Canada–United Kingdom relations

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British–Canadian relations
Map indicating locations of Canada and United Kingdom


United Kingdom

British–Canadian relations are the relations between Canada and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, being bilateral relations between their governments and wider relations between the two societies. The two countries have intimate and frequently cooperative contact; they are related through mutal migration, through shared military history, through a shared system of government, through language, through the Commonwealth of Nations, and their sharing of the same Head of State and monarch. Despite this shared legacy, the two nations have grown apart economically, socially, and therefore politically: Britain has not been Canada's largest trading partner since the nineteenth century and the two nations are now in separate trade blocs, the European Union and North American Free Trade Agreement respectively. Both countries have experienced mass immigration from non-Western countries since the mid twentieth century, diluting the former ethnic ties between the populations. Both countries have revised their national indenities in response to critiques from disaffected regions (Quebec, Scotland, Western Canada, Wales), classes, and ethnic minorities (Aboriginal Canadians, Black Britons) is way that challenges the racial Anglo-Saxonism that once united the ruling classes of both countries. Though still close allies militarily, it is no longer a given that that Canada will follow Britain's lead in international conflicts, as it was before the world wars.


British-Canadian relations are characterized by a long history of extremely close ties, although not always as equals. Before Canadian Confederation in 1867, Canada was a collection of British colonies, and after that date an autonomous, but not fully sovereign, Dominion. As Canada became sovereign, direct bilateral ties were loosened, but both countries continued to be allies, and after the second World War both countries became small parts of the much larger Western Bloc.

The history of relations between Canada and Britain well into the 20th Century is really the story of Canada's slow evolution towards full sovereignty.

In 1759, Britain conquered New France, and, after the Treaty of Paris (1763), began to populate formerly-French Canada with English-speaking settlers. British governors ruled these new territories absolutely until the Constitutional Act of 1791, which created the first Canadian legislatures. These weak bodies were still inferior to the governors until the granting of responsible government in 1848. With their new powers, the colonies chose to federate in 1867, creating a new state, Canada, with the new title of Dominion.

The constitution of the new Canadian federation left foreign affairs to the Imperial Parliament in Westminster, but the leaders of the federal parliament in Ottawa soon developed their own viewpoints on some issues, notably relations between the British Empire and the United States. Stable relations and secure trade with the United States were becoming increasingly vital to Canada, — so much so that historians have said that Canada's early diplomacy constituted a "North Atlantic triangle".

Most of Canada's early attempts at diplomacy necessarily involved the "mother country". Canada's first (informal) diplomatic officer was Sir John Rose, who was sent to London by Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. George Brown was subsequently dispatched to Washington by Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie to influence British-American trade talks. The British government desired to formalise Canada's representation abroad rather than deal with so many informal lobbyists, and so, in 1880, Alexander Tilloch Galt became the first High Commissioner sent from a Dominion to Britain.

When it came time to respond to imperial conflicts, Canada maintained a low profile, especially during the Sudan Campaign. When Britain sided with the US during the Alaska boundary dispute, it marked a low point in pro-British sentiment in Canada. By the time of the Boer War, however, Canadians volunteered to fight for the Empire in large numbers despite the lukewarm support of the government of Wilfred Laurier, the first French-Catholic prime minister.

Economically, Canadian governments were interested in free trade with the United States; however, since this was difficult to negotiate and politically divisive, they became leading advocates of imperial preference, which met with limited enthusiasm in Britain.

At the outbreak of World War I, the Canadian government and millions of Canadian volunteers enthusiastically joined Britain's side, but the sacrifices of the war, and the fact they were made in the name of the British Empire, caused domestic tension in Canada, and awakened a budding nationalism in Canadians. At the Paris Peace Conference, Canada demanded the right to sign treaties without British permission and to join the League of Nations. By the 1920s, Canada was taking a more independent stance on world affairs.

In 1926, through the Balfour Declaration, Britain declared that she would no longer legislate for the Dominions, and that they were now fully independent states with the right to conduct their own foreign affairs. This was later formalised by the Statute of Westminster 1931.

Loyalty to Britain still existed, however, and during the darkest days of the Second World War for Britain, after the fall of France and before the entry of the Soviet Union or the USA, Canada was Britain's principal ally in the North Atlantic, and a major source of weapons and food. However, the war showed that the Imperial alliance between Britain, Canada, and the other Dominions was no longer a dominant global power, not being able to prevent Hong Kong from being overrun by Japan, and narrowly avoiding a German invasion of Britain itself.

Owing to the destruction of much of Europe, Canada's relative economic and military importance was at a peak in the late 1940s, just as Britain's was declining. Both were dwarfed by the new superpowers, however, policymakers in both Britain and Canada were eager to participate in a lasting alliance with the United States for protection from the Soviet Union, which resulted in the creation of NATO in 1949. So while Britain and Canada were allies both before 1949 and after, before this it was part of a British-dominated Imperial alliance, whereas after it has always been a small part of a much broader Western Bloc where the United States is by far the most powerful member. This means that the strategic and political importance of military ties between the UK and Canada are much lower than British-American or Canadian-American ties. This is easily observed by Canada's participation in the NORAD scheme with the US for the common defence of North American airspace.

