Sir Robert Borden
Sir Robert Laird Borden, lawyer, politician, prime minister of Canada, 1911–20 (born 26 June 1854 in Grand Pré, NS; died 10 June 1937 in Ottawa, ON).
Sir Robert Laird Borden, lawyer, politician, prime minister of Canada, 1911–20 (born 26 June 1854 in Grand Pré, NS; died 10 June 1937 in Ottawa, ON). The eighth prime minister of Canada, Borden was a Halifax lawyer, leader of the Liberal-Conservative Party 1901–20, and architect of the Conservative victory in the "Reciprocity Election" of 1911. He was also prime minister during the First World War and a leading figure in the achievement of "Dominion Status" and the transition from the British Empire to the British Commonwealth of Nations.
Education and Early Career
Borden was a self-made man. After a brief formal education, he spent five years teaching at private academies in Nova Scotia and New Jersey. Without a university education, however, his opportunities as a teacher were limited and he decided to train for a law career. Returning to Nova Scotia in 1874 to article in law, he was admitted to the bar in 1878 and by 1890 headed a prestigious Halifax law firm.
Leader of the Opposition
In 1896, Borden’s friend, Sir Charles Tupper, convinced him to run for election to the federal Parliament. Although a generally reserved man who did not enjoy public speaking, Borden believed that political life was a responsibility that successful men should take on for the public good. He was elected to Parliament in 1896 and in 1901 was selected by the Conservative caucus to succeed Sir Charles Tupper as leader of the Liberal-Conservative Party. Over the next decade he worked to rebuild the Conservative Party and to establish a reform policy; the resulting Halifax Platform of 1907 called for, among other things, Senate and civil service reform as well as government regulation of railways, telegraphs and telephones.
In 1911, he led the opposition to the Reciprocity Agreement, which had been negotiated by Sir Wilfrid Laurier's government with the United States, and forced a general election. By skilful political management Borden brought together a coalition of anti-Laurier groups (Liberal businessmen opposed to reciprocity, French Canadian Nationalistes opposed to the Naval Service Act, Conservative provincial administrations and his own parliamentary party) that defeated the Liberal Party.
Prime Minister during the First World War
Borden's leadership during the First World War was remarkable. At home, his wartime government was responsible for the War Measures Act (1914), the first measures of direct taxation by the Ottawa government (the Wartime Business Profits Tax, 1916, and the "temporary" Income Tax, 1917), and the nationalization of the Canadian Northern Railway as the first step in the creation of the Canadian National Railways.
One of the biggest challenges Borden faced was the collapse of the voluntary recruiting system; by late 1916, recruitment was failing to keep up with the losses sustained on the battlefront. By spring 1917, he decided that compulsory military service would be necessary. In order to pass his controversial Military Service Act, Borden offered a political alliance to Liberal leader Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Although Laurier refused (most French Canadians vehemently opposed conscription), Borden managed to create a Union Government of pro-conscriptionist Conservatives and Liberals that supported the passage of the Act and won the bitterly contested general election of 1917.
Overseas, the Canadian Expeditionary Force grew from one division to a full Canadian Corps commanded after 1917 by a Canadian, Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur William Currie. Borden believed that the distinguished record of the CEF at Ypres, Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele and in the final Hundred Days Campaign was the ultimate proof of the maturity of Canadian nationhood.
Borden played a key role in establishing greater autonomy for Canada and other member countries of the British Empire. He was principal author of Resolution IX of the Imperial War Conference of 1917, which argued that Canada and the other dominions deserved recognition "as autonomous nations of an Imperial Commonwealth," which should have a “voice in foreign policy and in foreign relations.” Borden also insisted that Canada (and the other dominions) send delegates to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and that they sign the Versailles Treaty, as well. Under Borden, Canada also gained separate representation at the International Labour Organization and the League of Nations.
Borden retired as prime minister in 1920. In his last years, he was recognized as an international statesman and firm advocate of the League of Nations. He pursued a successful career in business and served as chancellor of Queen's University 1924–30.
H. Borden, ed., Robert Laird Borden: His Memoirs (1938) and Letters to Limbo (1971); R. Borden, Canadian Constitutional Studies (1922) and Canada in the Commonwealth (1929); R. Craig Brown, Robert Laird Borden, 2 vols. (1975, 1980); Tim Cook, Warlords: Borden, Mackenzie King and Canada’s World Wars (2012); Martin Thornton, Sir Robert Borden: Canada: The Peace Conferences of 1919–23 and Their Aftermath (2010) and Churchill, Borden and Anglo-Canadian Naval Relations, 1911–14 (2013).