They Can Count On Canada! Canadian Contributions to the Commonwealth

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Formed in 1931, The Commonwealth of Nations, in which all members are equal, stands for justice, freedom democracy and human rights. Within our nation, Canadians have continually been strong supporters of the Commonwealth, providing expertise, manpower, and funds to help its growth. But even before the Commonwealth, Canada’s historic involvement within the British Empire helped birth the Commonwealth’s vision of today, which sustains a Commonwealth that is peaceful and prosperous with shared values. This is Canada’s story within the British Empire as it evolved into the Commonwealth of yesterday and today. As you will see, the Commonwealth can count on Canada!

Commonwealth Day

Canada's earliest contribution to the Commonwealth dates back to 1898 and the first Empire Day. The idea of Empire Day is credited to Canadian author Clementina Trenholme. Ms. Trenholme organized the first Empire Day that year on the last school day before Queen Victoria's birthday, May 24th, in Dundas, Ontario. Empire Day spread rapidly across Canada and the Empire, often held in conjunction with Victoria Day.

Empire Day in Ottawa, May 24, 1916

From the 1920s onwards, changing attitudes towards empire saw Empire Day fall out of fashion. Renamed Commonwealth Day in 1958, its observance had dwindled by 1973, when Brian Graves, on behalf of the National Council in Canada of the Royal Commonwealth Society, wrote to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau suggesting that Commonwealth Day be held on the same day by all nations of the Commonwealth.

Brian Graves, former Chair of the Royal Commonwealth Society of Canada

Commonwealth Day was a topic of discussion at the Third Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, held in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1975. Canada's proposal of the second Monday in March was agreed to by a meeting of Commonwealth officials the following year in Canberra, Australia. The day was chosen in particular as it would not clash with other national holidays and would be a day on which most Commonwealth schoolchildren would be in class.

A Commonwealth Day service in Toronto

In Canada, the Royal Union Flag is flown at federal government buildings and establishments from dawn to dusk to commemorate the occasion. Commonwealth Day ceremonies and interfaith services are also held by Royal Commonwealth Society branches from coast to coast.

The Friendly Games

Every four years, Commonwealth Day spectators at Buckingham Palace witness a special ceremony: the launch of the Queen's Baton Relay. The baton, which contains a message from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Head of the Commonwealth, then departs on a year-long journey to the next host city of the Commonwealth Games - a journey that began in Canada.

Commonwealth Games founder Melville Marks "Bobby" Robinson

Dating back to the 1890s, the idea of an inter-Empire athletic tournament first saw life as an attraction at the Festival of the Empire in London in 1911. However, it wasn't until 1930 that a standalone event came to be through the efforts of Bobby Robinson, a sports journalist with the Hamilton Spectator.

The opening ceremony of the 1930 British Empire Games

The first British Empire Games opened on August 16, 1930 at Civic Stadium in Hamilton, Ontario. Over the next week, 400 athletes from 11 nations competed in 59 events. A municipal pool hosted aquatic events and a local school served as the first athletes village. Host nation Canada placed second at the medal table, winning 54 medals (20 of them gold).

The Games grew from these humble origins to feature over 270 events with thousands of competitors. Renamed in 1978, the Commonwealth Games are held every four years. Canada has hosted the Games three times since their inauguration: in Vancouver in 1954, in Edmonton in 1978, and in Victoria in 1994.

Of the original venues in Hamilton, only the municipal pool, renamed in honour of 1930 gold medalist James Thompson, remains. Civic Stadium, later Ivor Wynne Stadium, was demolished in 2012 and replaced by Tim Hortons Field, home of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League. M.M. Robinson High School, named in honour of the Games' founder, opened in the neighbouring city of Burlington in 1963.

The Commonwealth Flag

The second Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting was held in Ottawa in August 1973. Hosted by Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the meeting was notable for the unveiling of a new symbol for the Commonwealth.

Arnold Smith, first Secretary General of the Commonwealth, and Pierre Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada 1968-1979; 1980-1984

Prime Minister Trudeau and fellow Canadian diplomat Arnold Smith, the first Secretary General of the Commonwealth, designed pennants to fly from the cars used by diplomats attending the meeting. Bearing a symbol created by Gemini News Service the previous year, the design of those pennants evolved into the first Commonwealth flag, officially adopted by the Commonwealth Secretariat in 1976.

The current Commonwealth flag, adopted in 2013

Revised in 2013, the Commonwealth flag continues to fly over Marlborough House, headquarters of the Commonwealth Secretariat in London, and over countries the world over every Commonwealth Day.

A Learning Experience

The Commonwealth strives to improve cooperation between nations through its citizens’ education and opportunities to help foster cultural understanding - a mission Canada has been at the forefront of for decades.

LEFT: Dr. Sidney Smith, president of the University of Toronto 1949-1957. RIGHT: Professor Tom Symons, founding president of Trent University

In 1956, Dr. Sidney Smith, president of the University of Toronto and later Secretary of State for External Affairs under Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, shared his vision of a "Grand Britannic Plan" for the exchange of Commonwealth students with one of his fellows, Professor Tom Symons. Invited by Dr. Smith to brainstorm ideas of what form this exchange could take, Professor Symons drafted a proposal in which participating Commonwealth governments would fund scholarships for students choosing to study at their colleges and universities.

Mark Carney at the 2013 World Economic Forum

Brought to the attention of the first Commonwealth Education Conference in 1959, the proposal evolved into the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan. Over 1,500 Canadians alone have benefitted from the Plan, including Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of Canada and current governor of the Bank of England.

