Borden Leads Canada Through World War I Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Fifteen years of Liberal government in Canada under Sir Wilfrid Laurier were followed by the Conservative government of Robert Laird Borden during the difficult years of World War I.

Summary of Event

Under the skillful direction of Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier from Quebec, the Liberal Party enjoyed a majority in the Canadian House of Commons from 1896 until 1911. Under the bilingual Laurier, the Liberals consistently won almost all the seats from Quebec, and with reasonable support in Ontario and the Maritime Provinces, they easily maintained their majority in the House of Commons in the general elections of 1900, 1904, and 1908. During the last ten years of Laurier’s service as prime minister, the leader of the Conservative opposition in the House of Commons was Robert Laird Borden, a bilingual lawyer from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Although Borden and Laurier had strong political disagreements, they never spoke of each other with bitterness or animosity. Prime ministers;Canada Canadian prime ministers;Robert Laird Borden[Borden] [kw]Borden Leads Canada Through World War I (1911-1920) [kw]Canada Through World War I, Borden Leads (1911-1920) [kw]World War I, Borden Leads Canada Through (1911-1920) [kw]War I, Borden Leads Canada Through World (1911-1920) Prime ministers;Canada Canadian prime ministers;Robert Laird Borden[Borden] [g]Canada;1911-1920: Borden Leads Canada Through World War I[02730] [c]Government and politics;1911-1920: Borden Leads Canada Through World War I[02730] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;1911-1920: Borden Leads Canada Through World War I[02730] Asquith, H. H. Borden, Robert Laird Laurier, Sir Wilfrid Lloyd George, David Meighen, Arthur

In 1911, Laurier proposed a politically unpopular reciprocity agreement Reciprocity agreement (Canada-U.S.) between the United States and Canada that would have eliminated many import duties between the two countries. Borden argued that this agreement would permit U.S. companies to expand into Canada and to control too much business there. This argument proved persuasive with Canadian voters, and in the 1911 general election, the Conservatives won 134 seats and the Liberals only 87 seats. In the 1917 parliamentary election, the Conservatives even increased their position in the House of Commons, winning 153 seats to 82 for the Liberals.

Robert Laird Borden.

(Library of Congress)

Domestic concerns had dominated the 1911 general election, and the Conservative Party did extremely well even in the Liberal stronghold of Quebec, winning 27 of the 65 seats in that French-speaking province. Upon assuming power in Ottawa, Borden expected that he would succeed in unifying the French- and English-speaking regions of Canada, and that he would spend almost all his time improving the Canadian economy by increasing trade with both the United States and Great Britain, Canada’s major trading partners. Borden had close contacts in both English-speaking and French-speaking business communities, and his excellent command of French made him more acceptable to Quebecers than most other English-speaking politicians of his era.

In 1914, World War I World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];Canadian involvement broke out and Canada, as a loyal member of the British Empire, became involved. Borden’s major concern during these years was ensuring the full participation of Canadian soldiers and sailors in World War I, and he did not consider the political consequences of the many decisions he had to make during these years. He firmly believed that Canada’s foreign policy should be subservient to the needs of the British Empire, as interpreted by the British prime minister. When British prime minister H. H. Asquith asked Borden in 1914 to send Canadian soldiers and sailors to fight against Germany, Borden considered it his moral obligation to agree to this request, believing that because Great Britain had declared war against Germany, Canada therefore was also at war with Germany.

From 1914 to 1918, Borden made numerous trips to England to confer first with Asquith and then with David Lloyd George, who succeeded Asquith as prime minister of Britain in 1916. More than 56,000 Canadian soldiers died in World War I and almost 150,000 soldiers were badly wounded—large numbers for a country such as Canada, which had slightly more than seven million citizens, according to the 1911 census. Borden did not find it necessary to argue that Canadian and not simply British interests required Canadian participation in this long war. In hindsight, that was a mistake, because many Quebecers, who felt no sympathy whatsoever for the German cause, nevertheless could not understand why it was necessary for so many Canadians to die for Britain.

