THE KING-BYNG-WING-DING (and some other stuff)
ACT 1: THE KING-BYNG CRISIS
Most Canadians celebrate our day of independence as July 1st; fireworks shoot up to illuminate the night sky, and red and white flags spring up in parks, hands, and on faces. However, it is known by few that other dates have provided more autonomy to Canadians than Canada Day itself. To learn about these hidden moments in our history, we need to first explore what led to them. Then, in the case of the Statute of Westminster, it is necessary to delve into Canada’s first (but not final) constitutional crisis: the King-Byng Affair (or, the King-Byng-Wing-Ding), a devastating crisis that toppled two governments in the span of a week, and threatened Canadian political autonomy.
Before we begin, it is necessary to discuss some finer points of how Canada’s Parliament operates. In a federal election, the leader of the party with the most seats does not automatically become Prime Minister. First, the government needs to pass the ‘vote of confidence’, where Members of Parliament vote in support of or against the government. If the vote of confidence is defeated, three options could follow: Parliament is dissolved and another election is held, debates stop for a few months (prorogation), or another government can try and take power. The choice is up to the Governor General, the Queen’s representative in Canada, to decide, but he/she *mostly* listens to the Prime Minister’s recommendation.
http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1776946871/ (short CBC clip about events)
After a tumultuous 1925 election campaign, the people of Canada voted Arthur Meighen to be Prime Minister – or so they thought. Even though Meighen picked up a few more seats than William Lyon Mackenzie King, the Liberal Party leader and Prime Minister since 1921, the Conservative leader did not have a majority of seats in the House of Commons. Therefore, King was still able to cobble together a coalition government by convincing allied-Progressive members to join their side. This governing style proved to be too tenuous to last a full term, and just one year later, opposition members revealed the Minister of the Department of Customs to be helping to smuggle illegal alcohol into the United States. The Progressive members, disgusted, dropped their support, and a vote of non-confidence would have confirmed the inevitable: the House of Commons no longer supported the Liberal government. Anticipating the collapse of his government, Prime Minister King tried to prevent the non-confidence motion by asking the Governor General to dissolve Parliament and hold yet another election. But this wasn’t any pushover, armchair earl that King was dealing with – Julian Byng had commanded Canadian soldiers to their historic victory in Vimy Ridge during World War 1. More specifically, Byng had informed King a year ago that in an event of a parliamentary crisis, he would allow Arthur Meighen to form government. This is because Meighen did win more seats than King, and Byng believed that he should have the chance to govern. So, on June 26, 1926, when King asked the Governor General to carry out the very action that Byng had told him he would refuse to complete in 1925, Byng was infuriated. To his wife, he labeled King as a “scurvy cad”. He then disobeyed the Prime Minister’s wishes (unheard of back then, and even today) by allowing Meighen and the Conservative Party to form a government. 65 short-lived hours later, they were deposed, losing a vote of confidence by a single vote. Byng finally declared an election, in which King won the most seats, and formed a majority with the support of a few Progressive members. Interestingly, historians today believe that had Byng granted King an election earlier as King wanted, the Liberals would have lost, with the Customs scandal still fresh in voters’ minds.
The easiest way to uncover how Canadians felt about the King-Bing-Wing-Ding is by investigating the 1926 federal election results. In just a year, the Liberals won more 16 seats, and the Conservatives lost 24. This wasn’t because of a new economic platform or social – King masterfully spun the crisis he was responsible for starting so that it sounded like Meighen, a supposedly power-hungry, Britain-pleasing imperialist, coerced Lord Byng into destroying King’s government. He even deflected away any memories of the Customs scandal which had brought him down in the first place. Those who supported King believed that Byng had no right to disobey the Prime Minister, since it was tradition for the Prime Minister’s request to be fulfilled. To them, Byng’s actions were undermining the democratic values of Parliament. Curiously, some leaders were still imperialists and wanted more British rule, like former Toronto mayor Tommy Church, who cried that “We are part and parcel of the British Empire and not a nation within ourselves. We do not need autonomy.” Others claimed, to no avail, that Byng was constitutionally correct in denying King’s request, who was an “ally of the empire wreckers”. Ultimately, no matter how false King’s accusations of Byng and Meighen were, voters believed that voting Liberal would have supported Canadian autonomy, and gave him back his government, which he would hold for 17 of the next 22 years.
Canada had already been slowly developing into an independent nation since World War One and into the 1920’s, but the King-Byng Crisis and ensuing election showcased that Canadian voters were willing to change their votes based on issues affecting their autonomy (or so they were led to believe). Socially, this event reflected the change of the Canadian psyche to be more independent, and less reliant on Britain. In terms of economics, the swift flip-flop of voters from Meighen to King might show modern historians that Canadians were more preoccupied with political issues than economic ones at the time, and that they felt they were ready to be fully autonomous on a global stage too in areas including their economy. Finally, politically, the affair led to a change in the way that Canadians viewed Governor Generals, and ultimately the British. No longer were foreign dignitaries allowed to meddle in purely-Canadian issues, but were required to sit aside as Canada’s own worthy politicians held their own.
