Dominion of Canada

Dominion of Canada is the country's formal — but rarely used — title, first applied to Canada at Confederation in 1867. Today, the word Dominion has fallen away in common usage in both private and government circles.

Conference at Quebec
Conference at Québec in 1864, to settle the basics of a union of the British North American Provinces. Copy of a painting by Robert Harris, 1885. James Ashfield (original painting by Robert Harris) Library and Archives Canada / C-001855


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."

Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley
Samuel Leonard Tilley played the most important role in bringing New Brunswick into Confederation.

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."

Patriation, 1982

When the Canadian government patriated its Constitution from Britain in 1982, the word Dominion did not appear anywhere in the new Constitution Act, 1982, nor in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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.