The Issues Crystallize

The Naval Bill

Consequences of the Naval Bill

In the summer of 1911, Laurier called an election for 21 September. There was general dissatisfaction with the country's support to Britain and the form it was to take, and the Naval Act became an election issue, albeit a minor one. The victorious Conservatives, though they had supported the legislation, now refused to put it into effect. They suspended construction of the new ships and the training of seamen, though allowing Rainbow to continue its fisheries patrols.

In July 1912, Prime Minister Robert Borden attended a naval review in Britain that included some 315 vessels. His hosts made a point of reminding him that all the colonies but Canada were a part of this show of power. After discussions with Winston Churchill, who since 1911 had been the First Sea Lord of the Admiralty, Borden returned to Canada. In December 1912 the Borden government tabled a bill to assist the Royal Navy to the tune of up to $35 million. Despite strong opposition that included some of the Quebec nationalists allied with the Conservatives in the House, the bill was passed in the Commons on 15 May 1913, only to be rejected by the Liberal-dominated Senate.

The only recognized legislation remained the Act of 4 May 1910. However, its virtual abandonment by the Conservatives took the Naval Service to the verge of extinction. Indeed in August 1912 the British seamen on loan to Canada returned home. Given their uncertain fate, the Canadian recruits deserted in large numbers. In October 1912 the two cruisers were mothballed and recruiting ceased. The few remaining seamen of all ranks were transferred to the Royal Navy. In 1913 the Naval Service became the Fisheries Protection Service, even though Kingsmill made sure that basic naval training was maintained in Canada. Dating from 1880, two small vessels remained in service: Constance and Rebel, minesweepers useless even for training. 59

At the time that the affair became political, most Canadians would have been incapable of gauging the military significance of this planned flotilla. The issue had scarcely changed when the country went to war in August 1914. The Canadian navy was then so weak that it could neither lend support to the Royal Navy nor even protect its own shores, and the anticipated Canadian naval industry was still on the drawing board.