It Began With Fish And Ships: Navy, Part 1

January 1, 2004 by Marc Milner

From top: Before she was commissioned as a naval patrol vessel in 1915, Canada saw service as a fisheries patrol vessel. Here she is seen off Bermuda prior to 1910; Crew members of HMCS Niobe pause while on deck in this photo taken before World War I. The cruiser was commissioned in the Royal Canadian Navy in September 1910.

A century ago this year Canada ordered its first armed patrol vessels, Canada and Vigilant. The government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier bought them for the Fisheries Protection Service (FPS), but also as the modest beginnings of a professional navy. Six tumultuous years later the Canadian navy was finally established, but it nearly foundered at its launch when Canadians could not agree on just what the navy was supposed to do, how big it should be and what kind of ships it ought to have. A hundred years later, with the successors of those humble vessels roaming the oceans of the world as part of a “middle power” navy with global reach, the debates over our naval policy in 1904 indicate just how far we have come as a nation.

It has always been hard to articulate a peculiarly Canadian requirement for anything more than a coast guard. The fundamental reason why this was–and remains–is that since 1763 Canada, in its various forms, has always been part of, or allied to, the dominant naval power of the day. From at least the mid-18th century until well into the mid-20th century (some would claim until the middle of World War II) the Royal Navy’s dominance of the sea was absolute. Under these circumstances Canadians concentrated on the defence of their land frontier with the United States, or projecting military overseas. No permanent naval institutions arose in the 19th century, and even attempts to establish a naval militia came to naught.

Nonetheless, as many Canadians observed during the naval debates–a century ago, we already had a navy, the Royal Navy. In the mid-20th century the U.S. assumed the mantle of dominant sea power and we have been safely inside the compass of the new imperium ever since. And so the question of why we need a navy has never really gone away.

The short answer to that question a 100 years ago was the failure of the imperial government to defend Canadian fish from American poachers. From the moment of Confederation the new Dominion found the British unwilling to enforce existing fisheries agreements with the U.S.

A force of six schooners, the Marine Police, was established in 1870 to restrain American poaching. It was disbanded after the Treaty of Washington, signed in 1871, settled all remaining disputes between the imperial and American governments. Or so it was thought. In 1885, when the U.S. unilaterally abrogated the Washington Treaty’s fisheries provisions, Canada was forced to act again. A new agreement was ratified by Canada in 1888, but the U.S. Senate failed to do so. The formal rejection of that fishing agreement (it nonetheless formed the basis of a working relationship) meant that the FPS became a permanent federal service and the kernel from which the navy would ultimately spring.

Meanwhile, the rise of new industrial powers and their navies by the late 1800s forced Britain to concentrate its naval power closer to home and avoid entanglements elsewhere. In 1902, Britain signed an alliance with Japan, and made it clear to Canada that defence of the western hemisphere lay in the care of the burgeoning U.S. Navy. From the Canadian perspective, that left the cat in charge of the henhouse.

And so at the 1902 Imperial Conference, Laurier announced that Canada would develop a local navy under the auspices of the Department of Marine and Fisheries. Specifically, Laurier and his Minister of Marine and Fisheries, Raymond Préfontaine, proposed to militarize the FPS as a way of developing a small fleet to defend Canadian interests inshore.

In 1904 the government ordered the two modern, high-speed steel hulled cruisers, armed with quick firing guns. Canada, a 200-foot ram-bowed vessel, was purchased from Vickers Barrow in England for the East Coast and Vigilant, at 175 feet–”the first modern warship built in Canada”–was ordered from Polston’s Yard in Toronto for the Great Lakes. Préfontaine also drafted legislation for a naval militia to train on the new vessels, and plans for a “naval military academy.”

It was as sensible for a modest force to do just what needed to be done. Unfortunately, when Préfontaine died in 1905 so too did his bill, and Laurier’s government was distracted in 1906 by the hurried takeover of the last imperial garrisons and naval bases at Halifax and Esquimalt. The sudden British decision to abandon them meant that all semblance of a maritime defence–save for the FPS–would be gone. The solution, under the new minister of Marine and Fisheries, Louis Phillipe Brodeur, was to continue the militarization of the Fisheries Protection Service, and lay the groundwork for a larger service. This scheme fit well within the constitutional framework of the empire, and it even appealed to Quebec nationalists who accepted the need to protect Canadian interests within territorial waters.

