In English common law, the dominions of the Crown referred to all the realms and territories under the sovereignty of the Crown, e.g. the Order-in-Council annexing Cyprus in 1914 provided that "... the said Island shall be annexed to and form part of His Majesty's Dominions and the said Island is annexed accordingly".
Use of the word dominion, to refer to a particular territory, dates back to the 16th century, and was used to describe Wales from 1535 to around 1800. Dominion, as an official title, was first conferred on Virginia, circa 1660 and the Dominion of New England in 1686. These dominions never had semi-autonomous or self-governing status. Canada received the title upon Confederation in 1867 of several British colonies in North America.
The Imperial Conference of 1907 was the first time the self-governing colonies of Canada and the Commonwealth of Australia would be referred to together as "Dominions". Two other self-governing colonies, New Zealand and Newfoundland, were also granted the title that year. They were followed by South Africa (1910) and the Irish Free State (1922).
Dominion status was officially defined in the Balfour Declaration (1926) and in the Statute of Westminster (1931), which recognized these territories as "autonomous Communities within the British Empire," establishing these states as equals to the United Kingdom, making them essentially independent members of the Commonwealth of Nations. Following the Second World War, the decline of British colonialism led to Dominions generally being referred to as Commonwealth realms, the use of the word gradually diminished within these countries after this time. Nonetheless, though disused, it remains Canada's legal title; moreover, the phrase Her Majesty's Dominions continues occasionally in modern legal usage in the UK.
Australia and New Zealand were designated dominions in 1907. The Australian Constitutions Act 1850 established the machinery for the four then existing Australian colonies (namely New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia and South Australia) to establish Parliaments and responsible government once certain conditions had been met; it also provided for the separation of Victoria from New South Wales and its establishment as a separate colony (which occurred in 1851) with similar capacity to attain self-government. New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and Tasmania, along with New Zealand, attained responsible government soon after in 1856; self-government for Western Australia was delayed until 1891, mainly because of continuing financial dependence on Britain. Queensland was separated from New South Wales and established as a separate colony in 1859. This left a large piece of territory in northern Australia still technically part of NSW though physically separated from it. This territory was transferred in part to Queensland and the remainder to South Australia in 1863 -- the South Australian section being eventually transferred to the Commonwealth of Australia as the federal Northern Territory in 1911.
South Africa became a dominion in 1910. Its colonies had become self-governing earlier, with the Cape Colony being the first in 1872; this was followed by Natal (1893), Transvaal (1906), and the Orange River Colony (1907).
Constitutional scholar Andrew Heard clearly establishes that Confederation in no way changed Canada's colonial status to anything approaching its later dominion status.
The assertiveness of the self-governing colonies was recognised in the Imperial Conference of 1907, which implicitly introduced the idea of the Dominion as a self-governing colony by referring to Canada and Australia as Dominions. It also retired the name "Colonial Conference" and mandated that meetings take place regularly to consult Dominions in the running the foreign affairs of the empire.
The Colony of New Zealand, which chose not to take part in Australian federation, quickly became the Dominion of New Zealand on 26 September 1907; Newfoundland became a Dominion on the same day. The newly-created Union of South Africa would also be referred to as a Dominion in 1910.
Until 1931, Newfoundland was referred to as a colony of the United Kingdom, as for example, in the 1927 reference to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council to delineate the Quebec-Labrador boundary. Full autonomy was granted by the United Kingdom parliament with the Statute of Westminster in December 1931. However, the government of Newfoundland "requested the United Kingdom not to have sections 2 to 6[—]confirming Dominion status[—]apply automatically to it[,] until the Newfoundland Legislature first approved the Statute, approval which the Legislature subsequently never gave." In any event, Newfoundland's letters patent of 1934 suspended self-government and instituted a "Commission of Government," which continued until Newfoundland became a province of Canada in 1949. It is the view of some constitutional lawyers that—although Newfoundland chose not to exercise all of the functions of a Dominion like Canada—its status as a Dominion was "suspended" in 1934, rather than "revoked" or "abolished".
Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland and South Africa (prior to becoming a republic and leaving the Commonwealth in 1961), with their large populations of European descent, were sometimes collectively referred to as the "White Dominions." Today Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom are sometimes referred to collectively as the "White Commonwealth."
The United Kingdom and its component parts never aspired to the title of "Dominion," remaining anomalies within the network of free and independent equal members of the empire and Commonwealth. However the idea has on occasions been floated by some in Northern Ireland as an alternative to a United Ireland if they felt uncomfortable within the United Kingdom.
