country will operate "under the name" of Canada. People are free to use whatever descriptive title they wish to refer to the political nature of the Canada regime, for example "the Canadian Confederation" or "the Union of Canada," but at the end of the day "Canada" is the only name needed to legally indicate what country we are talking about.

The Newfoundland Act of 1949 was the first constitutional act to not use the term "Dominion." It only makes reference to the "Union of Newfoundland with Canada." No constitutional acts or amendments created after 1949 make reference to the "Dominion" either.

Q. When did the term "Dominion of Canada" officially stop being used?

A. There is no specific date. Instead, the phrase was gradually phased out during the late 1940's, 50's, and early 60's. There was no particular event which triggered change, such as the signing of a particular statute or the coronation of a new monarch. Instead, the decline of the term "Dominion" from popular use during the post-war era was largely a result of growing post-colonial Canadian nationalism, which triggered a desire to downplay terms and symbols that were considered excessively imperial in nature.

The Liberal government of Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent (1948-1957) was the first government to formally make the elimination of the term "dominion" government policy. Rising in the House of Commons on November 8, 1951 he declared:

"I can say at once that it is the policy of this government when statutes come up for review or consolidating to replace the word 'dominion' with the word 'Canada.'"

The efforts of his government were very successful, as we can see in the timeline at the end of this FAQ. Today all references to "the Dominion of Canada" have been systematically purged from all updated laws, statutes, government publications, promotional materials, and archives.

Q. Why was the name controversial?

A. Mainly it was seen as being too colonial, and not accurately reflecting Canada's maturity as a nation. As we have seen, the title was very much bound up in Canada's colonial past, and many viewed the word as implying a continuing subservience to the British, rather than independence.

"When the expression "Dominion of Canada" is used abroad in the United Kingdom what does it mean? It means to indicate the idea of subordination of these dominions to the United Kingdom."
-Liberal Member of Parliament Guy Arsenault, December 14, 1951

Another reason is that term simply did not translate well in French. There is no direct French translation of "dominion" in the generic sense, let alone in the amorphous, British constitutional sense. Close French equivalents of the biblical usage of "dominion" are "puissance" or "souverainete" meaning "power" and "sovereignty," but these terms are still very far from the definition used in "Dominion of Canada." Rather than create some new, unique French word, it became standard practice to just use the English word "dominion," untranslated in French documents. So, the Dominion of Canada simply became le Dominion du Canada.

Much of the phasing-out of the term dominion was thus at least partially inspired by a desire to appease French-Canadian nationalism, by doing away with a term that was not only deemed excessively colonial, but excessively English as well.

"Dominion" had a lot of supporters in the 1950's however, and getting rid of the term was not a universally popular idea at the time. The Progressive Conservative party strongly opposed such a move, and many long debates were held in parliament on the matter. The Tories saw "Dominion" as a title which preserved and celebrated Canada's British past, status as a constitutional monarchy, and connection to the Commonwealth.

Q. What's the story with Dominion Day?

A. Dominion Day (July 1) was a federal holiday, created in 1879 to celebrate yearly anniversary of ratification of the British North America Act in 1867, Canada's constitution.

The holiday was fairly low-key for much of early Canadian history. Only in the latter half of the 20th Century did it begin to become a fairly mainstream observance. The lavish celebrations of Canada's centennial on July 1, 1967 were a major turning-point in this regard.

Though the holiday was officially called "Dominion Day," this term was never entirely popular, and fell out of use quite quickly. Instead, Canadians began referring to the holiday as "Canada Day" and the name stuck. As the years progressed and celebration of the date became more widespread there were increasing demands from politicians, newspaper editorials, and private citizens for parliament to formally change the name of Dominion Day to "Canada Day," and thus bring the law in tune with widespread convention.

"[O]ne could very easily argue there is not much sense to bring forward this kind of bill today because for most Canadians July 1 is presently celebrated Canada Day. […] The secretary of state of the previous Conservative government used the words "Canada Day" in the literature from his department. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation uses the words "Canada Day." Most newspapers throughout the country use the terminology "Canada Day."
-Liberal Member of Parliament Harold Herbert, May 14, 1979

As early as 1946 the House of Commons voted 123 to 62 to change the name. That bill died in the Senate, however. From 1966 to 1979, dozens of private members bills were introduced proposing a name change, but such efforts also fell flat. In 1979 the matter was finally brought before the House as a government bill, and nearly passed. However it too failed, and died on third reading when an election was called.

In 1980 the matter was brought before the house a final time, in the form of the private member bill C-201, "a Bill Amending the Holidays Act." It was proposed by Harold Herbert, a Liberal from Quebec.

The bill was introduced on May 2, 1980. There were only two days of brief debate, the first on May 6 (the first reading), then a year later on June 29, 1981 (second reading). The discussion in the House of Commons over the bill was in many ways the last gasp of the Dominion debate from the 1950's, though very few members actually participated. Several Progressive Conservative members spoke out against the bill, declaring it to be a needless cosmetic change that undermined Canada's history. Herbert and his supporters argued it was an overdue symbolic change that asserted Canadian sovereignty. Liberals often drew parallels to the Canadian flag debate, arguing that the Tories were on the wrong side of history.

Neither Prime Minister Trudeau nor Opposition Leader Joe Clark entered into the parliamentary debate. On July 9, 1982 Bill C-201 was passed by a voice vote in the House, and received royal assent a few months later, on October 27, 1982.

July 1, 1983 was the first Canada Day.

APPENDIX
Dates of elimination of the term "Dominion"

BRITAIN
1947- The British cabinet position of Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs was renamed the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations.
May 29, 1953- the full title of the British monarch was changed from Queen "of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and of the British Dominions beyond the Seas" to Queen of "Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of her other Realms and Territories."

OFFICIAL PUBLICATIONS OF THE CANADIAN GOVERNMENT
1935- "DoC" stopped being used in the Canadian Treaty Series, an annual volume of Canada's ratified treaties*
1949- "DoC" stopped being used in Journals of the House of Commons
1951- "DoC" stopped being used in annual collections of the Statutes of Canada
1953- "DoC" stopped being used in annual archives of Debates of the House of Commons
1957- "DoC" stopped being used in Law Reports of the Supreme Court of Canada
1987- "DoC" stopped being used in Canadian Parliamentary Guide

*Note, in treaties themselves Canada has always been referred to as simply "Canada," even in pre-1931 documents, and even when other countries use their more formal names.

LAWS
1951- Dominion Lands Survey Act replaced by the Canada Lands Survey Act
1951- Dominion Elections Act replaced by the Canada Elections Act

PRIVATE PUBLICATIONS
1952- TIME magazine stops using "The Dominion" as its heading for national Canadian news
1963- Canadian Criminal Cases journal stops referring to "laws of the Dominion" in introduction
1952- The Canadian Almanac stops using "Dominion of Canada" as the country's formal full name
1964- The Canadian Almanac stops referring to the "Dominion Government" (instead, "Federal Government").

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