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The "Lyon" and the End of the British Empire

For the week of Monday November 13, 2006

On November 18, 1926, the delegates to the Imperial Conference in London, England adopted the Balfour Report. The Report redefined the status of the countries in the British Empire and created a Commonwealth of Nations, which then made these countries autonomous with respect to foreign affairs. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King played a major role in the talks leading to the drafting of the Report.

Right Honourable William Lyon Mackenzie King
Rt. Hon. William Lyon Mackenzie King
© Library and Archives Canada / C-000389
At the time, Canada enjoyed a certain degree of independence from the British Crown. Great Britain, however, dominated anything related to foreign affairs: it signed all treaties on behalf of Canada and represented the country at international conferences. This was the case for all countries in the British Empire. During the Imperial Conference of 1926, the debate over the definition of independence was raised. South Africa and the Irish Free State called for full independence from the Crown, while Australia and New Zealand sought to retain close ties with Britain.

During the heated debates, King emerged as a mediator and tried to find a solution that was acceptable for each party. British Lord Balfour, who chaired the Conference, was impressed by King’s wisdom in handling such an explosive situation, and he asked for the Prime Minister’s help in drafting a report that would satisfy the often-contradictory demands.

Reflecting the needs and particular situation of each Dominion, King and Lord Balfour essentially drafted the Commonwealth of Nations. According to the Report, the parties “… are autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, 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, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.”

Hon. Ernest Lapointe, Rt. Hon. W.L. Mackenzie King, Vincent Massey and Hon. Peter Larkin at the Imperial Conference in London, 1926
Hon. Ernest Lapointe, Rt. Hon. W.L. Mackenzie King, Vincent Massey and Hon. Peter Larkin at the Imperial Conference in London, 1926
© Aitken Ltd. / Library and Archives Canada / C-001690
This report took on great significance for Canada: it granted the country a status equal to that of Great Britain. From that moment on, Canada could sign its own treaties and conduct most of its foreign affairs without the involvement or approval of Britain. This marked a very significant step toward complete independence. However, this would not be fully achieved until 1931 with the passage of the Statute of Westminster, which finally granted full independence to the Commonwealth Dominions and brought an end to the British Empire.

As a significant mediator during the Imperial Conference of 1926, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was designated a National Historic Person in 1967.

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