1854 - 1937
"It can hardly be expected that we shall put 400,000 or 500,000 men in the field and willingly accept the position of having no more voice and receiving no more consideration than if we were toy automata." -- Sir Robert Borden, January 4, 1916
Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden began his political career as a staunch Imperialist, and during his years as Leader of the Opposition he frequently criticized Sir Wilfrid Laurier's policies concerning Britain. But once in power, Borden saw the necessity of an independent position for Canada within the Empire. With the advent of the First World War and the sacrifice of Canadian lives in Europe, Borden insisted on an autonomous voice for the nation in Imperial and international affairs. Through his efforts during the nine years he was prime minister, Canada won greater independence from Britain and launched her reputation as a neutral entity in international affairs.
Robert Laird Borden was born in Grand Pré, Nova Scotia in 1854. His father owned a farm and worked as the local stationmaster. Young Borden was educated at the local school, Acacia Villa Academy. So promising were his intellectual abilities, that he became an assistant school master at the Academy at the age of fourteen. At nineteen, Borden was offered a teaching position in Matawan, New Jersey. He returned to Nova Scotia two years later and began articling with a Halifax law firm, not having the means to study law at university. Borden was called to the Bar in 1878, and proceeded to establish himself as a successful lawyer in partnership with Charles Hibbert Tupper, son of the future Conservative Prime Minister, Charles Tupper.
It was through the Tupper family that Borden was drawn into politics. He was elected to the House of Commons in 1896 and succeeded Tupper as leader of the Conservatives in 1901. The Tories had been in disarray since the death of Sir John A. Macdonald in 1891 and were badly beaten in the elections of 1896 and 1900. Borden spent his ten years as Leader of the Opposition rebuilding the party. He had none of Laurier's oratorical mastery or charisma. His talents included a methodical efficiency and a remarkable capacity for work. But even within his own party, Borden's skills were sometimes overlooked; his attempts to reconcile the varying opinions of his colleagues were often interpreted as indecisiveness.
Borden's leadership ability was most thoroughly tested during the First World War. The demands made on the workings of government, as well as the economy and social structure of the nation were acute. When war was declared in August 1914, just three years into Borden's term as prime minister, he realized the nature of the crisis that had been so suddenly imposed. Not only was there to be an army enlisted, trained and armed, but also a whole nation to be reorganized in order to procure equipment and manpower, to regulate industry, agriculture and transportation, to raise funds and safeguard currency, all essential to the war effort.
Borden was in Europe in 1915 and visited Canadian soldiers at the front and in hospitals in Britain. He was horrified at the suffering they had endured. He was even more appalled to learn of the incompetence of the British High Command and, as a result, demanded that Canada have more say in the Allied planning. Borden was also determined that the efforts of Canadian soldiers in France would be supported by adequate reinforcements. In the face of dwindling enlistment, he proposed conscription.
The issue of conscription instantly divided the nation and Borden's Cabinet. His Quebec ministers refused to support it. Borden proposed a coalition government of Liberals and Conservatives for the duration of the war. The Liberal party was split over conscription; some accepted Borden's invitation to join his Cabinet. The Union government won the election of 1917, but not without a cost. The province of Quebec was completely alienated and without representation in Cabinet. Borden had also imposed the Wartime Elections Act which unjustly deprived many Canadians of Germanic descent and other foreign backgrounds of their right to vote. In addition to the demands of wartime governing, Borden had to fire his Minister of Militia and Defence, and deal with scandals involving graft and wartime profiteering. When the centre block of Parliament burned in February 1916, Borden escaped, singed and in his shirtsleeves; his office and its contents [sic-'were'] completely destroyed by the fire.
Although the war ended in 1918, Borden's work continued in the aftermath. He insisted that Canada have an independent delegation at the Paris Peace Conference and he participated in the establishment of the League of Nations. By 1920, after so many years of relentless work, Borden's health was suffering and he resigned as prime minister. His retirement proved restorative and he was active with his business concerns, lecturing and writing until his death in 1937.