Identity of the West:  British North American

A Story of Challenge

By J.M.S. Careless

Chairman of the Department of History
University of Toronto
© J.M.S. Careless, 1963
First published 1953
Revised and enlarged edition 1963
Reprinted 1964

Library of Congress Catalogue Card No. 64-10638




1. – The Migration from Britain
2. – The Success of the National Policy
3. – Nationalism and Imperialism
4. – American Problems and the Naval Question


1. Immigration and Western Settlement

The year 1896 not only saw Laurier and the Liberals take office in Canada.  It witnessed the revival of world trade and the return of prosperity to the Dominion.  In fact, Canada embarked on the greatest boom it had yet known.  A new tide of immigration set in, the West was rapidly occupied, and all parts of the country flourished.  Laurier and the Liberals, who were fortunate to be in office during the boom, fell from power in 1911, yet the good times continued almost up to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.  By that date, the outlines of the Dominion had been filled in, and a prosperous Canada had developed a new, confident national spirit.  It was a mark of the national confidence that Laurier could say, ‘The nineteenth century was the century of the United States, the twentieth century will be the century of Canada.’

The basic achievement of the new era, on which the rest of the national advance depended, was the settlement of the West.  And here the prime reason for the success of the Laurier government was the recovery of world trade.  As the factories of Britain and western Europe throbbed in quickening pace, their crowded industrial towns demanded new supplies of foodstuffs from the soil of North America.  The demand for food rose constantly, yet the good western lands of the United States had by now been occupied and what remained was of far less agricultural value.  Only in the ‘last, best West’ of Canada was there a great reserve of fertile soil whose crops could feed the factory population of Europe.  Now at last there was good reason to settle the Canadian West.  Settlers flocked to the empty prairies, from Britain, from the


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United States, from continental Europe.  Year by year the rustling wheatfields reached further into the western grasslands, year by year the crops poured eastward through the narrow funnel of the Canadian Pacific, and yet the demand for grain continued to grow.

There were other developments which aided the settlement of the Canadian West.  The filling up of the American plains before 1900 turned the whole western frontier movement northward into Canada.  Once before, in the years between the conquest of 1760 and the War of 1812, the frontier in its march across the North American continent had swung into Canada.  In that day, New Englanders, Loyalists, and American frontiersmen had done much to occupy the eastern lands of British America.  In later years, although large numbers of settlers had come to the colonies from Britain, the main movement of the North American frontier had been westward across the United States.  After 1850 there had been little frontier advance in Canada at all.  But around the turn of the twentieth century, the Canadian frontier came into its own again, and by the time the movement had run its course the western half of the Dominion had been peopled.

Another factor in successful settlement was the improvement in farming methods and the development of new strains of wheat.  The prairies were lands of fairly low rainfall.  They required a system of ‘dry’ farming, and this by now had been worked out in the equally dry American plains.  The system demanded farms of large size, but the development of agricultural machinery by this time made it possible to work large farms effectively.  And if the problems of low rainfall and early frost could be overcome, no finer land for grain crops could be found anywhere than in the Canadian West.  As for the question of frost, the answer lay in the new strains of wheat.  High-yielding, quick-maturing varieties were developed.  Once they were tested, it became possible to grow grain in a shorter season, with the result that the wheat lands could push further and further towards the north.  The greatest triumph, Marquis wheat, came in 1908, when the western boom was at its


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height.  Its development by Charles Saunders, a botanist in the service of the Canadian government, is one of the most fascinating and significant stories in Canadian history.  Maturing in under a hundred days, bountiful Marquis added thousands of northern acres to Canada’s wheat lands.  In recent years still other kinds of wheat have advanced the western farming frontier far north to the Peace river country, where grain has been produced that has won the world wheat championship.

Government policies also had their share in the successful opening of the West.  In many ways they merely continued on lines laid down under Macdonald, but they were ably administered by the Laurier government.  Clifford Sifton, the Minister of the Interior in charge of western settlement, brought driving energy and enthusiasm to his task.  He organized vigorous publicity campaigns in Britain, the United States and Europe to attract immigrants to the Canadian West and stationed immigration agents widely in all three.  He arranged train tours of the prairies so that selected Canadian and American farmers and newspaper men could see for themselves the value of the soil.  The Dominion’s land policy, carried over from the previous period, made farms easily available.  The prairies were surveyed in numbered square sections of 640 acres each.  In the odd-numbered sections the Dominion sold the land at moderate prices to raise a revenue.  These sections also contained the lands granted to the Canadian Pacific, and other types of grant, which were sold in the same way.  In the even-numbered sections farms could be obtained free, as homesteads, if the homesteader fulfilled certain conditions of developing his ‘quarter section’ of 160 acres.  So great was the demand for farms that both homestead and purchased land were readily taken up.  And the Canadian Pacific, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and other interests which held grants soon saw that it paid to sell their land cheaply in order to develop the West, increase its railway traffic, and gain from the general prosperity.  In fact, the government at length decided that it was worth while to


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give the rest of its western lands away to keep up the flow of settlement.  In 1908 it opened what was left of the odd-numbered sections to free homesteading.

