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In terms of Canadian prime ministers of the 20th century, one that is often forgotten but who had a large impact on our country during a time of massive change was Sir Robert Borden. It was under his watch as prime minister that Canada would move from being a mere dominion within the British Empire to a full-fledged country.

For Borden, it all begins when he was born on June 26, 1854 in Grand Pre, Nova Scotia. Borden’s family dates to Richard Borden, who came to Portsmouth, Rhode Island in 1638. In 1755, Samuel Borden was commissioned by the Nova Scotia government to survey the vacated lands and lay out plots on the land left by the Acadians. Samuel was given a parcel of land, but he returned to New Bedford in 1764, so his son Perry took the land, beginning the line of Bordens living in Canada. 

Borden was an excellent student and would attend the private school, Acacia Villa School. Borden excelled in Greek and Latin and was learning Hebrew soon enough. He was able to cut short his formal education when he was 15 after he was accepted to the post of assistant master of the private school he was attending, taking over the classical studies.

After four years at the school, he was accepted to the Glenwood Institute in Matawan, New Jersey. By 1874, his schooling life was ending, and Borden needed to find a career. Since he did not have a university education, his options for teaching were limited and Borden decided that it was time for a career change. He would shift his focus to a law career and at the age of 20, he went to Nova Scotia again to article in law. At the same time, he enlisted in the 63rd Halifax Volunteer Battalion of Rifles, earning six dollars for 12 days of service and a $50 bonus when he qualified for a commission. In 1877, Borden, along with Charles Tupper, and 23 others, sat down to the provincial bar examinations. Borden finished at the top of the class and spent a year as an apprentice at a law firm before he was admitted to the bar.

After briefly having a law practice with a classmate, he went to Kentville to serve as a junior partner with John Pryor Chipman. In 1882, he came back to Halifax to work at the law firm that included partners John Sparrow David Thompson and Charles Tupper. In this law firm, Borden would help prepare the government’s cases in the seizure of two American fishing vessels in 1886. In 1888, Thompson, who was now the Minister of Justice in Ottawa, invited Borden to work with him as a deputy minister but Borden declined, choosing to remain in Halifax.

In 1886, he began a relationship with Laura Bond, who was the daughter of a successful hardware merchant in Halifax. In 1889, he would marry Laura, when he was 35 and she was 28. The couple would not have any children and Laura is described as an attractive, lively, and strong-willed woman who had a love of theatre and literature. Around the same time, Borden founded a law firm that would become one of the largest law firms in the Maritime Provinces. This would allow him to live a relatively comfortable life and in 1891 and 1893 he and Laura toured England and Europe. The success of the law firm was shown in the clients he had, which included Canada Atlantic Steamship, The Bank of Nova Scotia, and Nova Scotia Telephone.

His life likely would have continued in the path of being a lawyer if not for Sir Charles Tupper. At the time, Tupper was prime minister of Canada, briefly, and in the 1896 election he would convince his friend Borden to run for Parliament while the two were having dinner in Ottawa. This was not something that Borden had thought of doing as he was a reserved man who did not like public speaking. What convinced him was his belief that successful men should take on political office for the public good and he was successful, so he ran. Earlier in his life, Borden had been a Liberal but over time his views would shift more towards Conservative.

In the 1896 election, Borden was elected and served as a backbencher, while still practicing law in Halifax. He would write Laura, stating quote:

“It is a miserable irregular life one has to lead, and I am more than sick of it I can assure you.”

Loyal to Tupper, he began to move to a more prominent role in the party and was becoming an emerging figure within it. On Nov. 7, 1900, the Conservatives were defeated in another election and Tupper gave up his leadership role. It was decided that the party needed a fresh face to lead them and many turned towards Borden, who had no enemies in the party and was a hard worker. Upon hearing he was in the running for leader, Borden would write quote:

“I have not either the experience or the qualifications which would enable me to successfully lead the party. It would be an absurdity for the party and madness for me.”

On Feb. 6, 1901, Borden was chosen as the new leader and he agreed to serve for one year and wanted the party to have a committee in place to find a new leader by that point. Tupper would serve for the next 19 years as the leader.

At the time, the party was in the shadow of the Liberals and Sir Wilfrid Laurier, so Borden began to work to rebuild the Conservative Party over the next decade. He would also start to craft the new platform for the party, culminating in the Halifax Platform of 1907 that called for government regulation of railways, telegraphs and telephones and reforms to civil service and the Canadian Senate.

He also pushed back against the British making decisions for Canada on an international stage. In 1907, during a debate to amend the Canadian Shipping Act, he would say, quote:

“In such matters, it should be the duty of the Imperial Parliament to consult the Government of Canada with respect to any amendments which concern this country. We should be consulted before any acts of the Imperial Parliament are passed which conflict with the opinion of the people of this country in their Parliamentary enactments.”

