History of Canada-Australia Relations

The connections between Canada and Australia go back to the early history of both countries.

Canada and Australia share a similar colonial past as members of the British Empire. Our laws, political structures and traditions have much in common and developed on similar paths. Many of the same figures from our Imperial past show up in the history texts of both countries, including James Cook, Sir John Franklin and George Arthur, to name a few. [Canada-Australia Relations Bibliography]

Canadian Convicts in Australia

Perhaps the most notable early connection in Canada-Australia relations is the story of the Canadian rebels who were sentenced to transportation to Australia for their part in the political uprisings in Upper Canada (now the province of Ontario) and Lower Canada (now the province of Quebec) in 1837-38. A total of 154 Canadian state prisoners were sent to Australian shores.

Those involved in the Upper Canada rebellions, were sent to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania). There are two monuments in Hobart commemorating the Canadian convict presence in Tasmania. One is at Sandy Bay (unveiled by The Honourable Douglas Harkness, former Minister of National Defence of Canada on September 30, 1970) and the other stands in Prince's Park, Battery Point (unveiled on December 12, 1995 by High Commissioner Brian Schumacher).

The rebels from Lower Canada were French Canadians known as les patriotes. Like their Upper Canada counterparts, they rebelled against the appointed oligarchy that administered the colony and les patriotes, along with their English-speaking neighbours, clamoured for responsible government. As with the Upper Canada rebellions, the armed insurrections in Lower Canada also failed and 58 French Canadians were sentenced to transportation to New South Wales. Thanks to the intervention of John Bede Polding, Bishop of Sydney, they avoided the horrors of Norfolk Island and were allowed to serve their sentences in Sydney. They were eventually assigned as labourers to free settlers, contributing to the development of the colony, including the building of the Parramatta Road. Place names like Canada Bay and Exile Bay and a monument at Cabarita Park in Concord, Sydney (unveiled in May 1970, by PM Trudeau), attest to their presence in Australia.

All but a few of the Canadian rebels eventually returned to Canada. In the aftermath of the failed rebellions, reforms to the governing of the colonies had been made and responsible government had been established in Canada.

Relations from 1890

(This section is based extensively on Parallel Paths: Canada-Australian Relations since the 1890s, by Greg Donaghy.)

The "official" history of Canada-Australia relations dates from 1895, when Canada's first trade commissioner, John Short Larke, arrived in Sydney. Larke had been appointed a year earlier after a successful trade delegation to Australia led by Canada's first minister of trade and commerce, Mackenzie Bowell. While bilateral trade grew during the next decade, helped by the establishment of a regular shipping service (the Canadian-Australian Steamship Line) and the new trans-Pacific cable line, its growth was slowed by protectionist trade sentiment in Australia and by the rapid rise in Canada's trade with the United States.

John Short Larke
John Short Larke

Mackenzie Bowell
Mackenzie Bowell

Trans-Pacific Cable Line Route Map-Complete 1902
Trans-Pacific Cable Line Route Map-Complete 1902
Source: Pacific Cable

On the political front, early relations between Canada and Australia were dominated by their shared membership in the British Empire and their different views on the proper responsibilities of the self-governing dominions for imperial defence. Alone in the vast Pacific, Australia advanced proposals for an integrated imperial approach to defence and foreign policy that would commit Great Britain to its defence. Relatively safe in North America, Canada rejected anything that would limit Dominion self government. This was debated vigorously but without resolution between Australia's Prime Minister Alfred Deakin and Canadian Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier at the 1907 Colonial Conference. However, with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Canada and Australia lined up together to support Britain's imperial war effort.

Wilfred Laurier
Wilfred Laurier

Alfred Deakin
Alfred Deakin
National Archives of Australia A1200, L11179

During the early stages of the war, both countries allowed Britain complete control over strategy and policy. As the conflict dragged on with its horrific loss of life, however, the Dominions began to demand a greater voice in the conduct of the war. In April 1917, Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden and Australian Prime Minister W.M. "Billy" Hughes managed to secure membership in the Imperial War Cabinet and a direct voice in the direction of the war. The efforts of the two prime ministers culminated in separate dominion representation at the Paris Peace Conference.

Imperial War Cabinet
Imperial War Cabinet: 1917
Sir Robert Borden is seated in the front row, third from the right. His Australian Counterpart, Prime Minister W.M. “Billy” Hughes is standing in the middle row, third from the left

In the period between the First and Second World War, Australia and Canada adopted increasingly different views on the structure of the British Empire and their respective roles in it. Proposals for a common imperial defence and foreign policy advanced at the 1923 Imperial Conference were supported by the Australian Prime Minister, Stanley M. Bruce, but firmly opposed by Canada's cautious Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King.

Imperial Conference
Imperial Conference: 1923
Prime Minister King is seated fifth from left. His counterpart, Stanley M. Bruce, is standing second row, 4th from the right.

