Robert Borden : Canadian

Highlights from the "Memoirs" of the man of whom Smuts said: "You and I have transformed the structure of the British Empire"

M. GRATTAN O’LEARY December 15 1938

Robert Borden : Canadian

Highlights from the "Memoirs" of the man of whom Smuts said: "You and I have transformed the structure of the British Empire"

M. GRATTAN O’LEARY December 15 1938

Robert Borden : Canadian

Highlights from the "Memoirs" of the man of whom Smuts said: "You and I have transformed the structure of the British Empire"


OF SIR ROBERT BORDEN’S “Memoirs.”* much has been written. The story of his parliamentary adventures, of his War Premiership, of his Empire statecraft, of his role in political “battles long ago” —all have been duly noted.

But while reviewers have dealt adequately with these things, one outstanding revelation of these “Memoirs” has gone curiously without emphasis—the revelation that Robert Laird Borden, descended from old Kentish English stock, was first, last and all the time a Canadian. Not a Canadian or a Canadian nationalist in the narrow sense, but a Canadian who, from the first day he entered Parliament, nailed the flag of Canadian self-government and political equality to his mast, and kept it flying steadfastly and proudly to the end of his career. This, the theme of Canada as a sovereign nation, as an equal partner in the British Commonwealth, runs as a constant refrain through the 300,000 words of the memoirs of the man who was Prime Minister of Canada from 1911 to 1920.

Let us look, briefly, at Borden’s record.

More than a generation ago he fought the theory that the British Parliament might make laws affecting Canada without Canada’s consent.

He challenged the right of the British Government to make a treaty affecting Canada without that treaty being submitted to the Canadian Parliament.

He insisted again and again that legal power (such as might be involved in the B. N. A. Act) must be overridden by constitutional right.

He was the first Canadian statesman to lay down the definite proposition that Canada’s right to a voice in foreign policy, involving her interests as a great Dominion in the Empire, must be recognized.

He stood unflinchingly for Canada’s complete control over her policy of military and naval defense.

He resisted successfully the absorption of the Canadian Corps into the British Army during the Great War; saw to it that the Canadian Forces overseas were administered as a thoroughly autonomous body, with ultimate responsibility to the Canadian Government and Parliament.

He rejected a proposal by the British Admiralty in 1918 that all the naval forces of the Empire be under centralized control.

He fought for and won the right of Canada and the other Dominions being consulted in the conduct of the war.

He fought for, and won, representation for Canada at the Peace Conference; won the right of Canada to be a separate signatory to the Peace Treaties; insisted on ratification of the Treaties by the Canadian Parliament; secured full status of equality and nationhood in the League of Nations.

He supported Botha’s demand that the selection of Governors-General should not be confined to residents of Great Britain.

He established a Canadian Embassy at Washington, independent of the British Ambassador.

He won from the Imperial War Cabinet a declaration of recognition that “the readjustment of the constitutional relations of the component parts of the Empire” must be dealt with after the war; thus laid the foundation for that historic departure expressed in the Statute of Westminster of 1931.

Thus Robert Laird Borden. British in origin, of the party which prided itself on its British loyalty, which is still termed the “Imperialistic” party, he was a Canadian. A Canadian to the core of him. No isolationist, no narrow nationalist, he yet thought in terms of Canada, gave Canada his first devotion. Canadian he was in all his instincts and all his impulses; rooted deeply in the conviction that there was a Canadian nation—a nation equal to any other in the British orbit. He defined equality, and he created it.

“I Stand . . . For the Rights of Canada”

HE DID not come to his beliefs by any process of conversion. His beliefs were part of his creed from the first; an instinct. Thus as far back as 1901, during his first session as the leader of the Conservative Opposition, he stood in Parliament and declared:

“The compact which the King makes with his people when he ascends the Throne is a compact he makes with us as well as with the people of the Mother Country.”

F. D. Monk, a Quebec Nationalist incarnate, said of this statement that it was “impossible either to take one word from it or to add anything to it.”