Thanks to all these circumstances, Canada was swept by the greatest wave of irnmigration in her history.  Between 1896 and the First World War, about two-and-a-half million people entered the Dominion.  Well over half a million came from continental Europe, more than three-quarters of a million from the United States and close to a million from the British Isles.  During the height of the movement, between 1901 and 1911, the population jumped from five to seven millions, an increase of over one-third.  But the change in the size of the population was no more striking than the change in its composition.  While the new immigrants were English-speaking in the great majority, a sizeable number were from Germany and Scandinavia, from Russia, Poland, and the Ukraine, from Austria and Italy.  Canada for the first time became what the United States long had been, a melting-pot of peoples.  Canada was still much less a melting pot than the republic, and the British and French stocks continued to dominate.  But whereas persons of other than British or French origin had formed only a tiny part of the Canadian population at Confederation, by the First World War they formed almost one-fifth of it.

On the whole these European immigrants were gradually absorbed into the two older Canadian peoples, though mostly into the English-speaking majority.  Group settlements of foreign-born in the West, particularly if they were religious groups, proved the most difficult to absorb.  The Doukhobors, a small but earnestly religious sect from Russia, provide an obvious example here, since an extremist minority among them, which has settled in British Columbia, has even found it hard to fit its religious ideas to the accepted laws and customs of the Canadian people.  Yet the mass of the foreign-born came to think of themselves simply as Canadians, while they added colour and variety to the Canadian personality and new arts and crafts to Canada’s culture.

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At the same time, the largest group of immigrants gave Canada a new infusion of British stock, while the next largest set of arrivals, from the United States (about half of them returning Canadians), supplied farmers already trained in North American agriculture.  These were of particular value in bringing the West under cultivation.  Not all the immigrants went west by any means.  Many of them settled in the now thriving eastern towns or entered into new northern mining and lumbering developments.  Altogether, about a million new inhabitants went to the prairies and British Columbia in the peak period, 1901 to 1911.  Probably the majority were Canadians and Americans, and the rest British and continental Europeans in about equal numbers.  The Barr ‘colony’, for instance, at Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, was a strikingly successful example of a British community settlement.

With the inrush of settlement the West advanced rapidly.  Railway lines branched out, roads were built, and towns sprang up.  Regina and Saskatoon, Calgary and Edmonton mushroomed out of trading posts and board shanties.  The first sod huts of settlers — the open prairies did not supply wood for log cabins — were soon replaced by frame dwellings, planks for which were shipped in by railway.  The red-brown grain elevators began to dot the plains, and on every side there was a sea of grain, trembling in soft green shoots in the spring rains and tumbling in golden waves under the hot, blue summer sky.  The plains turned almost overnight from the wilderness life of trapping and hunting to the complex business of raising a crop for the world market, with every aid of science and machinery.  There was really no stage in between, of pioneer farming for bare existence, as in eastern Canada.

From the first the western settler was a business man, producing for a cash sale and buying his needs, even some of his food, from the world outside.  He was supplied by the same railways that carried his product on its way to markets half-way around the globe.  And although the size of western farms scattered settlers

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Map:  (i) CANADA, 1873 - Chapter 16

(iii)  CANADA, 1905 - Chapter 16


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Map:  (ii) CANADA, 1882 - Chapter 16

Map:  (iv) CANADA, 1950 - Chapter 16


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far apart, their life was not the solitary one of the eastern pioneers.  There was no barrier of thick forest; roads and railways kept farmers in touch with the outside; and from the start they organized in groups, whether for social reasons, or to market their grain more effectively, or to bring pressure to bear in politics for a new road or a branch-line railway.

The rapid rise of the West led also to changes in the field of government.  Even before the great boom, gradual western growth had caused the governor-and-council system set up for the North West Territories in 1875 to be replaced by representative government in 1888, and by responsible government in 1897.  But now the rapid rise in the population called two more provinces into being.  In 1905 Alberta and Saskatchewan were carved out of the North West Territories as two new members of Confederation.

A few years later the North West Territories were further reduced when the boundaries of Quebec and Ontario were extended northward.  The discovery of the Klondike gold-fields on the Yukon River in the far north-west also led to the creation of a separate Yukon Territory, when miners raced north in the dramatic gold-rush of 1898-1903, so colourfully set forth in the writings of Robert Service.  Klondike gold also helped western growth by making the sub-Arctic west important for the first time.  But in a few years the Yukon fields passed their prime, and the Territory’s population declined.  And the remaining North West Territories, still a tremendous empire, continued almost empty except for the Indian fur trapper, the Hudson’s Bay factor and the missionary.

