3 January 1947
Canada’s development as a nation was based on evolution rather than revolution. There is no bright line that marked its transition from a British colony to an independent country. Perhaps the most important step along the path to nationhood was the 1931 Statute of Westminster that recognized Canada and the other Dominions as being equal to and in no way subordinate to the United Kingdom in both domestic and foreign affairs. The final break occurred in 1982 when Canada’s Constitution was finally patriated from Britain over the objections of the Quebec Government. (For those who are wondering about the Queen, Canada’s monarch is deemed to be Canadian.) A similar progression occurred with respect to Canadian citizenship, though the dates don’t line up neatly with underlying constitutional changes.
During the early 19th century, the word “Canadian” was for many a synonym for settlers of French descent. Other settlers were Irish, English or Scots, who just happened to be living in those territories that was known as Upper or Lower Canada. There were no barriers to immigration. Legally, all were British subjects, owing their loyalty to the British Crown with the right to live anywhere in the British Empire.
When the Dominion of Canada was formed in 1867, nothing changed, though under the British North America Act, the new country was given authority over the naturalization of aliens, i.e. non-British subjects, in Canada. There was legally no thing called Canadian citizenship. All Canadians remained “British subjects.” Lord Monck, the Dominion’s first governor general, spoke about Canadians being a new “nationality.” However, what he meant is unclear. It’s possible that he was referring to a new more expansive Canadian nationality that would now include Nova Scotians and New Brunswickers. In 1891, during a hard-fought election over the issue of free trade with the United States, Sir John A. Macdonald, the Dominion of Canada’s first prime minister, said “A British subject I was born–a British subject I will die.” And he did.
However, a sense of being a Canadian began to coalesce during the late 19th century though dual loyalties remained strong, particularly among English-speaking Canadians. Most Canadians saw no contradiction between loyalty towards Canada and loyalty towards the Empire, particularly as both came under the same Crown. But a distinction was emerging between being a British subject and being Canadian (or for that matter an Australian or a New Zealander, etc.). The first term indicated a person’s status within the British Empire, and the second defined the person’s nationality.
Reference to the term “Canadian citizen” first appeared in Canadian legislation in the Immigration Act of 1910. It was apparently not designed to define who a Canadian was but rather to recognize those people who were exempt from immigration controls, in other words, British subjects either born or naturalized and domiciled in Canada. In 1921, the Canadian Nationals Act defined a specific group of British subjects who also had rights and obligations as Canadians. However, according to a Canadian government citizenship website, the references to “Canadian citizen” in these statutes did not create the legal status of Canadian citizen.
Ten years later, when the Statute of Westminster came into force, Canada became a distinct nation within the British Empire, responsible for its own domestic and international affairs. By the time of the May 1939 Royal Visit, constitutionally the Crown had been divided; King George VI came to Canada not as King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or as King of the British Empire, but as King of Canada. (This separation of Crowns was underscored by the fact that King George as King of Canada signed Canada’s declaration of war with Germany a week after he signed Britain’s declaration of war.) Notwithstanding this, Canadians remained British subjects.
Growing nationalism, especially through World War II, prompted the government to take a fresh look at Canadian citizenship. Apparently, when travelling abroad, permanent residents of Canada were not designated as Canadian citizens, but simply as British subjects living in Canada—something that irritated Canadian servicemen. In 1946, the Liberal government of Mackenzie King passed the Canadian Citizenship Act, which came into force at the beginning of 1947. This Act defined all Canada-born or naturalized Canadians, as well as British subjects domiciled in Canada and brides of Canadian servicemen as Canadian citizens. However, Canadian citizens remained British subjects, holding all the rights and obligations associated with that status. A Canadian passport at that time stated that the holder was a Canadian citizen as well as a British subject.
