A Semi-Autonomous Defence (1871-1898)

The Empire

The Growth of an Empire

Officer and gunners, Royal Regiment of Artillery, 1889

Caption: Officer and gunners, Royal Regiment of Artillery, 1889

The imperial British influence did not disappear in Canada after the bulk of the British troops left in 1871. Rather, in the second half of the 19th century it became entrenched in Canada, permeating the country and, in particular, its political, economic and military elites. It even reached a kind of apogee in 1897 on the 60th anniversary of Queen Victoria's accession to the throne.

This full-blown imperialism is hard to define with any degree of accuracy. It comprised an economic dimension that drove the British and other Europeans to capture new world markets. It was also racist, enshrining white superiority. This sense of superiority was qualified by a willingness to effect social change in England, change that would embrace those "inferiors" whose redemption was the "white man's burden." Of all whites, the Anglo-Saxons supposedly occupied the highest rung. These widespread notions were undeniably important, but they harboured, one imagines, their share of contradictions and matters left unsaid. In Canada, the current of imperial feeling that made the Anglo-Saxons a united and superior race ran up against three obstacles. The first comprised everyone who was not Anglo-Saxon, particularly the Aboriginals, Métis and French-speaking Canadians who together accounted for over 35 percent of the population. The second was represented by the United States, whose population, though predominantly Anglo-Saxon, nursed its own dream of imperial expansion, a dream which posed a threat to Canada. The Anglo-Saxon bloc was not as monolithic as some might have wished. The third obstacle stemmed from Canada's own nationalistic feelings, which were developing partly in response to American "manifest destiny" and partly in opposition to the grip the British continued to maintain on the country.

Imperialism, as it was occasionally understood in London and within certain Canadian social circles, consisted in strengthening the British Empire by reinforcing the economic, military and naval ties binding together the various lands it comprised. Yet for many Canadians this cementing of ties was a vehicle for change that would eventually give the colonies some influence in implementing the Empire's foreign policy and, by doing so, boost Canadian nationalism. As for imperial trade, that was about to be eclipsed by trade between Canada and the United States.

Two events, in 1871 and in 1897, best illustrate these divergent trends within the Empire. The 1871 Treaty of Washington made it quite clear to Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, who participated in the Anglo-American discussions, that Canadian interests could be jeopardized by the British strategy of neutralizing the American threat to allow for better use of their resources in the rest of the world. One small example: Canada was ordered to pay for the damage caused to banks in St Albans in the course of a Confederate raid staged from Canada during the American Civil War, but Britain refused to lay a claim with the Americans for damages caused during the Fenian raids, the last of which had just taken place. Under the 1871 agreement, Canada would lose economically, politically and geographically, and both England and Canada would sustain a blow to their pride.