At the same time, however, Alberta and Saskatchewan came quickly out of childhood.  Public education was made province-wide, thanks to the system of ‘school lands’ which were sold to support it.  Provincial universities were founded.  They also flourished in Manitoba and British Columbia, which shared greatly in the boom.  Yet the western boom and western settlement were not the only striking developments of this remarkable age.  There were


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others, all across Canada, all of them closely linked together, and tied as well to the triumph in the West.

2. The Success of the National Policy

The western growth was so sudden that it strained the existing Canadian railway system.  The Canadian Pacific was jammed with traffic at its Winnipeg bottleneck each year as the crops moved out.  A new transcontinental line seemed necessary.  In 1903, when the Liberal government announced its whole-hearted readiness to support vigorous railway-building, two powerful railway groups were eager to go ahead.  The Grand Trunk was prosperous at last and was dreaming again of extension to the Pacific.  The western railway promoters, Mackenzie and Mann, who had strung a number of small lines together, were hoping to make theirs a transcontinental railway system.  The obvious plan, since Mackenzie and Mann wanted to extend to the east and the Grand Trunk to the west, would have been for the two groups to join hands.  But neither wanted to give up their own scheme for a transcontinental railway.  And so strong was the confident mood of the time that they believed there was room for two new great railways in Canada.  The government and the people believed it too.

Hence Mackenzie and Mann built their Canadian Northern into a transcontinental railway, while the Grand Trunk laid the Grand Trunk Pacific across the West.  In addition, the government undertook to construct a new eastern route of its own, the National Transcontinental, which was to be leased to the Grand Trunk.  This trunk line stretched east from Winnipeg, reaching high across Ontario and Quebec, to open up their northern regions and provide a main track direct to Quebec City.  From here it ran down through the Maritimes by a shorter route than the old Intercolonial, yet stayed wholly in Canada, as the Canadian Pacific’s ‘Short Line’ to Saint John did not.

The new age of railway-building bound all the regions of Canada together in a far stronger web of steel.  It linked the Pacific coast,


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where the northern port of Prince Rupert was now opened, through several more mountain passes to the rest of Canada; it crossed the barrier of the Shield with two new trunk lines, and joined central Canada more effectively with ice-free Maritime harbours.  Yet the happy belief that all these tracks would pay was only the over-confidence of boom times.  Canada’s railways were gravely overbuilt.  Through the Shield in particular, competing lines often ran side by side for miles through a country that could not supply traffic enough for one.  And because the new railways had been constructed in a flush of prosperity, when prices were high, they had to carry an extremely heavy burden of costs.  Very early, therefore, they began to collapse under their load of debt, even before boom conditions had fully disappeared.

As a result, by the end of the First World War the Dominion government had been forced to take over the bankrupt Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk.  They were combined with the government’s Intercolonial and National Transcontinental to form the Canadian National Railways, a state-owned rival of the Canadian Pacific, which successfully survived as a private company, thanks to the much sounder state of its finances.  The Canadian National continued to run into difficulties in later years, largely because of the heavy load of debt it had inherited from its bankrupt parents.  Within the Laurier era, however, the building of railways added greatly to national prosperity.  Their construction offered employment to many immigrants.  It made mighty demands on Canadian industry and lumbering for materials, and the new lines across the Shield uncovered hidden mineral riches.  In this northern realm a new Canada began to develop, once the railways had opened the door to its resources.  In northern Ontario, in particular, a mining boom was under way, as gold, silver, copper, and nickel mines were brought into production.  The softwood forests of the Shield started supplying wood-pulp for hungry mills that made the world’s newspapers.  And the Shield, that had been a dividing waste land but was now emerging as Canada’s


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treasure-house, was promising to become a power-house as well.  The new century had brought the age of electricity made from water-power; the many rivers of the Shield could readily be harnessed.  Hydro-electric power was also being developed outside the Shield, at Niagara Falls, for instance.  This new source of vital energy was of great significance to the booming factories of central Canada, which had been compelled to bring in coal to furnish them with steam power.

Despite these important developments, the most significant feature of the new age of prosperity was the growth of trade from east to west, carried across the continent by the railways.  As western settlement advanced and western grain production mounted, the east-west trading system of Canada began to flourish as never before.  While wheat moved east to Atlantic ports, farm machinery and manufactures went west from eastern factories.  The St. Lawrence interests of Montreal controlled a golden commercial empire beyond the dreams of the days of the fur canoe or the canal era.  Winnipeg grew as Montreal’s outpost, gathering in the western trade.  Toronto competed with Montreal to some extent, but thrived on the east-west commerce as the heart of a large industrial region.  The outlying sections and their cities also gained from the growth of east-west trade.  Vancouver benefited as the Pacific outlet of the continent-wide system, and British Columbia supplied the prairies with fish, lumber, fruit, and minerals.  The Maritimes advanced less, but were aided by the development of Saint John and Halifax as the winter ports of east-west commerce.

