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Nickle Resolution

The Canadian titles debate has been ongoing since the presentation to the Canadian House of Commons of the Nickle Resolution in 1917. This resolution marked the earliest attempt to establish a Canadian government policy requesting the sovereign not to grant knighthoods, baronetcies, and peerages to Canadians and set the precedent for later policies restricting Canadians from accepting titles from foreign countries. Dissatisfaction with the British honours system led to the gradual creation of a separate system for Canada.

The Nickle Resolution

The Nickle Resolution was a motion brought forward in 1917 by William Folger Nickle in the Canadian House of Commons. There had been controversy before World War I over the honouring of Canadians—especially the appointment of Sam Hughes as a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (a non-hereditary honour) in 1915 and the elevation of Hugh Graham as the Baron Atholstan (a hereditary honour)[1]—and the qualifications of recipients. Prime Minister Robert Borden disapproved of the process by which Canadians were nominated for honours and in March 1917 drafted a policy stating that all names had to be vetted by the prime minister before the list was sent to Westminster.[2] Nickle, however, at the same time, alleged that the granting of hereditary titles to Canadians was itself inconsistent with democratic values. Nickle's detractors, however, charged him with being motivated more by spite and chagrin over his failed attempt to obtain a knighthood for his father-in-law, Daniel Gordon, the principal of Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Regardless, Nickle successfully moved a resolution through the House calling for an address be made to King George V requesting that His Majesty no longer grant hereditary peerages and knighthoods on Canadians and that all such titles held by Canadians become extinct upon the death of the incumbent. The motion was carried by the House of Commons, though Nickle himself voted against the version passed;[2] it was not advanced to the Senate, and no address to the King was ever made.

Beginning in 1919, the press reported on the selling of honours in the United Kingdom and there was a fear that the British government would honour a large number of Canadians for their service in the First World War by appointing them to titled classes in the newly created Order of the British Empire. In that context, Nickle again put a motion forward in the lower house of parliament, calling on the King to "hereafter be graciously pleased to refrain from conferring any titles upon your subjects domiciled or living in Canada",[2] thus expanding the earlier resolution of 1917 to include even non-hereditary titles. The Commons voted to create a special committee to look at the question of honours and it concluded that the King should be asked to cease conferring "any title of honour or titular distinction... save such appellations as are of a professional or vocational character or which appertain to an office." Titular honours from foreign governments were also to be banned. However, bravery and valour decorations, such as the Victoria Cross and Military Cross, were exempt.[3]

Although the second Nickle Resolution was adopted by the House of Commons, it was also not forwarded to the Senate, where it was expected to be defeated, as it touched on the Royal Prerogative, a constitutional matter outside the competence of the House of Commons alone. As a resolution, rather than an Act of Parliament or Order in Council, the Nickle Resolution would not have been legally binding on the government, anyway. However, it established a policy precedent which has had a varying degree of enforcement.

After the resolution

Continentalist and nationalist forces in Canada's political life grew in strength through the 1920s. The government led by William Lyon Mackenzie King insisted on an end to imperial practices, such as the British government ultimately appointing Canadian governors general, and demanded practical recognition of the equality between Britain and the Dominions and the latter's autonomy, as set out by the Balfour Declaration of 1926.

The Nickle Resolution was recognized as policy during King's tenure as prime minister and was entrenched in government practice by the time Mackenzie King retired in 1948. However, in February 1929, another debate was held in the House of Commons on the question of titular honours, specifically on the question of whether the Nickle Resolution ought to be reconsidered. Mackenzie King, on 12 February 1929, stated in the Commons: "If we are to have no titles, titular distinctions or honours in Canada, let us hold to the principle and have none, let us abolish them altogether; but if the sovereigns or heads of other countries are to be permitted to bestow honours on Canadians, for my part I think we owe it to our own sovereign to give him that prerogative before all others." The motion was defeated on 14 February 1929.

