Monique Keiran: When Canada declared war — illegally

Beside a photo headlined “Lieutenant-Governor Opens Fall Fair” and an article titled “Wild Ponies Will Become Zebras to Save Their Lives” on the front page of the Sunday, Sept.10, 1939, edition of the Daily Colonist, Victoria residents read:

“Government War Policy Approved by Parliament: Formal Declaration of War Against Germany Expected to Be Proclaimed by Canada Early Today — Move Against Participation Gets Scant Support in House of Commons.”

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Readers would have had to turn to the competition, the Victoria Daily Times, or wait until the Sept. 12 edition to see how the cliffhanger resolved:

“Proclamation Puts Dominion in State of War With Reich — The King Gives Assent to Document Which Signed by the Governor-General — Complete Text of Royal Order Given.”

“OTTAWA, Sept 10. (CP) — The speed with which the proclamation declaring Canada at war with Germany was issued today after Parliament passed the address in reply to the Speech from the Throne was the subject of comment tonight.”

King George VI’s approval of Canada’s proclamation follows:

“Whereas by and with the advice of our Privy Council for Canada we have signified our approval of the issue of a proclamation in the Canada Gazette declaring that a state of war with the German Reich exists and has existed in our Dominion of Canada as and from the tenth day of September, 1939. …”

And down a bit:

“Now, therefore, we do hereby declare and proclaim that a state of war with the German Reich exists and has existed in our Dominion of Canada as and from the tenth day of September, 1939.”

Canada entered the Second World War on Sept. 10, 1939, seven days after Britain and France declared war on Germany. Our separate declaration was possible because the Statute of Westminster 1931 had made Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the other self-government dominions of the British Empire largely sovereign nations in their own right.

It wasn’t quite that straightforward. Yes, we could decide to go to war. All such major policy announcements required a formal proclamation to be issued by the governor general on the advice of the federal cabinet. But not even Canada’s governor general had the power to approve a proclamation declaring war.

For that, Canada’s government needed the British monarch’s permission.

And King George VI was in London, an ocean and part of a continent away from Ottawa.

So how could Ottawa issue a proclamation declaring Canada at war with Germany within a day of Parliamentary approval, when so much geography stood in the way?

What transpired that autumn underscores how modern wireless technology makes 21st-century life possible.

On Sept. 9, Canada’s Parliament approved authorization to declare war. On Sept. 10, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King requested the king’s approval to issue a proclamation by Canada declaring a state of war with the German Reich.

The king did as requested.

But, as described online last year by Library and Archives Canada’s J. Andrew Ross, the document George VI approved and signed was copied out by hand from a cabled telegram and was not signed by a Canadian cabinet minister, as required by law. Ottawa defined this document “informal approval” and promised London a formal — signed — submission forthwith.

Meanwhile, even before the king approved the informal submission, Ottawa drew up the proclamation and had the governor general, Prime Minister Mackenzie King, and the minister of justice sign it. The government also published it as an edition of the Canada Gazette, the official publication for conveying government announcements.

Three versions of the proclamation now existed, and none had all the required signatures.

The king continued to await the promised and most important version — the formal submission with a cabinet minister’s signature. On Oct. 24, Canada’s high commissioner to Great Britain cabled Ottawa, saying there was some concern in royal quarters that, without the correctly signed submission, the constitutional validity of the proclamation could be called into question — that is, Canada might not be at war at all.

Oops. That lit fires. The government promptly sent a typewritten document signed by the prime minister and backdated to Sept. 10. The king signed this on Nov. 27 — 10 weeks after Canada had publicly declared war.

Headlines, hoopla and good intentions aside, limited communications technology and administrative delay almost sidelined Canada’s legal participation in the first war it entered as a sovereign nation.

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