The definitive break in Canada's loyalist foreign policy came during the Suez Crisis of 1956 when the Canadian government flatly rejected calls from the British government for support of the latter's invasion of Egypt. Eventually, Canada helped the British (and their French and Israeli accomplices) to save face while extracting themselves from a public relations disaster. The Canadian delegation to the UN, led by future prime minister Lester B. Pearson, proposed a peacekeeping force to separate the two warring sides. For this he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Meanwhile Canada's legal separation from Britain continued. The Canadian Citizenship Act 1946 gave Canadians a separate legal nationality from Britain. Canadians could no longer appeal court cases to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London after 1949.

Canada's patriation of its constitution (the ability to amend it without the need to ask the British Parliament to enact the changes), which had been proposed and debated since the 1960s, was achieved with the Constitution Act, 1982. The Act was the final chapter in this lengthy process towards full separation.

In both countries, regional economic ties loomed larger than the historical trans-Atlantic ones. Canada's trade with the US now dwarfed that with the UK. Britain eventually joined the European Economic Community in 1973 (known as the European Union since 1994), and Canada signed a free trade agreement with the United States in 1988, which became the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 with the addition of Mexico. Thus, the two nations are now members of rival trading blocs, though Canada is currently in negotiations with the European Union on a trade treaty.

In September 2012, Canada and the United Kingdom signed a Memorandum of Understanding on diplomatic cooperation, which promotes the co-location of embassies, the joint provision of consular services, and common crisis response. The project has been criticized by some Canadian politicians as giving the appearance of a common foreign policy with the United Kingdom.

Trade and investment[edit]

Despite Canada's long-term shift towards proportionally more trade with the US, Canada–UK trade has continued to grow in absolute numbers and reached an all-time high in 2006. The UK is by far Canada's most important commercial partner in Europe and, from a global perspective, ranks second behind the United States.[1]

In bottom-line terms, two-way merchandise trade between Canada and the UK reached almost C$21 billion in 2006, with two-way investment stocks totaling C$98 billion. The UK accounted for C$10.1 billion of exports from Canada, with gold, uranium and nickel – together with higher exports of aircraft and telecommunications equipment – sitting high on the list. The UK ranks second in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Canada, valued at C$39 billion in 2006, up 29.9 per cent on the previous year. The UK is also the second largest destination of Canadian direct investment abroad, valued at C$59 billion (11.3 per cent of the global total), up 20.7 per cent on 2005, positioning Canada as the third largest investor in the UK, following the US and France.[2]

On 9 February 2011, the boards of the London Stock Exchange and the Toronto Stock Exchange agreed to a deal in which both holding companies for the stock exchanges would merge, creating a leading exchange group with the largest number of listed companies in the world, and a combined market capitalisation of £3.7 trillion (C$5.8 trillion). The merger was ultimately cancelled on 29 June 2011 when it became obvious TMX shareholders would not give the needed two-thirds approval.[3]


In 2004, about 800,000 British residents visited Canada, making the United Kingdom, Canada's second-largest source of tourists after the United States. That same year, UK visitors spent almost C$1 billion while visiting Canada. Britain was the third most-popular international destination for Canadian tourists in 2003, after the United States and Mexico – with some 700,000 visitors spending over C$800 million.[2]

Defense and security[edit]

Both countries are members of NATO. Before 2011, the two countries' main areas of defence cooperation was in Afghanistan, where both were involved in the dangerous southern provinces, however Canada has since withdrawn. However, both have provided air power to the NATO-led mission over Libya.


From the conquest of New France until 1966, Britain remained one of Canada's largest sources of immigrants, usually the largest. Since 1967, when Canadian laws were changed to remove preferences that had been given to Britons and other Europeans, British migration to Canada has continued at a lower level. When the constituent nations of the UK (England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland) are taken together, people of British ancestry still form Canada's largest ethnic group.

Historically, Canadians have travelled to Britain to advance their careers or studies to higher levels than could be done at home. Britain acted as the metropole, to which Canadians gravitated; this function has to a large extent been reduced as the Canadian economy and institutions have developed.


  • Canada's future first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, speaking in 1865, hoped that, if the Canadian colonies created a new federation, then Britain and Canada would have "a healthy and cordial alliance. Instead of looking upon us as a merely dependent colony, Britain will have in us a friendly nation, a subordinate, but still powerful people to stand by her in North America in peace or in war."[4]
  • Speaking many years later at the beginning of the 1891 election (fought mostly over Canadian free trade with the United States), Macdonald said on February 3, 1891: "As for myself, my course is clear. A British subject I was born; a British subject I will die. With my utmost effort, with my latest breath, will I oppose the ‘veiled treason’ which attempts, by sordid means and mercenary proffers, to lure our people from their allegiance."[5]

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