Dominion comes from the Latin dominus, which means master. Dominion — that which is mastered or ruled — was used by the British to describe their colonies or territorial possessions around the globe, centuries before the word was formally applied to the new nation of Canada. For example, Britain's American colonies were often referred to collectively as the Dominion of New England. Today, the nickname of the State of Virginia remains the "Old Dominion" — a title conferred by King Charles II in the mid-17th Century.
In the conferences and negotiations that brought about Confederation, the Fathers of Confederation wanted to call the new nation — then consisting of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Québec and Ontario — the "Kingdom of Canada." The British government feared this, with its imperial-sounding connotations, would offend the Americans, whom — after the stresses of the American Civil War — Britain was anxious not to antagonize. The British insisted on a different title.
New Brunswick's Sir Leonard Tilley suggested "Dominion of Canada." According to the popular story handed down through history, Tilley was inspired by the passage in the Bible from Psalm 72:8, referring to God's dominon: "He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth."
The term Dominion was accepted, and was used several times in the British North America Act, the basis of Canada's Constitution in 1867. Although the phrase "Dominion of Canada" does not actually appear anywhere in the document, the word Dominion does appear several times, including first in the BNA Act preamble:
"Whereas the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick have expressed their Desire to be federally united into One Dominion under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom..."
Canada and Other Dominions
Some of Britain's other self-governing colonies, such as New Zealand, were also given the formal title of Dominion. By the early 20th Century, the term — dominions of the British Empire — was informally used to refer to Canada, Newfoundland, Australia, New Zealand, the Irish Free State and South Africa.
In 1931, the Statute of Westminster, passed by the British parliament, more formally conferred "dominion" status on these six countries — describing them not as colonies, but as independent countries, equal to Britain, but "united in free association (as) members of the British Commonwealth of nations."
Even so, the old BNA Act — now called the Constitution Act, 1867 — remains a part of Canada's comprehensive Constitution, along with the 1982 statute. As such, Dominion of Canada remains the country's formal — if seldom used — national title.