By NORMAN HILLMER
In 1897, the new Prime Minister met the old Queen.
Wilfrid Laurier, who had become the Prime Minister of Canada the year before, crossed the Atlantic Ocean to participate in the celebrations of Queen Victoria’s 60 years on the British throne. She was the symbol of the power, prestige and stability of a British Empire that spanned the globe.
Victoria was Canada’s Queen too. Canada had been created in 1867 as a miniature of Britain. Institutions of government were fashioned on the British model. Many Canadians – six out of every 10 of them by century’s end – traced their ancestry to the British Isles. Britain retained a wide authority over Canada’s foreign and even domestic affairs. Canada was a country, but it was also, for many years after its birth, still a colony within a great empire.
However, Canada was not simply a copy of Britain. A substantial number of Canadians were French-speaking, and Canada was founded on the understanding that French and English Canadians would work through their problems in a federal system of government. Laurier was a Quebecer and the first francophone prime minister. The great goal of his politics, he said, was “to bring our people long-estranged from one another, gradually to become a nation.”
Laurier was also an unashamed admirer of British ideas and institutions. He looked to Britain for his political inspiration, not to France, which held little interest for him and other French Canadians. In 1897, Victoria honoured him with a knighthood, and Sir Wilfrid Laurier returned the favour with lofty praise of the British Empire. Nevertheless, he made it clear to the British that Canada had its own national interests and priorities. He would cooperate when and if possible, but cooperation had its limits.
The first test of Laurier’s loyalties came in 1899 when Britain went to war in South Africa and expected Canada’s help. English Canadians wanted to support Britain, but French Canadians did not. His people divided, Laurier was reluctant, especially since the war was a minor conflict in a faraway corner of the empire. The solution was a compromise. Laurier sent a small force to fight alongside Britain, but every Canadian soldier was a volunteer.
Laurier’s successful balancing act as prime minister lasted until 1911, when he proposed a closer economic relationship with the United States. During the election campaign of that year, he was painted as too American, and not nearly loyal enough to Britain, crown, and empire. At the same time, he was criticized in French Canada for his establishment of a Canadian navy that could assist the empire in time of crisis. He was too British, his critics in Quebec complained.
“In Quebec I am attacked as an imperialist,” Laurier told the electorate in 1911. “In Ontario as an anti-imperialist. I am neither. I am a Canadian.”
Not enough voters believed him. He was roundly defeated, and replaced by the Conservative party leader, Robert Borden, who regularly advertised his affection for Britain and empire.
When the First World War erupted in 1914, no compromises were necessary or contemplated. Britain, the homeland of so many Canadians, was threatened. Prime Minister Borden and Laurier, now the opposition leader, committed themselves and their country to an all out war effort alongside Britain. Canada, a small country of eight million, put more than 600,000 men in uniform, and more than 60,000 died. In the last year of the war, Canada’s elite army led the final charge against the enemy.
In the 1914-1918 war, the government in Ottawa gave and gave again to the imperial cause. But there was a price. Borden demanded and received recognition of Canada’s new status as an important ally – a place in the making of war policy, a seat at the peace table, and membership in the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations.
The First World War made Canada less colonial, but it also undermined the delicate balance between English and French Canada.
In 1917 the Borden government enacted compulsory military enlistment, or conscription, deeply alienating French Canadians, who had no faith in a war run by a government dominated by English Canada.
Laurier was saddened by conscription, which went against his bedrock belief in Canadian unity. He refused Borden’s request that he join in a coalition government, but Laurier did not desert Britain or become bitter. He worked to heal the country’s deep divisions.
The elegant and eloquent Laurier died in 1919, after more than three decades leading the Liberal party. He had understood, more than anyone, the strong bond of Canadians to Great Britain, and also Canada’s need and determination to make its own way in the world.
Norman Hillmer is Professor of History and International Affairs at Carleton University. More on this period in Canada’s relationship with Britain can be found in Norman Hillmer and J. L. Granatstein, Empire to Umpire: Canada and the World into the Twenty-First Century (Toronto: Thomson Nelson, 2007).
Next Installment: Canada’s British World
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