On Friday, 3 January 1947, a glittering citizenship ceremony was held in the Supreme Court in Ottawa to mark the coming into force of the new Citizenship Act. At 8.30 pm guests, officials, and certificate recipients were met in the Great Hall of the new Supreme Court building on Wellington street with music played by the red-coated RCMP band. They assembled in the wooden panelled court room, where Canada’s coat of arms was emblazoned above the judges’ bench. Fifteen King’s scouts guided people to their chairs. At 9 pm, Chief Justice Thibaudeau Rinfret and five Supreme Court justices filed into the chamber in order of seniority as television cameras whirred and camera bulbs flashed. The Justices were dressed in their ceremonial garb of bright scarlet and white mink robes with black, shovel hats. Chief Justice Rinfret took the middle seat, a heavy, oak chair surmounted by a crown. Behind them filed government dignitaries, including Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, Paul Martin, Sr., Minister of Health and Welfare, and Colin Gibson, Secretary of State. After the court usher called the Court to order, O Canada was sung in both English and French by a massed choir under the direction of Cyril Rickwood.
Paul Martin, who had taken the lead in writing the citizenship legislation in his earlier capacity of Secretary of State (there had been a cabinet shuffle three weeks earlier), addressed the assembly. He noted that there were two main purposes underlying the Canadian Citizenship Act. First, it was to define who a Canadian is and how to become one. Second, it was to establish a “community of status for all people which will bring them together as Canadians.” The Act also affirmed “the historical development of Canada with the British Commonwealth of Nations” and “attests to the nationhood of Canada.”
The Chief Justice then addressed the applicants who were presented in turn by Colin Gibson. First in line was Prime Minister Mackenzie King who received Canadian certificate No. 1. There were some poignant moments as one-by-one people came up to receive their citizenship certificates. Winnipeg’s Mrs Stanley Mynarski came forward proudly wearing the Victory Cross that her son, Pilot Officer “Andy” Mynarski, had posthumously received for valour during the war for saving the life of a comrade. After she repeated the oath of allegiance to the King in her strongly accented voice, Prime Minister King bowed to her in acknowledgement of the loss of her son who gave his life for his adopted country. Other recipients of their citizenship papers included the Aberdeen-born bride of Sergeant Maurice Labrosse of the R.C.A.F., 87-year old Wasyl Elyniak of Chapman, Albert, the first of 400,000 Ukrainians who came to Canada, and Armenian-born Yousuf Karsh, the Ottawa-based, world-renowned photographer. A group of eleven Ottawa-area new Canadians followed. First in line was Naif Hanna Azar of 443 Bank Street. A railway labourer, Azar came to Canada from Palestine in 1928. When he walked over to receive his certificate, Prime Minister King stood and shook hands with him.
The Prime Minister then addressed the assembly. He said “Canada was founded on the faith that two of the proudest races in the world, despite barriers of tongue and creed, could work together n mutual tolerance and mutual respect to develop a common nationality. Into our equal partnership of English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians, we have admitted thousands who were born of other racial stocks, and who speak other tongues. They, one and all, have sought a homeland where nationhood means not domination and slavery, but equality and freedom.”
The evening’s ceremony was also the occasion for the public presentation for the first time of an anthem called This Canada of Ours, written by Percy Philip, the press gallery representative in Ottawa of the New York Times, and set to music by Robert Donnell, the Dominion Carillonneur. The piece, which some had hoped would become Canada’s national anthem, was sung by the massed choir.
The citizenship ceremony closed with a singing of God Save the King. The Justices, Ministers and participants then filed from the chamber to the strains of the classic hymn O God, Our Help in Ages Past.
While a stirring ceremony, there were glaring omissions that evening. None of the participants who received citizenship certificates were indigenous Canadians or persons of African or Asian descent. It wasn’t until 1956 that the Canadian Citizenship Act was amended to retroactively confer Canadian citizenship on “Indians defined in the Indian Act and the race of aborigines commonly referred to as Eskimos” who were born before 1st day of January 1947. Canada’s immigration policy at that time was also racist as it essentially precluded non-white immigrants “owing to their peculiar customs, habits, modes of life, or methods of holding property and because of their probable inability to become readily assimilated.” Just two days before the citizenship ceremony took place in Ottawa, a letter to the Editor of the Vancouver Sun appeared stating that Chinese should not become Canadian citizens. The letter states: “No matter how laudable their general conduct may be as law observers, their customs, their Oriental mental outlook and non-assimilativeness prevent a sociable unity between themselves and true Canadians.” The Chinese Exclusion Act, enacted in 1923, was repealed later in 1947, but a race-based immigration system remained in place until well into the 1960s.
