A Semi-Autonomous Defence (1871-1898)

The Defence of Canada by Canadians

Training and the Evolution of the Militia

Officer cadet, Royal Military College of Canada, 1954

Caption: Officer cadet, Royal Military College of Canada, 1954

Still, the efforts of these British generals, abetted by the occasional spark of interest shown by Canadian ministers who were often moved by political reasons or domestic crises that revealed the weakness of the existing system, slowly yielded results. As we have seen, the number of regular soldiers increased between 1871 and 1898. But there was more. The year 1876 saw the establishment of the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC), which would supply officers to permanent and non-permanent units as well as to the North-West Mounted Police. Under the national policy of the Conservative Party, Canada was prompted to build a cartridge factory, Dominion Arsenal, in Quebec City. In 1882 it began producing bullets and artillery shells. In 1885 the Arsenal supplied the troops deployed to the country's North-West and in 1888 turned out some 2.5 million cartridges. In 1885 a railway connected the Atlantic to the Pacific exclusively through Canadian territory: This primarily commercial resource also served as a strategic tool. In 1897 came authorization to appoint honorary chaplains for every battalion - with the understanding, however, that this would cost the Treasury nothing. Very slowly a payroll service developed, employing fewer than 10 officers; in 1898, all its operations, until then conducted at the district level, were centralized in Ottawa.

In 1871 Canada was without the support troops essential to an army in the field: medical, transportation, supply and engineering corps. Before then, the British army had supplied these elements whenever the militia had been mobilized. After that year, crises spawned hasty improvisations that met with varying degrees of success, as was evident during the North-West Campaign.

The House of Commons was the scene of occasionally bitter debates on the physical organization of the militia, particularly its budget; never broached, however, was the fundamental issue, the defence policy of Canada, which, other than expressing a desire for emancipation, still remained dependent on Britain.

Who were the volunteers? Jean-Yves Gravel has drawn us a portrait for the period 1868-98 in the 5th Military District (Eastern Quebec, including Quebec City). The rural battalions consisted of 45 percent farmers, 30 percent businessmen (tradesmen and clerks) and 24 percent labourers. This percentage of farmers, applicable to 1868, decreased slowly but steadily after that year. 4 Industrialization was at work here, but it was not the sole factor. Indeed almost all studies of recruitment in the Western world have reached similar conclusions: Rural communities resist all kinds of military service more than cities and towns.

The urban battalions were made up of 62 percent workers and 27 percent businessmen. After 1873 and the disappearance of the American threat, the percentage of workers declined, their bosses being largely opposed to this type of military service. The business and student communities stepped in to take their place. In short, in a country that would remain chiefly rural until after the First World War, it was the urban milieu that built Canadas defence force from its beginnings.

Additional Images

Members of the Ladies School Cadet Corps in St. Catharines, Ontario, in 1891
Cadet Corps, Quebec City High School, 11 June 1890
Royal Military College cadet, 1876