On the commercial front, the British connection and imperial trade preferences were also divisive issues, complicating efforts to conclude trade agreements in 1925 and 1931. Nevertheless, during the inter-war years bilateral trade increased. This was especially true of Canadian exports to Australia in the early 1930s, a development that prompted Canada to open a second Trade Commissioner's office in Melbourne in 1936.

The outbreak of hostilities in 1939, again brought Canada and Australia closer together, united at Britain's side against Nazi Germany. In 1939, the two countries agreed to raise their diplomatic relationship by officially exchanging high commissioners: Australia sent William Glasgow to Ottawa and Canadian Charles Burchell came to Canberra. (See Canadian High Commissioners to Canada - Search for a head of post) In London, Canadian and Australian representatives were instrumental in organising support for the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, under which some 9,400 Australian airmen trained in Canada during the war. Throughout the war, bilateral relations grew closer, as Canadian and Australian officials worked together on plans for the post-war international order and discovered a common interest in making sure that the Great Powers listened to the concerns of small and middle powers.

Charles Burchell
Charles Burchell
Source: Canadian High Commission, Canberra

Since 1945

This shared concern for the interests of middle powers meant that both countries were very active in the negotiations over the creation of the United Nations in San Francisco during the spring of 1945. The onset of the Cold War, however, virtually guaranteed that each nation would soon need to focus on its own region. As Australia worried about the communist threat in the Pacific, Canada joined the United States and Britain in setting up the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The two countries, however, soon found themselves working closely together under UN auspices in the Korean War. While there were some differences over how to address the growth of communism and its spread in Asia, the close relationship that developed between Canada's Secretary of State for External Affairs, Lester B. Pearson, and his Australian counterpart, R.G. Casey, ensured that the relationship remained on stable footing throughout the 1950s. As a result of the close partnership between the two men, there was a noticeable rise in bilateral exchanges, as political, business, and cultural leaders crossed the Pacific.

Lester B. Pearson
Lester B. Pearson

R.G. Casey
R.G. Casey
Source: DFAT Australia

In 1955, Canada's powerful Minister of Trade and Commerce, C. D. Howe, visited Australia. Three years later, John Diefenbaker became the first Canadian prime minister to visit Australia. Not surprisingly, an increase in bilateral trade, which doubled between 1959 and 1962, followed this demonstration of political interest.

In the 1960s, Canada and Australia grew apart from each other. The Commonwealth and the Vietnam War both gave rise to differences in international outlook. Australia, which still had a restrictive immigration policy, resented Canadian efforts to use the Commonwealth to sanction South Africa for its apartheid policies. On Vietnam, the differences ran even deeper. Australia's militarily engagement in Vietnam clashed with Ottawa's opposition to American policy in Asia. These differences were accentuated in 1969 when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau decided to recognize the Peoples' Republic of China.

Pierre Trudeau
Pierre Trudeau

But the tide was soon to turn. Trudeau was genuinely interested in the Pacific and visited Australia in 1970 as part of his government's program to promote the growing importance of the region to Canada. The election of Gough Whitlam as prime minister of Australia in 1972 signalled an improvement in the bilateral relationship. Whitlam, who admired Trudeau and his policies, visited Canada in 1974 and encouraged many of his officials to learn about Canadian domestic policy initiatives. Whitlam was also impressed with Trudeau's determination to pursue an active foreign policy independent of the United States. Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, who was elected in 1975, shared Whitlam's foreign policy approach and was inclined to welcome more cooperation with Canada as an active, like-minded middle power. Canada and Australia found themselves comfortably aligned on a variety of international questions in the late 1970s and early 1980s, ranging from the crises in Cambodia and Afghanistan to Southern Africa and Poland.

Pierre Trudeau
Gough Whitlam

Political cooperation was mirrored by a steady growth in bilateral trade and investment, and a marked increase in official and unofficial contacts between the two countries. The Australian Association for Canadian Studies was established in 1981 reflecting the strong interest in comparative studies in the two countries. During the same period, the two countries signed a large number of bilateral agreements in a variety of fields, including aboriginal peoples and justice, energy research, and crime prevention. By the 1980s, these agreements had led to the establishment of a number of official exchange programs between Canadian and Australian government departments, a practice that continues to this day. This increase in bilateral contacts, matched by a large number of official visits by provincial premiers and federal cabinet ministers, led to the establishment in Perth of the fourth Canadian mission in Australia (others: Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne).

With the celebration of the centenary of Canada's relations with Australia in 1995, both countries could look back at 100 years of social, economic and political partnership and the evolution of two distant but very similar nations. Throughout the relationship, the two cooperated, fighting side-by-side in the terrible wars of the 20th century and working together to build important multilateral institutions like the modern Commonwealth and the United Nations. Despite the geographic distance, trade and commerce has grown. Most importantly, so too has the rich exchange between the two peoples - families and tourists, academics and students, artists and performers, politicians and government officials - contributing to the breadth and depth of the Canadian-Australian relationship.