The Issues Crystallize

The Naval Bill

The Empire's Naval Strategy

In 1902 the Admiralty supported the idea of a centralized imperial navy that could strike the enemy wherever he might be. This view ran counter to earlier plans in which the priority had been to defend Canada and in doing so defend the Empire. Canada was looking more and more seriously at the plan for a naval reserve to support the British forces. Other colonies chose to vote credits which Britain would use for maintaining the vessels assigned to their defence. In either case, there was opposition to the idea of a centralized imperial navy run by London. In 1904, when the Militia Act was under review, the Canadian government drafted a Naval Militia Bill that never got beyond that stage. 52 Meanwhile, the Alaska boundary negotiations ended to Canada's detriment, in large part because it lacked a presence in the disputed area.

Why was a Naval Militia Bill not brought forward at that crucial moment? A number of reasons could be cited. The government had the Dundonald affair on its hands, and influential ministers, including Clifford Sifton, were arguing that the settlement of the west should take precedence over the fisheries protection force. The department of militia and defence, which questioned the usefulness of defending the Great Lakes, advocated the status quo on the coastal issue. Total control of Canada's maritime defence would involve significant costs at a time when the takeover of Esquimalt and Halifax, pushing the defence budget up by 40 percent, had already been announced. 53 Finally, this issue, which seemed capable of winning a consensus, aroused the nationalist and imperialist passions that had just clashed over South Africa.

However, the department of marine and fisheries did acquire two small, British-built patrol vessels on the torpedo-boat model. In 1905 one of them, Canada, took part in military exercises with the British squadron deployed to Bermuda.

At the Colonial Conference of April-May 1907 the Admiralty softened its position on the "single navy" idea. Though prepared to accept a degree of colonial participation, it still insisted on retaining total control. During this conference, Canada, once again accused of not putting enough muscle into naval defence, drew up a long indictment summarizing its contribution to Britain's total military effort in North America since 1871. Among the initiatives it wanted credit for were the takeover of land defence and the Halifax and Esquimalt bases, along with the fisheries patrols beginning in 1885. After these exchanges, the British admitted that Canada had contributed substantially to British naval affairs.

In 1907, though it was decided to make some repairs to the vessel Canada, naval defence was still not foremost among the country's concerns. That December, however, the U.S. fleet made a world tour, one purpose of which was to impress Japan, a British ally. Even from afar, Canada again felt threatened, so that in 1908 it reviewed its naval defence position. L.P Brodeur, the minister of marine and fisheries, headed the review, the report of which was available early in the new year. With his own deputy minister and marine commander taking early retirement and U.S.-Japan tensions ebbing, Brodeur named Georges Desbarats to the position of deputy minister. Rear Admiral Charles E. Kingsmill, a Canadian who had served in the Royal Navy, was made available to his native country as of 15 May 1908. To the informed observer, this surprising appointment came as an indication that after many false starts Canada's naval militia might well, finally, come to pass. What made it even more likely was the fact that 1908 saw a grand celebration, with French and British warships present, to mark the 300th anniversary of the founding of the city of Quebec.