British Subject Status

British subject status was the precursor to Canadian citizenship, which was created on 1 January 1947 with the passage of the Canadian Citizenship Act. Until then, people who were considered Canadian citizens were subjects of the British Empire. In a monarchy, subjects serve the monarch; but in a democracy, the state serves its citizens. Changing Canadians from subjects to citizens provided a fundamental advancement in Canada’s democracy, rule of law, and civil rights. Like the Statute of Westminster in 1931, it was a key step in Canada’s journey toward sovereignty and autonomy from Britain.

Royal Union Flag (1801-1965)


In 1867, Canada took a significant step in its journey toward sovereignty with Confederation and the passage of the British North America Act (now called the Constitution Act, 1867). But it remained part of the British Empire. As a result, Canadians were, and for decades remained, British subjects. At the time, many English Canadians took great pride in this association. For example, the slogan used by the victorious Sir John A. Macdonald in the 1891 federal election was: “A British subject I was born — a British subject I will die.”

Over the next half century, however, various events, treaties and legislative initiatives rendered Canada increasingly more independent of Britain. (See also Treaty of Versailles; Chanak Affair; Halibut Treaty.) Chief among these was the Statute of Westminster (1931). It established Canada and the other British Dominions (see Commonwealth) as autonomous and equal to Britain. Another key event was the Second World War. Like the First World War before it, it inspired nationalism among a growing number of Canadians. Many now believed themselves to be more Canadian than British.

Canadian Citizenship Act (1947)

The Canadian Citizenship Act came into effect on 1 January 1947. It allowed Canadians, for the first time, to be legally designated as Canadian citizens. The first person to register as a Canadian citizen was Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King.

Unlike a subject, a citizen is a member of a political state; they are protected by the state’s laws and enjoy the rights and freedoms afforded by those laws. In a monarchy, subjects serve the monarch. In a democracy, the state serves its citizens. By changing Canadians from subjects to citizens, the Canadian Citizenship Act provided a fundamental advancement in Canada’s democracy, rule of law and civil rights.

Amendments to the Canadian Citizenship Act

Changes made to Canadian citizenship in 1956 granted Indigenous peoples Canadian citizenship. Legislation passed in 1977 clarified and added detail to the definition of Canadian citizenship; it also ended the option of a person being both a Canadian citizen and a British subject.

See also Citizenship Collection; Active Citizenship; Lost Canadians.

Further Reading

  • Valerie Knowles, Forging Our Legacy: Canadian Citizenship and Immigration, 1900–1977 (2000). and Strangers at Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540–2006 (2007).