Dominion is the legal title conferred on Canada in the Constitution of Canada, namely the Constitution Act, 1867 (British North America Acts), and describes the resulting political union. Specifically, the preamble of the BNA Act indicates:
and, furthermore, sections 3 and 4 indicate that the provinces:
Usage of the term Dominion of Canada was sanctioned as the country's formal political name, and some still read the BNA Act passage as specifying this phrase – rather than Canada alone – as the name. The term Dominion of Canada does not appear in the 1867 act nor in the Constitution Act, 1982 but does appear in the Constitution Act, 1871, other contemporaneous texts, and subsequent bills. References to the Dominion of Canada in later acts, such as the Statute of Westminster, do not clarify the point because all nouns were formally capitalised in British legislative style. Indeed, in the original text of the BNA Act, "One" and "Name" were also capitalised.
Starting in the 1950s, the federal government began to phase out the use of Dominion, which had been used largely as a synonym of "federal" or "national" such as "Dominion building" for a post office, "Dominion-provincial relations", and so on. The last major change was renaming the national holiday from Dominion Day to Canada Day in 1982. Official bilingualism laws also contributed to the disuse of dominion, as it has no acceptable equivalent in French.
While the term may be found in older official documents, and the Dominion Carillonneur still tolls at Parliament Hill, it is rarely used any more to distinguish the federal government from the provinces or (historically) Canada before and after 1867. Nonetheless, the federal government continues to produce publications and educational materials that specify the currency of these official titles.
Defenders of the title Dominion — including monarchists who see signs of creeping republicanism in Canada — take comfort in the fact that the Canadian Constitution Act, 1982 does not mention and therefore does not remove the title, and that a constitutional amendment would be required to change it.
The word Dominion has been used with other agencies, laws, and roles:
Toronto-Dominion Bank (founded as the Bank of Toronto in 1855), Dominion Stores (founded in 1927, to be renamed as Metro stores beginning in August 2008), and the Dominion Institute (created in 1997) are notable Canadian corporations not affiliated with government that use Dominion as a part of their corporate name.
India acquired responsible government in 1909, though the first Parliament did not meet until 1919. India and Pakistan separated as independent dominions in 1947. India became a republic in 1950 and Pakistan adopted a republican form of government in 1956.
The Irish Free State was a British Dominion between 1922 and 1937. In the 1930s the Irish stopped participating at Commonwealth conferences and events. In 1937 the Irish people established a new state with name Ireland under a new constitution. However, the United Kingdom and other members of the Commonwealth continued to regard Ireland as being a dominion owing to the unusual role accorded to the British Monarch under the Irish External Relations Act. Ultimately, however, Ireland's Oireachtas passed the Republic of Ireland Act which came into force in 1949 and unequivocally ended Ireland's links with the British Monarch and the Commonwealth.
Upon the establishment of the Irish Free State on 6 December 1922, Northern Ireland provisionally became an autonomous part of the Irish Free State, the new Dominion. However, as was widely expected at the time, the Parliament of Northern Ireland chose, under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, to opt out of the Irish Free State and back into the United Kingdom the following day.
The colony of Newfoundland enjoyed responsible government from 1855-1934. It was among the colonies to be declared dominions in 1907. Following the recommendations of a Royal Commission, parliamentary government was suspended in 1934. In 1949, the Dominion of Newfoundland joined Canada and the legislature was restored.
The New Zealand Constitution Act 1852 gave the colony of New Zealand its own Parliament (General Assembly) and home rule in 1852. In 1907 New Zealand was proclaimed the Dominion of New Zealand. It adopted the Statute of Westminster in 1947. The Constitution Act 1986 repealed the Constitution Act of 1852 and accorded full legal independence from the United Kingdom.
South Africa was formed from the 1910 union of the self-governing colonies of the Cape of Good Hope, Natal, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State (the last two were former Boer republics ). The South Africa Act 1909 gave the Union a Parliament consisting of a Senate and a House of Assembly. The provinces had their own legislatures. In 1961 the Union of South Africa left the Commonwealth and adopted a new constitution.
Although the Dominions had had no formal voice in declaring war, each became a separate signatory of the June 1919 peace Treaty of Versailles, which had been negotiated by a British-led united Empire delegation. In September 1922, Dominion reluctance to support British military action against Turkey influenced Britain's decision to seek a compromise settlement. Diplomatic autonomy soon followed, with the U.S.-Canadian Halibut Fisheries Agreement (March 1923) marking the first international treaty negotiated and concluded entirely independently by a Dominion. The Dominions Section of the Colonial Office was upgraded in June 1926 to a separate Dominions Office. However, initially the same person was appointed as the Secretary of State for the Colonies.
The principle of Dominion equality with Britain and independence in foreign relations was formally recognised by the Balfour Declaration adopted at the Imperial Conference of November 1926. Canada's first permanent diplomatic mission to a foreign country opened in Washington, DC in 1927. In 1928, Canada obtained the appointment of a British high commissioner in Ottawa, separating the administrative and diplomatic functions of the governor-general and ending the latter's anomalous role as the representative of the British government in relations between the two countries. The Dominions Office was given a separate secretary of state in June 1930, though this was entirely for domestic political reasons given the need to relieve the burden on one ill minister whilst moving another away from unemployment policy. The Balfour Declaration was enshrined in the Statute of Westminster 1931 when it was adopted by the British Parliament and subsequently ratified by the Dominion legislatures.
