Today is Commonwealth Day in Canada

Published on March 13, 2017

Flags fly in front of London’s Westminster Abbey during a previous year’s Commonwealth Day celebrations.

©Submitted photo

A lot can change over the course of a year. The United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union. The United States has a new administration keen on renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But while some ties unravel, others endure.

Standing firm in the middle of global uncertainty, the Commonwealth remains a strong — and often undervalued — champion of democracy and development.

We all know the history, more or less. There was the British Empire, over which the sun never set. Now we’re a part of the Commonwealth.

What exactly does it all mean?

The Commonwealth is an association of states, not an empire ruling over its colonies. This is a partnership between peoples, not a hierarchy of powers.

And Canada was the first to join the club.

While the term was first coined by Lord Rosebury (later British prime minister) during a visit to Australia in 1884, Canada, as Queen Elizabeth II told us while visiting Ottawa in 1959, became the “first independent country within the British Empire” as a result of Confederation in 1867.

It’s remarkable that Canadians’ desire to build their own nation inadvertently gave us the Commonwealth.

And the spirit of partnership goes back even further for Canadians, when, after the American Revolution, for example, merchants from Canada’s Maritime provinces forged close bonds with our friends in the British Caribbean. Our potatoes went south, their rum came north. This would even lead to numerous (albeit unsuccessful) attempts to join the British West Indies with Canada.

But the Commonwealth is more than just a chapter in a history book. It’s a family of nations, united by language, history, culture, and shared values. And with what used to be the junior members now all grown up, the ability of each Commonwealth nation to help another has been strengthened.

As a senator from Prince Edward Island, I’ve always carried the weight of this history with me. That’s why, since my early days as a provincial MLA, I’ve been a member of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA).

In short, the CPA is a forum for parliamentarians from across the Commonwealth to share effective policies and best practices, while cementing our common commitment to democracy — all at the grassroots level. We’re talking constituent to constituent, not government to government. This provides for a more intimate, localized means of cooperation to support our common goals and respective projects.

It’s also taking some exciting new forms.

Last year, I had the chance to join the Canadian delegation of the CPA in Turks and Caicos to help launch the Caribbean Twinning Initiative. The objective is simple: to create mutually beneficial relationships between Commonwealth sub-state entities, sharing information and promoting shared values.

It was my great privilege and honour to help twin my Island with theirs. We’re jumping in with both feet — indeed, I think we have cemented what is evolving into a beautiful friendship!

Several exciting projects have been identified, including the establishment of a Hansard (or minutes system) to record parliamentary debate, improving accountability and public engagement in the legislative process. We also hope to organize information sharing meetings and seminars in which both islands can share information about industries of common interest — particularly tourism, agriculture, and fisheries.

We are proud to be the first successful Caribbean twinning partnership, laying the groundwork for other provinces to join us in supporting and learning from our Commonwealth neighbours to the south.  

And all this is just a small window into some of the work done within the context of the Commonwealth.

Despite the grandiose sentiments conjured by the notion of democracy, its real essence is in the details. It’s less of a temple with a few pillars than a switchboard with a thousand lights. Every time we plug in something new, a little light goes on, making the room just a bit brighter.

This is the concrete potential of the Commonwealth. It’s also a style of teamwork that is perfectly suited to us, as Canadians.

As the past year has shown, international institutions can be powerful but they can also be fragile. But the Commonwealth endures — and I have no doubt that the story of this family of nations has only just begun.


Elizabeth Hubley is a senator from P.E.I.