Dear Madam or Sir,
As we wrote in an earlier post, Canada's eventual independence arose in incremental steps. One of those steps, the 1926 King-Byng Crisis, led to England's increased “hands-off” approach to the Dominion of Canada's governance. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King caused quite a stir when he ignored Governor General Lord Julian Byng of Vimy's order and bulldogged himself right back into office.
Let's start with a quick primer. The Dominion of Canada's first legislative assembly convened six months after England enacted the BNA Act.1 However, the executive power over the Dominion was still vested in the Queen.2 Officially, the Dominion’s Parliament consisted of the Queen, an Upper House (the Senate), and the House of Commons (the federal legislative assembly comprised of Members of Parliament).3 A federal Governor General and provincial Lieutenants Governor were designated as the Queen’s agents in Canada. These Governors would take advice from the Queen’s Privy Council in Canada, which consisted primarily of the members of the federal Cabinet.4
The Queen remained as the head of state, meaning that any legislation passed needed her (or, at a later time, the King's) approval. Therefore, the new Canadian federal legislative bodies had to seek the Queen's “permission” to pass legislation. This was done through Royal Assent, an institution we still have today, where the Governor General signs off on the Queen’s behalf. Citizens (a sign of the times: this meant only male British subjects aged twenty-one or older who owned land in the Dominion)5 in Canada could elect representatives to the House of Commons to bring forward legislation.
Although the Governor General was not required to take the Privy Council's advice in Canada, refusal was was unheard of.6 In 1926, Governor General Byng attempted to tell Prime Minister King what to do, and King subsequently told him where to go. King led a Liberal minority government from 1921 to 1925, when he lost a vote of non-confidence.7 To remain in power, a minority government must conform to a Constitutional Convention, a protocol inherited from the United Kingdom, known as Confidence.8 When “the leading party is defeated in the House on a key (“confidence”) question, ... the Government is expected to resign or seek the dissolution of Parliament in order for a general election to be held.”9
Instead of choosing either of the above options, King, determined as he was, decided to call a meeting in the House of Commons and asked the members to give him their confidence.10 He succeeded, but less than a year later, the Conservative Party “dug up a major scandal in King’s Customs department” during the prohibition of alcohol.11 Officials were accepting bribes and looking the other way when rum-runners and bootleggers were crossing the border! The scandal offended the public and politicians who (previously) supported King.12
To avoid another non-confidence vote, King quickly asked Byng to dissolve Parliament. King wanted to call an election in the hopes of acquiring a majority government or merely initiating a new Parliament. For the first and last time, a Governor General refused to comply with a Prime Minister’s request.13 King resigned, which triggered an election. Despite being known for his gentlemanly demeanour, Byng was so angry that he referred to King as a “scurvy cad”.14 Except for June through September, 1926, when the Conservatives briefly held power, King returned with a majority until 1930.
The Governor General was officially superior to the Privy Council and the Executive Councils but, in reality, the office did not exercise significant power over the new governing bodies. The 1926 Balfour Report and the 1931 Statute of Westminster significantly reduced the actual power of the Governor General to override decisions made by the Privy Council. Stay tuned for future posts on those and other major Canadian moments toward independence.
With most sincere regards,
Editor's Note: this post is under review and may be revised.
1 Constitution Act, 1867 (UK), 30 & 31 Vict, c 3, s 19, reprinted in RSC 1985, Appendix II, No 5.
2 Ibid, s 9.
3 Ibid, s 17.
4 Ibid, s 10-12.
5 Ibid, s 41.
6 Matthew B Anderson, “The King/Byng Crisis”, Canadian Autonomy (2011), online: <canadianautonomy.webnode.com/the-king-byng-crisis>.
8 Elise Hurtubise-Loranger, “Constitutional Conventions”, Topical Information for Parliamentarians, (Library of Parliament, 11 Jul 2006), online: <www.lop.parl.gc.ca/content/lop/TeachersInstitute/ConstitutionalConventions.pdf>.
9 Anderson, supra note 6.
12 Jamie Bradburn, “Historicist: King vs Meighen for the Fate of Canada”, Torontoist (27 Sep 2015), online: <torontoist.com/2015/09/historicist-king-vs-meighen-for-the-fate-of-canada>.
14 Bradburn, supra note 12.