Britain's declaration of hostilities against Germany on 3 September 1939 tested the issue. Most took the view that the declaration did not commit the Dominions. Ireland chose to remain neutral. At the other extreme, the conservative Australian government of the day, led by Robert Menzies, took the view that, since Australia had not adopted the Statute of Westminster, it was legally bound by the UK declaration of war—which had also been the view at the outbreak of World War I — although this was contentious within Australia. Between these two extremes, New Zealand declared that as Britain was or would be at war, so it was too. This was, however, a matter of political choice rather than legal necessity. Canada issued its own declaration of war after a recall of Parliament, as did South Africa after a delay of several days (South Africa - September 6, Canada - September 10). Ireland, which had negotiated the removal of British forces from its territory the year before, chose to remain neutral throughout the war. There were soon signs of growing independence from the other Dominions: Australia opened a diplomatic mission in the US in 1940, as did New Zealand in 1941, and Canada's mission in Washington gained embassy status in 1943.
World War II, which fatally undermined Britain's already weakened commercial and financial leadership, further loosened the political ties between Britain and the Dominions. Australian Prime Minister John Curtin's unprecedented action (February 1942) in successfully countermanding an order from Churchill that Australian troops be diverted to defend British-held Burma (the 7th Division was then en route from the Middle East to Australia to defend against an expected Japanese invasion) demonstrated that dominion governments might no longer subordinate their own national interests to British strategic perspectives. To ensure that Australia had full legal power to act independently, particularly in relation to foreign affairs, defence industry and military operations, and to validate its past independent action in these areas, Australia formally adopted the Statute of Westminster in October 1942 and backdated the adoption to the start of the war in September 1939.
The Dominions Office merged with the India Office as the Commonwealth Relations Office upon the independence of India and Pakistan in August 1947. The last country to be officially made a Dominion was Ceylon in 1948. The term "Dominion" fell out of general use thereafter. Ireland ceased to be a member of the Commonwealth on 1 April 1949, following proclamation of the Republic of Ireland Act. This formally signaled the end of the former dependencies' common constitutional connection to the British crown. India also adopted a republican constitution in January 1950. Unlike many dependencies which became republics, Ireland never re-joined the Commonwealth and agreed to accept the British Monarch as head of that association of independent states.
The independence of the separate realms was emphasised after the accession of Queen Elizabeth II in 1952, when she was proclaimed not just as Queen of the UK, but also Queen of Canada, Queen of Australia, Queen of New Zealand, and of all her other "realms and territories" etc. This also reflected the change from Dominion to realm; in the proclamation of Queen Elizabeth II's new titles in 1953, the phrase "of her other Realms and Territories," replaced "Dominion" with another mediaeval French word with the same connotation, "realm" (from royaume). Thus, recently, when referring to one of those sixteen countries within the Commonwealth of Nations that share the same monarch, the term Commonwealth realm has come into common usage instead of Dominion to differentiate the Commonwealth nations that continue to share the monarch as head of state (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Jamaica, etc.) from those which do not (India, Pakistan, South Africa, etc.). The term "Dominion" is still to be found in the Canadian constitution where it appears numerous times; however, it is largely a vestige of the past, as the Canadian government does not actively use it (see Canada section). The term "realm" does not appear in the Canadian constitution. Present-day general usage prefers the term realm because it includes the United Kingdom as well, emphasising equality, and no one nation being subordinate to any other. Dominion, however, as a title, technically remains a term that can be used in reference those self-governing countries within the Commonwealth of Nations, other than the United Kingdom itself, that are in a personal union relationship with the UK.
The generic language of dominion, however, did not cease in relation to the Sovereign. It was, and is, used to describe those territories in which the Monarch exercises her sovereignty, the phrase Her Majesty's dominions being a legal and constitutional term used to refer to all the realms and territories of the Sovereign, whether independent or not. Thus, for example, the British Ireland Act, 1949 recognised that the Republic of Ireland had "ceased to be part of His Majesty’s dominions." When dependent territories which had never been annexed (that is, were not colonies of the Crown), but were protectorates or trust territories (of the United Nations) were granted independence, the United Kingdom act granting independence always declared that such and such a territory "shall form part of Her Majesty’s dominions"; become part of the territory in which the Queen exercises sovereignty, not merely suzerainty.
Many of the distinctive characteristics which once pertained only to Dominions are now shared by other states in the Commonwealth, whether they are republics, independent realms, self-governing colonies or Crown colonies. Even in a historical sense the differences between self-governing colonies and Dominions have often been formal rather than substantial.