Montreal is a fascinating place. And so, in honor of being here, a few random Canadian posts.
You may be aware of the recent Australian citizenship kerfuffle. Basically, the Australian constitution prevents anyone with double-citizenship from holding public office. The exact phrase is, “Is under any acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power, or is a subject or a citizen or entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or citizen of a foreign power.”
That is a little weird. As is the fact that the Australian high court held that it was enough to be eligible for foreign citizenship. Weirder still is that people appear to have only recently realized that this clause exists, and so a number of politicians have had to resign.
But what really struck me was the identity of three of the four “foreign powers” causing the trouble: New Zealand, Canada, and Britain. (Plus Italy.) None of these were foreign in 1901, when the Australian constitution was written. Anyone born in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, or Newfoundland was a natural-born British subject. (The link goes to the British Nationality Act of 1914, versions of which also passed in all the Dominions.)
Today, though, Australian law treats all the former dominions (including Ireland, which was grandfathered in at independence) as completely foreign countries. Since 1984, Commonwealth citizens have had no benefits in Australia, although they are still allowed to vote if they arrived before that year. In Canada, Commonwealth citizenship also confers no benefits of which I am aware. In the U.K. itself, there are a few.
So, in honor of the fact that I am in Montreal, when did Canadians stop being British? Well, the short answer is 1946, when Canada passed the Citizenship Act. Except that is not quite right! The separation started earlier and took longer to complete.
The Canadian government first limited the right of Britons to settle in Canada in 1910, under the Canadian Immigration Act of 1910. The act allowed the government to deport immigrants who were “unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada” or who had traveled courtesy of a charitable organization. The first requirement was laser-aimed at black Americans; the second at poor Britons. The act introduced the phrase “Canadian citizen” which included “a British subject who has Canadian domicile” but which also made it clear that such domicile was not automatic.
Ironically, the Canadian attempt to discourage Britons from emigrating flipped to encouragement after WW1, when the Empire Settlement Act of 1922 authorized Parliament to spend up to £3 million per year, the equivalent of roughly C$167 million today. Canada wanted Britons, you see, but only the right sort of Briton.
In 1921, the Canadian Nationals Act defined Canadian nationals as British subjects who were born in Canada or who legally resided in Canada for more than five years. Weirdly, anyone naturalized in Canada would become British subject able to freely move to Britain, but being a British subject did not mean that you automatically had the right to move to Canada.
So there was a de facto Canadian citizenship in place well before 1946.
Moreover, the special place of British subjects did not disappear after 1946. British subjects could still vote in Canadian elections after only one year of legal residency. In fact, British subjects Commonwealth citizens didn’t lose the right to vote in federal elections until the Canada Elections Act of 1970; even then, they could vote in provincial elections in B.C. and Ontario until 1985, New Brunswick until 1999, and Nova Scotia until 2006. (See pages 12-13.*)
The slow distancing of Canada from the United Kingdom seems to have been an entirely unplanned thing. I would have thought that Québécois opinion had a lot to do with that, but I would be wrong. London just kept handing off autonomy to its North American colonies bit by bit. Each bit of devolution became harder to reverse. Moreover, London refused to graft any institutional meat onto the rotting bones of its Empire, forestalling any chance that the Commonwealth might turn itself into something like NATO or the E.U. or even a glorified free trade zone.
My current hypothesis is that the key decision was to grant the Dominions the right to set trade policy. Once they had that, they had interest groups that would refuse to reverse integration in that key sector. Add to that a very understandable reluctance to get the colonies to contribute towards their own defense and you had nothing but straight decline into irrelevance. In other words, socialist beer destroyed the British Empire.
Still, it is sort of amazing just how weak the links have become between the U.K. and its settler colonies, the ones that didn’t fight a war of independence.
* Willem Maas, “Access to Electoral Rights Canada,” Access to Electoral Rights Report RSCAS/EUDO-CIT-ER 2015/9 (July 2015).