The Issues Crystallize

The Naval Bill

Undefended Coastlines

The port of Halifax as seen from the Citadel, circa 1875

Caption: The port of Halifax as seen from the Citadel, circa 1875

In these circumstances, a Canada desiring to arm rapidly would see its defence contracts competing with those of the Royal Navy. However, that navy, though still the most powerful in the world at the end of the 19th century, was less dominant than it had been 50 years earlier. Canada even stood to be threatened by a small armed mail ship which, launching an attack on maritime trade, could do significant damage to a country that had no means of pursuing and destroying it.

Among the projects submitted to ward off such possibilities were those of Colin Campbell and Andrew Gordon. Campbell wanted to build a naval reserve with seamen from the deep-sea fishery. These men would have first-rate fishing vessels armed with guns from the Royal Navy and would be trained by Britons lent to Canada and invited to settle here. Approximate cost of the operation: $150,000. Gordon would submit a number of proposals to the Honourable Charles Tupper between 1888 and 1891. His 1888 plan focused on better coastal batteries and the purchase of vessels of average tonnage and torpedoes for port defence. In 1891 Gordon was advocating the use of Canadas numerous seamen to form a naval reserve. In the event of armed conflict, these militiamen would be integrated with the men of the imperial navy. Even so, Gordon wanted to be able to rely on two vessels of average tonnage built in Britain, one for patrolling the fishing zones and the other for training.

Despite interest voiced by a number of key people, these projects came to naught, the reasons being the continued presence of the Royal Navy and the fact that the Canadian land militia captured what little money was available for Canada's defence. As the 20th century drew near, the possibility of a threat to Canada grew especially improbable: Steam navigation and its corollary, armour-plated warships, had increased naval reliance on fuel sources and supplies. These developments dampened the ardour of Britain's enemies who, unlike her, did not have bases all over the world. Any bases on Canadian soil were available to the British, distant from the European countries and virtually invulnerable unless attacked from the United States, another increasingly remote possibility. Any wooden or sailing vessels would be stopped by the coastal artillery batteries that were slowly increasing in number along Canada's coasts in the late 19th century.