A year later, in an address to the Toronto Canadian Club, he declared that Canadians “claimed self-government . . . as a right,” adding that if this had not been granted “the Empire would have been dismembered.”

In 1903 came the Alaska Boundary award. Canada’s representatives on the Tribunal—Sir Louis Jette and Sir Allen Aylesworth—refused to accept the decision, which they declared to be a “sacrifice of the interests of Canada.” Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s Government, however, assented to

•“Robert Laird Borden: His Memoirs." 2 volumes, 1,060 pages. Edited by Henry Borden, with an introduction by Rt. Hon. Arthur Meighen. The Macmillan Company of Canada Limited.

the terms, whereupon Borden protested vigorously that the treaty should not become operative until approved by the Canadian Parliament. Said he:

“I am as loyal a British subject as is to be found in Canada, but 1 stand first of all in matters oj this kind for the rights of Canada, which must be maintained. I say it was not a right or just thing to consent to that treaty without giving Parliament the right to discuss it and say whether or not its approval should lx a necessary condition to the acceptance of the award.”

The mood which, seventeen years later, was to shock Downing Street and Whitehall in London and at Versailles, was already being manifested.

In 1907 a bill came before Parliament to amend the Canadian Shipping Act, whereupon a question was raised as to whether its provisions were within the jxnvers of the Dominion Parliament. Borden (he quotes his speech at length) warned:

“In such matters (British legislation affecting Canada) it should be the duty of the Imperial Parliament always to consult the Government of Canada with respect to any amendments which concern this country . . . We should be consulted before any acts of the Imperial Parliament are passed which conflict with the ojxnion of the people of this country in their Parliamentary enactments.”

This in a day when the theory of equality for the Dominions was not recognized (and hardly advocated); when Imperial conferences were between the British Secretary of State and representatives of “the self-governing colonies;” when the real character of the conferences was told in the famous picture of the conference of 1897. revealing Joseph Chamberlain seated while the fifteen Colonial representatives sLxxi around him respectfully.

Borden And Naval Defense

IN 1909 came Sir George Foster’s resolution in Parliament on naval defense. Borden supported it. as did Laurier, but of his speech on that occasion Borden is able to write:

“I emphasized Canada’s full control of her own affairs and maintained that this absolute autonomy had strengthened the ties which bound our country to the Empire . . .

“In Great Britain the King’s veto, although not formally abolished, had ceased to exist. Similarly the legal power of the British Parliament to alter our constitution had disappeared.”

A year later (on the Laurier Naval Bill) Sir Robert went farther. He argued that the self-governing nations of the Empire should lx given some control over the organization of lmjxrial defense, holding that as an outcome of such an arrangement, “Great Britain would engage in no great war without knowing beforehand that she had the supjx»rt and symjjathy of the Dominions.” He added:

“This would give to these Dominions a voice in the control of war, because . . if we are to take part in the permanent defense of this great Empire we must hare some control and some voice in these matters."

It has been argued that Borden’s suj»jx»rt of a contribution to the British Admiralty (in 1912-13) repealed his “Colonialism.” Those who so argue will be hard put to explain away j)roofs to the contrary brought forward in these memoirs. For what Sir Robert makes clear is that, while he favored a contribution in the case of an emergency, he was as strongly opposed to such a plan as a permanent jxilicy. He quotes himself as having said in 1910:

“From a political and constitutional standpoint I am opposed to it (a contribution) for many reasons . . . Permanent co-ojxration in defense, in my opinion, can only be accomplished by the use of our own material, the employment of our own jxople, and the development and utilization of our own skill and resourcefulness, and above all by impressing upon the people a sense of responsibility in their share of international affairs.”

Even when he introduced his bill (the 1913 Naval Aid Bill) he stressed the autonomy jxinciple. “Each Dominion,” he said, “must ¡»reserve in all important resjxîcts the autonomous government it now ¡x>ssesses,” and he added:

"When Great Britain no longer assumes sole resjxmsibility for defense ujx>n the high seas, she can no longer undertake to assume sole resjxmsibility for and sole control of foreign jx>licy, which is so closely, vitally and constantly associated in that defense in which the Dominions particij>ate.”

