Saturday, October 12, 2013

Sir Robert Borden

Image from By George Journal

Born in Nova Scotia, Robert Borden was a teacher and a lawyer who became involved in provincial politics. For many years he served as Member for Halifax in the Nova Scotia Legislature.

He became leader of the Conservative Party while Laurier was Prime Minister. The Liberals lost the 1911 election, and Borden took over.

Borden's decision to introduce conscription early in the war was controversial. The wartime election was fought on this divisive issue, and its aftermath left a rift between French and English Canada. Indeed, the conscription issue re-surfaced during WWII, once more with potentially dire consequences.

Anglophone Canadians with strong English ties supported conscription, but French Canadian Quebeckers, though they volunteered in great numbers for the armed forces and would willingly defend their homeland, did not wish to be conscripted to fight the "European" war.

Borden's response to the divided public sentiment was to join with pro-conscription forces from other parties.  The Unionist platform appealed to voters on the basis of loyalty to "king and country." Needless to say, this slogan found favour neither with Laurier Liberals nor French Canadians. However, Borden won the 1917 election and remained in power through the rest of the war.

Along with the Conscription Act, Borden's government passed the Wartime Elections Act. This legislation allowed the first women to vote in federal elections. The chosen few were the mothers, wives and widows of soldiers, all of whom were overwhelmingly likely to support conscription. At the same time, according to the Canadian War Museum, the vote was taken away from some recent immigrants who were deemed likely to vote Liberal.

At the beginning of World War I, Britain, the "Mother country," still had control of Canada's foreign policy. When England declared war, Canada (and other dominions) automatically followed. After the end of the war, Borden led the Canadian delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and joined Canada to the League of Nations.

Meanwhile, his government had to face the Winnipeg General Strike, which continued from mid May to late June, shutting down the city. Returning soldiers found themselves unemployed and facing huge inflation, while businesses had profited during the war. Leaders met to create One Big Union to help them gain worker's rights.

Arthur Meighen, then the Minister of the Interior and of Justice, sided with the business people against the strikers. He changed the Criminal Code so that organizers could be charged with sedition, and altered the Immigration Act to enable the government to deport British-born organizers. The brutal suppression of the Winnipeg General Strike left Canadian workers bitter, and similar though smaller strikes followed in other cities.

Borden's government also passed the first Income Tax Act, a "temporary" measure to finance wartime costs. They also established the National Research Council and passed the the Nickle Resolution, which declared that Canadians would no longer accept orders, decorations or medals from foreign governments. This was a symbolic step toward Canadian independence from Britain.

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