Canadian Imperialism and Nationalism on the Home-front during wwi everett Watters 200905164

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Canadian Imperialism and Nationalism on the Home-front during WWI

Everett Watters


Professor J. Cameron

Post Confederation Canadian History 215


The turn of the 20th Century, and leading up to the First World War saw a Canadian nation whose people were at the height of their division between two factions contesting to dominate and control the politics and decision making power of the country. These two influential opponents would mold and determine Canadian politics as well as help to form a national identity for the country’s citizens to align their morals and beliefs to for at least the next 20 years; these 2 associations had already fashioned the countries political day to day life for about a century up to that point in 1900. Canada is a country that has two parent nations, one being France and the other Great Britain. Since its founding in 1867 and even its colonization in the many decades before that, these two parent nations have profoundly impacted the way in which Canada was socially and politically formed, as well as providing the colonists and immigrants whose children would later become the first Canadians. Thanks to this dualistic parenthood, Canada has developed two very distinct cultures alongside that of the Fist Nations who were already present in the country when it was colonized. These Francophone and Anglophone cultures brought along with them their own unique language and tie to religion as well as their commitment to political ideologies that would eventually, in 1867 and the years to come, be taken up by Canada’s political party system in the forms of the Liberal Party of Canada and the Conservative Party of Canada. In essence however, these parties essentially acted as vessels for the two prominent theories on how the country should be governed. One of these two theories, or sides, was that of Imperialism, which was supported by Anglophones, or British Canadians and were voiced in parliament primarily by the Conservatives, while the other theory was that of Nationalism (Anti-Imperialism) supported by the Quebecois francophone Canadians who heralded from France, and represented in parliament mainly by the Liberals. When it came down to it, the real cause of this divide between Imperialism and Nationalism was not just language and culture, or how much loyalty citizens felt they owed to their mother country, which was considered to be and is Great Britain, but was based on how Canadian politicians felt they could advance Canada’s status from Confederation to Nation. French Canadians lost most of their ties to their homeland of France when they immigrated here, most of them wanted to get away from their country and so no love was lost in leaving their nation. Unlike British colonists who still reminisced dearly of their homeland, to whom they felt they owed something and so these ties of devotion were carried along through their bloodlines in many forms, the most important being political patronage. Imperialist believed that since Canada’s foreign policy and external relations at the time were still controlled by the British Empire, they should remain loyal to the Queen, by upholding British traditions and by mimicking their political advancement. The Nationalists or Anti-Imperialists, took form prominently in that of French Canadians wanting to preserve and protect the dominant role of the Catholic Church in Quebec culture and society from that of the Imperialists more secular views. The Nationalists wanted to create a national identity with which Canadians could associate separate from that of the British Colonist or Imperialist identities, which they felt implied inferiority to Canada. Nationalists also had the support of many Anglophone Canadians who felt that they owed no responsibility to assist the empire and bear its empirical burdens when they were not Canada’s own. This powder keg reached its tipping point in the years leading up to, and finally during the Great War. The First World War elevated the fight on the home-front between Imperialism and Nationalism to its highest levels in the nation’s history, while at the same time it also eventually putting to bed permanently the perception of Canadian Imperialism at the end of the war. The First World War exponentially accelerated the debate between Imperialism and Nationalism in Canada and would decisively determine which movement would better bring about Canada’s full freedom from the British Empire by gaining control of our foreign relations and elevating our status from a hierarchical paternalistic relationship with Britain to more of an equal brotherhood or sibling relationship in terms of political power within the respective countries.
Background Section:

Contentions between Imperialists and Nationalists began to compound in 1900 with Canada’s obligatory involvement in the Boer War, and would only get worse with the introduction of the Naval Service Bill in 1910. During the Great War there was also one of the most pitted federal elections in 1917 over the issue of conscription in order to help support the war effort, which later lead to the Conscription crisis that same year. All of these events were hard fought battles which had grand impacts on Canada’s contribution to the British and Allied war effort overseas in Europe and eventually allowed for Canada to gain its own political and social identity which stood distinct from its British past and elevated them to political equality alongside Great Britain.