The proposal would also launch a lifelong association with the Commonwealth for Professor Symons, who would become the founding president of Trent University in 1963. In addition to chairing the Plan's Canadian committee from 1983 to 1987, Professor Symons would also serve as chair of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) from 1971 to 1972 and as chair of the Commission on Commonwealth Studies from 1995 to 1996. The ACU Symons Award, honouring individuals who have contributed to the Association or to higher education in the Commonwealth, was established in 1973.

The Tenth Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in 1987

Diplomats in attendance at the 1987 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kelowna, British Columbia, were presented with a report entitled Towards a Commonwealth of Learning: A proposal to create the University of the Commonwealth for Co-operation in Distance Learning. This report, authored by a committee led by Lord Briggs of Oxford University, and another from a committee chaired by Sir John Daniel, persuaded Commonwealth leaders to establish a new organization that would use open learning and distance education in conjunction with new communication technologies to help Commonwealth countries extend quality education access to people with limited or no face to face learning options.

Flora MacDonald, left, with a visit of diplomats to the Commonwealth of Learning headquarters in 1991

Guided by this vision, the Commonwealth of Learning began operations in 1989 with the strong support of the Honourable Flora MacDonald, Canada’s first female Minister of External Affairs under Prime Minister Joe Clark. The Commonwealth of Learning offers a variety of programs and resources to Commonwealth teachers, from professional and skills development to collaboration in higher education. One of the Commonwealth of Learning's most innovative developments is Aptus, a mobile device that provides digital learning materials to classrooms not connected to the internet or the power grid.

The Commonwealth of Learning remains the world’s only intergovernmental organization solely concerned with the promotion and development of distance education and open learning, and is funded in large part by the Government of Canada. Headquartered in Burnaby, British Columbia, it holds the distinction of being the first Commonwealth agency to not be headquartered in London.

The Royal Commonwealth Society has matched the Commonwealth's dedication to learning and youth mentorship. Youth across Canada have benefitted from its programs, including the National Commonwealth Student Forum and the Commonwealth-wide Queen's Commonwealth Essay Competition. The RCS is also a partner in the Queen's Young Leaders program, which celebrates young people across the Commonwealth who are taking the lead in their communities and using their skills to transform lives.

"They Can Count on Canada"

In December 1984, three months after being elected prime minister, Brian Mulroney hosted Archbishop Desmond Tutu at his office facing Parliament Hill. Seeking advice on how best to join the fight against apartheid in South Africa, Mr. Mulroney instructed the Archbishop to tell his colleagues "They can count on Canada!"

Archbishop Desmond Tutu addressing the Freedom Rally in London's Hyde Park in 1988

Canada was an opponent of apartheid, South Africa's program of racial segregation, as early as 1961. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, attending the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Meeting in London that March, made a bold move in the debate over whether South Africa, recently declared a republic, should remain in the Commonwealth. Amid a split in opinion among the prime ministers, Mr. Diefenbaker proposed that South Africa could be readmitted to the Commonwealth only if it joined the other members in agreeing in principle to condemn segregation. Admitting defeat, South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth.

Queen Elizabeth II with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney

For the next thirty years, Canada would be a leader in the fight against apartheid, reaching its peak under the Mulroney government. Prime Minister Mulroney's policy of sanctions against South Africa set him at odds with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. With a split in the Commonwealth looming, Mr. Mulroney, acting under the personal direction of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, collaborated with other Commonwealth leaders to draft the Nassau Accord at the 1985 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in the Bahamas. Under the terms of the agreement, leaders created an Eminent Persons Group to investigate ways to bring apartheid to an end and called on the South African government to hasten its abolition, promising economic sanctions should the call go unanswered after six months.

Throughout the campaign, the Royal Commonwealth Society stood firmly alongside those fighting for apartheid's end. The African National Congress was offered use of the Commonwealth Club, the RCS' former London headquarters, as a base of operations in the United Kingdom. After his release from prison in February 1990, ANC leader Nelson Mandela recognized the RCS' work by conducting his first press conference in Europe at their offices. Later that year, while touring Canada, Mr. Mandela likewise offered his gratitude for the country's support and proclaimed "We are confident that victory is in sight".

A service at Westminster Abbey to recognize South Africa's return to the Commonwealth

The chain reaction that followed the Nassau Accord and subsequent imposition of sanctions brought an end to South Africa's system of apartheid in 1991. In 1994, 33 years after withdrawing, South Africa rejoined the Commonwealth under newly-elected President Nelson Mandela. That August, in Victoria, British Columbia, South African athletes competed in the Commonwealth Games for the first time since 1958.

Our Future together

The Royal Commonwealth Society, founded in 1868, is a network of individuals of all ages committed to improving the lives and prospects of Commonwealth citizens. Through youth empowerment, education and advocacy, RCS branches across the country promote the value and the values of the Commonwealth through the many youth programs, international fora, educational events, fundraisers and social gatherings. RCS members are interested in the world around them and are devoted to making it better.

Enlighten a better world – become an RCS Member today!

In memory of Brian Graves (1925 - 2014)

Photo Credits:

Archives of Ontario ▪︎ Commonwealth Games Federation of Canada

Commonwealth of Learning ▪︎ Commonwealth Secretariat

Foreign and Commonwealth Office ▪︎ Library and Archives Canada

"Montrealais" ▪︎ Salome Reynolds ▪︎ Toronto Archives

Trent University ▪︎ World Economic Forum

Special thanks to all Royal Commonwealth Society of Canada branches

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