Unlike many fellow Conservatives, Borden never questioned the loyalty or integrity of Canadians who did not share his devotion to the British Empire. Laurier and his fellow Liberal members of Parliament were willing to support Canadian participation in World War I, as long as there was no military conscription. In 1917, however, Borden became convinced that too few Canadians were volunteering for military service, and in May, 1917, he proposed a Military Service Act Military Service Act (Canada, 1917) to the House of Commons. His actions during the stormy debate in Parliament revealed his willingness to sacrifice his own political career and the future of his Conservative Party to the need for political unity during a period of grave crisis. Although his party held a large majority in Parliament, he offered to share power and all cabinet positions with the Liberals and even to resign, if the Liberals would accept military conscription and join with him in creating a government of national unity.

Laurier appreciated the sincerity of this offer, but he understood that his fellow Quebecers would never forgive the Liberals if they agreed to military conscription, which the vast majority of French-speaking Quebecers loathed. The situation became almost intolerable during the parliamentary debate on the Military Service Act, when Solicitor General Arthur Meighen questioned the patriotism of French-speaking Canadians, whom he referred to as “a backward people.” The passage of the Military Service Act provoked rioting in Quebec City, which was suppressed by English-speaking police after Borden’s government had suspended habeas corpus. Calm returned to Quebec only after Laurier and Catholic bishops in Quebec asked their fellow Quebecers to return to their homes. The Conservatives then alienated Canadians of Austrian and German descent by revoking their right to vote if they had become Canadian citizens after 1902.

After the end of World War I, French-speaking Canadians and other non-British Canadians would not forgive the Conservatives for questioning their patriotism and for limiting the civil rights of Canadians opposed to conscription.


Although Borden was a decent man who thought more of the needs of Canadian soldiers than of his own political career, his insensitivity to the desires and feelings of Canadians of non-British origin created a great deal of resentment in Canada against the Conservatives, and from 1917 to 1953, the Conservative Party won only a single general election. Although the Canadian public turned against the Conservative Party after World War I, Borden continued to be admired for his devotion to Canada. After he retired as prime minister in 1920, he lived seventeen more years, and his thoughtful memoirs were published posthumously in 1938. Prime ministers;Canada Canadian prime ministers;Robert Laird Borden[Borden]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Borden, Robert Laird. His Memoirs. 2 vols. Edited by Henry Borden. New York: Macmillan, 1938. Presents Borden’s thoughtful insights into his career and family life. Reveals his basic decency in dealing with adversaries such as Laurier, with whom he sharply disagreed in politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bothwell, Robert, Ian Drummond, and John English. Canada, 1900-1945. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987. Includes a clear, well-researched history of Borden’s domestic and foreign policies during his nine years as prime minister.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Creighton, Donald. Canada’s First Century: 1867-1967. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1970. Describes objectively the profound distrust that French-speaking Canadians felt toward Borden and other Conservative politicians during and after World War I.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hutchison, Bruce. Macdonald to Pearson: The Prime Ministers of Canada. Don Mills, Ont.: Longmans Canada, 1967. The chapter on Borden explains both his skill in managing the war effort and his inability to understand the feelings of French-speaking Canadians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McMenemy, John. The Language of Canadian Politics: A Guide to Important Terms and Concepts. 3d ed. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2001. Collection of more than five hundred brief essays on a wide range of topics related to the Canadian system of government, Canadian political history, Canadian laws and legal history, and more.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Owram, Doug, ed. Confederation to the Present. Vol. 2 in Canadian History: A Reader’s Guide. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994. Describes the profound political and social changes in Canada during World War I.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Riendeau, Roger. A Brief History of Canada. 2d rev. ed. New York: Facts On File, 2006. Concise history includes discussion of Borden’s government and the World War I years in Canada.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, Harold A. The Imperial Policy of Sir Robert Borden. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1966. An objective historical analysis of the reasons for Borden’s decision to accept British control over Canadian foreign policy during World War I.

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Categories: History