A Semi-Autonomous Defence (1871-1898)

The Empire

An Imperial Partnership

Armstong RML guns at Ives Point Battery, Halifax, 1873

Caption: Armstong RML guns at Ives Point Battery, Halifax, 1873

In 1897, on the other hand, amid celebrations marking Victoria's lengthy reign, the British Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, staged a Colonial Conference at which the splendid formal ceremonies cloaked the host's real intentions. "The informal discussion of many questions of the greatest imperial interest" 1 to which Chamberlain summoned his guests actually focused on the concept of an imperial connection to be forged by a Great Council of Empire, headquartered in London, where problems would be studied and decisions taken. Chamberlain also made allusions to a genuine partnership based on the sharing of the rights and responsibilities pertaining to defence. Canadian Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier's response was more or less that the status quo suited him just fine. Laurier admitted that the Dominions did want some say in imperial decision-making, but he was unreceptive to the idea that this should be granted in return for greater military participation in Britain's ventures around the world. Yet here was a man who loved British institutions. Wherever he went, both within Canada and abroad, Laurier's speeches glorified the Empire. But he would not go so far as to promise to defend it at all costs or to abandon elements of Canada's nascent nationalism. Laurier thus showed himself to be more a nationalist than an imperialist, and his attitude was shared by a large segment of the population, particularly the French Canadians. For, amid the imperialist frenzy that prevailed in Canada, certain voices stood out, among them that of Honoré Mercier, the premier of Quebec (1887-91), who warned that some day the fanaticism incarnated by the powerful Imperial Federation League would send young Canadians to die in foreign lands for a cause that was foreign to them.

The Colonial Conference of 1897 did generate some decisions which, though vague, were of some importance from a military standpoint. Plans were made to strengthen co-operation between the War Office and the various departments which handled defence in the dominions, a general principle that some wanted to make more explicit by requiring all the armies of the Empire to conform to a similar structure and to use standard training and equipment.

By the end of the 19th century the expression "painting the map red" so often heard at that time had long been recognized by many imperialists as referring to an impossible goal. But romanticism feeds on myths, and the myth of imperial Britain would somehow survive until the First World War, drawing in its wake a fair number of young Canadians who were undoubtedly attracted more by the promise of adventure offered by the imperial dream than by the dream itself.