As leader, many found Borden to be reserved, serious and distant at times. He also sought advice from outside the party, which often angered some of the MPs in the party. Many were unhappy in the direction that Borden was moving the party during its time in opposition. Samuel Hughes, who was close with Borden, would write about him, quote:

“A most lovely fellow, very capable but not a very good judge of men or tactics and is gentle hearted as a girl.”

Borden also had a difficult time dealing with his French-Canadian MPs and believing their ideas were dated, he never went out of his way to understand his MPs from Quebec. Borden was also highly influenced by the ideas of democratizing political parties and using state power in the public interest. When Laurier’s government proposed two new transcontinental railways in 1903 to push settlement to the Canadian West, he agreed that transportation routes to the west were needed but he felt it was a waste to have two railroads running so near to each other, within a carriage ride, in his words. Borden also wanted a railroad not owned by private corporations, but by the people of Canada. Unfortunately for Borden, the Liberals were in power and took a big majority in the November 1904 election. In that election, they took every seat in Nova Scotia, including Borden’s. Borden thought about resigning but in December of 1904 he decided to remain as party leader, stating quote:

“I have put all the hesitation and doubt behind me, and I shall endeavor to do my full duty.”

A vacancy in a district in a riding in Ontario was found, and Laurier arranged to have Borden acclaimed there on Feb. 4, 1905 with no Liberal candidate running against him. Shortly after the election, he bought a house in Ottawa and Laura moved from Halifax, with Borden committing himself to national politics rather than law.

In 1908, Borden would again see the Conservatives lose to Sir Wilfrid Laurier and his Liberals come to power, but the Conservatives gained 14 seats from the previous election. This pushed Borden’s resolve to lead the party. Within the Conservative Party, many were unhappy that the party had seen four election defeats in a row, including two while Borden was in charge.

All of Borden’s work would pay off after the Reciprocity Agreement with the United States was negotiated by Prime Minister Laurier, forcing a general election. Borden, working with anti-Laurier groups including Liberal businessmen opposed to the agreement and French Canadians opposed to the Naval Service Act, was able to defeat the Liberal Party and end 15 years of Laurier and the Liberals leading the country. Borden, only 15 years after he had first entered politics, was now the Prime Minister of Canada. The Conservatives were able to take all seven seats in British Columbia, eight of ten seats in Manitoba, 73 of 86 in Ontario and 27 seats in Quebec. In all, Borden had 137 seats to Laurier’s 87, a resounding victory after 11 years in charge.

One of the first tasks for Borden as the new prime minister was to give Canada a voice in imperial policy. He would create a naval policy that would involve a grant of $35 million to Britain for the construction of three battleships. The debate over the bill would go through the House of Commons for weeks. Borden would write after one all-night session, quote:

“Our men angry at end and both sides wanted a physical conflict. Primeval passions.”

On April 9, 1914, the bill finally passed but the Liberal controlled senate killed it in May of that year. The back and forth over a Canadian Navy would continue for several months.

During this time and continuing until 1920, Borden would also serve as the Secretary of State for External Affairs.

Borden also began to reform the civil service, beginning with the establishment of the Civil Service Commission in 1908. He also created the Canada Grain Act of 1912 to establish a board of grain commissioners to supervise grain inspection and regulate the grain trade. It also allowed for the government to build and operate terminal elevators at key points in the export system. Within four years, government terminals were operating across the west.

On June 22, 1914, Robert Borden was knighted. He took some time in July to vacation at Muskoka but on July 31, he was on a train rushing to Toronto and the next day he was in Ottawa. On Aug. 4, 1914 at 8:55 p.m., a cable from London arrived during an emergency cabinet meeting, stating that Canada was now at war.

On Aug. 8, 1914, two weeks after the start of the First World War, Borden would write in his diary, quote:

“On Sunday afternoon, I discussed with Lord Bryce the future constitutional relations within the Empire and he agreed that the Dominions must have a voice in foreign policy. I told him that they would either have such a voice or each of them would have a foreign policy of its own.”

In his speech to the House of Commons on Aug. 14, 1914 regarding his intentions with the First World War, he would say, quote:

“In the awful dawn of the greatest war the world has ever known, in the hour when peril confronts us such as this Empire has not faced for a hundred years, every vain or unnecessary word seems a discord. As to our duty, all are agreed, we stand shoulder to shoulder with Britain and other British dominions in this quarrel. And that duty we shall not fail to fulfil as the honour of Canada demands. Not for the love of battle, not for the lust of conquest, not for greed of possessions, but for the cause of honour.”

While the war was greeted with enthusiasm by most in the House of Commons, the government and Canada were not prepared for war. Only one person in the House of Commons had any military experience, Sam Hughes. The Ross rifle was manufactured in Canada but there was no capacity to make heavy armaments.

