Global Affairs Canada throughout the decades

A Sort of Foreign Office: 1909 to 1939

Frustrated by the backlog of Canada-United States issues that occupied much of his time, the British ambassador to Washington, James Bryce, suggested in 1908 that Canada needed "a sort of Foreign Office." Taken up by Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the idea led to the creation of a small Department of External Affairs in June 1909. Laurier's successors as prime minister, Robert Borden and W.L. Mackenzie King, assumed direct responsibility for the fledgling Department, which played an important part in Ottawa's efforts over the next two decades to exercise greater control over Canada's relations with the world.

An early proponent of a separate ministry to coordinate Canada's "external affairs," Sir Joseph Pope served as the Department's first under-secretary, from 1909 until 1925.

(Source: William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada, PA-110845)

The East Block of the Parliament Buildings served as the Department's headquarters from 1914 until 1973.

(Source: Library and Archives Canada, PA-009423)

Just as they are today, cross-boundary issues such as Arctic sovereignty were among the new Department's priorities.

(Source: Vancouver Province, February 1, 1912)

Prime Minister and Secretary of State for External Affairs Robert Borden (seated fourth from left) at the 1917 Imperial War Conference in London. Canadian sacrifices during the First World War drove Borden to seek greater control over Canada's foreign policy.

(Source: Library and Archives Canada, C-000241)

O.D. Skelton joined the Department in 1925 as its second under-secretary and set out to establish a professional foreign service. Here, Skelton (left) is shown en route to Europe in the early 1930s with one of his first recruits, the young Lester B. Pearson.

(Source: Library and Archives Canada, PA-117595)

The Canadian delegation to the 1926 Imperial Conference in London secured the right of former British colonies to an independent foreign policy and their own missions abroad. Left to right: Minister of Justice Ernest Lapointe, Prime Minister and Secretary of State for External Affairs W.L. Mackenzie King, industrialist Vincent Massey, and Peter Larkin, High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.

(Source: Library and Archives Canada, C-001690)

The Department opened legations in Washington, Paris, and Tokyo in the 1920s. Shown here in 1929, in full diplomatic dress, is the staff of the Canadian legation in Tokyo. From left to right: K. P. Kirkwood, H. L. Keenleyside, Sir Herbert Marler, and J. A. Langley.

(Source: Ueno Makita Kogabo/Library and Archives of Canada, PA-120407)

The Great Depression of the 1930s brought Prime Minister R.B. Bennett to office, where he turned to the Department to put into action a trade-focused agenda. Bennett (middle) is shown greeting the British prime minister, Stanley Baldwin (left), on his arrival in Ottawa for the 1932 Imperial Economic Conference.

(Source: Library and Archives of Canada, C-81448)

Prime Minister and Secretary of State for External Affairs W.L. Mackenzie King faced the threat of war as Fascism advanced across Europe and Asia. His cautious foreign policy, designed to avoid divisive debates within Canada, often frustrated the Department, which was anxious to expand Canada's diplomatic reach.

(Source: John Collins, The Gazette [Montreal], April 24, 1939)

With the country united behind him, Prime Minister and Secretary of State for External Affairs W.L. Mackenzie King petitioned King George VI for a declaration of war on September 10, 1939. By waiting a full week after Britain declared war, King underlined Canada's complete control over its own foreign policy and set the stage for Canada's war effort.

(Source: Library and Archives Canada)

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