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Canadian Citizenship: Masters of Our Own Destiny

This story was initially published in 2004

On January 1, 1947, the first Canadian Citizenship Act came into effect. Canada had the distinction of being the first Commonwealth country to establish its own citizenship, independent of British citizenship. In an official ceremony two days later, at the Supreme Court of Canada, 26 people received certificates of Canadian citizenship. Prime Minister Mackenzie King was presented with certificate 0001.

Chief Justice Thibaudeau Rinfret presenting a citizenship certificate to Rt. Hon. William Lyon Mackenzie King, Prime Minister of Canada, during the first citizenship ceremony
Chief Justice Thibaudeau Rinfret presenting a citizenship certificate to Rt. Hon. William Lyon Mackenzie King, Prime Minister of Canada, during the first citizenship ceremony
© Chris Lund / National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque / Library and Archives of Canada / PA-197418

After the Second World War, a renewed sense of Canadian identity emerged from the pride in Canada’s role in the victory. When visiting the graves of Canadians buried at Dieppe, France, Liberal Cabinet Minister, Paul Martin, Sr. realized that some of the young men and women who had died for the cause had no clear identity in Canadian law. He noted the diversity of names on the graves. Martin envisioned a Canadian society in which a variety of different cultures would be bound together by a common purpose, just as they had been on the battlefields. He broached the idea of creating Canadian citizenship with Prime Minister Mackenzie King, who agreed.

Up to this date, naturalization in Canada meant conferring British subject status on immigrant and native-born alike.  The 1947 Act clarified who could be considered "Canadian." In theory, Canadian-born and foreign-born persons who wanted to demonstrate their commitment to Canada were provided with an official status that would enable them to be active participants in Canadian affairs. In addition, the new Act gave married women authority over their nationality, which had previously been tied to that of their husband.

First offical Canadian Citizenship ceremony at the Supreme Court building
First offical Canadian Citizenship ceremony at the Supreme Court building
© Chris Lund / National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque / Library and Archives of Canada / PA-129262

The Act was the result of an increasingly diverse population as new immigrants, including displaced persons and refugees from war-devastated Europe, raised questions about naturalization in Canada. The new Act provided the foundation for a more inclusive notion of citizenship but some controversial issues remained, such as the preferential treatment accorded to white British subjects. As a consequence, public discontent eventually resulted in the creation of the 1977 Citizenship Act, in which the regulations were more favourable to Canada’s growing reputation as a multicultural society.

Many changes have occurred since Prime Minister Mackenzie King endorsed the first Citizenship Act in 1947 and citizenship legislation continues to evolve. As a former Prime Minister of Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King is designated as a person of national historic significance and is recognized by a plaque in Kitchener, Ontario.

For further information on citizenship and immigration, please visit: The Promise, Toward a Better Future, Taking a Stand, Legalizing Racism, The Komagata Maru Incident, and A Harmony of Cultures: The Gurdwara at Abbotsford, B.C., in the This Week in History Archives.

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