Looking back at the leadership of Borden during the war, it is sufficient to say that he did an excellent job leading the country. In 1914, he would implement the War Measures Act, create the first direct taxation by the Ottawa Government, including a temporary income tax that is still here today. He also nationalized the railways to create the Canadian National Railways. While Britain demanded troops, and he did send half a million by war’s end, Borden also worked behind the scenes to give Canada the ability to make its own decisions when it came to international issues.

Using the War Measures Act, 8,000 Canadians would be put into prison camps or used as force labourers in government work projects. This would continue until 1920, two years after the war ended. In addition, support of the war tended to mostly come from English Canada. The army also had few French-Canadian officers, patronage within the army was rampant and prejudice against Germans and other ethnic groups swept the country. This was shown not only in the internments, but in the changing of the name of Berlin, Ontario to Kitchener, Ontario in 1916.

The Canadian Patriotic Fund was also established to aid the families of soldiers.

It should be noted that through cooperation with the Liberal Party, the Canadian government was able to implement most of its war legislation within only five days.

In 1916, Borden announced that Canada’s military forces would be increased to 500,000 men, but he made this announcement without telling the Governor General, and a note was sent to him stating that the Governor General was happy about the decision but was surprised that he was not consulted beforehand.

Borden, who wanted more independence for Canada, responded by saying, quote:

“The Prime Minister learns with regret that His Royal Highness has felt some surprise because an Order in Council was not passed before announcing the policy alluded to. For nearly a century it has not been the practice in this country to formulate policies through the medium of Orders-in-Council. That course may be taken as a matter of convenience, but it is by no means necessary or even usual.”

By mid-1916, the number of recruits enlisting was beginning to dry up. Across the country, labour shortages were being reported on farms and on production lines and the quick war that everyone expected was not a reality as both the Allies and Germans dug into their trenches. By July 1916, only 8,389 men enlisted. In April and May, only 11,000 enlisted.

There was a growing need in Europe for food from Canada and the government commandeered the 1915 wheat crop as a result. In 1917, prices for wheat were skyrocketing and Borden would establish the Board of Grain Supervisors of Canada, which took on the marketing of crops in 1917 and 1918. This organization would be succeeded by the Canadian Wheat Board.

One of the biggest challenges for Borden would come as the First World War raged on and volunteer recruitment was falling to the point where there were not enough men enlisting to make up for the staggering losses at the front. In the spring of 1917, Borden decided that the country needed conscription and he would bring in the Military Service Act. The issue of conscription was a dicey one to say the least. English Canada was very much in favour of it, while French Canada was extremely against it. French Canada was already unhappy with the Borden government after the abolishment of the use of French as a language of instruction beyond form one. In 1916, 5,000 French Canadians marched in protest to Borden’s office over the issue. While Borden said he would see what could be done, in reality he did nothing.

Borden resisted the issue of conscription for as long as he could, but the issue threatened to divide the country and Borden attempted to create a political alliance with Sir Wilfrid Laurier to show a united front in Parliament. Laurier, knowing most of Quebec was against conscription, refused. Borden would still form a Union Government, consisting of Conservatives and Liberals who were in favour of conscription.

The act was passed, and Borden was able to win the 1917 election. The election was one of the most contentious in Canadian history. After Laurier refused to join the coalition government, the Winnipeg Free Press ran the headline “A vote for Laurier is a vote for the Kaiser”. The Toronto Daily News published a front-page map of Canada, showing English speaking Canada in red and Quebec in black. In Quebec, Albert Sevigny, the minister of inland revenue, was driven from a platform when he was speaking due to flying stones and gunshots. He took refuge in a hotel, which had its windows smashed out and he was forced to flee out a window. Many were unhappy with Borden for what they saw as his attempt to fix the vote for his Union government. Prior to the election, Borden had passed the Military Voters Act, which made it possible to manipulate the counting of votes from the front and the War-Time Elections Act, which took the vote from anyone deemed an enemy alien who had come to Canada after 1902.

In the end, the Unionists won the day with 114 seats, while Laurier and his Liberals had 82 seats, 62 of them coming from Quebec and only two from western Canada.

Within this new Union Government, the only time in Canadian history that Canada was not governed by a Liberal or Conservative Party, he appointed future prime minister Arthur Meighen to manage the House of Commons, along with two Liberals named Newton Rowell and Alexander Maclean, who were given key cabinet positions.

With the new Military Service Act, the first men called had been required to register for service in October. Roughly 100,000 single men aged 20 to 22 would be conscripted over the next year.

After 1917, due to the influx of Canadians heading to the front now, the Canadian Expeditionary Force was able to grow from one division into the Canadian Corp, under the command of Canadian General Sir Arthur William Currie. With the Canadian successes at Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele and Ypres, Borden felt that Canada had become its own nation.

