Sir Robert Laird Borden

Sir Robert Laird Borden (1854-1937) was a Canadian political leader and prime minister who guided his country through World War I and, through astute bargaining, achieved equal status for Canada with England within the Commonwealth.

Robert Borden was born at Grand Pré, Nova Scotia, on June 26, 1854, the descendant of prerevolutionary American émigrés. He was educated at the Acacia Villa Seminary in Horton, Nova Scotia, and as a youth he taught at the Glenwood Institute in Matawan, N.J. Returning to his native province in 1874, he began the study of law and was called to the bar in 1878. Borden practiced first in Halifax, then in Kentville, and then again in Halifax, where in 1889 he became head of his own law firm. He seemed headed for a successful career as a lawyer until he became interested in politics.

Party Leader

In 1896 Borden was elected to the House of Commons as a Conservative member for Halifax. The party was beginning a 15-year period in opposition, and within a few years Borden made a respectable reputation for himself in Parliament. The party leader, Sir Charles Tupper, was a doughty fighter but old and somewhat discredited in certain quarters, and after his defeat in the general election of 1900 there was a general feeling that his career was over. Certainly Borden did not envisage that he would be Tupper's successor, and it was with great surprise that he saw the party caucus turn to him. His first reaction to the offer was negative, but he finally agreed to accept the post for a year. The year stretched into two and then three, and Borden was soon permanent leader of the Conservative party.

Borden's tenure was neither easy nor immediately successful. In 1904 and 1908 the Conservatives were decisively beaten by Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the Liberals, and Borden was making little impact in the country. The issue that finally propelled Borden into power was that of reciprocity with the United States. The Laurier government had negotiated a treaty with the United States in 1911, an act that frightened Canadian businessmen and manufacturers, who had been sheltered so long behind the high tariff of the national policy. Borden had found his issue, and with it he attracted enormous support from the "interests," garnered thousands of disaffected Liberal voters, and won a clear victory in the general election of 1911.

Head of Government

Borden's government was not particularly strong. His Quebec representation was weak, and the financial affairs of many of the English-Canadian ministers were not conducted ethically. Borden himself was above reproach, but he apparently lacked the ruthlessness necessary to become a first-class prime minister. Still, legislation on railways and civil service reform began to appear on the statute books, and the militia was reorganized and made more efficient. Not even the downturn in business that began in 1911 was enough to completely dampen enthusiasm in Canada.

Crisis in World War I

The outbreak of war in 1914 did not change the mood either. Borden's government immediately offered a contingent, mobilized it with impressive speed, and shipped it to England in the largest convoy ever to cross the Atlantic to that time. No one expected a long war, but by the time the first casualty reports began pouring into Ottawa from France in the spring of 1915, few could have doubted that the struggle would be difficult. Borden's task was formidable. He had to organize the government for war, a task that was never really accomplished. He had to see to it that industry was geared up for maximum production, a task that was well done. Above all he had to galvanize the Canadian people, both French and English.

This task was not accomplished; in fact, the reverse took place in Quebec. Borden did not understand the Canadien, and he permitted recruiting in that province to be botched. Few French-Canadian officers received important commands, patronage was rampant, and ethnic prejudice swept the nation. The whole crisis came to a head in 1917 when Borden decided that conscription was necessary to reinforce Canada's troops at the front. Quebec was opposed to conscription, and after Borden's efforts to unite with Laurier in a coalition failed, he determined on a coalition without Quebec. By October 1917 he had his Union government and his conscription bill, and in December 1917, after a blatantly racist campaign conducted by his party, he had a renewed mandate. Canada was badly split, and the irony of the situation was that conscripts did not reach the front in sufficient numbers to have major impact before the end of the war.

Relations with Britain

Borden achieved more success in his relations with the British. He had been appalled to discover that Canada was being treated as a backwater colony, despite the nation's massive war effort. After hard bargaining he wrung recognition from the British that Canada was equal in status to the mother country. He also won a voice in the councils of empire, representation at the peace conference, and separate representation in the League of Nations for the Dominion. These were no mean achievements.

By the end of the war, Borden was exhausted by his labors, and soon he began to seek release. In 1920 he passed the mantle of prime minister to Arthur Meighen and entered what he hoped would be a quiet retirement. But the following year he was called back to be Canadian delegate at the Washington Conference of 1921-1922, and in 1930 he was Canada's representative at the League of Nations. Meanwhile he was writing about constitutional questions and serving as the director of numerous private companies. Sir Robert Borden—he had been knighted in June 1914— died in Ottawa on June 10, 1937.

Further Reading on Sir Robert Laird Borden

A source for information on Borden is Henry Borden, ed., Robert Laird Borden: His Memoirs (2 vols., 1938). Roger Graham, Arthur Meighen (3 vols., 1960-1966), also provides information on Borden.

Additional Biography Sources

Brown, Robert Craig, Robert Laird Borden: a biography, Toronto :Macmillan of Canada, 1975-c1980.

English, John, Borden: his life and world, Toronto; New York: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1977.