A small but efficient local fleet ideally suited for coastal patrol and fisheries protection might well have developed in Canada after 1907, but for two things: a change in attitude in London towards the idea of local navies, and the relentless rise of the Imperial German Navy. It was the Australians who broke the log-jam over the issue of local ocean-going navies within the empire. In 1906 they announced plans to suspend their subsidy to the imperial fleet and raise their own service composed of large ocean-going vessels.

At the Colonial Conference the next year the Admiralty relented, accepting the principle of local squadrons as part of one imperial fleet. For the moment, Laurier and Brodeur stuck to their scheme for a militarized FPS. A cruiser squadron, along Australian lines, was too much for simple sovereignty and fisheries protection, and because its proper place was on the high seas it would inevitably be drawn into imperial roles in both peace and war.

Laurier might well have yet built his local, coastal navy but for the revelation on March 16, 1909 to the British House of Commons that Britain was falling behind in the naval race with Germany. The news sent shock waves through the empire. In Canada it shifted debate away from fish towards the larger question of the naval defence of the empire. Within days of the warning the New Zealand government offered funds to build a battleship for the imperial fleet, and several Australian states followed suit. Imperialists in Canada now urged action.

The initial Canadian response to the 1909 crisis came in the form of two resolutions in the House of Commons. The first, presented to Parliament on March 29 by Sir George Foster, a Conservative MP, called for the establishment of a proper navy. “That in the opinion of this House, in view of her great and varied resources, of her geographical position and natural environments, and of that spirit of self-help and self-respect which alone befits a strong and growing people, Canada should no longer delay in assuming her proper share of the responsibility and financial burden incident to suitable protection of her exposed coastline and great seaports.”

Laurier’s militarized fisheries service now seemed hopelessly inadequate. In fact, the new middle ground between a militarized FPS and buying battleships for the imperial fleet was the establishment of a real navy. Laurier’s own resolution, which also won widespread support, rejected “the payment of regular and periodic contribution to the imperial treasury for naval and military purposes” as unsatisfactory, and concluded that “the House will cordially approve of any necessary expenditure designed to promote the speedy organization of a Canadian naval service….”

The unanimous passage of these resolutions occurred, Gilbert Tucker wrote, “because public opinion was on the whole ready to accept a naval policy.” But this high degree of concurrence in early 1909 was due, Tucker commented perceptively, “to the fact that they had not as yet reflected much upon the subject.”

The subsequent debate was propelled by the deepening naval arms race with Germany and pressure by the imperial government to draw the dominions into the expansion of the Royal Navy. At a hastily convened imperial conference that summer, Newfoundland, New Zealand and South Africa all proposed direct financial contributions to the fleet. Australia and Canada disagreed. The Admiralty’s position, therefore, was that local navies ought to comprise discrete fleet units capable of rapid integration into the imperial navy in time of war. In Canada’s case, this meant a fleet of one heavy cruiser, four light cruisers and six destroyers.

The conference of 1909 was the genesis of both the Australian and Canadian navies, but it remained for Laurier’s government to develop a policy and a plan. That was done through the rest of 1909 and early 1910, with Laurier eventually settling on the establishment of a naval service and the building of a fleet of small cruisers–as the Admiralty recommended.

The process of settling this policy shattered that wondrous spirit of co-operation evident in the passing of the original resolutions in early 1909. Quebec nationalists like Henri Bourassa and Quebec Conservatives launched a passionate and bitter campaign against the new Liberal scheme. Such a force, they argued, was both a sop to the empire and a dangerous foray into uncharted waters. The cruisers were more than Canada needed to police its territorial waters, and yet were large and powerful enough to operate with the imperial fleet in distant waters, which would draw Canada into international crises. In other words, anything more than an armed FPS was too much.

