Sir Robert Borden (1854-1937), eighth prime minister of Canada (1911-1920). Borden led the Canadian government during the critical years of World War I (1914-1918), when Canada was coming to political and economic maturity. His broad vision and sound judgment made him an effective leader in these difficult years. He was often opposed within his own party, but his fairness and his ability to grasp the facts of an issue kept him at the forefront of political life. He was accused of causing the rift between French-speaking and English-speaking Canadians over the draft issue. However, the rift had existed below the surface and had simply been widened. Borden's greatest achievement was to give Canada new status and influence in international affairs.
Robert Laird Borden was born in Grand Pré, Nova Scotia. He was educated at the Acacia Villa Seminary in Horton, Nova Scotia, where he did so well that he was appointed the school's assistant classics master at the age of 14. At 19 he was apprenticed to a law firm in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and became a lawyer in 1878.
Borden started a law practice in Kentville, Nova Scotia, and in 1882 was invited to join one of the largest law firms in Halifax. He became the junior partner of Graham, Tupper and Borden. A hard worker, Borden was earning a substantial income by the time he was 28. In 1889 Borden married a local girl, Laura Bond, the daughter of a Halifax merchant. In 1890 Borden became the senior partner of his law firm.
|A||Member of Parliament|
In 1896 Borden was persuaded by Sir Charles Tupper, the Conservative prime minister, to run for one of Halifax's two seats in Parliament. Although the Tupper government was defeated at the polls, Borden was elected and went to Parliament as a member of the opposition. Borden did not like Parliament. The lack of rational debate and the hypocrisy he found there were not to his taste. Borden's first speech was an attack on the inefficiency and corruption of the civil service. He characteristically chose to attack a system that was favored by the bulk of his own party, and one that Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the Liberal prime minister, was trying to eliminate.
In spite of his views, Borden's ability soon made him a leading member of the Conservative opposition. After the Conservatives lost the elections of 1900, Sir Charles Tupper resigned the leadership of the party, and Borden was offered the post. He did not want it because he was relatively unfamiliar with the business of politics. In addition, leading the Conservatives seemed to be a way to political suicide, because the Liberals were in power during a period of national prosperity and seemed likely to continue there indefinitely. However, in 1901, Borden accepted the post out of a sense of duty. Once he had done so, he took the job seriously and even gave up actively practicing law.
Borden took every opportunity to attack Liberal policies, particularly the Liberal legislation that offered loans to some of Canada's privately owned transcontinental railways. However, in the 1904 elections the Liberals won every province except Prince Edward Island. They had almost twice as many seats in the new Parliament as the Conservatives had. Borden lost his seat in Halifax, but in a 1905 by-election to fill empty seats he ran for Carleton, Ontario, and won. That same year he moved to Ottawa permanently, so that he could give better attention to his leadership duties.
When the new provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were created in 1905, the school provisions for them angered Protestants and Catholics alike. Prime Minister Laurier had proposed to follow the system in Ontario, where the provincial government supported Protestant schools but allowed separate Roman Catholic schools which were supported by local taxes. The Protestants resented this because they didn't want to pay for Roman Catholic schools, and the Catholics resented it because they had to pay taxes for their schools while the Protestant schools were paid for by the government. Although the Conservatives could not come up with a better solution, they did gain an advantage from this issue as it helped turn Henri Bourassa, the Catholic Québec nationalist leader, against Laurier.
In 1906 Borden reorganized the whole Conservative Party in an attempt to unify it. Borden at least succeeded in making his own position as leader secure. However, in 1907 he lost a certain amount of support within the party by his Halifax Manifesto, in which he stated what he considered the party's proper aims. They included reform of Canada's Senate; stricter supervision of immigration; nationalization, or government ownership, of the telephone and telegraph systems; a commission to manage public utilities; a tariff, a tax on imports to protect Canadian farmers and manufacturers; and government control of resources in the west.
Borden campaigned in 1908 mainly on the issue of corruption in the Liberal government. Unfortunately, Sir John A. Macdonald, during his leadership of Borden's own party, had accustomed Canadian voters to accept corruption, provided that they agreed with what the government was doing. Now most Canadians agreed with Laurier, and Borden himself supported many of Laurier's measures. Both Borden and Laurier were honest men, and it was Borden's misfortune that many of his good intentions were already being put into effect by his Liberal opponent. However, the Conservatives made substantial gains in the 1908 election. Borden ran from both Carleton and Halifax and won in both, but he chose to represent his own province in Halifax.
The great issue of 1909 was the continued expense of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, the route to the Pacific Ocean that was being supported by the Liberals. When the government had to lend the railway another $250 million, Borden suggested that government take over the railway and end Liberal sponsorship of the project.