Key Figures:
Nationalists and Imperialists alike had many key Canadian political figures spearheading their causes leading up to and during the Great War. Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden directed the Imperialists’ cause which was also supported by spokesmen such as George Denison, George Parkin, George Monroe Grant, Charles G.D. Roberts, Stephen Leacock, and the reverend C.W. Gordon.1 The Nationalists faction had split leadership between ex Prime Minister’s Sir Wilfred Laurier (who wanted to unite rather than divide French and English Canadians) in Parliament, and the Quebec Nationalist leader, ex-Liberal Member of Parliament and lobbyist Henri Bourassa. Alongside these famed French Nationalist politicians were also the Anglo-Canadian advocates of full Canadian sovereignty, the lawyer John S. Ewart and Stephen Leacock, who found colonial status degrading, for “Colony implies inferiority-inferiority in culture, inferiority in wealth, inferiority in government, inferiority in foreign relations, inferiority and subordination.”2

The Boer War:

The Boer War of 1900, also known as the South African War, was one fought between the Boer Republics of South Africa (The Orange Free State & Transvaal) and Great Britain. It is a prime example of an empire defending its expanding territory by calling upon its colonies for support. The main contention between Nationalism an Imperialism here is that the British Empire was disappointed in Canada’s lack of aid compared to the other colonies such as Australia and New Zealand who had already sent troops to aid the war effort there. Imperialists felt that since the Empire had spent $55 million in Canadian Defence up to that point in the Confederation’s history, that we had a moral obligation to help in South Africa.3 Nationalists, like Bourassa on the other hand, believed that Canada owed nothing in terms of sending troops to support a war that was not Canada’s to fight, but Britain’s alone. French Nationalists had an even harder time supporting the decision to send troops to conquer the Boers because symbolically the Boer War represented to Quebec the excess of British Imperialism over New France, which reminded them of their own conquest by the British in 1759.4 After much delay and a lack of decision in Parliament on whether or not to send troops, Prime Minister Laurier drafted a special order in council, authorizing the raising, equipping and transporting to South Africa of 1000 Canadian ‘volunteers’, without summoning Parliament.5 This side-stepping infuriated many Nationalists, especially Henri Bourassa who in 1899 resigned his seat in protest against Laurier’s decision to permit Canadian volunteers to assist Britain in South Africa without parliamentary approval.6 Bourassa feared that by sending troops like this half way around the world to South Africa, a place where Canada had no stake to gain, it would set a costly precedent for Canada to send troops to future all future empirical conflicts; he was correct which we shall see later with the onset of the Great War. The consequences in Canada for aiding the motherland in the Boar War were both good and bad. Imperialists believed Canada had served its loyal duty to the Empire by sending troops, and that the country had emerged on the world scene not as a colony of Britain, but as a junior partner in the greatest Empire that the world had ever seen,7 in the hopes of slowly approaching a truly equal status with Britain. Nationalists on the other hand saw this as the beginning of a period of subservience to Britain, and were enraged by the fact that it is the Parliament’s responsibility to declare war, not the executive branch of government’s. The lack of support for the Imperialist cause by French Nationalists can be reflected by comments made in La Presse “We French Canadians belong to one country, Canada; Canada is for us the whole world; but the English Canadians have two countries, one here and one across the sea.”8

