Canada’s Citizenship Act Is Passed Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Citizenship Act established Canada’s first legal definition of citizenship. It reflected a growing Canadian nationalism, sparked largely by Canada’s participation, separate from Great Britain, in World War II.

Summary of Event

Before passage of the 1946 Canadian Citizenship Act there were, in the strict legal sense, no Canadian citizens. Legally, Canadians were British subjects. British subjects born outside Canada, unless specifically prohibited, became Canadians upon establishing permanent residence in Canada without need of any further formalities. This situation, however, failed to satisfy the growing nationalism of twentieth century Canada. [kw]Canada’s Citizenship Act Is Passed (July 1, 1946)[Canadas Citizenship Act Is Passed] [kw]Citizenship Act Is Passed, Canada’s (July 1, 1946) [kw]Act Is Passed, Canada’s Citizenship (July 1, 1946)[Act Is Passed, Canadas Citizenship] Citizenship Act (1946) Canada;citizenship Citizenship Act (1946) Canada;citizenship [g]North America;July 1, 1946: Canada’s Citizenship Act Is Passed[01740] [g]Canada;July 1, 1946: Canada’s Citizenship Act Is Passed[01740] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;July 1, 1946: Canada’s Citizenship Act Is Passed[01740] [c]Civil rights and liberties;July 1, 1946: Canada’s Citizenship Act Is Passed[01740] Diefenbaker, John G. King, William Lyon Mackenzie Martin, Paul Joseph James

The only legislation defining Canadian nationality before 1946 was contained in various immigration and naturalization acts. Under these acts, non-British immigrants were regulated in order to implement a “white Canada” policy. Canada’s Chinese Exclusion Act Chinese Exclusion Act, Canadian (1885) of 1885 barred immigration from that country. The Immigration Act Immigration Act, Canadian (1910) of 1910 continued and extended that policy, by authorizing the cabinet minister responsible for immigration control to exclude any race deemed unsuitable to the climate or requirements of Canada. Although the 1952 act would substitute “ethnic group” for “race,” not until 1962 would Canada finally end racial discrimination in admissions.

Unlike the United States, which set numerical quotas designed to limit or exclude nationalities deemed undesirable, Canada left it to ministerial and bureaucratic discretion to reject or approve individual applicants for admission. Pre-World War II immigration policy encouraged immigration from Great Britain, the United States, and the countries of Western Europe. Italians, Slavs, Greeks, and Jews were thought of as less assimilable and less desirable; their access to Canada was limited or denied. Asians were barred. By government policy, all blacks appearing at Canada’s border with the United States were refused admission on medical grounds, a decision from which there was no appeal.

Non-British subjects lawfully admitted to permanent residence in Canada who were more than twenty-one years of age and had resided in Canada for five years could apply to the nearest court for naturalization. They would be asked to produce evidence that they were of good character and met the requirements of the immigration laws. If the court agreed, the candidate would, upon renouncing all foreign allegiances and taking an oath of allegiance to the monarch of Great Britain, be naturalized as a British subject and a Canadian national.

Canadian nationalism Nationalism;Canada had been growing as a cultural and political force from the time Canada became a self-governing dominion in 1867, and it intensified as Canada began to develop its own foreign policy and sent an army to fight in World War II. Nationalists wanted a definition of Canadian nationality that expressed the country’s uniqueness and removed all vestiges of the colonial past. Paul Joseph James Martin, the son of an Irish father and a French Canadian mother, had been powerfully affected by the sacrifices of Canadian troops during World War II. When he became secretary of state in the Liberal Party administration of William Lyon Mackenzie King in 1945, the first piece of legislation Martin undertook to move through Parliament was a law that would define Canadian citizenship specifically.

Canadian secretary of state Paul Joseph James Martin (left) and Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King at the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly in October, 1946.

(Library and Archive Canada)

Martin hoped that a Canadian citizenship separate from that of Great Britain would serve as a unifying symbol for the nation, one that would overcome sectional differences among the provinces and bring together French- and English-speaking Canadians. John G. Diefenbaker led the Progressive Conservative Party opposition to the bill, arguing that distinguishing Canadian citizens from other British subjects would lead to dissension and an undesirable split in the British Commonwealth of Nations. With the strong support of King, however, the objections of opponents were overcome, and the bill became law on July 1, 1946, to take effect on January 1, 1947.

Under the act, all persons who had been born in Canada or on a Canadian ship, except children of foreign diplomats, were declared to be natural-born citizens of Canada, entitled to a certificate to that effect. King proudly accepted the first such certificate on January 3, 1947, in an elaborate ceremony inaugurating the act. Children born outside Canada before January 1, 1947, to fathers who had been born in Canada, who were British subjects with permanent residences in Canada, or who had been naturalized under Canadian law, also would be considered to be natural-born Canadian citizens. A person born outside Canada after December 31, 1946, would be a natural-born citizen if the father were a Canadian citizen, the child’s birth were registered with the appropriate authorities by the age of two years, and the child either established residency in Canada or filed a declaration of retention of Canadian citizenship before reaching twenty-one years of age.