More than this, Canada’s trade relations with Britain grew closer, for Britain became her best customer for western grain; the east-west system really ended on the other side of the Atlantic.  As a result, an enduring pattern of trade developed, whereby Canada sold the bulk of her farm exports in the British market, and these soon included meat, dairy products, and fruit as well as wheat.  Yet grain remained the staple export of the east-west trading system.  Canada’s old staple of fur had long since lost its


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importance and the cutting over of eastern forests had affected the export of lumber.  Sawn lumber still went in great quantities to the United States, but the old square timber trade with Britain disappeared about 190O.  And then came western grain to strengthen or rather transform, the trading ties with Britain.  Although Canada continued to sell many products to the United States and to buy from there rather more than she sold, she balanced her books by the sales to Britain.  A new period of heavy British investment in Canada during the Laurier boom also strengthened trans-Atlantic commercial ties.

The rise of east-west trade had another powerful consequence.  It spelt success at long last for the National Policy of Macdonald, which the Liberals now took over as their own.  The National Policy of protection was firmly fixed on Canada from then on, since both major parties had accepted it.  The Liberals might still talk more of lower tariff rates and work to reduce some of them, but they had really dropped any intention of interfering with the basic policy of a protective tariff.

The Liberal conversion became clear almost at the start of the Laurier government’s career.  Its first tariff, that of 1897, did not really alter the protective system, and left out the offer of reciprocity with the United States which had long been included in the various Canadian tariffs.  Laurier, indeed, announced that there would be ‘no more pilgrimages to Washington’ to seek reciprocity from the United States.  This changed Liberal attitude was in part an expression of the new national confidence caused by the age of prosperity.  Yet the Liberal conversion had deeper roots.  The party had altered its character.  No longer was it based chiefly on the farm vote and opposed to a Conservative party supported by big business.  Though the Liberals had still kept most of their farm support, they had gradually built up a powerful backing of railway, banking, and industrial interests.  As the party in power during the boom, they attracted an even larger business following, and served it well enough with their policies of railway-building,


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tariff protection and lavish government expenditure — shades of Macdonald Conservatism!  In fact, there was not much difference now between the two great Canadian parties.  In this era of boom, free trade and government economy were forgotten.  The Liberals had simply adopted most of Macdonald’s expensive nation-building policies, and had generally succeeded with them.

The reason why the Liberals succeeded where the Conservatives had failed, is not hard to see. Macdonald’s national plans had required a Pacific railway and western settlement as well as the protective tariff. In the long depression, the failure of western settlement had meant that the railway had been half used and the tariff had but partly served its purpose. But now the life-blood of settlement and east-west trade coursed through the system Macdonald had moulded. The railways, vastly extended under the Liberals, carried both the settlers and their crops; the industries that had been built up behind the tariff found ample western markets; and the West fed the East and the world overseas. The purposes of the national policy had been achieved. Canada at last had a balanced economic system, a unity based on trade.

The balance was still far from perfect. The success of the system depended greatly on good times and a healthy world market The west would soon complain that it carried the larger share of the tariff burden and railway charges for the benefit of eastern industry. In years to come there would be repeated protests against the tariff and railway costs in both the West and the Maritimes. Yet the uneven burden of the tariff could be offset by the practical, if not always admirable, policy of increasing subsidies for the provinces that complained. And the Dominion government could work to modify objectionable railway rates, as, for instance, in the Crowsnest Pass agreement of 1897, wherein the Dominion gave aid to the Canadian Pacific’s new Crowsnest Pass line in return for a lowering of rates between the West and central Canada.

In general, complex, uneven and expensive as it might be, the national policy succeeded during Laurier’s day in making Canada


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more than just a collection of governments or a name on the map.  It was, in a sense, another response to the challenge of the land, to the forces that divided the country into separate regions.  Though the policy of protection helped to build up powerful and privileged business interests, the majority of Canadians accepted its costs and its faults as part of the price of successfully maintaining their separate existence in North America:  as part of the price they paid for their geography.

1. Nationalism and Imperialism

With the prosperity of the Laurier era and the success of the national policy, sectional strife dwindled away in Canada, and unity and nationalism again became the order of the day.  The feeling of harmony was widespread, though not complete.  There were still mutterings of the racial storm between Ontario and Quebec, and in the latter province the purely French-Canadian kind of nationalism was soon to rise in an angry new outburst.  Yet for the time the dominant mood was one of national pride, a belief that Canada was at last coming into her own in the world, and that all Canadians could stand together to see their country receive the greater recognition which she now deserved.  Laurier himself was a living symbol of this nationalism, stressing as he did that Canadians should think neither of English Canada nor of French, but of Canada as a whole.

The feeling of nationalism was clearly evident in literature; for example, in the writing of history; for during this period the first large-scale studies of the Canadian past were undertaken as group projects.  It appeared in poetry, where the chief representatives of the golden age of the ‘nineties — Roberts, Carman, Duncan, Scott — were striving still in the new century to set forth the scenes and spirit of Canada, as were Wilfred Campbell and many others.  And by 1914 young artists were emerging — later, notably, the Group of Seven — who viewed Canada through Canadian eyes, and no longer approached the rocks, sweeps, and storms of their


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northern landscape with the painting styles developed in the milder countrysides of Europe.  In every way Canadians were growing more self-conscious, more eager to assert themselves.