*Historical significance will be discussed in the next section*
ACT 2/3: THE BALFOUR DECLARATION AND THE STATUTE OF WESTMINSTER
Later in 1926, as first proposed by Canada’s William Lyon Mackenzie King (and the South African Prime Minsiter), leaders of the self-governing dominions of the British Empire attended a conference in London. These dominions included Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Newfoundland (!), South Africa, and the Irish Free State. All the colonies were slowly becoming more politically and diplomatically autonomous, and they discussed various motions to be resolved. Fresh off his election victory, and among less recent displays of Canadian independence like the Chanak Crisis and plans to establish a Canadian embassy in the US, King strongly advocated for the Governor General to operate independently of the British government. This meant that since the Governor General was supposed to represent just the Queen, he/she could only be advised by the Prime Minister in each dominion. The leaders of these dominions voted unanimously in support of the motion that confirmed the Governor General’s symbolic role in politics. The resulting Balfour Declaration also stated that “… autonomous communities within the British Empire [are] equal in status, [and are] in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown.”
In the next few years, three more conferences (known as the “Imperial Conferences”) involving these leaders and British representatives were held. Finally, in 1931, the British Parliament passed the official Statute of Westminster, legislation that recognized Britain as an equal and separate nation to its dominions. Britain could no longer make laws that applied to the dominions anymore – previously, the dominions (including Canada!) were still legally just self-governing colonies of Britain, and couldn’t really be considered as independent countries. Also, King’s work paid off; it was confirmed that the Canadian Governor General did not represent the British government, but the Canadian crown (who was the Queen). This statute essentially gave Canada full legal autonomy, except for a clause that still only allowed Britain to amend Canada’s constitution. It took fifty-one more years before Canadian lawmakers had full control over their country.
Canadians had basically voiced their opinions on Canada’s autonomy in 1926 during the federal election; due to the exclusivity of the conferences, and the fact that British politicians debated the Statute, public knowledge of the Balfour Declaration and Statute of Westminster was limited. Also, by this time, more than seven million Canadians (around 20% of the population) were immigrants. Their probable assumption that Canada was an independent nation is likely to have overshadowed the clamours of Tommy Church and others who screamed for “empire builders”. As seen in Canadian heroics in WWI and afterwards, citizens were ready for Canada’s autonomy – the Statute of Westminster just confirmed it into legal terms. Also, English-Canadians like the Saskatchewan Premier James Gardiner weren’t opposed to independence. Rather, they considered themselves as part of a trans-national and inclusive British identity. Today, the Statute of Westminster Day is commemorated every December 11, where the Union Jack flag is flown beside a Canadian flag in all federally owned land.
The Statute of Westminster enforced, rather than changed, social norms. As mentioned previously, Canada was already autonomous from Britain in terms of diversity, economy, and geography, and even British-Canadians were becoming further-separated from their colonist ancestors. The larger shift was in Canada’s political system, but to call it a huge change is an overstatement. The Chanak Crisis and post-WWI conferences had proved to the world that Canada was self-sufficient and not afraid to say so. This (shocking) confidence also manifested itself in the King-Byng Crisis, where politicians weren’t afraid to spread conspiracy theories about British representatives. The Statute of Westminster essentially confirmed the changes that Canadian politicians had already begun to realize in the interwar years: that the Governor General was to be independent and ultimately in favour of the governing party, and the British government no longer had any business in Canadian affairs. Also, politicians could now possess the full peace of mind knowing that they were clearly autonomous from Britain.
The King-Byng Crisis, Balfour Declaration, and Statute of Westminster were extremely significant events in helping Canada become a more politically autonomous nation, and all the evidence in supporting this claim can simply be found in the text of the statute (see this link for the text). However, an underlying theme is not that Canada was necessarily making changes within the statute that allowed it to become more autonomous – it already had been making self-directed choices for the past decade or so. It seems like these events, particularly the Statute of Westminster, were the moments were Canada’s values of self-reliance became norms. The statute essentially accepted the choices by Canada to defy Britain. It told Canadian citizens that Canadian politicians could be trusted to make the right choices, and no other representative from another nation could meddle with those choices. Due to the context in which this legislation entered the world, where the King-Byng Crisis arguably influenced the statute in a roundabout way, it must be at least considered that December 11th is the closest date that Canadians have to an Independence Day. Finally, to answer Mr. Morris’ question “To what extent did global conflicts between 1914-1945 allow Canada to become socially, politically, and economically autonomous?”, a case should be made that conflicts didn’t have to be global for Canadians to make an impact on their autonomy. Moreover, the pursuit of their independence helped others find theirs as well, creating a more diverse world that was soon to be tested in the bloodiest war ever fought.