Sir Robert Laird Borden (1854 -1937) was a
Canadian political leader and prime minister who guided
his country through World War I and, through astute
bargaining, achieved equal status for Canada with
England within the Commonwealth.
Robert Borden was born at Grand
Pré, Nova Scotia, on June
26, 1854, the descendant of pre-Revolutionary American
émigrés. Robert was educated at the Acacia Villa
Seminary in Horton, Nova Scotia, and as a youth he
taught at the Glenwood Institute in Matawan, N.J.
Returning to his native province in
1874, he began the study of law and was called to the
bar in 1878. Borden practiced first in Halifax, then in
Kentville, and then again in
Halifax, where in 1889 he became head of his own law
firm. He seemed headed for a successful career as a
lawyer until he became interested in politics.
Robert Borden: The Party
In 1896 Borden was elected to
the House of Commons as a Conservative member for
Halifax. The party was beginning a 15-year period in
opposition, and within a few years Borden made a
respectable reputation for himself in Parliament. The
party leader, Sir Charles Tupper, was a doughty fighter
but old and somewhat discredited in certain quarters,
and after his defeat in the general election of 1900
there was a general feeling that his career was over.
Certainly Borden did not envisage that he would be
Tupper’s successor, and it was with great surprise that
he saw the party caucus turn to him. His first reaction
to the offer was negative, but he finally agreed to
accept the post for a year. The year stretched into two
and then three, and Borden was soon permanent leader of
the Conservative party.
Borden’s tenure was neither easy nor immediately
successful. In 1904 and 1908 the Conservatives were
decisively beaten by Sir Wilfrid
Laurier and the Liberals, and Borden was making little
impact in the country. The issue that finally propelled
Borden into power was that of reciprocity with the
United States. The Laurier government had negotiated a
treaty with the United States in 1911, an act that
frightened Canadian businessmen and manufacturers, who
had been sheltered so long behind the high tariff of the
national policy. Borden had found his issue, and with it
he attracted enormous support from the “interests,”
garnered thousands of disaffected Liberal voters, and
won a clear victory in the general election of 1911.
Borden as Head of
Borden’s government was not particularly strong. His
Quebec representation was weak, and the financial
affairs of many of the English-Canadian ministers were
not conducted ethically. Borden himself was above
reproach, but he apparently lacked the ruthlessness
necessary to any first-class prime minister. Still,
legislation on railways and civil service reform began
to appear on the statute books, and the militia was
reorganized and made more efficient. Not even the
downturn in business that began in 1911 was enough to
completely dampen enthusiasm in Canada.
Crisis in World War I
The outbreak of war in 1914 did not change the mood either.
Borden’s government immediately offered a contingent, mobilized
it with impressive speed, and shipped it to England in the
largest convoy ever to cross the Atlantic to that time. No one
expected a long war, but by the time the first casualty reports
began pouring into Ottawa from France in the spring of 1915, few
could have doubted that the struggle would be difficult.
Borden’s task was formidable. He had to organize the government
for war, a task that was never really accomplished. He had to
see to it that industry was geared up for maximum production, a
task that was well done. Above all he had to galvanize the
Canadian people, both French and English.
This task was not accomplished; in fact, the reverse took place
in Quebec. Borden did not understand the
Canadien, and he permitted recruiting in
that province to be botched. Few French-Canadian officers
received important commands, patronage was rampant, and ethnic
prejudice swept the nation. The whole crisis came to a head in
1917, when Borden decided that conscription was necessary to
reinforce Canada’s troops at the front. Quebec was opposed to
conscription, and after Borden’s efforts to unite with Laurier
in a coalition failed, he determined on a coalition without
Quebec. By October 1917 he had his Union government and his
conscription bill, and in December 1917, after a blatantly
racist campaign conducted by his party, he had a renewed
mandate. Canada was badly split, and the irony of the situation
was that conscripts did not reach the front in sufficient
numbers to have major impact before the end of the war.
Relations with Britain
Borden achieved more success in his relations with the British.
He had been appalled to discover that Canada was being treated
as a backwater colony, despite the nation’s massive war effort.
After hard bargaining he wrung recognition from the British that
Canada was equal in status to the mother country. He also won a
voice in the councils of empire, representation at the peace
conference, and separate representation in the League of Nations
for the Dominion. These were no mean achievements.
By the end of the war, Borden was exhausted by his labours, and
soon he began to seek release. In 1920 he passed the mantle of
prime minister to Arthur Meighen and entered what he hoped would
be a quiet retirement. But the following year he was called back
to be Canada’s delegate at the Washington Conference of 1921—19
and in 1930 he was Canada’s representative at League of Nations.
Meanwhile he was writing about constitutional questions and
serving as the director of numerous private companies. Sir
Robert Borden (he had been knighted in June 1914) died in Ottawa
on June 1937.