The Naval Service Bill:
Speaking of across the sea, in the time after the Boer War and leading up to the Great War, there began a developing Naval Arms Race between Great Britain and Germany over the construction and accumulation of the new, fear invoking class of ship aptly dubbed the dreadnaught. In the time after confederation, the Empire provided Canada’s maritime and naval defense since we had no navy of our own to defend our shores with. Part of the great amount of strength behind the British Empire was it’s a massive navy and the superiority it held over the seas. Germany’s newfound militarization and the conception of the dreadnaught put this supremacy of Britain’s Navy at risk. In a response to this arms race, Britain called upon its colonies for support in the form of financial contributions, which many Canadians felt to be an appropriate response, however this was not the route taken. Instead, Prime Minister Laurier decided that Canada should commence the construction of its own navy so that we would be able to defend our own coastline in the future and not depend so much on the aid of the Empire. The Laurier government introduced its Naval Service Bill in January 1910, the results were predictable. While English Canadians- especially Tories- sneered at this ‘tin-pot navy’ and complained that the legislation did not go far enough to assist the British, in Quebec nationalists and the Conservatives joined forces to fight for its repeal.9 Nobody was pleased with this decision. The British Empire would have preferred a cash influx to fund the building of more powerful dreadnaughts, however in the end they were pleased with any form of help at all. Nationalists believed that this bill did too much by allowing for our navy to be put under the control of the Empire during times of war, further advancing the same issues that arose from our involvement alongside the Empire in the Boer War; because of this, Henri Bourassa would have preferred to have just given the British money. Either way it was a lose-lose scenario for French Nationalists who feared that with the way things were going, conscription could soon be an issue as well. The significance of the Naval Service Bill in the battle between Imperialists and Nationalists once again demonstrated a few things; how far off the two sides were from compromise on issues which could advance our country on a global scale, and Canada received two imperial ships from Britain to start our navy. Most importantly, the dispute of the navy and the bill caused the defeat of Laurier’s Liberals in the 1911 federal election at the hands of Robert Borden’s Conservatives, who were much more sympathetic to the Empire10 compared to Laurier who was split in between Nationalists and Imperialists, allowing for a somewhat neutral executive government in Canada, which now would no longer be the case.
Onset of the Great War to the Conscription Crisis:
Canada officially went to war on 4 August 1914, as an automatic consequence of the British declaration of war on Germany11 and soon after that, on 22 August Parliament passed ‘An Act to confer certain powers upon the Governor in Council in the event of War, Invasion, or Insurrection’ – the famous War Measures Act – enabling the government to act in the defense of the realm without consulting Parliament.12 These two major actions (or in-action of the House of Commons on behalf of the Canadian people) greatly raised tensions between the Nationalists and Imperialists. Nationalists, like they predicted with the Boer War and the Naval Service Act, were enraged by how Canada had been automatically involved in an Empirical war which did not directly impact them, and were also infuriated by the fact that the War Measures Act could essentially turn Canada into a dictatorship of the executive branch of Canadian government by allowing law to be passed without the approval of Parliament. In effect the Act was an unprecedented blank cheque allowing the government not only to sensor writing and communications but to arrest, detain, and even deport those deemed to be obstructing the war effort.13 A prime example of this suppression of civil rights and censorship of free speech would be the speech by Henri Bourassa entitled ‘The Duty of Canada at the Present Hour’ which was ‘twice suppressed in the Name of “Loyalty and Patriotism”.’ The speech was intended to unify the Canadian peoples on the home-front, French and English alike, but because it was never given, French Canada began to become socially secluded from the rest of the country. Bourassa believed that Canada could better assist the war effort by growing our agricultural sector, strengthening our economy as a whole (which it was weak at the time) and giving aid in the form of supplies and equipment instead of sacrificing the lives of Canadian men in a war not our own. However, after this initial outcry at the onset of the war, contention between Nationalists and Imperialists began to subside for the most part due to that fact that not only was Great Britain at War, but so to was France. Imperialistic ties to both the mother and father-land were running rampant with the excitement of war buzzing through many if not all Canadians heads (however French ties to France were nowhere near as strong as Imperialists devotion to Britain). This phase would not last as most never do. Instead of the war being short and glorious as most tacticians predicted, it became dark, deadly and strenuous upon all those involved. By the time 1917 rolled around, just as the Nationalists had feared almost a decade earlier with the surfacing of the Naval Service Bill, whispers began to circulate for the passing of conscription, or mandatory service in the armed forces due to the surmounting casualties, lack of new volunteers and the need for manpower in order to defeat the Central Powers. From the standpoint of Anglo Canadians, French Canadians had not borne their fare share of the war effort; fewer than 5 per cent of the more than 432,000 Canadian volunteers had come from French Canada, which had 28 per cent of the total Canadian population. 14 French Nationalists felt that the aim of conscription was not only to forcefully rally more soldiers to the cause, but to ensure that these soldiers were of a French Canadian background; many francophones during the war were cast out and deemed to be lazy by the government, media and their fellow Canadians for not initially volunteering for the cause at the beginning of the war. Rioting and violence broke out in Montreal over the debate for conscription in the months leading up to the bill’s finalization, and later on in August 1917, the Military Service Act became law; French Canadian Nationalists were displeased by their portrayal by the Imperialist supporting media (thanks to the Wartime Measures Act in a way) for not doing their part. In Quebec, exemptions outnumbered conscripts, and no more than 23 per cent of all conscripts were French Canadians. Even more striking, some 19,000 Quebecers went into hiding rather than succumb to compulsion.15 Not only did Military Service Act create an even larger divide between French Nationalists and Anglo Canadian Imperialists, but the gap and tensions which it created amongst these Canadians may have been done for nothing, since there is some dispute among military historians as to both the necessity and success of conscription, only 24,000 of the promised 100,000 conscripts reached France.