Granting of honours resumed

On 30 January 1934, Prime Minister Bennett said, when speaking about the Nickle Resolution and the shelf-life of Canadian parliamentary resolutions (Canadian Hansard):

"It has been a matter of passing comment, as pointed out by an eminent lawyer not long ago, that a resolution of a House of Commons which has long since ceased to be, could not bind future parliaments and future Houses of Commons.
"The power of a mere resolution by this house, if acceded to, would create such a condition that no principle which secures life or liberty would be safe. That is what Judge Coleridge pointed out."

Moreover, as a matter touching the royal prerogative, R. B. Bennett had already reported to the House of Commons the previous year, on 17 May 1933 (Hansard, p. 5126) that the Nickle Resolution was of no force or of null effect, stating:

"... it being the considered view of His Majesty's government in Canada that the motion, with respect to honours, adopted on the 22nd day of May, 1919, by a majority vote of the members of the Commons House only of the thirteenth parliament (which was dissolved on the 4th day of October, 1921) is not binding upon His Majesty or His Majesty's government in Canada or the seventeenth parliament of Canada."

On 30 January 1934, in speaking about his responsibility as Prime Minister to advise the King as the King's first minister, and about his own advice to the King that as prime minister he wished to continue the custom of advising His Majesty to bestow royal honours on His Majesty's Canadian subjects (which Conservative and Liberal administrations had chosen not to exercise for almost 15 years), Prime Minister Bennett said:

"The action [of recommending (or choosing not to recommend) people for titular honours] is that of the Prime Minister; he must assume the responsibility, and the responsibility too for advising the Crown that the resolution passed by the House of Commons was without validity, force, or effect, with respect to the Sovereign's prerogative. That seems to me to be reasonably clear."

To these official statements of Prime Minister R. B. Bennett can be added what he wrote in a 1934 letter to J. R. MacNicol, MP when he stated his view that:

"So long as I remain a citizen of the British Empire and a loyal subject of the King, I do not propose to do otherwise than assume the prerogative rights of the Sovereign to recognize the services of his subjects."

Moreover, as Bennett stated to Parliament about the Nickle Resolution (see Hansard):

"That was as ineffective in law as it is possible for any group of words to be. It was not only ineffective, but I am sorry to say, it was an affront to the Sovereign himself. Every constitutional lawyer, or anyone who has taken the trouble to study this matter realizes that that is what was done."

R. B. Bennett's government submitted honours lists to the King every year from 1933 until its defeat in 1935, recommending that various prominent Canadians receive knighthoods, including the Chief Justice of Canada, Sir Lyman Poore Duff, Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Commissioner Sir James Howden MacBrien, Sir Frederick Banting, the discoverer of insulin, and Sir Ernest MacMillan, composer and conductor.

When a vote was called on 14 March 1934, on a private member's (Humphrey Mitchell, Labour, East Hamilton) resolution to require the prime minister to cease making recommendations to the King for titles, this renewed Nickle-like Resolution was defeated 113 to 94. The Canadian House of Commons, by this vote, refused to reaffirm or reinstate the Nickle Resolution or its attempts to prevent the Prime Minister's involvement in the exercise of the Royal Prerogative of granting titles to Canadians. This is the last time that the lower house of Parliament ever voted on the issue.

Mackenzie King reaffirms ban

When William Lyon Mackenzie King returned to power in 1935, he ignored the precedent set by Bennett's government, and resumed the former policy. The no-honours policy of successive Canadian governments has been in effect ever since. However, no attempt was made to forbid the use of the titular honours by those who had been granted them by the King at Bennett's recommendation.

In 1938 Bennett moved to England, and in 1941 he was elevated to the British House of Lords, as the first "Viscount Bennett, of Mickleham in the County of Surrey and of Hopewell and Calgary in the Dominion of Canada".[4] This was a reflection of British policy at the time of conferring viscountcies on retired dominion prime ministers, if recommended. Retiring British prime ministers were normally offered earldoms.

Modern policy

In 1968, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson's government published "Regulations respecting the acceptance and wearing by Canadians of Commonwealth and foreign orders, decorations and medals".

These policies were again affirmed in 1988 when the government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney published "Policy Respecting the Awarding of an Order, Decoration or Medal by a Commonwealth or Foreign Government".

