Embattled Nation explores the drama of Canada’s tumultuous election of 1917. In the context of the bloody battles of Vimy Ridge, Hill 70, Passchendaele, and of the Halifax explosion, Sir Robert Borden’s Conservative government introduced conscription and called for a wartime election. Most Liberals, led by Sir Wilfrid Laurier, opposed compulsory military service, while in Quebec a new movement emerged to contest the Canadian government’s attitude and policy. To survive and win the election, Prime Minister Borden resorted to unprecedented measures that tested the fabric of Canadian democracy.
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About the Author
David MacKenzie is professor of history at Ryerson University and the author of several books on Canadian history and international relations. He lives in Toronto.
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THE CONUNDRUM: ROBERT BORDEN, WAR, AND THE CALL FOR AN ELECTION
“The difference between a politician and a statesman is that a politician thinks about the next election while the statesman thinks about the next generation.”
— Attributed to James Freeman Clarke (1810–1888), American theologian and author
Clarke’s famous observation was at least two generations old in the summer of 1914, but its harsh distinction was in the back of everyone’s mind in Ottawa as Canada hurriedly prepared for war. Sir Robert Borden’s government was already three years old and the temptation to call an early election, as Sir Wilfrid Laurier had done in 1911, was irresistible. Was this a solemn moment to display noble leadership or one to be practical politically and take advantage of an obvious position of strength to call an election?
Borden had long suspected that war with Germany was to come. He had openly said so in the great debate on the creation of Canada’s Navy in 1909 and 1910. He had taken note of the Austrian Archduke’s murder in Sarajevo in late June 1914, but his mind was elsewhere. Just a few days before, he had ordered the Komagata Maru, a Japanese vessel carrying several hundred Indian passengers anchored in the Vancouver harbour, to be escorted back out to sea by HMCS Rainbow. The Rainbow was one of the ships that had been acquired by the Laurier government to launch the Canadian Navy in 1910.
The day he learned of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, Borden left the capital for Grand-Pré, Nova Scotia, the village where he was born, to visit his ninety-year-old mother. It was that kind of welcomed summer for most Canadians: visits with the family, lazy days in the sun, maybe a bit of baseball. In the last week of July, Borden and his wife, Laura, left for Muskoka, Ontario, for a month’s holiday. Borden was exhausted and troubled by endless breakouts of carbuncles — painful and often bleeding nodules in the skin that constantly needed attention. Doctors suspected they were brought on by too much work and worry, what today would be called “uncontrolled stress.” Borden agreed: he needed rest.
It did not last long. Borden played golf and delighted in some swimming for a few days, but, exactly a week later, on July 30, his secretary cabled him that events were spinning out of control and that he had to return to Ottawa. Borden arrived in the capital on the morning of Saturday, August first, and immediately set to work.1 He ordered his vacationing cabinet ministers back to Ottawa and informed the British government that Canada stood ready.
Cabinet met the next day in the East Block on Parliament Hill — even though it was a Sunday — and set off the most frenetic week of activity Canada had ever seen. Myriad orders-in-council — executive orders — were drafted and considered in light of all sorts of eventualities. Canada had never experienced such a crisis and was unprepared for these new problems, emergencies, and tensions. The first call for army volunteers went out on the Monday. Cabinet met twice the next day, and gathered again in the evening, expecting terrible news from Europe. The telegram arrived just before 9 p.m.: Great Britain had declared war on Germany. Canada, it followed in the minds of everyone present, was also at war. Borden called for Parliament to assemble and immediately commandeered the two submarines the British Columbia government had hurriedly purchased a few days earlier from a Seattle shipyard (they had been destined for Chile) and put them at the disposal of the British government. In less than three weeks, twenty thousand men would be assembled at the new Camp Valcartier, about twenty kilometres northwest of Quebec City. The leaves had barely started to turn when the first Canadian contingent, a thirty-thousand-man division, set sail for Europe and efforts were well underway to raise the second. That only a minority of these men were actually Canadian-born, let alone French Canadian, hardly mattered. Canada was responding.
The Borden Conservatives had been elected in September 1911 and took power a few weeks later with a sense of purpose. Having not formed a government since 1896, the party was eager to manipulate the levers of power, and Borden took considerable care in assembling a cabinet that would get things done. He went outside the traditional party to fill several key cabinet positions, including bringing in Thomas White from Toronto’s Bay Street as his minister of finance. Otherwise, his new cabinet comprised a mixture of the forces that had carried him to power. Many of the important posts went to Torontonians, others to stalwart Tories; there was also an odd combination of imperialists like the mercurial, insufferable Sam Hughes and the anti-imperialist nationalistes, who had managed to defeat Laurier in Quebec by siding with Borden’s Conservatives. The negotiations with the Quebeckers had been difficult, as none of the nationaliste chiefs were particularly inclined toward the rigours of administration, and they did not particularly relish the idea of Borden as their boss. Frederick Debartzch Monk, a long-time Tory and nationaliste sympathizer, accepted, but only reluctantly, as did Louis-Philippe Pelletier and Wilfrid-Bruno Nantel. It was a weak assemblage and it fractured quickly.