Seeing Canada fight in the First World War pushed the belief in Borden that Canada needed to have greater independence from Britain and the other member countries in the British Empire. The new British prime minister, David Lloyd George, felt the same way, stating, quote:

“They are fighting not for us, but with us.”

The Imperial War Conference was held in 1917 with Canada attending as a senior dominion and Borden would author Resolution IX of the Imperial War Conference of 1917 arguing that Canada and the other dominions in the Empire deserved to be recognized as autonomous nations of an Imperial Commonwealth and that the countries should have a voice in foreign policy and foreign relations. Another insistence from Borden was that Canada and the other countries in the dominion send delegates to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and that they sign the Versailles Treaty as well.

Borden saw the war as giving Canada its international status, but he still felt that Canada was at the Paris Peace Conference more as a matter of form than substance. He would write Laura, saying quote:

“Canada got nothing out of the war except recognition.”

In 1918, Canada was hit by the Spanish Flu, which would eventually kill 50,000 Canadians over the course of 1918 and 1919. As prime minister, Borden would help bring in the first federal Department of Health in 1919, which would eventually contribute to the creation of universal healthcare in Canada.

Thanks to the work of Borden in creating a greater autonomy for Canada, Canada was a separate entity with its own representation outside of Britain in the International Labour Organization and the League of Nations.

One of the biggest changes to come to Canada under Borden was women’s suffrage. After Manitoba granted women the right to vote in 1916, followed by Saskatchewan and Alberta, the federal government gave the right to vote to women who had relatives fighting in the war, in 1917. In 1918, full women’s suffrage was implemented federally.

Borden would be the last prime minister to be knighted due to changes in the Canadians title system put forward under the Nickle Resolution during his administration. This was due to his belief that patronage should end in government and he demanded that appointments be made on merit alone.

During the Nickle Resolution debate, Borden would say about knighthoods, quote:

“They are very unpopular and entirely incompatible with our institutions.”

It was not all good decisions during his time in office. One of his worst was during the Winnipeg General Strike, when he put forward a policy of arresting leaders of the strike and charging them under a revised definition of sedition that was rushed through Parliament in the form of an amendment to the Canadian Criminal Code. This move would cause a great deal of animosity towards him from labour groups. The Winnipeg Strike was put down on June 21, 1919 on what is now known as Bloody Saturday due to the use of force by police.

In 1920, Borden decided to retire from politics. Upon his retirement, he was the only Allied leader to have stayed in office throughout the entire First World War. He had hoped for a quiet retirement, but he soon found himself spending his remaining years working as an international statesman and advocate for the League of Nations. He would serve as the chancellor of Queen’s University from 1924 to 1930.

In 1932, he would become the chairman of Canada’s first mutual fund, the Canadian Investment Fund. He would write to his friend Lloyd George about this time, saying quote:

“There is nothing that oppresses me. Books, some business avocation, my wild garden, the birds and the flowers, a little golf, and a great deal of life in the open. These together make up the fullness of my days.”

When he could, he would spend his time in his wildflower garden on the bank of the Rideau and he and Laura would often play golf, host dinner parties, and play bridge with friends. In 1928, Borden would begin writing his memoirs, which he would mostly finish prior to his death.

As for Laura, she would serve as the president of the Aberdeen Society and the Local Council of Women. She was also a councilor in the Victorian Order of Nurses and the vice president of the National Council of Women.

He passed away in Ottawa on June 10, 1937 and his two-volume memoir would be published by his nephew Henry shortly after his death. Upon his death, 1,000 veterans of the First World War lined the procession route from Glensmere to All Saints’ Church for his funeral. He would be buried in Beechwood Cemetery in Ottawa.

Several schools have been named for him in Ottawa, Toronto, and Nova Scotia, as is Borden, Western Australia. Borden Island in the Canadian Arctic is named for him as well. A town in Prince Edward Island is also named for him.

In 1957, a statue of Borden was unveiled at Parliament Hill to honour the 20th anniversary of his death.

In a survey of historians looking at the first 20 prime ministers, Borden ranked seventh. Along with being knighted, Borden as presented the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor from France in 1915, the Grand Cordon of the Order of Leopold of Belgium in 1916 and 10 honorary degrees from Universities across Canada. In 1928, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. In 1951, a stamp with his image on it was released by Canada Post.

I will end this episode with a quote about Borden from Lloyd George, who said, quote:

“A sagacious and helpful counsellor who was always the quintessence of common sense.”

Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, Britannica, Wikipedia, Queens University, the Canada Gudie, the History Museum, University of Manitoba, Encyclopedia.com, Macleans, Nova Scotians At Home and Abroad, History of Nova Scotia Vol. 3

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