On July 1, 2017, Canada celebrated 150 years since weakening its ties with Britain and establishing a federation of provinces no longer governed by appointed governors from across the sea. I’m old enough to remember the celebrations for the centennial in 1967, and I also remember that it was only much later, after my formal education and after I spent some time abroad, that I learned we weren’t really as independent and sovereign as our teachers and leaders made us believe. This year, the public discourse doesn’t seem to be much different from what it was in 1967, as no one dares suggest that we should be counting from 1982 (when the constitution was repatriated) or that the ambiguous status of the reserve power of the governor general (the British monarch’s representative) means that sovereignty is still a work in progress.


When I did research on the Hawaiian Kingdom, I had to use a precise meaning of “independent state” as it is defined in international law. Professor Sai at the University of Hawaii explained in correspondence, “Independent is a political term that means only the laws of the State exist over its territory to the exclusion of the laws of other States that exist independently over their territories. If there is a plurality of laws within a single State, it is not independent.”

By this definition, the Kingdom of Hawaii was an independent state in 1867, but Canada was not—an interesting contrast that highlights the egregiousness of the 1893 overthrow by a small group of usurpers and the subsequent 1898 US annexation. In some respects, the Hawaiian Kingdom might be better off today if it had gone from being a British protectorate to full membership in the British Empire. It could have then achieved the limited form of independence Canada obtained in 1867, then worked up from that toward increasing levels of independence. Before annexation, Hawai’i’s cultural affinity to Britain was stronger than any attachments to the United States, as is evident in the flag that is still used today on the islands.

After 1867, Britain still maintained control of Canada’s foreign affairs, and the constitution, known as the British North America Act, could not be amended without Britain’s approval. The evolution of Canada’s foreign policy independence is described by Laura Barnett of the Library of Parliament:

In 1867, Canada was still a colony of the British Empire, and the British Parliament delegated the power to represent the Dominion of Canada internationally to the British Crown. However, although the British Crown had the authority to enter into treaties with foreign countries on Canada’s behalf, the Canadian Parliament was granted responsibility for implementing those treaties in Canada under section 132 of the Constitution Act, 1867. Over the years, Canada began to take increasingly independent action in its external affairs… In 1926, Canada acquired power to establish foreign relations and to negotiate and conclude its own treaties through the Balfour Declaration, although some treaties still needed formal ratification by the British government. This power was incorporated into the 1931 Statute of Westminster and later confirmed in the 1947 Letters Patent Constituting the Office of Governor General of Canada.[1]

Historica Canada states, “The Constitution Act, 1982 enshrined the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the Constitution, and completed the unfinished business of Canadian independence—allowing Canadians to amend their own constitution without requiring approval from Britain.”[2]

Another contentious issue that some use to cast doubt on Canada’s independence is the fact that the governor general, appointed by the British monarch, has the power to fire a prime minister. James Bowden, a historian at the Department of Defense, explains that this power really isn’t as ominous as it appears to be:

The Governor General can, under exceptional circumstances, reject the Prime Minister’s advice to dissolve Parliament. When a Governor General rejects advice of such constitutional significance, he in effect forces the Prime Minister to resign, or may dismiss him directly. However, the Governor General could exercise this reserve power [only] if he can appoint a new Prime Minister, usually by calling on the Leader of the Official Opposition, immediately thereafter so that this new Prime Minister can take responsibility for the Governor General’s actions. The King-Byng Affair of 1926 involved precisely this dynamic: Governor General Lord Byng rejected Prime Minister King’s advice to dissolve parliament, so King resigned as Prime Minister. Lord Byng then appointed the Leader of the Official Opposition, Arthur Meighen as Prime Minister. When the new Meighen government lost the confidence of the House of Commons only one week later, Meighen advised Lord Byng to dissolve parliament, and Lord Byng agreed because that particular House of Commons could not support any government.[3]

In other words, the governor general is there to resolve an impasse in the functioning of government. If he or she decides to force the prime minister to resign, the leader of the official opposition takes over the role, not some arbitrarily appointed person. The new prime minister would have to be supported by parliament, and without this support he or she would have to dissolve parliament and call elections.

This surviving remnant of attachment to Britain may, for some, indicate an ongoing lack of full independence, but it is a very thin thread linking Canada back to the monarchy. By custom and convention, the neutral and detached governor general is Canadian, appointed by the monarch on the advice of the Canadian prime minister. Furthermore, every country needs some mechanism of reserve power for dismissing a head of state, and many nations use a similar system having an appointed governor general.