In 1977, the Citizenship Act was radically changed. An amendment removed the special status previous enjoyed by British subjects when they applied for Canadian citizenship. From then on, immigrants to Canada were treated the same regardless of whether they were British subjects or nationals of countries outside of the Commonwealth. Canadians were also no longer defined as British subjects. As well, the sexism of the 1947 Act was addressed. Children born abroad of a Canadian parent were now eligible to be Canadian citizens by right. Previously, they had to have a Canadian father. More changes were made in 2009 and again in 2015 to address quirks of earlier legislation that denied Canadian citizenship to certain groups of people.
Meanwhile, the term British subject was also evolving. In 1948, the term was defined as any citizen of the United Kingdom, colonies, or Commonwealth country. These people had the right to settle in Britain. However, in the 1960s and 1970s, this right was increasingly restricted to only those who parents or grandparents were born in the United Kingdom. After 1983, very few people qualified as British subjects and for the most part the term had became obsolete. Even British citizens were no longer referred to as British subjects. Today, British subject status is largely confined to a handful of individuals born in Ireland and India prior to 1949 and to children of such people who would become stateless without British subject status. British subjects are not British citizens and do not automatically have the right to live in the United Kingdom (though most do). But they are eligible for a British passport and can ask for British consular assistance when travelling.
Canadians are still recognized as Commonwealth citizens in other Commonwealth countries and have certain residual rights depending on the country. For example, if resident in the United Kingdom, a Canadian citizen can join the British armed forces or the police, and can run for public office.
Until quite recently, British subjects, defined as citizens of the Commonwealth, continued to have special status in certain Canadian provinces. For example, British subjects could vote in New Brunswick elections until 1995 while in Nova Scotia, they were eligible to vote in provincial elections until 2006.
Canada, Government of. 2019. History of citizenship legislation, https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/corporate/publications-manuals/operational-bulletins-manuals/canadian-citizenship/overview/history-legislation.html.
Canadian Council for Refugees, 2000. “A hundred years of immigration to Canada 1900-1999,” https://ccrweb.ca/en/hundred-years-immigration-canada-1900-1999.
Gazette (The), 1947. “Canadian Citizenship Begins,” 2 January.
—————-, 1947. “Canadians Have Status As Citizens From Now,” 2 January.
—————-, 1977. “We’re No Longer British Citizens,” 15 February.
Grey, Julius & Gill, John. 2019. “Canadian Citizenship,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/citizenship.
Maas, William, 2015. Access to Electoral Rights Canada, EUDO Citizenship Observatory, European University Institute, Florence, https://www.yorku.ca/maas/Maas2015b.pdf.
McCreedy, Christopher, 2005. The Order of Canada: Its Origins, History and Development, University of Toronto Press.
Ottawa Citizen, 1947. “Native-Born Citizens Officially Canadians,” 2 January.
——————, 1947. “Participants Briefed In Citizenship Ceremony, 4 Janaury.
——————, 1947. “Proud, Historic Ceremony As New Citizens Take Oath,” 4 January.
Paul, Daniel, 2019. Canadian Citizen Act Proclaimed: 1947, http://www.danielnpaul.com/CanadianCitizenshipAct-1947.html.
UK Government, 2019. Types of British Nationality, https://www.gov.uk/types-of-british-nationality/british-subject.
Vancouver Sun, 1947, “Votes For Chinese,” 2 January.
Winnipeg Tribune, 1947. “Mr. King Seeks Citizen Papers,” 2 January.