In the late 19th century various nations entered a phase of territorial expansion often called the second great era of imperialism. Britain, France, Germany, the US and others sought colonies for commercial, military and religious motives.
This imperialism coincided with growing concern in Canada about its relationship to the British Empire. Britain was still responsible for EXTERNAL RELATIONS and funded defence for Canada and other Dominions. Such colonial vestiges were increasingly unacceptable, yet there were strong loyalties to Britain and a fear that total independence would lead to absorption by the US. Thus Canadian imperialism was born.
When British imperialists founded the Imperial Federation League in 1884, Canadian supporters established branches. They sought a way for Canada to develop beyond colonial status without separating from the empire. Led by G.M. GRANT, G.R. PARKIN, G.T. DENISON and others, the movement mixed Christian idealism and anti-Americanism with an effort to have people accept the principle that the Dominions should participate in foreign policy at the imperial level.
Imperialist rhetoric late in the 19th century began to emphasize the potential of united strength. The appointment of ardent imperialist Joseph Chamberlain as colonial secretary in 1895 created a new impulse for action on specific problems. During the SOUTH AFRICAN WAR, aid to Britain was enthusiastically supported by Canadian imperialists but resisted by many elements in the Canadian population. Prime Minister Wilfrid LAURIER allowed a volunteer force, but the war served notice that imperialism had become controversial.
Participation in the power of empire now also implied participation in imperial wars. From 1900 to 1914 a lively and often acrimonious debate was carried on between those who saw the imperial burden as Canada's burden and those who preferred autonomy.
WWI brought imperialism to its most advanced stage and also led to its collapse in Canada. The Dominions insisted upon joint planning and policy formation, and meetings in 1917 implied postwar consultation on matters of shared interest among the self-governing parts of the empire. However, the toll of Canadian casualties in Europe was creating a reaction which led to a postwar spirit of North American isolationism. Throughout the 1920s the Mackenzie KING government worked to establish a separate Canadian presence in foreign affairs. The empire thereafter devolved into the much more loosely connected COMMONWEALTH.