Major Section:

Imperialists and Nationalists both wanted to achieve complete Canadian independence and full political freedom from the British Empire, however they attempted to do so in different ways. Imperialists supported Great Britain, theorizing that with commitment to the empire they would eventually gain independence this way. These Imperialists believed that there was much inevitability in the movement from colony to nation through the imperial alliance as the advocates of complete Canadian independence, that Canadian political history was simply “the relation of our rise from complete subordination to almost complete independence,” they believed that Canada’s development had reached, or would very soon reach, a point when the final installment of liberty, the exercise of power in relation to other states, would come.16 Imperialists believed that Canada, like any entity or organism, would naturally and eventually grow and mutate over time to gain political freedom and governing powers equal to those of Britain. Imperialists felt that they were riding the crest of the tidal wave of history that was social Darwinism, or the belief that biological evolution also worked in human affairs and world politics; the organism (Canada) must be adapted to the ever-changing environment.17 Nationalists on the other hand believed that by supporting the Empire it would only lead to our further enslavement in servitude to them, and so instead they decided the better route to take would be to develop our independence autonomously from within Canada. John Ewart argued that the British connection had been, and continued to be, a baneful influence in Canada; that whatever benefits Canadians derived from it were incidental and accidental; A forthright declaration of independence, he urged, was justifiable and urgent. Separation from Britain would not cut Canada away from a “mother”; it would free her from a “owner.”18 This divergence between the methods in how to achieve our complete independence from the British Empire’s control is what stems the conflict between Imperialism and Nationalism. Both sides wanted to evolve Canada from its current hierarchical parent-child relationship to that of being equal siblings on the same level playing field so to speak; there was a great sense in Imperialists and Nationalists alike of British class superiority over Canadian citizens. Part of this may be due to the term ‘Colonist,’ which many interpreted as a derogatory term applied to Canadians to show their inferiority to the rest of Britain, making them a lower social class. Canadians have to have more confidence in themselves and stop looking up to Britain as a superior country, the motherland should be held in reverence because of her history and because our ancestors lay in that hallowed ground, but Englishmen were only our brothers, our equals.19 However many people in Canada, whether they were Imperialists or Nationalists, had a hard time agreeing with this sense of equality because Canada in many ways was still very reliant on Britain in order to function sustainably; just before the Great War, there was economic hardships due to mass amounts of borrowing and debt, there was no real means of effective maritime naval protection, and we did not even have a real standing army. Canada, said George Ross in 1908, was still a “dependency”; she was virtually independent in the control of internal affairs but possessed no influence in foreign relations, no voice at all on the issues of peace and war.20 The Great War allowed for Canada to rise from this dependency in many ways, moving away from Imperialistic and French Nationalist goals, but instead creating Canadian achievements. On the home-front it created economic boom in many industries, such as agriculture and manufacturing, which allowed the government to turn around its financial dependency upon the Empire’s wealth. In terms of the aftermath of the war itself, Canada and the other British colonies played a large role, just like they had done in the fighting itself in both the November armistice and the signing of Treaty of Versailles in January of 1919. The dominions subsequently got the right to separate membership on new international organizations coming out of the treaty, including the League of Nations, and a separate signature on the treaty and conventions. Membership in the League, of course, implied liability for any commitments undertaken by that organization.21 Because of Canada’s participation, and success in the battlefield as storm troopers, such as in Vimy Ridge or Ypres, the Great War was a major victory in Canadian history; it showcased Canada’s ability to defend not only itself, but the empire as well. Not for Imperialists or Nationalists over each other but for Canada as a whole by taking its first steps to becoming more independent from the British Empire, with its culmination taking effect in 1931 with the signing of the Statute of Westminster, granting Canada full rights and political freedoms which they deserved and had pitted Imperialists and Nationalists against each other for so long.

