Halibut Treaty… What exactly is the Halibut Treaty? The dictionary definition for the word treaty is a formally concluded and ratified agreement between countries, therefore, it can be assumed that the halibut treaty is an agreement made between countries about Halibut fish. However, many people fail to inform themselves on the direct consequence and result of this event, and how it really shaped Canada’s political and economic growth. A reasonable explanation for the lack of unified Canadian identity that is evident in today’s society is due to our lack of knowledge in significant Canadian events that determine our autonomy and makes us Canadians. By delving into the Halibut Treaty, we are able to learn about one of Canada’s most prominent landmarks that transitioned Canada to a sovereign autonomous state.
First of all, in order to look back at an event which took place nearly a century ago (95 years to be exact), it is necessary to recall the events leading up to the Halibut Treaty. In 1923, when the Halibut Treaty was negotiated and signed, Canada had an ‘independent government’ but was not fully autonomous as a nation, due to Britain’s powerful grasp that still had a huge impact in Canada’s political decisions. Britain had the right to consent, repeal, and override any of Canada’s acts, and Britain’s acts still applied to Canadians.
Section 132 of the British North American Act 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.”
This basically implies that a Britain representative will have a seat at or at the very minimum be present in any of Canada’s international treaties and foreign affairs. Canada’s international standing became almost non-existent, which was expected considering that any meeting involving Canada had a British subject attached at the hips who had all the power to OK or veto all the conditions being negotiated. Almost all of Canada’s officials at this time grew increasingly frustrated over Britain’s control over Canadian matters, many felt that Canadian ego was threatened, and some began to take small, but noticeable actions to retaliate back.
In Canada, the Halibut stock value was rapidly decreasing. Prior to 1921, it was in great bloom: large scale halibut fishing was big in business after the creation of the Northern Pacific Railway, which connects the Pacific Ocean to Eastern Canada allowing Halibut to be traded and sold. In World War I, fishing for Halibut was big due to the continual efforts from Canada and the United States to be on good trading terms while the war was happening. In 1915, Halibut was at an all time high of 69 million pounds! The serious decline in Halibut became concerning enough that the Canadian government sought for a way to amend the problems. Between Canada and the United States, negotiations for preserving fish stocks began around 1918. Most prominently involved was Ernest Lapointe, then Canada’s minister of Marine and Fisheries, and Charles Evan Hughes, the US Secretary of State. Although at first the discussions had no urgency, the continual decline motivated both countries to come to an agreement regarding the North Pacific, fishing grounds for both countries. In the terms of this treaty, fishing would be off season and would not be allowed between November 16 to February 15, with a seizure of penalty if terms were broken. The International Fisheries Commission was introduced to inquire about the life of a Pacific Halibut and recommend measures to preserve their presence in our oceans. On March 2nd, 1923, the final result of the treaty boiled down to the Convention for the Preservation of Halibut Fishery of the Northern Pacific Ocean, an historic first agreement on an international preservation of a resource. However, there is a bigger underlying theme that is arguably, more important than the treaty itself. (Will be discussed later on.)
Economically, this event improved Canada’s fishing industry and therefore the flow of Canada’s cash flow and economy. During this time, there was also an economic shift in trade between Canadians and international countries. Prior to the event, British was Canada’s biggest trading partner, but during this time, the US surpassed Britain. Politically, this was the first treaty that was signed without British involvement and established Canadian dominance over Canadian issues. (This idea will be developed in Historical Significance). Finally, socially, this changed Canadian mindset so that Canada is not so dependant on Britain, but rather a separate entity that can make own decisions.
Regarding this whole ordeal, we can put ourselves in the perspectives of Canadians of the early 20th century, and what they felt about the Halibut Treaty. One of Canada’s biggest industries at this time was fishing, and local business were being threatened by the lack of Halibut reaching the markets. Those who knew about the discussion of a treaty supported the government’s decision to negotiate fishing rights in the North Pacific Ocean, as the continual decline of Halibut could have negative impacts on Canada’s economy. Many also supported the government’s decision not to involve British officials. Prior to confederation, a lot of Canadians were still loyalists, and enjoyed the benefits from being under Britain’s rule, such as protection. However, after Canada’s ‘semi-independence’, the British Empire became a huge benefactor from the creation of another country. They did not have to use their resources to protect Canadians, however, still had the right to control all the regulations and bills in Canada. This brought along many concerns by Canadian Prime Ministers such as Robert Boden, and it can be assumed that their interests reflected the citizen interests at this time. After the treaty was signed, initially, the Halibut market continued to decrease while the IFC was researching and providing recommendations. However, after revisions in 1930, 1937, and 1953, and a increase of board members to six people, the market finally began to stabilize and grow. In 1959, a catch of 71.5 million pounds of Halibut finally exceeded the 1915 record of 69 million pounds. Canadians could finally feel a sense of independence, knowing that as a nation, decisions made without British involvement could still have a positive influence on Canada.
As mentioned earlier, the Halibut Treaty affected all four quadrants of a cycle: economical, political, social, and environmental. That’s great and all, but what does this really mean in terms of Canadian identity and it’s path to becoming a fully autonomous state? This treaty seems of low importance at first, considering that it had minor impact on the US, however, it was extremely important from Canada’s perspective in terms of what this treat symbolizes beyond the simple preservation of nature.
When the negotiations were being made between Canada and the United States, the British wished to sign the treaty as they have always had. However, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King argued that this issue had nothing to do with the British Empire, therefore, a British official doesn’t need to be present. Despite fervent British resistance, King maintained his stance, even threatening to send independant representative to Washington D.C. The British Empire backed off, knowing that a request for independent representation would bypass any British authority.
Mackenzie’s strong insistence to keep Britain out of the Halibut Treaty, was the start of proving Canada’s autonomy from the British Empire. Canada proved as a nation that it is capable of making independent decisions that shape its own future without guidance or help from Britain. Throughout accumulations of smaller steps such as the independent Canadian involvement in World War I, Prime Minister Mackenzie King successfully took the first noticeable step with the Halibut Treaty to Canadian autonomy.
For example, Prime Minister Robert Borden demanded that the Canadian Expeditionary Force in World War I fight as a single unit instead of a subunit under British troops. His case seems well justified; Canadian military members would want to fight for their own country, and it probably boosted Canadian moral and national pride. After the war, he continued on to fight for Canadian independence in small ways such as arguing for a Canadian representative at the Paris Peace Conference and for Canada to have its own seat at the League of Nations.
This also demonstrates national pride for Canada, and its growth over the last century from confederation to resisting against other countries trying to meddle in Canadian affairs. It proves that Canadian wants and fears can be negotiated within Canada and by a representative of Canada, and we are capable of making independent decisions that shape our own path. Although I was not present 95 years ago, this event is significant to shaping Canadian autonomy and forged the way to the Balfour Report, which states that, “all are autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate to one another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth.”