The Halibut Treaty of 1923 was a Canadian-American agreement on fishing rights in the Pacific Ocean. As the first treaty independently negotiated and signed by the Canadian government, it was one of several landmark events that transitioned Canada into an autonomous sovereign state. The treaty confirmed Canada’s political and economic place in North America. It was also the first environmental treaty targeting the conservation of an ocean fish stock.
Self Government but not Autonomy
The Dominion of Canada was created through an act of the British Parliament. The British North America Act, 1867 (BNA) created self government, a Canadian Parliament, and the position of prime minister, however it did not grant full autonomy to Canada as a nation. Certain powers were maintained by the British Parliament including the right to consent, repeal, and override laws passed through the Canadian Parliament. Meanwhile, acts of the British Parliament would be applicable to Canada.
For the negotiation of treaties, convention held that Britain would have a seat at the table, or at the very least, be a signatory to international treaties involving Canada. Section 132 of the British North American Act concerning treaties states: “The Parliament and Government of Canada shall have all Powers necessary or proper for performing the Obligations of Canada or of any Province thereof, as Part of the British Empire, towards Foreign Countries, arising under Treaties between the Empire and such Foreign Countries.”
By the 20th century, Canada was struggling for greater autonomy from Britain. During the First World War, Prime Minister Robert Borden demanded that the Canadian Expeditionary Force fight as a single unit and not be broken up among British units. At the conclusion of the war in 1919, Borden successfully insisted that Canada have separate representation at the Paris Peace Conference, be a signatory on the Treaty of Versailles, and for Canada to have a its own seat at the League of Nations. Subsequent prime ministers continued the quest for autonomy.
The Halibut Treaty came about as the result of depleting halibut stocks in the North Pacific, in fishing grounds shared by both Canada and the United States. Large scale commercial fishing of halibut began when the Northern Pacific Railway reached the west coast, making possible the overland transportation of fish east. Demand from Europe and the US had already decimated the Atlantic halibut fishery. By 1915, the Pacific catch was more than 69 million pounds, but soon thereafter stocks began to dwindle.
Negotiations on preserving fish stocks began between Canada and the US in 1918. The talks were a historic first, as they sought an international agreement in conservation. The final result was the Convention for the Preservation of Halibut Fishery of the Northern Pacific Ocean.
The treaty created a season closed to commercial fishing from 16 November to 15 February, with the penalty of seizure. The treaty was to last a minimum of five years. The agreement set in place the International Fisheries Commission (IFC), to "make a thorough investigation into the life history of the Pacific Halibut" and make recommendations for the regulation of the industry.
The treaty was signed by Ernest Lapointe, then Canada's minister of Marine and Fisheries, and Charles Evan Hughes, the US Secretary of State. It was modest from the American point of view, but was extremely important for Canada in symbolic terms.
It was Canada’s preference not to negotiate the treaty with a British delegate at the table, nor to seek the ratification of the British Parliament. The custom until the Halibut Treaty had been that British officials would always participate in treaty negations involving Canada, and that Britain would give final consent.
The British wished to sign the treaty along with Canada, as they always had. But Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King argued that the matter was solely the concern of Canada and the US, and did not affect any British or imperial interest. Therefore Britain should not appear as a contracting party, either in the treaty’s preamble, or as a signatory. (The treaty did, in fact, make reference to the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland” in the preamble.)
Afterwards, Mackenzie King threatened to send a separate Canadian diplomat to Washington, DC to represent Canada's interests there, apart from the British ambassador, and the British acquiesced. The Halibut Treaty precedent, confirmed by the Imperial Conference of 1923, was an important step towards the establishment of Canada's right to separate diplomatic action.
The treaty signaled a shift in Canadian politics, from one focussed on being a part of the British Empire, to one that was more pan-Canadian, sometimes described as separatist or isolationist under Mackenzie King. It also indicated Canada’s shifting economic focus during the 1920s from Britain to the US. During this time, the US passed Britain as Canada’s largest trading partner.
The Imperial Conference in 1926 brought forth the Balfour Report which recognized Canada and the other dominions of the British Empire as equal members of the new British Commonwealth of Nations. The report put in place resolutions for independent self-government which were included in the 1931 Statute of Westminster. The act cut all legal ties between Canada and the British Parliament except the power to amend the Canadian Constitution. Only in 1982 was the Constitution finally repatriated, and the power of amendment transferred to Canada.
Success of the Treaty
As the IFC studied the fisheries, stocks continued to decrease, reaching a low of 21 million pounds by 1930. The IFC had developed regulations, but the original treaty did not provide the commission with the power of implementation. A revised, more wide ranging treaty, replacing the original, was signed on 9 May 1930.
Further revisions were signed in 1937, 1953, and a protocol signed in 1979. The IFC was renamed the International Pacific Halibut Commission expanded to six members, and continues in its role today. The halibut fishery began to stabilize and then grow. In 1959, a catch of 71.5 million pounds finally surpassed the 1915 catch.