The Great War was a major time of both political and social contention, marking the height of outcry on the home-front between Imperialists and Nationalists who were both trying to advance the independence of Canada in different ways. It was the catalytic event that would eventually propel Canada to the equality in society and politics which it so badly craved from Britain. Canada’s entry into World War 1 marked a triumph of sorts for Canadian imperialism. It also rejuvenated Canadian reformers. Together the patriotic fervour of the war and the eventual political isolation of French Canada, sealed by the Conscription Crisis of 1917, made possible a sweeping program of reform, much of which French Canadians had opposed. Reform has always required an active state, and wartime conditions encouraged the Canadian government to intervene in almost all areas of life and work.22 This reform allowed social Darwinism to do its work and would see Canada evolve fully in 1931, and reach the maturity of a stoic nation that it is today. Ties to imperialism and nationalism, which technically died out just after the war, can still be seen in Canadian social and political life today. Their legacy has transformed into today’s battle between the provinces of English Canada (descendants of Imperialists and Canadian nationalists) against the Quebecois and French Canada, (their ancestors being French nationalists) who now debate over Quebec’s status of Nationhood, and possible succession from the Great White North that is Canada.



Berger, Carl. Sense of Power, Studies in the Ideas of Canadian Imperialism 1867-1914. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970.

Borden, Robert Laird. “Canada Will Answer the Call: Sir Robert Borden’s Inspiring War Message to the Canadian People: A Speech Delivered at Toronto, December 5th.” in Interpreting Canada’s Past: A Post Confederation Reader (2012): 181-185
Bourassa, Henri. “The Duty of Canada at the Present Hour: An Address Meant to be Delivered in Ottawa in November and December 1919, but Twice Suppressed in the name of ‘Loyalty & Patriotism.’” in Interpreting Canada’s Past: A Post Confederation Reader (2012): 175-181
Bumsted, J.M. “Politics & the National Question, 1885-1914,” in The Peoples of Canada a Post Confederation History. edited by J.M. Bumsted, 156-175. Canada: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Bumsted, J.M. “The Great War & its Aftermath, 1914-1919,” in The Peoples of Canada a Post Confederation History. edited by J.M. Bumsted, 206-227. Canada: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Gordon, Alan. Canadas of the Mind, The Making and Unmaking of Canadian Nationalism in the Twentieth Century. Quebec City: McGill-Queens Univeristy Press, 2007
Page, Robert. The Boer War and Canadian Imperialism. Ottawa: The Canadian Historical Association, 1987.

1 Bumsted, Politics & the National Question in Canada 1885-1914, 161

2 Ibid., 165

3 Page, The Boer War & Canadian Imperialism , 13

4 Page, The Boer War & Canadian Imperialism , 22

5 Page, The Boer War & Canadian Imperialism , 12

6 Bumsted, Politics & the National Question in Canada 1885-1914, 169

7 Page, The Boer War & Canadian Imperialism , 22

8 Bumsted, Politics & the National Question in Canada 1885-1914, 169

9 Bumsted, Politics & the National Question in Canada 1885-1914, 171

10 Bumsted, Politics & the National Question in Canada 1885-1914, 171

11 Bumsted, The Great War and its Aftermath 1914-1918, 206

12 Bumsted, The Great War and its Aftermath 1914-1918, 207

13 Bumsted, The Great War and its Aftermath 1914-1918, 216

14 Gordon, Canadas of the Mind,162

15 Gordon, Canadas of the Mind, 162

16 Berger, Sense of Power, 121

17 Berger, Sense of Power, 223

18 Berger, Sense of Power, 123

19 Berger, Sense of Power, 53

20 Berger, Sense of Power, 119

21 Bumsted, The Great War and its Aftermath 1914-1918, 222

22 Bumsted, The Great War and its Aftermath 1914-1918, 206

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