A Liberal defeat became likely in 1910. Henri Bourassa had gained a large following in Québec among nationalist French-speaking Canadians, and he decided to make his first electoral attack on Laurier, his former ally. He chose to do this in a by-election in Laurier's home area, the Québec counties of Drummond and Arthabaska. Bourassa won, mainly on the issue of Canada's right to remain out of British wars. This point of view was directly opposed to the main body of Conservative opinion, but any ally was welcome to the Conservatives if the Liberals could be beaten after 15 years in office. This so-called unholy alliance developed further when Borden, despite his loyalty to Britain, went into the 1911 election as Bourassa's ally.
The Conservatives had good grounds on which to attack the Liberals, who after so many years in power had allowed a great deal of corruption to infect their administration. Laurier's Naval Service Act of 1910 also harmed the Liberals in the new election. To solve the problem of what Canada should do to help in the defense of the British Empire, Laurier proposed creating a Canadian navy that in case of war could be incorporated into the British navy. The plan was opposed by the Conservatives, who thought that Canada should simply provide ships for the British navy. The Québec nationalists also opposed the plan because they did not want Canada either to participate in the British navy or to have a navy of its own.
At the last moment before election day in 1911 it looked as if the Liberals might win. The government negotiated a free trade agreement with the United States, and the Congress of the United States approved it. At first, the agreement was well received, but it soon came under attack. Sir Clifford Sifton, a Liberal who had become Laurier's enemy, spoke against the agreement, and many Canadian manufacturers were against it. The most powerful attacks were the emotional ones that the treaty was disloyal to Britain. The effect of these attacks was magnified by Americans such as U.S. Representative Champ Clark, who suggested in a speech that free trade was a prelude to the annexation of Canada by the United States. When the proposal was presented to Parliament for ratification, the Conservatives delayed it. Laurier took the decision to a popular vote. The results were disastrous for him. The Conservatives came back to power with a large majority.
Borden became the new prime minister on October 10, 1911. However, many Conservatives thought that they had done more than Borden to bring about victory at the polls. They had to be given cabinet posts but even so they were dissatisfied, and several of them hoped to replace Borden. It was also inevitable that Conservative members of the new Parliament should frequently differ with Borden on policy. The new prime minister's first years of office were difficult.
Borden's cabinet proved very troublesome. The minister of militia and defense, Samuel Hughes, was an extreme imperialist. Sir George Eulas Foster, the minister of trade and commerce, was more responsible but also imperialistic. Francis Cochrane, the minister of railways and canals, was so against the Grand Trunk Railway that he had to be restrained by Borden from trying to abolish the project.
An immediate showdown in the cabinet was avoided, but not until 1916 could Borden rely on the loyalty of his colleagues. Some of the cabinet members from Québec made open attempts to force him out, but they were unsuccessful.
Borden continued some policies of the Liberals, and he carried on the reform of the civil service by expanding the scheme of advancement based on merit as opposed to tenure. He even completed the transcontinental railway system, which he had previously attacked. This continuance of many of Laurier's policies showed that Borden was equally committed to the task of nation-building in Canada.
However, Borden differed from Laurier on naval policy and made no attempt to implement Laurier's Naval Service Act of 1910. Instead, Borden tried to formulate his own naval bill. He went to England in 1912 to discuss the question with the British. His talks with First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill led to Borden's introduction of the Naval Aid Bill. The bill provided that Canada should supply $35 million to buy three ships for the British navy, in return for being given a greater say in imperial policy. However, during the 1913 debate over the bill in the Canadian Parliament, Churchill bombarded Borden with letters declaring that only Britain could build the new ships, that only Britons could staff them, and that the idea of a Canadian navy was ludicrous. Consequently there followed two weeks of continuous debate in Parliament. Borden had to apply closure, a law that allows the cabinet to force a vote on a bill without debate, to get the bill through the House of Commons, although previously the Conservatives had attacked the Liberals for considering closure on the free trade agreement. However, when the bill came to the Senate, the largely Liberal body turned it down. Borden could have called for a popular vote on the issue and probably could have won, but he was unwilling to risk losing power for the British navy, and he let the matter drop.
|C||World War I|
The calm period of Borden's administration ended in August 1914. There was no question of Canada's not coming into the approaching European war on the side of Britain. At the start even the French Canadians were in favor of the war. Borden had hurried back from holiday before the war broke out in order to reassure Britain that Canada would make every sacrifice in its support. When war was declared, a War Measures Act was passed that put most of Parliament's power into the hands of the cabinet.
The response of the Canadian people was immediate and great. There were 30,000 volunteers in the first month of the war. By the end of the war in 1918, more than 600,000 people were in the armed forces out of a population of 7,500,000.
The war soon began to bring out the basic differences between French-speaking and English-speaking Canadians, and French Canada gradually became alienated by the government's war efforts. It was less interested in Europe and did not have the enthusiasm for the war that fired the rest of Canada. Moreover, the defense minister, Hughes, was a Protestant Irishman. He was contemptuous of the Catholic French Canadians, and his attitude prevailed in the army. No attempt was made to form French-speaking regiments, although the army was fighting in France and many recruits from Québec did not speak English. No opportunities for promotion were offered to French Canadians. The fact that the number of French-speaking recruits was less than that of English-speaking recruits inspired resentment among extreme English-speaking groups and was met with an answering anger from the French. To Borden's credit, however, he refused to censor Bourassa's paper, Le Devoir, in spite of its continuing attacks on the government.
