The Issues Crystallize

The Naval Bill

Origins of the 1910 Naval Bill

Many Canadians think the Naval Bill cropped up suddenly in 1909-10, but the fact is that the principles of Canada's maritime defence were present in the first Militia Act of 1868, when George-Étienne Cartier was the incumbent minister. This embryo of naval defence resulted only in the building of a few gunboats and cutters to defend the Great Lakes and seacoasts and protect the fisheries: Canada's actual naval force was British. After 1871, there were scarcely any significant problems with its only neighbour, and the Canadian government quickly abandoned its slender naval commitments, some of which had been made prior to Confederation by colonies like Nova Scotia. After 1867, however, lacking resources and following the death of its creator and champion, B. Weir, the Nova Scotian naval brigade foundered. In Quebec, the naval units established at Bonaventure and New Carlisle in 1868 and at Carleton after 1869 were ill equipped and viewed by militia leaders as anomalous. Less than a decade later they would have vanished: The facility at Bonaventure was dismantled in 1878. 49 As for the British-supervised fisheries police on the Atlantic coast, their usefulness was cast in doubt after the U.S. Congress ratified the Treaty of Washington in 1873.

When British Columbia entered Confederation in 1871, Peter Mitchell, the minister of marine and fisheries, and Hector Langevin, the minister of public works, suggested that Canada defray the costs of maintaining the British warship that had been posted at Esquimalt for years. The suggestion of the two ministers was set aside as soon as Canada was no longer haunted by the prospect of Fenian raids.

The year 1886 saw new disputes between Canada and the United States over fishing zones. As Britain wanted to avoid diplomatic problems arising from Royal Navy intervention concerning U.S. fishermen, a Canadian fisheries protection service was re-established. This civil agency had limited responsibilities, which were mainly to assert Canada's presence and legitimacy while avoiding direct confrontation with the Americans. In 1892 the government strengthened this service with three vessels: one on the Great Lakes, one in the Bay of Fundy and one in the Lower St Lawrence. Its men wore a uniform that was practically identical to that of British seamen. The vessels, which flew the White Ensign with the Canadian coat of arms, were commanded by British officers. The real force was still the Royal Navy's Halifax-based North American and West Indies squadron.