Conrad Black vs Jean Chrétien

Main article: Black v. Chrétien

The best-known modern application of the Nickle Resolution occurred when Prime Minister Jean Chrétien used it to prevent Canadian publishing mogul Conrad Black from becoming a British life peer. Chrétien held that, in spite of the fact that the British government was honouring Black as a British citizen, and that Black then held dual citizenship of Canada and Britain (allowed since 1977), he as prime minister of Canada had the right to keep Black from becoming a British life peer because he was also a Canadian citizen. In the end, Black gave up his Canadian citizenship in order to accept the British honour.

Exceptions and anomalies

Even in the immediate aftermath of the Nickle Resolution adoption in 1921, titular honours were granted to subjects of the King who remained residents of Canada, and such honours were passed on to their legal inheritors. The Nickle Resolution was not an effective instrument to establish Canada's desire to end the granting of titular honours to Canadians. It would take later prime ministers to do that.

The prime minister at the time of the resolution, Sir Robert Laird Borden, GCMG had been knighted in 1914, five years before the adoption of the resolution.

Canadian steel magnate, Sir James Hamet Dunn was created a baronet by King George V on 13 January 1921, and his son Sir Philip Dunn, 2nd Baronet, inherited his father's baronetcy. At the time, the same parliament that had adopted the Nickle Resolution was still in session. It follows that such a resolution, had it had any binding nature, would have been in effect at least until the dissolution of the 13th parliament on 14 October 1921.

The Government of Canada made no objection when, near the end of the Second World War, British prime minister, Winston Churchill, recommended that the King bestow a knighthood on Sir William Stephenson. Churchill described the honour he sought from the King for Stephenson as "one dear to my heart", such was Churchill's sense of gratitude for Stephenson's wartime intelligence work. Years later, Sir William was given Canada's highest honour in being made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1979.

Also honoured with knighthood following the Nickle Resolution was Sir Frederick Banting, the Canadian medical doctor who co-won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for the discovery of insulin. This knighthood was awarded by King George V in 1934.

Another significant example of government indecision over the matter of titular honours involves former Canadian governor general Vincent Massey. While on a visit to Canada in August 1954, Prince Philip told Massey the Queen wished to make him a Knight of the Garter. The most senior of the Realm's orders of chivalry, Massey would have been the first non-Briton to receive the Garter. Then-prime minister Louis St. Laurent was cool to the proposal, but agreed to take the matter under advisement. Shortly after coming to power in 1957, John Diefenbaker was initially receptive, but ultimately changed his mind and so informed the Queen in 1960. Just weeks later, Her Majesty honoured Massey with the more rare [but non-titular] Royal Victorian Chain.[5]

A different example was that of Sir Edwin Leather, KCMG, KCVO, LLD, the Toronto-born Governor of Bermuda. He arrived in Britain with the Canadian Army in 1940, and stayed on after World War II to become a Conservative Member of Parliament. After the murder of Sir Richard Sharples, the Bermudian viceroy, Sir Edwin was appointed to the vacant colonial governorship at the recommendation of the government of British Prime Minister Edward Heath. When Sir Edwin was knighted in 1962, since he had not lived in Canada since 1940, he was not made to renounce his citizenship in his native country.

In addition to this extraterritorial anomaly, even today the Governor General of Canada is actively involved in the creation of knights and dames via one of the recognized orders (see Order of Merit) within the Canadian honours system. His or Her Excellency presides over the Canadian branch of the Order of St John and confers knighthoods and damehoods on some of its members in ceremonies at which the Governor General performs the act of investing new recipients with their honour. Persons so honoured are, however, officially prohibited from publicly employing the usual knightly accolade of "Sir" or "Dame" followed by their personal and family names, and the claim is made that the honour of knighthood or damehood is conferred without the Queen or Her Governor General's concession of any appellative accolade, thus avoiding the bestowal of any titular honour.

During the premiership of Tony Blair at least two persons holding British citizenship were granted titular honours by the Crown before the Black peerage issue, which brought the matter to the Canadian prime minister's attention.