For Borden the central issue in the years before the outbreak of the war was Canada’s naval policy and, more generally, its relationship with the Empire. The debate over what to do about the Navy provided the starkest contrast between Borden’s government and the previous Laurier administration and the differences revealed two fundamentally different perspectives on Canada’s international role and responsibilities. The objective of both parties was ostensibly the same — to support and participate in the defence of Great Britain — but the means to achieve that end were approached in dramatically different ways. The great naval debate was the first in a series of controversies that led directly to the election of 1917.
In 1909 the Laurier government created an independent Navy as Canada’s response and contribution to the Anglo-German naval race. It was to be a small force, both an affirmation of loyalty to the Empire and a declaration that Canada could assume much of its own defence. Laurier’s “tin-pot navy” was ridiculed by the Conservative opposition as, at best, an ineffective response to a serious international crisis and, at worst, tantamount to a declaration of independence from the Empire. Quebec journalist Henri Bourassa was equally critical, but for opposite reasons: he argued that Laurier’s commitment to a navy was both a gesture of support for London’s imperialism and a guarantee of Canadian involvement in future European conflicts. Bourassa had been Laurier’s close friend and colleague, but now he used the opportunity to realize a plan he had cherished for years: the creation of a daily newspaper dedicated to articulating a particular mix of conservative Catholic ideas with increasing support for a distinct Canadian policy on international issues. In early January 1910, Le Devoir was published for the first time, soon making Bourassa one of the most influential and polarizing figures in Canada and a man who would be a major presence during the 1917 election.
Laurier’s Naval Service Act and his government’s reciprocity agreement with the United States became the central issues of the election of 1911. In Quebec, especially, the Navy was the issue, and during the campaign Borden fashioned the “unholy alliance” with Bourassa and his loose group of followers, the nationalistes, in a joint effort to defeat Laurier. It was an effective strategy, at least electorally, but soon after the election it became clear that the Tory imperialists of Ontario and the nationalistes of Quebec had little in common.
Once in office, Borden did what he had promised to do during the election. He suspended the Naval Service Act — Laurier’s navy — and declared that any proposal coming from his government would be “submitted to the people,” though it was left deliberately vague whether this would be in a referendum or a general election. These actions were acceptable to both imperialist and nationaliste — at first.
Borden and others in the Conservative Party had earlier advocated a direct grant to the British government to help cover the cost of building dreadnought battleships, as Canada’s way of contributing to the defence of the Empire. In 1912, after a trip to Great Britain to investigate the deteriorating international situation, the prime minister was convinced that the United Kingdom needed direct financial help in the arms race with Germany.
On December 5, 1912, the Borden government announced a new naval policy and presented its own Naval Aid Bill to Parliament. The bill called for a direct contribution to Britain of $35 million, roughly the cost to build and equip three dreadnoughts. The idea was that the ships would be sent to Canada once its naval department was sufficiently developed. It was a repudiation of Laurier’s independent navy and a symbolic gesture of giving help to the mother country in the most direct and efficient way.
Not unexpectedly, the Liberals’ reaction was strong and direct. Laurier denounced Borden’s plan and launched a bitter attack on the government in January and February 1913, first demanding a referen¬dum on the issue and then staging a filibuster to block the bill’s passage. The debate was harsh and protracted, and the bill did not pass the House until May 15, and then only after the government enforced closure on the debate — for the first time in Canadian history. The debate then moved to the Senate and there the bill was stalled by the Liberal majority, which demanded an election on the issue. Borden threatened to reform the upper chamber, but in the end the bill died.
Caught in the middle were the nationalistes. They had campaigned against Laurier’s independent navy and in doing so had, however reluctantly, aligned themselves with the Borden Conservatives. But they now found themselves having to swallow the even more unpleasant idea of giving the British treasury a good deal of cash. Trapped in their own game in record time, seven of them voted against the government. Monk resigned. Borden was able to hold on to his other Quebec ministers, at least for the time being, but a glaring tear had appeared in the fabric of the Conservative Party.
As a result, when the war began in 1914 Canada had neither Laurier’s nor Borden’s navy and, when asked for a contribution to the war effort, could respond only with front-line soldiers — Canada had men willing to volunteer for service, but little military hardware. All sides were disappointed — Liberal, Conservative, and nationaliste. In August 1914, Borden’s government was aging and facing an election in the not-too-far-distant future, and his alliance with the nationalistes was falling apart. The divisions revealed during the naval debates could not be patched over during the war; they lingered, never far from the surface.
Table of ContentsPreface
1 The Conundrum: Robert Borden, War, and the Call for an Election
2 The Response of French Canada: Henri Bourassa, Schools, and Nationalities
3 The Issue: Conscription
4 The Liberals in Opposition: Wilfrid Laurier’s Leadership Tested
5 Creating Divisions, Choosing Sides: The Great Gerrymander
6 Framing the Campaign
7 The Campaign: French Canada
8 The Campaign: English Canada
9 The Results
10 The Aftermath: Union without Unity
Appendix 1: Results of the 1917 Election
Appendix 2: Winners of the 1917 Election
Appendix 3: Electoral Maps