Robert Borden and Canadian National Government

Last week we discussed how Prime Ministers Stephen Harper and Pierre Trudeau redefined Canada's history for their own purposes.  Their attempts to reshape Canadians' national identity saw varying levels of success – Trudeau tried to do away with Canadian nationalism and failed while Harper has thus far tried to craft a modern Conservative vision of it with lacklustre results.  Admittedly, it has been successful enough to ensure electoral success since 2006, but many Canadians still disagree with the national government built on the policy of our current Conservative government.  Today’s post looks at another attempt at national government in Canadian history and its consequences for Canadian politics: Robert Borden's Union Government.

The Unionist Party, which governed Canada from 1917 to 1921, is infrequently discussed by Canadians and historians alike.  In the midst of the First World War, Conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden formed the Unionist Party in the summer of 1917.  Believing that conscription was necessary to maintain the strength of Canada's commitment to the war effort in Europe, Borden brought together Liberals and Conservatives who supported the enactment of forced military service.  Many English-speaking Liberals joined Borden and left the Liberal Party still led by the venerable Sir Wilfrid Laurier.  Laurier himself refused to join, knowing that if the Liberals supported conscription outright, Quebec would be lost to the “radical” French-Canadian nationalists led by Henri Bourassa. 

An election was supposed to have been called in 1916, five years after the previous one in 1911, but both Conservative and Liberal parties had voted to delay it in favour of wartime unity.  Since the war's beginning in August, 1914, there had been a “truce” between the two parties in the House of Commons for sake of the war effort.  When an election was finally held in December 1917, the issue of conscription and the defection of many Liberals to the Unionist Party caused the “party truce” to be quickly and brutally forgotten. Historian Michael Bliss rightfully described it as one of the most bitter campaigns in Canadian history, as both sides accused the other of treason and betrayal.  In the end, the Unionists won a large majority with 152 seats, while the Laurier Liberals won 82, of which 62 were in Quebec.

The 1917 Election was a complex one. Though it was effectively a plebiscite on conscription, it also reflected a schism between the Canada of the 19th century and the new nation which would emerge from the First World War. 

This election was filled with moments that would disgust Canadians today.  Borden passed two laws to skew results in favour of the Unionist Government. First, the Wartime Elections Act disenfranchised conscientious objectors and Canadian citizens born in enemy countries who had arrived after 1902.  Second, the Military Voters Act only allowed soldiers to vote for either “the government” or “the opposition.”  The soldier could either specify which constituency he had lived in prior to enlistment so that the vote could be counted there, or if they didn't, the vote was assigned to a riding by the governing Unionist Party.  Women who were close relatives of those in active service overseas, and those who served in the armed forces or were nurses were also allowed to vote, marking the first time women could vote federally in Canada.  There is little doubt that Borden's legislation, passed just over three months before the election, affected the results.

Though the Unionist Government was seen as a necessary coalition during wartime, it did not last long after the end of the war in November 1918.  By the next election in 1921, the union between the two parties was finished as the Liberals under William Lyon Mackenzie King came back into power.

The divisive consequences of Unionist government were long-lasting.  Yet, despite its failure, it remains an interesting example of a Canadian national government.  The pressures of wartime were intense as English-speaking Canadians sought to forge a unified position in support of the war and conscription so that victory might be achieved.  The relative success of the Canadian Army on the frontlines no doubt contributed to the sentiment that Unionist Government was necessary and, perhaps, an appropriate vehicle for the burgeoning Canadian national identity forming during the war years. 

Robert Borden certainly believed that he was reshaping Canadian political culture and creating a new, better form of national governance.  In a letter to John Willison in July, 1917, he wrote that “new party alignments, reconstruction of past political formulas and a new political outlook will result from the intensely critical conditions through which our country is passing and from the broader outlook which the overseas Canadians must acquire in this war.”  As historian John English notes, Borden endeavoured to create a stronger national state, “one that could carry out ambitious programmes unhampered by the weakness of the bureaucracy, the immobility of political structures, and the parochialism of members.”  Unionist Government was not solely about assuring conscription, it also sought to solidify the wartime triumph of national government over the government of party politics. 

Borden's failure was not as obvious as seems today with the benefit of hindsight. The 20th century had modernized Canada. Rapid economic growth, new immigrants, and shrinking rural communities destabilized the small communities which had stretched across the nation.  New power centres, like Toronto, Montreal, and Winnipeg, had more economic influence and larger populations to affect elections.  His determination to abolish patronage appointments and thus reform the civil service appointments as plump rewards for party loyalty would eventually create the modern, detached civil service we know today.  He tried to end the Macdonald and Laurier eras of “great parties” and constituency politics – in its place would be national politics devoted to the public interest.

Yet even as Borden's “national government” sought to harness these forces, it was hardly national. French Canada had little invested in the primarily English speaking and Protestant party.  They turned inwards in the 1920s as the seeds of Quebec nationalism were planted.  Federally, French Canada would not vote Conservative again in any force until 1958.  As a result, the next forty years were ones of nearly uninterrupted Liberal governments in Ottawa. Farmers, whose conscription exemptions were cancelled, turned against the governing elite and voted in United Farmer parties across the nation.  United Farmers won elections in Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta in the 1920s and would go on to form, in part, the Canadian Commonwealth Federation, the predecessor to the New Democratic Party.  The dissent caused by Borden helped shape the modern Canadian political landscape.

Borden's Unionist Party was the apex of Canada's powerful centralized wartime government.  However necessary it was during wartime though, few Canadians wanted to see a powerful Ottawa after the war. As John English writes in his definitive work on the early 20th century Conservative Party, The Decline of Politics:

Rather than strengthening the nation state, the attempt to end partyism instead reduced the possibility for national action.  'National government' became, to too many Canadians, a symbol not of innovation and creativity but of domination by an arrogant majority.  Thereafter they would prefer the muddle, the contradictions, and the ambiguity of brokerage and consensus politics.

The dangers of Borden's failed national project are clear.  It had disastrous effects on the electoral success of the Conservative Party and the sort of political culture created in its aftermath left a mark on Canadian politics for decades.  It was far worse than Trudeau's alienation of the West with the New Energy Program or rejection of Quebecois nationalists. 

Few the consider the Unionist Government as a national endeavour on the scale of Trudeau's new Canadian identity of the 1970s or even on a smaller scale like the Conservatives' efforts of the twenty-first century.  It was, after all, a far greater failure than any of them.  Yet, at its core Borden's hope for the coalition of the Liberals and Conservatives was to refashion Canadian political culture. Though he partially succeeded, it came at a high cost. His party spent the next four decades in virtual exile, but for the brief term of R. B. Bennett 1930-1935.  It is worthwhile to remember some of these warnings from the past. Today, as Stephen Harper continues with his own efforts to create a national Conservative party formed out of the Reform Party and the Progressive Conservatives, it remains to be seen what its consequences will be. As we approach the next electoral crossroads in 2015, we will witness whether it has succeeded in convincing (enough) Canadians that it was worthwhile.