In this new mood, under Laurier, Canada looked to the world outside.  As yet she had little contact with countries other than the United States and Britain, but within the North Atlantic triangle she showed much more independence of mind.  With regard to the United States, the turning away from reciprocity was a sign that Canada felt a new readiness to make her own way in North America.  With regard to Britain, Canadians on the whole stood out against the tide of ardent imperialism which was still running high in the mother country.  Imperial questions bulked large in this era, because of Britain’s hopes of strengthening the empire’s trade, government, and defence to meet the mounting rivalry of great powers in the darker world that loomed ahead.  And yet, however understandable were Britain’s intentions, and though she meant only to realize them through free agreement between motherland and colonies, the fact was that these imperialist aims ran up against the growing counter-force of nationalism in the principal colonies.  Nationalism was not only appearing in Canada, although, as the eldest Domiinion, it was more advanced there.

This nationalism, however, was of a fairly moderate sort.  In opposing centralized imperial control it still believed that the empire might be strong through the free development of its parts, and generally thought that ties of friendship and common loyalties might prove more lasting than new imperial machinery.  This was the viewpoint of Laurier nationalism in Canada, where there were keen imperialists as well, but moderate nationalism proved more powerful.  There was in truth little basic disagreement among Canadians over relations with the empire.  Few nationalists, even among the French Canadians, had any desire to break the British tie, and few imperialists meant to abandon Canada’s national economic policies.  The disagreements, which could be noisy, were on smaller, particular questions.  Hence, while the Conservatives still


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talked more warmly of empire, they stood by the National Policy they had created in the face of British free trade.  And while the Liberals wanted fuller national rights they continued to seek them inside the imperial framework.

To some extent both the so-called imperialists and nationalists in the Dominion expressed the same spirit of the new century:  the desire to have Canada assert herself.  The nationalists wanted her to do so by avoiding tighter imperial bonds and by gaining more freedom to deal with external affairs.  The imperialists wanted her to play a greater part in the empire and to win some share in the framing of imperial policies.  But both wanted Canada to make a larger mark in the world.

Imperial questions came to the fore almost as soon as the Liberals took office.  In 1897 a Colonial Conference was held in London on a grand imperial occasion, the celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.  To London thronged representatives from the Queen’s vast domains around the globe.  From Canada came a tall, distinguished French Canadian with a courtly air and a cordial manner, equally at ease in French or English, in Windsor Castle or among his rural supporters of Arthabaska, Quebec.  This was the Dominion’s prime minister, Wilfrid Laurier.  Laurier, to be knighted Sir Wilfrid in London, came to Britain when the strong-minded Joseph Chamberlain ruled the Colonial Office and there had made his goal the achievement of empire unity.  If imperial federation or an imperial customs union could not be obtained, then some form of imperial council representing Britain and the chief colonies might be established.  But Laurier said no, in the politest of terms, at the Conference; and apparently the other colonies largely felt as he did, since the meeting broke up expressing satisfaction with the existing ties of empire.

Laurier and Canada pointed instead to the principle of imperial preference, which the Liberals had introduced in their first tariff, that of 1897.  The imperial preference was a lower rate of customs duty specially granted to British goods.  Actually it was a com-


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promise measure, which did not really affect the principle of tariff protection that had now been adopted by the Liberals, but which somewhat appeased both low-tariff and imperialist feelings in Canada by reducing the protective rates in Britain’s favour.  If, however, all the parts of the British empire could give each other similar favoured treatment, then a system of imperial preferences might increase the flow of trade within the empire and strengthen imperial bonds in quite a practical fashion.  But while the centre of empire, Britain, maintained a policy of free trade and a market open to all the world she could not respond with special favours for her colonies.  Canada’s grant of an imperial preference, broadened in 1898, remained a one-way offer.

The next year a far more urgent question arose in imperial relations.  The South African War broke out in 1899, Canada had to decide what its policy would be towards this empire struggle.  Chamberlain felt that imperial unity might be strengthened by the leading colonies sending troops to the war.  Lord Minto, the Governor-General in Canada, and many Canadians also hoped to see a force dispatched.  Laurier, however, was faced with a difficult problem of maintaining national unity.  As British forces met defeats in South Africa in the early stages of the war, the demand swelled in English-speaking Canada for the sending of troops.  But the French Canadians were uninterested or opposed; both because they felt the war was not Canada’s concern and because they tended to compare the position of the Boers to their own in an English-speaking empire.  A purely French-Canadian nationalism stirred again, condemning English Canadians as war-mad imperialists who put Britain ahead of their own country, Canada.  The old racial division began to crack open:  a challenge to Laurier who had dedicated his life to harmony between the two peoples of Canada.

