Canada’s first declaration of war

By J. Andrew Ross

Among the rarest documents at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) are those signed by Canada’s monarchs, and they represent some of the most important moments in the nation’s history. As part of our digitization programme, we recently scanned one such document that resides in the Ernest Lapointe fonds: a single sheet of paper that marks Canada’s entry into the Second World War.

A typed, one-page document asking the the king to authorize a proclamation of war on the German Reich on September 10, 1939.

Submission requesting the king’s approval to issue a proclamation declaring a state of war with the German Reich, September 10, 1939 (Ernest Lapointe fonds, e011202191)

Signed by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, the document is a request for permission to issue a proclamation declaring war against the German Reich. The king indicated his approval with a handwritten “Approved” and a signature: “George R[ex]. I[mperator].” Though a seemingly straightforward document, the date—September 10, 1939—raises a question. While this was indeed the day Canada declared war, as Lester Pearson (then working at Canada’s High Commission in London) observed, “some historian of the future will wonder how George VI and Mackenzie King could have been together on September 10th 1939.” (Pearson, Memoirs, 139) In the era before supersonic transatlantic air travel and the wireless transmission of documents it would have been impossible for Mackenzie King (in Ottawa) and the King George VI (in London) to have signed the same document on the same day.

The answer to this conundrum can be found in LAC’s collections, and further research shows that this document was just one of several that had to be created to resolve a problem Canadian officials had never encountered before: How do we declare war?

As the prospect of Germany invading its neighbours grew in 1939, Canada expected to have a role in the resulting conflict. Unlike the onset of the First World War, when British dominions like Canada had been assumed to be included in the British declaration of belligerency against the Central Powers, Canada now had the option of making its own decision. In 1926, the Balfour Declaration had established that the United Kingdom and the dominions were now autonomous in domestic or external affairs, and this had been formally enshrined in the Statute of Westminster of 1931.

Fast forward to September 1939. As the Blitzkrieg rolled across Poland, prompting the UK to declare war against the German Reich on September 3rd, it was now up to Canada to decide its own fate—to join in, or to stay neutral. Most Canadians generally understood that Canada would be involved, if not militarily then at the very least economically, but Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King wanted parliament to formally endorse the decision to enter the war. It did so on Saturday, September 9th.

Major policy announcements such as declarations of war also required a formal proclamation to be issued by the governor general on the advice of the Cabinet of Canada. This advice was in the form of a formal request signed by a cabinet minister, called a submission, to the governor general. To issue a proclamation in this case, there were two obstacles to overcome.

First, despite the independence given by the Statute of Westminster to Canada to make its own decision to go to war, it turned out that the Canadian governor general himself did not actually have the power to approve a proclamation declaring war, so the government required the permission of George VI himself, as king of Canada. After the House of Commons vote on September 9th, the Department of External Affairs asked Canada’s high commissioner to Great Britain, Vincent Massey, to arrange an audience with the king to get His Majesty’s signature on a document approving the issue of the proclamation. On the morning of September 10th, Massey hopped into his son Hart’s sports car and was driven to see the king at the Royal Lodge, the monarch’s country retreat on the grounds of Windsor Castle. Massey got the royal signature and cabled the news back to Ottawa, where Mackenzie King was anxiously awaiting the news and convincing himself that “the enemy” might have contrived “to destroy the [transatlantic] cable between Canada and England.” (WLMK Diary)

The other obstacle was that the two-page document that the king had approved had been written out in longhand from a telegram and was not signed by a cabinet minister, as was required. For this reason, External Affairs referred to this as an “informal approval” document and promised that a formal (signed) submission would soon follow.

Even before the king’s approval had been received, the proclamation had been drawn up and signed by Governor General Lord Tweedsmuir (in the name of the king), Prime Minister Mackenzie King, and Minister of Justice Ernest Lapointe.

A proclamation, bearing the Great Seal of Canada, announcing that Canada was at war against the German Reich.