The Great War

rT"*WO YEARS later the Emj»ire was at war and Sir Robert Borden found himself in London, caller! to attend sessions of the British Cabinet. He notes in his diary that “the King (George V) agreed with my view that the Dominions should have a voice in the determination of foreign jx»licy,” and also this:

“On Sunday afternoon, August 8th, I discussed with Lord Bryce tile future constitutional relations within the Emj>ire, and he agreed that the Dominions must have a voice in foreign policy. I told him that they would either have such a voice or each of them would have a foreign policy of its own.”

Returned home, Borden was to give proof of his staunch Canadianism, of his determination to have Canadian equality, in circumstances somewhat different. The proof came in a remarkable controversy with the Duke of Connaught. The Duke, a man of high ability and considerate in his judgments, had had trouble from the first with Sir Robert’s imjxtuous Minister of Militia, Sir Sam Hughes. Whether the trouble was all of Sir Sam’s making, or was due in part to a misconception by Connaught of his true jxjsition as Governor-General and nominal Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Forces (Laurier had to instruct at least one Governor-General, and on more than one occasion, that Canada was a self-governing nation). Sir Robert does not say. What he records is that.when, at the beginning of 1916, he announced that Canada’s military forces would lx increased to 500,000 men, this without consulting the Governor-General, the Duke sent him this note through his military secretary, Colonel Stanton:

“His Royal Highness assumes that Privy Council have considered and approved of this momentous question, although he has not yet received any notice from them to this effect. He is a little surprised that the notice of the Prime Minister should lx given out in the press before a Minute of Privy Council has been submitted to him for aj»proval on the subject.”

Sir Robert was ill in bed, but through his private secretary, A. E. Blount, he dispatched immediately the following note to Colonel Stanton:

“The Prime Minister learns with regret that His Royal Highness has felt some surprise because an Qrderin-Council was not passed before announcing the policy alluded to. For nearly a century it has not been the practice in this country to formulate policies through the medium of Orders-in-Council. That course may be taken as a matter of convenience, but it is by no means necessary or even usual . . . The policy announced by the Prime Minister is merely a development of that which he laid down in his message to the British Government on the first of August, 1914.”

“A further letter from Colonel Stanton,” notes Sir Robert, “regretted the misunderstanding and stated that His Royal Highness now fully understood.”

It was not to be the last misunderstanding Six months later the Duke of Connaught wrote Sir Robert in sharp criticism of the Government’s alleged inaction in the matter of recruiting Americans for the Canadian Overseas Forces. In this letter (Sir Robert characterizes it as “extraordinary”) His Royal Highness said:

“I much regret that if the various recommendations which have been repeatedly sent in are not acted on, I shall feel it my duty to draw the Home Government’s attention to the situation which has arisen through the persistent neglect of the Canadian Government to carry out the recommendations and requests forwarded to them, thereby not only causing unnecessary friction with the United States of America, but exposing the Empire to a real and serious danger.”

Sir Robert’s reply, sent after a full investigation of the matter complained of, was devastating. He wrote:

“Without stopping to comment on the unusual character of the expressions in . . . Your Royal Highness’s letter, I have the honor and I conceive it my duty to request that Your Royal Highness will make me acquainted with the recommendations and requests from the Home Government or from the British Ambassador at Washington which have not been acted upon or which have been disregarded. Throughout the war it has been my fixed purpose to act in thorough harmony with that Government, but I do not admit their right to control this Government in such matters, nor, so far as I am aware, have they ever asserted any such right.

“I have the honor further to observe that Your Royal Highness is of course at perfect liberty to make such representations to His Majesty’s Government as may seem warranted by this or any other occasion. My colleagues and I could have no possible objection to any such representations provided they take into account Canada's status as a nation possessing complete powers of self government and provided also that they do not overtook certain constitutional principles which are as well defined in this country as in Great Britain.”

Sir Robert concluded by urging that the Duke send to the Secretary of State for the Colonies “copies of his letter and of mine,” informing him at the same time that copies of both letters had been sent to the resident member of the Canadian Government in London.