Australia, with a parliamentary system similar to Canada’s (but with an elected senate), is a country that had a serious crisis related to actions by the governor general. In 1975, Governor-General Sir John Kerr dismissed Prime Minister Whitlam, ignoring the prime minister’s plan to hold elections for a senate that was “blocking supply” for his government. Kerr broke convention and accepted norms by not advising the prime minister and discussing sufficiently his planned course of action. He concealed his intention and dismissed him in a surprise move that much of the public saw as underhanded and unnecessary. A research note published by the Australian Parliamentary Library summarized the contrasting interpretations of the incident:

The action by the Governor-General Sir John Kerr … is Australia’s most famous example of the exercise of reserve power. Opinion is divided as to whether or not it was an appropriate use of the power and as to how and when the power was exercised. Proponents of the arguments in favor say that a government must be able to secure supply [financing of the budget] and so in that sense must retain the confidence in both houses necessary to achieve this. Therefore, they argued, failure to obtain supply was an expression of a loss of confidence in the government and should have resulted in the government’s resignation. Those opposed to this view argue that it has never been a requirement for a government to enjoy the confidence of both houses and that acceptance of the Kerr/Barwick view would undermine responsible government and would automatically call into question the legitimacy of any government without a Senate majority.[4]

The motives for Kerr’s actions have never been clear. One view states domestic, overt opposition was the main factor, while others contend that Kerr was acting because of American covert pressure to carry out a parliamentary coup d’état.

Whitlam’s domestic policies were anti-war and nationalist, and they were lefty enough to make large business interests sabotage his program. He was portrayed as fiscally irresponsible and utopian until his public support decreased and his government became increasingly handicapped. This is the playbook that is used in Canada, too, whenever a left-leaning provincial or national government comes to power. Thus for Governor General Kerr, the problem was overtly clear enough from a domestic point of view. He had this cover which made it possible for him to say his ties to foreign interests and the CIA had nothing to do with the decision. During the crisis Whitlam alleged that the CIA had a hand in the coup. He later stated that Kerr did not need any encouragement from the CIA, but this is not the same as saying the CIA didn’t play a role or have a keen interest in how things turned out.

When Whitlam passed away in 2014, journalist John Pilger described the evidence that points to American involvement:

Victor Marchetti, the CIA officer who had helped set up Pine Gap [the American surveillance station in Australia], later told me, “This threat to close Pine Gap caused apoplexy in the White House… a kind of Chile [coup] was set in motion.” Pine Gap’s top-secret messages were de-coded by a CIA contractor, TRW. One of the de-coders was Christopher Boyce, a young man troubled by the “deception and betrayal of an ally.” Boyce revealed that the CIA had infiltrated the Australian political and trade union elite and referred to the Governor-General of Australia, Sir John Kerr, as “our man Kerr.” Kerr was not only the Queen’s man, he had long-standing ties to Anglo-American intelligence. He was an enthusiastic member of the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom, described by Jonathan Kwitny of the Wall Street Journal in his book, The Crimes of Patriots, as, “an elite, invitation-only group… exposed in Congress as being founded, funded and generally run by the CIA.” The CIA “paid for Kerr’s travel, built his prestige… Kerr continued to go to the CIA for money.”[5]

In spite of these testimonies and the obvious threat to American interests, the idea of CIA involvement is still dismissed by others as unsubstantiated. In a review of a book that held this view, Richard Ferguson writes:

As for the CIA, did they love Gough [Whitlam]? No. But were they planning a Chile-like coup in the Oval Office? No, of course they weren’t, don’t be silly. Bramston and Kelly [the authors] are very adamant that there is absolutely no proof the CIA were involved in the dismissal.[6]

Saying there is “absolutely no proof” is not the same as proving something did not occur. It is merely an insistence on dismissing the evidence presented by Pilger above. The essence of covert operations is that they are designed to leave no concrete evidence. The dismissal of the theory of American involvement as “silly” rests on the assumption that if the CIA did something, they would tell us at a press conference. Or perhaps we could read Kerr’s mind to know what his motives were. This line of thinking seems to say that if Kerr himself didn’t confess to being influenced by the CIA, then he wasn’t.

In spite of whatever “silliness” lies behind allegations of CIA involvement, United States Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher came to Sydney two years after the crisis and met with Whitlam, on behalf of US President Jimmy Carter. According to Whitlam, he spoke of his willingness to work with whatever government Australians elected, and that the US “would never again interfere with Australia’s democratic processes.”[7]

The Australian crisis of 1975 underscores what the real problems are in establishing true sovereignty and independence. Beyond the concerns about the establishment of independent foreign policy, repatriation of the constitution and the ambiguous powers of the governor general, the bigger question is how any nation can defend itself from foreign interference and follow its own chosen path. If Australia had not had its particular form of reserve power vested in a governor general, opponents both domestic and foreign would have found others means for undermining Whitlam’s leadership.