Borden had trouble abroad as well as at home. He went to England in June 1915 and was disturbed by the lack of concern the British government seemed to feel about the war. Borden threatened to end Canada's war effort if the English did not display greater energy. He was reassured by the British minister of munitions, David Lloyd George, but Borden privately thought that it would be 18 months at least before anything could be accomplished. He also had to insist that Canada be given complete information on war plans, and he demanded that his country be consulted about general policy in war operations.
|D||Further Domestic Crises|
In 1916 and 1917 several new events accentuated tension between the French- and English-speaking Canadians. The Ontario government passed a law making English the compulsory first language in Ontario schools. This outraged Québec, and a heated discussion took place in the federal Parliament. Borden did not and probably could not act. The Conservative Party was becoming progressively more nationalistic, as was shown by the passing in 1917 of the Military Voters Act and the Wartime Elections Act, which had been written by Borden's young assistant, Arthur Meighen. These bills, which only caused more problems, took the right to vote away from conscientious objectors and anyone speaking German and gave it to servicemen abroad and to their wives, widows, and other female relatives, who until that time had not been allowed to vote.
In December 1916 Lloyd George, the new British prime minister, formed the Imperial War Cabinet to coordinate the war effort throughout the British Empire. As Borden had desired, Canada now had a voice in the conduct of the war. Borden went to Europe to participate in the meetings of the Imperial War Cabinet and stayed there until May 1917.
On Borden's return to Canada, he found himself faced with the biggest crisis of the war. Recruitment was not going well, and there was a strong feeling among English-speaking Canadians that there should be conscription, or draft. In June 1917 Borden introduced the Military Service Act. It was bitterly resented by French Canadians, although it specified so many exemptions that people who really wanted to avoid being drafted could easily do so.
In preparation for the new election, Borden formed a coalition government in October 1917. Laurier, the leader of the Liberal Party, felt that he could not join a government that had offended his French-Canadian compatriots. However, many English-speaking Liberals did join. In the election held on December 17, Borden's new Union government won an overwhelming victory, gaining a larger parliamentary majority.
In March 1918 there were riots in Québec City, during which draft officers were attacked and draft lists were burned. However, there was no real attempt to break up the Canadian Confederation, because Laurier's prestige was sufficient to keep Québec loyal. When the exemptions in the Military Service Act were canceled in April 1918, the dislike of the draft spread throughout the country. Farmers, in particular, resented their sons being forced into service.
|F||Last Years in Office|
The final months of World War I were hectic for Borden. He spent the summer of 1918 in London, where he was in continual consultation with the war leaders. When Borden returned to Canada at the end of August, he decided that his Union government should continue even after the war, although the members of the coalition had little in common except for a desire to see the war to its conclusion.
In November 1918 Borden returned to London and remained in Europe until 1919, serving as Canada's chief representative at the peace conference in Paris. Canada played a double role at the conference, because Borden not only served on the British Empire team of negotiators but also represented Canada in its own right. Borden insisted that the peace treaties be signed separately by Canada and ratified by the Canadian Parliament. It was the first time that other nations had been forced to take notice of Canada's independence. This accomplishment was almost entirely due to Borden. He also insisted that Canada join the League of Nations, an international alliance to preserve peace. He then threatened to withdraw from the League if Canada were not included in the International Labor Organization, which was dedicated to improving labor conditions.
When he returned to Canada, Borden tried to recover some support in Québec for his government, which had done little in the past year. It had completed the nationalization of the railways and had passed an act for the deportation of anarchists. Borden made a speaking tour, and even offered to resign if it might help the party. His offer was refused, but he was already considering resigning for other reasons. Borden was in ill health.
Most of the cabinet wanted Sir Thomas White as Borden's successor. White, however, who had been the wartime minister of finance, had decided to retire. Sir Clifford Sifton and Borden himself wanted the younger and more capable Arthur Meighen. Borden thought he should ask White first, but he was relieved when his former minister declined the offer. Borden resigned on July 10, 1920, and Meighen was appointed to succeed him.
Borden's resignation did not mean that he had retired from national and international affairs. He regained his health and represented Britain at the Washington Conference in 1921 and 1922, and at the arbitration between Britain and Peru that took place in Paris in 1922. He represented Canada on the Council of the League of Nations, and was Canada's chief delegate at the League's 1930 assembly. Borden delivered lectures at the University of Toronto and at the University of Oxford. The Toronto lectures were published in 1921 as Canadian Constitutional Studies. The Oxford lectures were published in 1929 as Canada in the Commonwealth. In 1912 Borden was sworn in as a member of the imperial Privy Council. He was chancellor of McGill University from 1918 to 1920 and of Queen’s University at Kingston from 1924 to 1930. Borden died in 1937, and his Memoirs were published posthumously the following year.