In February 2004, the Department of International Trade announced the impending visit to Sydney of Sir Terry Matthews, with a press release that included the following passage: "Sir Terry is the Chairman of Mitel Networks.... In 1994, he was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire and was awarded a knighthood in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2001."

On 2 November 1999, Canadian Senator Anne Cools brought to the Senate of Canada's notice the discrepancy in policy on Orders for English Canadians, and Orders for French Canadians:

"Honourable senators, the sovereign of France, the President, conferred the Ordre Royale de la Légion d'Honneur on Quebecer Robert Gagnon just two weeks ago, and on Premier René Lévesque in 1977, while he was Premier of Quebec. No doubt Premier Lévesque would have frowned on any anglophone premier being knighted "Sir" by the Queen of Canada."

In addition, on 4 November 1999, she brought to the Senate's notice the fact that in the first decade alone after the Nickle Resolution was debated, there were:

"many distinguished Canadians who have received 646 orders and distinctions from foreign non-British, non-Canadian sovereigns between 1919 and February 1929."

Statistics are not available on the total numbers of titular and non-titular honours conferred on Canadians throughout their country's history.

Some Canadian title holders do not employ their British- or French-derived titles in Canada. One such example being Kenneth Thomson who from his father's death in 1976 until his own death in 2006 held the hereditary peerage Baron Thomson of Fleet. Thomson once stated in an interview "In London I'm Lord Thomson, in Toronto I'm Ken. I have two sets of Christmas cards and two sets of stationery. You might say I'm having my cake and eating it too. I'm honouring a promise to my father by being Lord Thomson, and at the same time I can just be Ken." [6] It is noteworthy that not employing his title in Canada was his personal choice, rather than the result of any government legislation.

Other Commonwealth countries

Australia is another Commonwealth realm that does not confer titular honours on its citizens, although the Queen of Australia may, in her personal capacity, confer on Australian citizens those particular titular honours that are within the sovereign's personal discretion, namely, the knighthoods of the Order of the Garter, the Order of the Thistle, and the Royal Victorian Order. The Queen is also not precluded from conferring titular honours on Australians upon the advice of her other Commonwealth governments, though acceptance of such an honour is dependent upon the approval of the Australian government. Until 1975, Australia employed the British imperial honours system, but the Order of Australia was created in 1975 and Australian knighthoods were awarded within that order from 1976 until 1983, after which the statutes of the order were amended in 1986 to prevent further such awards. However, the Australian states continued to recommend Australian citizens for British imperial honours, including knighthoods, until this practice was ended by agreement between the federal and state governments in 1992.

Commonwealth countries such as the United Kingdom, Jamaica, and Papua New Guinea still confer titular honours. In recent years, however, the latter two have generally opted to bestow national orders of similar standing, offering membership in the Order of the National Hero of Jamaica and Order of the Logohu as alternatives which come with their own styles of Right Excellent and Chief or Grand Chief, respectively. Appointment to the highest rank of the New Zealand Order of Merit grants members the right to use the titles Sir or Dame. However between 2000 and 2009, the conferral of knighthoods and damehoods was temporarily discontinued under Helen Clark, with the two higher grades of the order being replaced with postnominals to indicate membership, more like the one-grade Order of New Zealand. In March 2009, John Key requested to Elizabeth II that the order be resumed at the pre-2000 grades and granting of knighthoods and damehoods was continued. As in Australia, Her Majesty continues to make titular awards in the Royal Victorian Order, the Order of the Thistle, and the Order of the Garter, since these orders are within the sovereign's prerogative. New Zealanders who received New Zealand's former titular honours prior to 2000 may continue to employ them and those New Zealanders who received the equivalent postnominals between 2000 and 2008 were allowed to exchange them for the restored titles if they so chose.[7]

See also



  • McCreery, Christopher (2005). The Order of Canada: Its Origins, History and Development. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 0-8020-3940-5 Contains a full discussion of Canadian government policy towards titular honours.
  • The Rule of Law and the Justiciability of Prerogative Powers: A Comment on Black v. Chrétien (pdf)
  • Senator Anne C. Cools' webpages detailing the applicability of the Nickle Resolution during R.B. Bennett's time and afterward
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