In these circumstances the government took a middle course.  Laurier, a French-Canadian, determined to raise and send a force to South Africa in response to the will of the English-speaking


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majority.  On the other hand the force was made up of volunteers and was maintained in South Africa by Britain.  The first contingent sailed from Quebec in October, 1899, and more followed.  In all, more than seven thousand Canadians served in South Africa, through the bloodshed of Paardeburg, the relief of Lady-smith and the capture of Pretoria, until the war ended in 1902.  Meanwhile at home Laurier’s policy had avoided serious trouble between French and English, and between nationalists and imperialists as well.  For once more, the sending of troops to South Africa had been almost as much nationalism as imperialism.  Canada was asserting herself, and acting by her own decision.

After the war, Chamberlain in Britain hoped to build on the feelings created by a common imperial war effort.  However, in the Colonial Conference of 1902 Laurier opposed plans for greater unity in defence or government, and again held to the idea of trade preference.  Chamberlain himself came to support that plan, which would require Britain to drop free trade.  But in a campaign to bring ‘tariff reform* in Britain, Chamberlain succeeded only in splitting his own Conservative party, so that the Liberals came to power.  Although the free-trade British Liberals could not consider imperial preference, they still thought that some other means of strengthening the empire might be found.  Laurier agreed to their plan of making colonial conferences regular meetings held every four years, under the more imposing title of the Imperial Conference.  He shared fully in the conferences that followed.  But he still held back from any proposals for more centralized controls over the empire, fearing that Canada would find herself committed to policies which she had not been able to influence, since the British government maintained that relations with foreign countries had to be left in the hands of Britain.  Then too, his particular problem of finding a middle ground between both French and English in Canada required him to be ever-cautious.

Defence, particularly naval defence, was now becoming the central problem in imperial affairs.  As the dangers of war in


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Europe mounted, Britain and Germany entered on a grim race to build the most modem type of battleship.  The new German fleet was coming perilously close to the British in size.  To Germany, a land-power, the building race was largely a matter of prestige; to Britain, living by the sea, it was a matter of life or death.  The cost was enormous, and since the Royal Navy defended the whole empire, the British government sought to have the colonies share in its support by making definite contributions to the imperial fleet.  Laurier again held back, on the same ground that, in contributing, Canada would be committed to aid where she could not influence.  He stated clearly that, ‘When Britain is at war, Canada is at war,’ but felt that in the event of any war the Dominion, as a self-governing colony, had to decide on its own contribution.  By keeping commitments beforehand as low as possible, Canada would be more able to decide freely.

In any case, the British Admiralty’s belief that imperial naval forces would have to be under one command removed another possibility; that, instead of a direct contribution to the Royal Navy, a Dominion might raise its own naval forces as it already did its army.  In 1909, however, the naval race with Germany was running so close that the Admiralty gave up its stand in order to obtain whatever aid it could.  As a result, at the special Imperial Naval Conference of that year Australia and Canada agreed to begin their own fleets, though New Zealand would offer ships and men direct to the Royal Navy.  Early in 1910 Laurier introduced a bill in the Dominion Parliament to create a Canadian navy, and this Naval Service Bill was passed.

The Canadian Prime Minister had carried his point on a major imperial question.  To a great extent his policies of nationalism within the empire had so far been successful.  At the least he had steered between imperialist and nationalist extremes, kept Canada reasonably united, and brought her wider national powers, of which the founding of a Canadian navy was only a part.  At the most, he had largely prevented the rigid centralizing of the empire,


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leaving it free to develop into the Commonwealth.  But his day was almost over, and the Naval Bill would help to cause his fall.

4. American Problems and the Naval Question

Laurier lost office in 1911, in an election in which the Naval Bill played a large part.  Another main reason for his fall, however, concerns the United States rather than the British empire, and involves examining Canada’s dealings with that country during the Laurier era.  Relations with the United States had been disturbed around the turn of the century by the Alaska boundary dispute, and for a time tempers had been high in the Dominion, although the anger soon passed.

The question of the indefinite Alaskan boundary on the northern Pacific coast, where Yukon and British Columbia bordered the Alaskan ‘panhandle’, first became important with the Klondike gold-rush in 1898.  Skagway in the panhandle, or coastal strip, was the chief harbour that gave entrance to the Yukon river and the Klondike.  It lay up a long inlet; and if this inlet reached beyond the limits of the coastal strip that was part of Alaska, then Skagway was a Canadian port and goods from Vancouver could enter there duty free.  If the American claim extended inland beyond Skagway, then American customs houses could enjoy the gold-rush traffic.  This dispute over trade thus drew attention to the boundary line which had never been clearly drawn when the United States had purchased Alaska.

The United States probably had the better case for drawing the border further inland than Canada desired, but the manner in which the question was handled showed that the Americans did not mean to rest their case on arguments alone, and roused much resentment in the Dominion.  The republic was now going through a period of imperial expansion of its own; its temper was firm and unyielding.  Though the United States brought Britain to abandon treaty rights in Panama, where the great Panama Canal was to be built, it refused to make any returns in Alaska.  It refused to refer


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the boundary to an outside decision, while President Theodore Roosevelt ordered troops to Alaska and announced that he was prepared, if necessary, to run the boundary without regard to Britain or Canada.  And when a six-man ‘impartial’ commission was set up to decide the line, the three American representatives were selected because, in advance, they had already publicly accepted the claim of the United States.

