While Macdonald took Canada to war in its own territory and allowed a party of adventurers to join the Nile Campaign, and while Laurier was Canada’s first PM in global wartime, the commitment involved and the investment of resources in Red River, Saskatchewan, or in Africa, was insignificant compared to what followed in 1914-18. The toll on lives was much greater as well.
So, too, was its impact on Canadian political culture. When Robert Borden took on the role of Prime Minister after the 1911 election, he was a sharp contrast with his predecessor in at least one regard: he was not a compromiser. Speaking to an election gathering in Winnipeg in September 1911, he articulated his position on freer trade with the United States: “I am absolutely opposed to reciprocity and if the West were prepared to make me Prime Minister tomorrow, if I would support that policy, I would not do it.” Reciprocity, he claimed, would not only weaken Canadian industry and the Dominion’s economy as a whole; it would lead to American annexation and the loss of a whole way of life. It wasn’t just a trade deal, as far as Borden was concerned it was a catastrophe.
Many of the other things Borden believed in were comparably solid and unflinching. Before 1916, there was little to suggest that he supported women’s suffrage, even though his wife, Laura Bond (1861-1940), was the President of the Local Council of Women of Halifax, a pro-suffrage organization. There’s even less to indicate that he sought prohibition of liquor, despite — or perhaps because of — the strident teetotalism of Minister of Militia Sam Hughes. Borden was an imperialist throughout his career and his party’s position on the Naval Service Bill was very clear: he would rather build up the British Navy than sponsor a Canadian “tinpot navy.” And, significantly, when the war started he was staunchly opposed to conscription.
But, and this is where he gets interesting, it was Borden who challenged Canada’s subordinate role in the Empire and paved the way to full-blown autonomy in the 1920s and ‘30s. It was also Borden who gave women the vote (albeit under peculiar circumstances and in a tremendously cynical way). It was Borden who forged links with Liberals to create a Union Government in wartime. It was Borden who brought in prohibition and it was Borden who introduced conscription. The ways in which he achieved his goals have been routinely condemned by historians but the fact remains that Borden — unlike some politicians of the era — demonstrated a profound willingness to change direction.
- Robert Borden’s term as prime minister witnessed extensive challenges to deeply entrenched policy positions and social attitudes.
Rt. Hon. and Mrs. Robert L. Borden aboard S.S. ROYAL GEORGE en route to England (Online MIKAN no.3191880) by Library and Archives Canada / C-017778 is in the public domain.