Proclamation of war against the German Reich, September 10, 1939. Note that the day (“tenth”) is handwritten in the document (Registrar General sous-fonds, e011202192)

The staff of the Government Printing Bureau also produced a published version as an “Extra” edition of The Canada Gazette, the official organ for conveying government announcements. The Printing Bureau staff were locked into their office on Saturday and Sunday, to preserve secrecy, and were released only after the arrival of the published Gazette at the offices of External Affairs (then in East Block on Parliament Hill). The time of delivery was 12:35 p.m. EDT (another source says 12:40 p.m.), and by pre-arrangement this was agreed to be the moment that Canada could be considered to be officially at war against the German Reich.

But was it?

A printed, bilingual declaration of war against the German Reich bearing three signatures across the page.

The Canada Gazette “Extra”, September 10, 1939, the published version of the proclamation of war against the German Reich. Curiously, this copy is autographed by Tweedsmuir, Mackenzie King, and Lapointe (Arnold Danford Patrick Heeney fonds, e011198135)

On October 24th, six weeks after Canada’s announcement, Massey cabled External Affairs asking when the formal submission with a minister’s signature would be received, as had been promised. The king’s private secretary, Sir Alexander Hardinge, had told Massey he was concerned that “the document which the King signed on the basis of cabled representations may well have no constitutional validity owing the fact that it did not and could not bear the actual signature of the minister.” In other words, there was some question as to whether Canada was technically at war at all.

External Affairs went into action and sent a typewritten document signed by the prime minister and backdated to September 10th. King George VI signed this on November 27th and returned it to Ottawa. So it took two-and-a-half months after Canada had declared war for the official documents to catch up to the event!

In the end, there are four key items that document Canada’s first declaration of war: the informal approval created from a telegram and signed by King George VI; the proclamation issued by the governor general; the “Extra” of The Canada Gazette; and the backdated formal submission signed by both Mackenzie King and the king. Three of these documents reside in LAC’s collections and are reproduced above, but the whereabouts of the first—the informal approval from the King—is unknown. There is a clue, however: we know that over the fall and winter of 1939–1940 Massey had actually refused several requests to send the document back to Canada, saying that Buckingham Palace did not want it “embodied in the records of the Canadian government” because of its dubious constitutional status (Pearson, Memoirs, p. 140). Lester Pearson, who was second-in-command to Massey, later wrote that he understood that the document had remained in London, “though whether in the possession of His Majesty or the Canadian High Commissioner, I never learned.” (Ibid.)


By J. Andrew Ross, archivist in the Government Archives Division, with contributions from Geneviève Couture, archival assistant in the Private Archives Branch, Library and Archives Canada.

2 thoughts on “Canada’s first declaration of war

  1. I was very interested to read this, as I did my PhD thesis on the British Dominions and the Coming of War, 1 October 1938 – 11 September 1939, & it’s always interesting to see the documents again. I also love how the statesmen of the day seem to have taken a fairly cavalier attitude towards state papers, just lumping them in with their own. My understanding, however, was that Mackenzie King sought the King’s direct participation, not because the Governor General couldn’t declare war [His Excellency’s statement only indicates it would be preferable if the King did it, not that it was outside the GG’s powers (William Lyon Mackenzie King, Diary, 9 September 1939, p.4], but to appeal to Quebec (Ibid., p.2) & to enhance Canada’s status (Ibid., p. 13).

    • The “lumping” is interesting, but it is not unusual for the border between minister’s papers (considered “private” records) and those of the department (considered government records) to be rather fluid. They often overlap, even in modern governments. As to the King’s direct participation, although it seems clear from the Diaries that Mackenzie King thought the GG was an option, he and his advisors seem to have been unaware of the limited powers of the GG, who only acquired the prerogative to proclaim war in 1977. Though not quite cavalier, this speaks once again to how the novelty of the situation may have resulted in a less-than-thorough appreciation of all its legal elements. (And thank you for the reference to your dissertation – I will look it up.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.