Anglo-nationalists (those who identified with the larger British conception of an imperial ‘nation’, sometimes called imperialists) in Borden’s Conservative Party also attacked Laurier’s scheme for doing too little. If the imperial fleet was destroyed, no “tinpot” Canadian navy would save Canada from peril. Canada, they felt, should follow the lead of New Zealand, several Australian states and a couple of African colonies, as well as the sentiments of Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick and British Columbia, and fund the construction of battleships for the Royal Navy.

Thus by late 1909 Laurier was on the horns of a dilemma: his plans for a Canadian navy were too big for the isolationists and too small for the imperialists. Somehow he had to convince the former that the new service would remain under Canadian control, while insisting to the latter that the imperial fleet was indivisible. It could not be done.

With his opposition bitterly split over the issue, Laurier introduced his Naval Service Act to the House on Jan. 10, 1910. His local squadron of 11 warships (five cruisers and six destroyers) would be built in Canada, and sustained by an annual expenditure of three million dollars. In the debates that followed, Laurier taunted Borden over the suggestion that a Canadian navy would somehow stand idly by if Britain herself was attacked. “If England is at war we are at war,” Laurier observed, “and liable to attack.”

Laurier admitted that Canada did not have to take part in all of England’s wars, and that Canada’s parliament had some say over how Canadian forces would be used. But he made it clear that no Canadian warships would stand by if the empire was in peril: a commitment which simply confirmed the fears of Quebec nationalists.

Many MPs supported the Act, noting that it was time Canada began to look after herself. Most Canadians agreed. But the sovereignty card–then as now–was a weak one in the final naval debates: the fish got lost in the shuffle. No one believed Canada could defend herself from her only serious threat: the U.S. And between the growing power of the U.S. Navy and the power of the British Empire, it was hard to see what a Canadian navy was supposed to do–apart from protect Canada against American fishermen, or help defend the empire.

Laurier understood this, which was why he insisted that his navy be built in Canada. That, in the end, may have been as important in the ultimate collapse of his government and his fleet plan as anything else. Warship construction is big business, and by 1909 Laurier had already signed an agreement with Vickers to establish a yard in Montreal (later Canadian Vickers) to build the new fleet. This was probably a ploy to soften opposition in Quebec, but it hurt him in Ontario. There the prospect of massive federal government spending on a shipyard in Quebec to build Laurier’s Tinpot Navy did little to endear the scheme to voters.

The whole nation was engaged in the naval debate as Laurier sought to find a middle ground. The government narrowly won a federal byelection in Ottawa in late January 1910 fought largely on the naval issue. It was a portend.

The vote in the House following third reading of the bill on March 10, 1910 failed to demonstrate that ‘cordial’ approval of the resolutions passed a year before. The vote split along partisan lines, and so in the end the Liberal majority in the House carried the day: 111 to 70, with 18 abstentions. The Naval Service of Canada formally came into being on May 4, 1910. Canada now had a navy, at least on paper, but no fleet.

Laurier’s government fell in the general election of 1911, one fought largely around free trade with the U.S. and the naval issue. Free trade with the Americans was rejected, and so was Laurier’s naval policy. Borden favoured close economic ties with the empire and direct financial support to the imperial fleet. The latter was entirely stymied in the Liberal dominated Senate, and so when the Great War erupted in 1914 there was neither a Canadian squadron nor Canadian funded battleships. The defence of Canada’s coasts was assumed by British, Australian and Japanese cruisers.

It is ironic that a century later Canadian frigates–about the same displacement and range as an early 20th-century cruiser–ply the oceans of the world supporting Canadian intervention in all manner of crises. Canadians seem content with such an activist foreign policy, and of course we have free trade with the Great Republic to the south. It is also the expressed policy of the Canadian navy to achieve and maintain the ability to integrate seamlessly into the operations of the new imperial fleet, the United States Navy, and of late Canadian frigates routinely operate as part of American carrier battle groups in the mideast. Few in 1904 would have foreseen that, and one wonders what Laurier and Borden would think.

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