The better question to ask about sovereignty is whether traditional conceptions of it have any meaning in a global empire of “free trade” agreements, central banks, and a US dollar-based fossil fuel economy. Canada sells weapons to Saudi Arabia, supports Nazis in a failed regime in Ukraine,[8] and increases its military spending at the behest of its American master. These days it takes someone like Vladimir Putin to point out that NATO members are no longer regarded as allies but are instead vassals who must do whatever their lord requires.[9]

Finally, because sovereignty relates so much to the ability of a state to sign treaties with other states, something must be said about how Canada has dealt with its own states within the state. On this score, much is lacking in Canada’s record of upholding its commitments to aboriginal groups, or the First Nations, who were there before European settlers. For the First Nations, the signed pieces of paper called treaties didn’t have a lot of significance, and actually they shouldn’t have been seen by anyone as anything more than the symbolic representation of an ongoing relationship and what was agreed upon in the past. The marriage certificate is not the marriage. What should have mattered was a mutual commitment to the mutual benefit of each party, a commitment to constantly renewing the relationship in good faith.

On the surface, according to the letter of the treaties, it may seem that in some First Nation communities thing are going fine. They are self-governing and jobs and resource-sharing are being negotiated with all the “stakeholders,” but the underlying reality is often an overpaid local leadership that is in cahoots with the resource extractors. The locals get some jobs in uranium mines, then get slowly converted to the lifestyle of urban Canadians. This modern form of self-governance does nothing to restore the culture that was destroyed when aboriginal families were broken up, children were abducted into residential schools, and languages were extinguished. The knowledge of how to live off the land is gone, and efforts to revive all of the above elements needed for true sovereignty are thwarted by the intrusion of resource extractors.

These days the resource companies and the governments are more sophisticated and outwardly respectful than they used to be. They talk of mutual benefits, economic security and respect for the treaties and aboriginal culture, but the truth is their economic system is only about short-term exploitation for as long as the finite resources last. When the end appears imminent, people are offered new illusions, such as the chance to be a “willing host community” for long-term storage of nuclear waste. The irony lost on many is that it is no longer just Indians being sent off the reservation.

In Hell or High Water,[10] an apparently unserious bank heist movie set in the aftermath of the oil boom in Texas, a brief bit of dialog between a two cops, one White (Marcus) and one Native American (Alberto), reveals how the extractive economy consumes everyone:

ALBERTO: Do you want to live here? Got an old hardware store that charges twice what Home Depot does, one restaurant with a rattlesnake for a waitress. I mean, how is anybody supposed to make a living here?

MARCUS: People have made a living here for 150 years.

ALBERTO: Well, people lived in caves for 150,000 years, but they don’t do it no more.

MARCUS: Well, maybe your people did.

ALBERTO: Your people did, too. A long time ago, your ancestors were the Indians until someone came along and killed them, broke them down, made you into one of them. 150 years ago, all this was my ancestors’ land, everything you can see, everything you saw yesterday, until the grandparents of these folks took it. And now, it’s been taken from them, except it ain’t no army doing it. It’s those sons of bitches right there. [pointing to the bank across the street]


[1] Laura Barnett, Canada’s Approach to the Treaty-Making Process, Library of Parliament (Canada).

[2]Constitution Act, 1982,” Historica Canada.

[3] James Bowden, “Neither the Queen Nor the Governor General Can Dissolve Parliament Unilaterally!Parliamentum, April 12, 2012.

[4] Susan Downing, “The Reserve Powers of the Governor General,” Research Note of the Parliamentary Library (Australia), January 23, 1998.

[5] John Pilger, “The forgotten coup—how America and Britain crushed the government of their ‘ally’, Australia,” johnpilger.com, October 23, 2014. Christopher Boyce’s story has been told in books, his autobiography and the 1985 film Falcon and the Snowman.

[6] Whitlam, Gough, Abiding Interests (University of Queensland Press, 1997) 49-50.

[7] Richard Ferguson, “Kerr’s Curse,” The Spectator, January 30, 2016. Review of The Dismissal: In the Queen’s Name.

[8] John Helmer, “Canada and Its Ukrainian Nazi Collaborators: Chrystia Freeland’s Family Lie Grows Bigger and Blacker,” Off-Guardian, June 18, 2017.

[9] Full Interview Megyn Kelly and Vladimir Putin, June 2017.

[10] David Mackenzie (Director), “Hell or High Water,” CBS Films, 2016.