As for the other side, two Canadians and the Lord Chief Justice of England were chosen to sit on the commission.  The old difficulty of divided interests, as in the Washington Treaty, appeared once more, and it is not beyond understanding that Britain put the cause of Anglo-American friendship ahead of the Canadian claims.  At any rate, Lord Alverstone, the Lord Chief Justice, under both British and American pressures, voted with the United States members of the commission.  The boundary settlement, announced in 1903 in American favour, was not as important as the influence of the whole dispute:  and that is why it deserves attention.  Not only did it revive old Canadian suspicions of the United States; it made Canada feel that it was not wise to leave too much to imperial authorities, and so strengthened Laurier’s hand in opposing the movement for closer imperial relations.

Gradually, however, Canadian anger cooled, and relations with the United States improved.  Anglo-American friendship was now well established, and Canadians had forgotten their old fears of American attack.  Although there would still be disagreements, the plain fact was that Canadians and Americans got on well together and the Canadian way of life was closely tied to the American.  But in this era as well, the settlement of several outstanding arguments further helped the growth of good-will.  For example, the age-old Atlantic fisheries question was settled by an award of the International Court in 1910, an award, incidentally, which favoured Canada.  The previous year an International Joint Commission was set up by the two countries to deal with questions arising from their common water boundary of the Great


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Lakes, or, indeed, with any border problems referred to it.  This permanent body, working quietly with a mass of practical problems, was a landmark in the development of friendly co-operation between Canada and the United States.  In fact the two countries were getting on together so successfully that in 1910 the question of reciprocity emerged once again — and this time it was raised by the United States.

It was not the state of trade but the fortunes of politics that suddenly revived reciprocity.  In the United States rising prices had brought outcries against the lofty rates of the American tariff of 1909, and President Taft was anxious to head off the growing opposition by some new measure of tariff reduction.  A reciprocity agreement with Canada seemed the answer.  When Laurier heard of Taft’s readiness to discuss reciprocity he was doubtful at first.  But he faced his own mounting political difficulties.  Besides problems raised by his Naval Service Bill, he was confronted by a vigorous western demand for a lowering of the Canadian tariff.  In the summer of 1910 Laurier had made his first trip to the West, and there he had met powerful organizations of western farmers with long lists of grievances, chief among them the height of the tariff.  Late that year, indeed, the new national farm organization, the Canadian Council of Agriculture sat down in Ottawa to press the western demands.  It seemed that the reciprocity offer had come at the perfect moment, to charm all the Liberals’ troubles away.  Both parties were astounded by the golden gift that had fallen into Laurier’s lap.

Agreements on reciprocity were speedily reached.  Unlike the agreement of 1854 there was to be reciprocity in certain manufactured goods as well as in natural products, and it was not to be established by treaty but by laws passed in both the United States congress and the Canadian parliament.  But while reciprocity passed through congress it was held up in parliament, both by the Conservatives and by a group of Liberals under Clifford Sifton who had left Laurier’s side.  And opposition grew outside parlia-


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ment.  It was another strange turn of events.  After years of hoping for reciprocity, long denied by the Americans, it was now offered by them, and Canada held back.  How could this be?  In part it was plain enough.  All the powerful interests in Canada entrenched behind the tariff, the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association, the railway interests, the Conservative party, and the Liberals allied with business and banking, began a violent campaign against reciprocity.  They largely appealed to the emotions, to loyalty and the British tie, and hailed reciprocity as the first step to annexation.  And here prominent Americans helped by making unwise statements stressing that very point.  The speaker of the United States House of Representatives supported reciprocity on the ground that it pointed towards the day when the American flag would float as far as the North Pole.  Though the United States government quickly denied any such purpose behind reciprocity, the damage was done.  Since some Americans insisted, as in former days, in coupling annexation with reciprocity, Canada, as in former days, was put on her guard.

But this is not sufficient explanation.  More significant is the fact that by 1911 reciprocity had been a dead issue in Canada for almost twenty years, and she was prospering nicely without it.  The sudden revival of the old theme did not rouse a very deep response.  The east-west system seemed to be working effectively, and questions of north-south trade were not pressing.  Furthermore the spirit of Canadian nationalism developed in the Laurier era worked against American reciprocity, just as it did against British imperialism.  Canada was doing very well on her own — too well to seek entanglements with Americans who assumed that she could not stand on her own.  Nor was American stiffness in Alaska wholly forgotten.  Though such a reaction might have been mainly emotional, it was a root cause of the defeat of reciprocity.  Laurier decided to hold an election on that issue in the autumn of 1911.  When he went down to defeat, he was in part beaten by the very nationalism which he had helped to develop.