The Duke replied at length, and Sir Robert quotes this curious paragraph from his letter:

“Apart from these objections, there were my own personal objections as Governor-General and a Field Marshal of His Majesty’s Forces, against the undoubted danger both to Canada and the Empire, which apparently the Canadian Government did not appreciate or entertain.”

Sir Robert’s retort to this was even sharjxr than his first letter. He wrote:

“I hope that my colleagues and I shall not be found wanting in respect or indeed in admiration for the wide military experience of Your Royal Highness and the high position which you hold as a Field Marshal of His Majesty’s Forces. It would apjxar to us that the matters under consideration do not call so much for the exercise of military skill or the application of military experience as the consideration of international law and the exercise of the commonplace quality of common sense.”

The controversy was over. The Duke wrote a “kindly reply,” expressing regret • that there had been any “misunderstanding.” Sir Robert, in dismissing the matter, says he was convinced the Duke had been led into “his unfortunate action” through the influence of Colonel Stanton, his military secretary. “That gentleman had been Governor of some small Crown Colony or Dependency, and seemed to be under the impression that Canada occupied the same status as the territory he had governed.” Sir Robert adds:

“This was the only difficulty I ever had with the Duke of Connaught, and I realized that he regretted his unfortunate action. He never fully realized the limitations of his position as Governor-General. Nominally lie was Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Military Forces, but only in the same sense that the King is Commander-inChief of the Military Forces of Great Britain. But he could not divest himself of the impression that his command was actual and not nominal.”

Next With Bonar Law

SIR ROBERT’S next combat was with Bonar Law. Cabling Sir George Perley toward the close of 1915, he told him to “inform Bonar Law that we would appreciate fuller and more explicit information from time to time respecting conduct of the war.” Law, replying to Perley’s request to this end, admitted the right of the Canadian Government to more information, but added that he “could not see any way in which this could lx practically done.” He concluded:

“I wish, therefore, that you would communicate my view to Sir Robert Borden, telling him how gladly we would do it if it is practicable, and at the same time I should like you to repeat to him what I have said to you —that if no scheme is practicable, then it is very undesirable that the question should be raised.”

Sir Robert was aroused. Writing to Perley. he told him that “Mr. Bonar Law’s letter is not especially illuminating.” adding these ominous words:

“It can hardly be expected that we shall put 400.000 or 500,(XX) men in the field and willingly accept the position of having no more voice and receiving no more consideration than

if we were toy automata. Any person cherishing such an expectation harbors an unfortunate and even dangerous delusion. Is this war being waged by the United Kingdom alone, or is it a war waged by the whole Empire? If I am correct in supposing that the second hypothesis must lxaccepted, then why do the statesmen of the British Isles arrogate to themselves solely the methods by which it shall lx carried on in the various spheres of warlike activity?

“It is for them to suggest the method and not for us. If there is no available method and if we are expected to continue in the role of automata, the whole situation must be reconsidered.

“Procrastination, indecision, inertia, doubt and hesitation and many other undesirable qualities have made themselves entirely too conspicuous in this war.”

This bristling letter, shown to Bonar Law, brought immediate results. Thereafter came a weekly letter to the Canadian Government on the progress of the war; and shortly afterward there met in Dindon the Impérial War Cabinet, a history-making departure in itself. Sir Robert, at the earnest request of the British Government, was a member of that Cabinet. As Prime Minister of the greatest Dominion, he held a conspicuous place in it. The decision taken, he writes, “had virtually answered the apixal or challenge of Sir Wilfrid Laurier in 1897: ‘If you want our aid,

call us to your councils’.

In the Imixrial War Cabinet, Sir Robert met for the first time General Smuts. From the first their acquaintance develojx’d into “an intimate friendship . . . the outhxik and ideals of the Boer leader seemed very close to my own.”

