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A Dominion is one of the wholly self-governing territories of the British Commonwealth and Empire, particularly one which reached that stage of constitutional development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Note however, that the phrase Her Majesty's dominions (small d) is a legal and constitutional term used to refer to all the realms and territories of the Sovereign, whether independent or not.

Canada received practical independence, at least in internal affairs, upon the confederation of three North American colonies in 1867. The Canadians wanted to call their nation the Kingdom of Canada. However, Americans, especially the yellow press in New York, railed against the idea of a monarchy in North America. Since the United States had recently demonstrated its military prowess in the American Civil War and still had an enormous military infrastructure in place, the British took these complaints very seriously. To calm the Americans, Britain successfully resorted to a diplomatic ruse. It explained to Americans that their fears had no foundation because Canada was to become a 'dominion' rather than a 'kingdom'. It then told the Canadians that "Dominion" meant the same as "Kingdom". Since Canada was the first and archetypical self-governing unit of the Empire (apart from New Zealand, which had had self-government since 1852, Cape Colony, which had had representative government since 1854, Newfoundland, which had had responsible government since 1854, New South Wales, which had had full responsible government since 1855, Victoria, which had had full responsible government since 1855, South Australia, which had had full responsible government since 1855, and Tasmania, which had had full responsible government since 1855), all additional colonies that achieved this status were also called "dominions". Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, with their large populations of European descent, were sometimes collectively referred to as the “White Dominions”.

Australia achieved dominion status on the federation of its colonies in 1901; New Zealand in 1907; the newly-created Union of South Africa in 1910; and the Irish Free State (later Eire) in 1922. All retained the British monarch as head of state, represented locally by a Governor-General appointed in consultation with the Dominion government. Newfoundland was accorded Dominion status by the Statute of Westminster in December 1931, but self-government was suspended two years later and the territory became a province of Canada in 1949. Later members of the Commonwealth gained independence not under the Statute of Westminster but by their own respective independence acts. The United Kingdom and its component parts never aspired to the title of Dominion, remaining anomalies within the network of free and independent equal members of the Empire and Commonwealth.

Initially the Foreign Office of the United Kingdom conducted the foreign relations of the Dominions. Canada set up its own Department of External Affairs in June 1909, but diplomatic relations with other governments continued to operate through the Governors-General, through Dominion High Commissioners in London (first appointed by Canada in 1880; Australia followed only in 1910) and through British legations abroad, although a Canadian War Mission in Washington, D.C dealt with supply matters from February 1918 to March 1921. Britain deemed her declaration of war against Germany in August 1914 to extend without the need for consultation to all territories of the Empire, occasioning some displeasure in Canadian official circles and contributing to a brief anti-British insurrection by Afrikaner militants in South Africa later that year.

Although the Dominions had had no formal voice in declaring war, each became a separate signatory of the June 1919 peace Treaty of Versailles, which had been negotiated by a British-led united Empire delegation. In September 1922 Dominion reluctance to support British military action against Turkey influenced Britain's decison to seek a compromise settlement. Diplomatic autonomy soon followed, with the U.S.-Canadian Halibut Fisheries Agreement (March 1923) marking the first international treaty negotiated and concluded entirely independently by a Dominion. The Dominions section created within the Colonial Office in 1907 was upgraded in June 1925 to a separate Dominions Office, though it shared a common Secretary of State with the Colonial Office until June 1930.

The principle of Dominion equality with Britain and independence in foreign relations was formally ratified by the Balfour Declaration adopted at the Imperial Conference of November 1926 and enshrined in the Statute of Westminster, adopted by the British Parliament in December 1931 and subsequently ratified by the Dominion Parliaments. In 1928 Canada obtained the appointment of a British High Commissioner in Ottawa, separating the administrative and diplomatic functions of the Governor-General and ending the latter's anomalous role as the representative of the British Government in relations between the two countries. Canada's first permanent diplomatic mission to a foreign country opened in Washington in 1927 (gaining Embassy status in 1943): Australia followed in 1940.

Britain's declaration of hostilities against Germany in September 1939 did not commit the Dominions. Nonetheless, with the exception of Eire, the Dominions either issued their own declarations after a recall of Parliament (Canada and South Africa) or declared that as Britain was or would be at war, so they were too (Australia and New Zealand). Eire, which had negotiated the removal of British forces from its territory the year before, chose to remain neutral throughout the war.

From Dominions to Commonwealth Realms

World War II, which fatally undermined Britain's already weakened commercial and financial leadership and heightened the importance of the United States as a source of military assistance, further loosened the political ties between Britain and the Dominions. Australian Prime Minister John Curtin's unprecedented action (February 1942) in successfully demanding the recall for home service of Australian troops earmarked for the defence of British-held Burma demonstrated that Dominion governments might no longer subordinate their own national interests to British strategic perspectives. To ensure that Australia had full legal power to act independently, particularly in relation to defence, Australia formally adopted the Statute of Westminster in October 1942 and backdated the adoption to the start of the War in September 1939.

The Dominions Office merged with the India Office as the Commonwealth Relations Office upon the independence of India and Pakistan in August 1947, and the term "Dominion" fell out of general use as India's adoption of republican status in January, 1950 signalled the end of the former dependencies' common constitutional connection to the British crown (although Ireland had already dropped its oath of allegiance to the King in 1937): henceforth continuing willing members of what was subsequently styled The Commonwealth agreed to accept the British monarch as head of that association of independent states. Eire had formally ceased to be a member seven months earlier upon becoming the Republic of Ireland.

Today, when referring to a nation that continues to observe the British Monarch as its head of state the term "Commonwealth Realm" has come into common usage instead of "Dominion" to differentiate the Commonwealth nations that continue to recognize the crown (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Jamaica, etc) from those which do not (India, Pakistan, South Africa, etc.). The term "Dominion" now mostly survives in a historical sense; nonetheless it remains a correct term for independent countries where the British Sovereign is represented by a Governor-General. The term is still to be found in, or at least has not been removed from, the Canadian constitution; however, the Canadian government does not use it. Present-day usage prefers the term "realm" because it includes the United Kingdom as well, emphasising that they are equal to and not subordinate to the United Kingdom.

In a move that emphasised the independence of the separate realms, after the accession of Queen Elizabeth II she was proclaimed not just as Queen of the UK, but also Queen of Canada, Queen of Australia, Queen of New Zealand, and of all her other "realms and territories" etc.

The Queen now functions as the independent monarch of sixteen different countries, and any changes to the laws governing the succession to the Crown must be approved by all of these nations' parliaments.

Within Canada, “Dominion” is still attached to corporation and organization names to indicate a national scope for their activities.

See also: Dominions of Sweden, Dominion (angel), Dominion (Star Trek)