The Issues Crystallize

The Naval Bill

The Royal Canadian Navy Created

Rating, HMCS Niobe, Royal Canadian Navy, 1910-1920

Caption: Rating, HMCS Niobe, Royal Canadian Navy, 1910-1920

Although it was passed on 4 May 1910, this legislation triggered the tough national debate Laurier had foreseen on coming to power in 1896. Fourteen years later, protective of Canadian interests, he proceeded with caution. His Majesty's first two Canadian ships, HMCS Niobe and Rainbow, were used to patrol fishing zones and provide training.

Since recruiting Canadians proved difficult, the men who agreed to serve were mainly seamen from the Royal Navy. Imperialists denigrated this minimal effort as essentially useless to the mother country in any real crisis. Outmoded technologically and at the end of their useful lives, Niobe and Rainbow were called "tin-pots." Meanwhile, nationalists scoffed at their "comic-opera navy." Rainbow, a cruiser built in 1890, had been retired from active service as outmoded in 1905: Canada acquired it for $243,000. The more modern Niobe cost $1.075 million and still required expensive repairs. According to the nationalists, this tiny navy, non-threatening in battle, was but the visible portion of the considerable and limitless effort Canada could be induced to make in the event of a European war. From this standpoint, the Naval Act was contemptible.

Others voiced their opposition. In 1913, Christopher West wrote in Canada and Sea Power that Canadian politicians were being hypocrites. The little Canadian navy was dangerous and would drag the country into all kinds of wars. Canada would have been better advised, wrote West, to send Europe a mission of pacifists to calm everyone down. 54 By shifting from a naval militia to a trifling Canadian fleet subordinate to the imperial navy, Laurier lost in both national and imperial terms. 55

The Naval Act was clear in the sense of enabling the Governor in Council to place the naval force on active duty in critical situations as well as make it available to His Majesty for service in the Royal Navy. Hence the quite justified nationalist fears stirred by Wilfrid Laurier's remark in the heat of debate that when Britain was at war, so was Canada. Indeed there was no place for an independent Canadian foreign policy. A number of the threats directed at Britain - the one in the Sudan during 1884-85, for example - posed absolutely no danger to Canada. On the other hand, the nationalists led by Henri Bourassa, who had founded Le Devoir in 1910, held that Canada's sole potential enemy was the United States. Now Britain had shown itself prepared to make any accommodation to avoid conflict with that country, which position had already cost Canada vast acreages in disputes with the Americans. 56 "With the exception of an Asian aggression, which would be possible only with United States consent, all we have to fear is the wars England saddles us with." 57

In short, the Naval Act did not reflect general agreement. The Atlantic region preferred the status quo, while Pacific Canada would have supported a cash contribution to the Admiralty. Ontario, however, stood by Laurier. The Act was also attacked as overly expensive, with the nationalists estimating its cost at $20 million. Meanwhile, the imperialists maintained that an annual expenditure of about $18 million was excessive for what Canada was getting. There would be more point in simply giving the $18 million to Britain: That would fetch more than two useless old wrecks and a few hundred sailors. In fact, this was now the solution preferred by the British. In the event, the Laurier government held to the course it had chosen, and it made all the necessary arrangements in the summer of 1910, before the two cruisers were officially turned over to Canada on 21 October, to integrate them and their crews with the Royal Navy in case of need. 58

Additional Images

Recruits, Naval Service of Canada, November 1910
Advertisement for 'Twin Navy' tobacco, circa 1911