Sir Robert describes at length and movingly the deliberations of the War Cabinet. His own part in it was not insignificant, and he did not always find himself in agreement with British Ministers, least of all with British departmental chiefs. He resisted stoutly, and successfully, a proposal to have the Canadian Corps absorbed into the British Army, and there came a day when he stood in the War Cabinet and lashed out viciously at the whole conduct of the War. General Currie, back from the front, had given him a “lurid picture” of the jxisition at the front, and had repeated it to Smuts. On the following day Sir Robert appeared before the War Cabinet and repeated Currie’s story. I íe writes:

“I spoke for nearly an hour. The intensity of my emotion enabled me to speak without hesitation and more rapidly than usual. Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the General Staff, had left at the commencement of my remarks. When I began to emphasize the incompetency. disorganization and confusion at the front. Lloyd George sent for him. saying, ‘This is very imixirtant.’ My statement is set forth in the Minutes of the Meetings of the Imperial War Cabinet of 1918.”

Curzon and Lloyd George sided with him, and so did Smuts, with the consequence that there was set up a subcommittee of the Imixrial War Cabinet to deal with the matters complained of. “The constitution of this committee.” writes Sir Robert, “fully exemplified the principle of complete autonomy and equal status for which I had so earnestly striven.”

Consolidating Gains

NOTABLE as were these victories. Sir Rolxrt’s work was not yet completed. He writes: “Throughout my political life I had sounded the note of political nationhood, and from time to time I had somewhat chafed under the control and domination which Downing Street arrogated to itself in determining the scope and destiny of foreign policy, even to the direct issues of peace and war. Thus there was in my mind a fixed purpose to set forth in terms that could not be misunderstood and by authority that must be respected a new conception of the status of the Dominions in their relation to the governance of the Empire.”

Accordingly, after consultations with Smuts, and with the support of Lloyd George and Austen Chamberlain, he moved (and carried) the following resolution in the War Cabinet:

“The Imperial War Conference are of the opinion that the readjustment

of the constitutional relations of component parts of the Empire is too important and intricate a subject to be dealt with during the war, and that it should form the subject of a special Imperial Conference to be summoned as soon as possible after the cessation of hostilities.”

Borden and Smuts (who had become Sir Robert’s comrade-in-arms) spoke in favor of the resolution, and when it was carried, with the warm support of British Ministers, the great Boer leader was able to say to Borden :

“ You and I have transformed the structure of the British Empire.”

It was no idle boast. Eight years later came the Imperial Conference of 1926, with the famous report of the Balfour Committee, and later, in 1931. the Statute Continued on page 47 of Westminster, which “placed the legalistic seal upon what had already been established by resolution and by constitutional convention.” Other men reared the superstructure, but it was Borden and Smuts who laid the foundations. “Only one difficulty,” writes Sir Robert, “still awaits solution. It may be doubted whether there have been established as yet ‘effective arrangements for continuous consultation in all important matters of common Imperial concern, and for such necessary concerted action, founded on consultation, as the several Governments may determine’.

(Perhaps had Sir Robert Borden lived through the recent crisis over Czechoslovakia. he would have realized even more keenly than he did how difficult that consultation remains in practice.)

Versailles And Afterward

rT'HE Armistice brought no cessation of Sir Robert’s fight for equality for the Dominions. He demanded and won from Lloyd George complete representation fcr

Canada (and for the Dominions) at the Peace Conference. He wrested from Clemenceau and Wilson full rights for Canada in the League of Nations. He insisted that Canada should be a separate signatory to the Peace Treaties, and that they must be ratified by the Canadian Parliament. In between he supported Botha (against the opposition of Lloyd George) in his demand that GovernorsGeneral should not be confined to residents of Great Britain; and he laid the statutory foundation of a Canadian Minister at Washington.

Versailles over, Sir Robert’s work was done. “Unarm; the long day’s work is o’er.” But it had been a great work; he had fought the fight of Galt, of Blake, of Macdonald and Laurier; had, without surrendering a whit of his British loyalty, taught Canadians to respect themselves. Dafoe wrote of Laurier that “for his services in holding their future open for them.” every British Dominion owes his memory a statue in its Parliament square. Beside it they might well place a statue of Robert Laird Borden.