The act provided that all who had been included in a certificate of naturalization before January 1, 1947, as well as all British subjects with a permanent residence in Canada, were Canadian citizens. It treated citizenship as a personal and individual right of women. A woman who was a Canadian citizen would no longer lose her nationality upon marriage to an alien, nor would marriage to a Canadian citizen confer Canadian nationality. Previously, women had gained or lost nationality by marriage.

Aliens, as well as British subjects who were not already Canadian citizens, had to fulfill certain requirements to be naturalized. They had to be twenty-one years of age, have been lawfully admitted to permanent residency, have lived in Canada for at least five years, be of good character, have an adequate knowledge of either English or French, and demonstrate knowledge of the responsibilities and privileges of Canadian citizenship. A certificate of citizenship would be issued when an applicant, in open court, renounced all conflicting allegiances and took an oath to bear true allegiance to the monarch of Great Britain, to uphold faithfully the laws of Canada, and to fulfill all duties of a Canadian citizen.

Other provisions permitted persons to apply for naturalization after they had been resident legally for at least three of the previous four years and as early as eighteen years of age. Applications were heard by a citizenship court that judged whether a candidate met the requirements on language proficiency and knowledge of Canada. If accepted, the candidate took a prescribed oath of citizenship, promising allegiance to Canada’s monarch, pledging respect for Canadian laws, and promising to fulfill all duties of a citizen. There were no special privileges for British subjects, and the law spoke of Canadians as also “citizens of the Commonwealth” rather than British subjects.


The Canadian Citizenship Act of 1946 was the first of a set of developments that both responded to and strengthened the sense of Canadian national identity. Canada’s participation independent of Great Britain in the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the appointment from 1952 on of Canadians rather than British aristocrats as governors-general of Canada, the change in the royal title to Queen of Canada in 1953, and the adoption of the red maple leaf Canadian flag in 1964 all helped reinforce and confirm belief in Canadian uniqueness.

The main challenge to this idea of nationality came from the province of Quebec, where belief in the special character of French Canadian culture led to demands, first for autonomy and then for establishment of a separate sovereign nation to protect that culture. Many residents of Quebec think of themselves primarily as Québécois rather than Canadian. Referenda in the province in 1980 and 1995 indicated that those residents were still in the minority, as they failed to carry the vote to separate from the rest of Canada. The relationship between Quebec and Canada, however, remains unsettled.

Not until the Citizenship Act Citizenship Act, Canadian (1976) of 1976, which came into effect on February 15, 1977, was the 1947 act replaced. Distinctions between the citizenship status of men and women were eliminated, so children born abroad to Canadian mothers, as well as Canadian fathers, would count as natural-born Canadian citizens. Persons born outside Canada to a Canadian mother and a non-Canadian father between January 1, 1947, and February 14, 1977, who had not been able to claim Canadian citizenship under the previous act, could apply for citizenship certificates under the 1976 act. Citizenship Act (1946) Canada;citizenship

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beiner, Ronald. Liberalism, Nationalism, Citizenship: Essays on the Problem of Political Community. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2003. A study of three models of political community operative in Canada. Discusses the importance of citizenship and nationalism to the functioning of the Canadian political sphere. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bothwell, Robert, Ian Drummond, and John English. Canada Since 1945: Power, Politics, and Provincialism. Rev. ed. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1989. Includes valuable information on the development of Canadian nationalism and Quebec separatism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brubaker, William Rogers, ed. Immigration and the Politics of Citizenship in Europe and North America. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1989. Articles compare the impact of postwar mass immigration on citizenship policies on both sides of the Atlantic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cairns, Alan, and Cynthia Williams. Constitutionalism, Citizenship, and Society in Canada. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1985. Explores the relationship among citizenship, social change, and the evolution of political communities in Canada.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hawkins, Freda. Canada and Immigration: Public Policy and Public Concern. 2d ed. Kingston, Ont.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988. Examines changes in immigration regulations that reflect changing concepts of who is acceptable as a Canadian.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kernerman, Gerald, and Philip Resnick, eds. Insiders and Outsiders: Alan Cairns and the Reshaping of Canadian Citizenship. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2005. Anthology evaluating the Canadian citizenship theories of Cairns and the nature and importance of Canadian nationalism. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martin, Paul. Far from Home. Vol. 1 in A Very Public Life. Ottawa, Ont.: Deneau, 1983. The autobiography of the 1947 Canadian Citizenship Act’s sponsor contains a detailed description of the passage of the act.

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Categories: History