Parliament and the First World War – 1. Before the Storm: From Discord to Unity

Jean-Rodrigue Paré
Legal and Social Affairs Division

A Canadian contribution to the Imperial Navy?

At the start of the 20th century, all industrialized nations were engaged, to varying degrees, in an arms race. The modernization of the German navy was particularly alarming to the British Empire, which considered this a threat to its naval supremacy.

In Canada, the Conservative Sir Robert Borden had been prime minister since October 1911, and Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals found themselves in opposition after 15 years in government. On 5 December 1912, following a trip to London that summer, Borden tabled Bill 21 “to authorize measures for increasing the effective naval forces of the Empire.”

The Prime Minister based his bill on a memorandum from the British Admiralty, at that time led by Winston Churchill. The memorandum called for a Canadian contribution of $35 million for three warships that would be incorporated into the Imperial Navy. These warships could be returned to Canada once the threat had subsided.

Borden invoked the urgent need to act, but refused to commit to establishing an independent Canadian navy, eagerly sought after by the Laurier Liberals. In turn, Laurier accused Borden of creating a false urgency as a pretext for keeping the future of Canada’s defence in the hands of the British government alone.

Parliamentary crisis

Parliament’s attention was riveted on this single issue for almost six months. When tabling his bill, Borden said, “The loss of such a decisive [naval] battle by Great Britain would practically destroy the United Kingdom.” One week later Laurier replied, “England is in no danger, whether imminent or prospective.”

On 18 December 1912, the Minister of Trade and Commerce, George Eulas Foster, rattled the opposition’s optimism with a remarkable speech that concluded with the following: “[I]f the day of Armageddon came and caught us napping, I would like to have the consciousness that I am free from the remorse which would lie heavily upon me if I had been party to or contributed in that fatal delay.”

Faced with opposition obstruction, Borden passed an amendment to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons on 23 April 1913 that, for the first time, limited debate. The House of Commons finally passed the naval forces bill on 15 May 1913 at 11:42 p.m.

However, the bill still had to pass the Senate. As most of the senators had been appointed on Laurier’s recommendation, Borden threatened to reform the Upper Chamber if the bill failed to pass. In a speech on 26 May 1913, Senator James Lougheed summarized the impasse facing the government:

To satisfy [the opponents of this bill] that there is an emergency they would require rival fleets to be in the line of battle, they would want to hear the booming of the guns, the tearing noise of shot and shell, the swish of the torpedo, the crash of colliding ships and the agonized cry of the wounded.

The bill was defeated in the Senate on 29 May 1913. Senators wanting to maintain strong ties with the Empire, such as former prime minister Mackenzie Bowell, were outraged. Others, such as Senator Thomas Davis, were highly optimistic about the situation in Europe:

Look at the good state of feelings today existing between Germany and England. Is there anything over there to show that we are likely to have trouble any more than five, six, seven or eight years ago? Not in the least. There is no emergency.

Danger? What danger?

Parliament was prorogued until 15 January 1914. Six and a half months before the outbreak of war, Laurier said the following, at the opening of the session:

Twelve months and more have passed since that time when [my right honourable friend the Prime Minister] saw the German peril. He saw Germany almost ready to jump at the throat of Great Britain. He saw clouds on the horizon; he saw these clouds rent by lightning; he heard the murmurs and rumbling of distant thunder. But my right honourable friend today may live in peace: The atmosphere is pure, the sky is clear.

For some, this optimism would last until the very end. In June 1914, two months before Great Britain went to war, Liberal Member of Parliament Hugh Guthrie – who after the war would become Minister of Defence – continued to hold on to hope: “There is no emergency in sight, and there will be none in our day and generation.”

In defence of Laurier’s supporters, it must be said that optimism was felt throughout Canada, about which the Minister of the Militia and Defence, Sam Hughes, complained bitterly:

The columns of the press, and the atmosphere generally, is so full of platitudes about peace that the poor fellow who wishes to keep up the militia is regarded as almost a blood-thirsty mortal.

When the country is at war, party politics are set aside

Parliament was prorogued once again on 12 June 1914. Sixteen days later, on 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia, by a Serbian nationalist.

On 28 July 1914, Austria declared war on Serbia, thus beginning the First World War. Great Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August, bringing with it all the dominions of the Empire, including Canada.

Parliamentarians were called back to Ottawa for an emergency session, from 18 to 22 August, to endorse the decisions already made by the executive, to pass the War Measures Act and to vote the necessary appropriations.

All the bitterness of the previous two years appeared to fade away. Parliament spoke as one. The final remarks of the 4th Session of the 12th Parliament were left to Sir George E. Foster, in hindsight undoubtedly one of the more insightful parliamentarians during this turbulent period:

We are meeting as a band of Canadians of different races and nationalities and languages; but never in the history of Canada have we met feeling that we were one in the same sense as at this hour of our history … The last four days of this session of Parliament have vindicated Canadian public life and parliamentary life for all time to come. They have shown that it is possible for us to forget all mean and petty things when our country and its highest liberties are at stake … The time of trial is upon this country and the Empire. It will do us good in the end. God and the right will finally triumph.

Next: The Parliament of Canada and the First World War – 2. Initial Enthusiasm