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He was beaten as well by another sort of nationalism, the strong French Canadian variety that was revived in Quebec by his Naval Bill. The Bill that passed parliament in 1910 called for a Canadian navy of five cruisers and six destroyers. It was only to be a beginning, a unit for training and coastal defence, but the Conservatives attacked the ‘tin-pot navy3 as useless in the empire’s time of danger, and called for direct contributions to help supply the battleships that Britain really needed to match the German fleet. The chief attack on Laurier’s navy, however, came from the other side, from French nationalists led by Henri Bourassa. Bour-assa was a grandson of Papineau, and like his grandfather had great powers of mind and oratory and a staunch patriotism for French Canada. Unlike Papineau, however, he was also a firm ultramontane and thus was well equipped to lead the clerical and racial extremists of Quebec. Although he professed to admire British Liberalism, as Laurier assuredly did, he had little of the tolerance that marked both Laurier and British Liberalism at its best.

The extreme nationalists of Quebec had been fairly quiet in the earlier years of Lauder’s rule, especially after his notable victory over ulrramontanism in that province in 1896. But gradually they began to revive, as Laurier’s external policies, which were too lukewarm for the imperialists of Canada, seemed too friendly to English and imperial interests to suit many French Canadians. When the Naval Bill was passed, all the French hostility to imperialism and the dominance of English Canada burst forth, skilfully fanned by Bourassa. Quebec wanted no navy at all. A French Nationalist party took shape, denouncing Laurier as a traitor to his people, and the Bill as an imperialist trick to involve Canada in foreign wars. The result was to split the vote in Quebec in the critical election of 1911. The great influence of Laurier still carried the province for the Liberals, but with a much reduced majority; and they lost sufficient seats elsewhere, particularly in Ontario, to lose the whole election.


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The Conservative victors of 1911 had little to be proud of.  On the whole Laurier’s defeat was due to the unpopularity of his own measures, the Naval Bill in Quebec, and reciprocity in most of the other provinces.  Yet the way in which his opponents attacked these policies gave them a resounding but unlovely triumph.  It was not merely that the Conservatives made frantic appeals to every imperial sentiment while battling reciprocity, but that at the same time they allied with the violent anti-imperialists of Quebec.  In Ontario they attacked Laurier’s navy because it was hopelessly insufficient, in Quebec because it was far too much.  The two ends successfully combined against the middle.

Once in power, however, the Conservatives threw off the restraints of the Quebec Nationalists and produced a naval measure of their own.  Their new leader, Robert Borden, a serious, rugged Nova Scotian, showed in office that he had views as definite as Laurier’s on what Canadian external policy should be.  Borden proposed that because of the continuing naval emergency the Liberals’ navy measure should be dropped for the time being and a direct contribution be made to Britain to provide the Grand Fleet with three battleships at a cost of $35,000,000.  This plan he introduced in a new Naval Bill in 1912.  It was not, however, simply a matter of emergency aid.  Borden believed that before any permanent defence measures were decided upon, Canada must secure from Britain some share in the making of imperial foreign policy.  In short, he was ready to take on imperial defence burdens in exchange for a voice in the control of imperial policy.  Laurier had sought to avoid commitments; Borden would accept them and make use of them.  His was that sort of Canadian imperialism that wanted to see Canada gain more standing through the empire itself.  And in this way he too was a nationalist, seeking to assert the new power of Canada.

As for the emergency contribution of three batdeships, this Borden desired because he recognized the vital significance of British naval power in the world.  Without the shield of the Royal


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Navy the overseas empire lay open to German sea power, and the strength of that shield depended then on battleships above all.  Germany’s building programme was still pressing dangerously on Britain’s lead, as the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, made plain to Borden.  His Naval Bill for a contribution, however, was defeated in 1913 by a Senate full of Liberals appointed during Laurier’s long reign.  Liberalism still believed it was Canada’s place to build her own navy and not turn over the task to Britain.  But before another naval plan had been framed the state of emergency had ended in open war.  In August 1914, the First World War began.  There was no more question of giving battleships.  They would have been built in British shipyards, and now Britain was building all she could.  Canada’s money could best go to her own war effort.  Hence the naval question came to an end without Canada ever having settled it.

Yet in the few years before war burst upon it the Borden government worked at home to modernize the army and to establish the common standards for British and Dominions forces that had been recommended by the Imperial Conference of 1907 and the Imperial Defence Committee.  Otherwise the Conservatives largely carried on the policies of the Laurier government, aiding railway building and promoting western settlement.  The West, however, was almost filled, and in 1913 the long boom period was coming to a close.  There were signs of depression when the outbreak of war caused a new flurry of activity and hid the fact that an era had ended for Canada.  Though Laurier after 1911 was Leader of the Opposition and no longer Prime Minister, this whole period was truly the Laurier era.  He had risen with it, helped to build its prosperity, its confidence and nationalism.  The age that followed after 1914 would strain that nationalism severely, but would also see Canada advance to the full achievement of nationhood.


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