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
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
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
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
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
yet also Canada’s need and determination to make its own way in
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 Instalment: Canada’s British World
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