Robert Borden's family had arrived in Canada from England in a round about way, as many in Nova Scotia and Ontario did. They had immigrated to New England and after the American Revolution they made a move to Nova Scotia in order to remain within the Empire's sway. He grew up on a farm, working hard on the property and hard to improve himself academically. Although he didn't have formal schooling options he spent his evenings studying languages. By the time he turned 14 he had progressed sufficiently to gain employment as an assistant school master and later on took up a position as a school master.
Like many people of his age he learned his politics from his family and their traditional associations and so Borden was brought up as a good "Liberal", but he lived through the exciting events of the Confederation movement and was swept up by the creation of a new, larger grand country where Nova Scotia was just a part of the larger family of provinces. With the Liberal secessionist movement of Nova Scotia, being led by Joseph Howe, attempting to take the Province out of Canada, Borden rebelled against his families long standing support of the party and he became a Conservative.
Although he did not attend university, Borden did gain employment in a law office and once again, due to hard work, he was able to learn the business and establish himself as a lawyer of note in Halifax. He quickly gained a reputation in the Conservative party as a reliable, solid worker with an ambition for his party, rather then himself.
Laurier had been Prime Minister since 1896 and it looked as though he might remain in the office forever. The Conservatives flounder as they looked for a good candidate to run as Prime Minister against this wily French Canadian master of Federal Politics. Borden was drafted at the age of 58, in the election of 1911, he ran against Laurier and his Liberals. Borden was able to bring Quebec nationalists, disillusioned Liberals from the west, Ontario Tories and his base in the Maritimes into his sphere of influence and beat Laurier at the coalition building game to win the election.
The results of the election left all of the different groups, who had come over to the Conservative banner, with an expectation that they would share in the power. The Conservatives had been out of power for 13 years and hence had little Experience in governing but Borden set to work to try and satisfy all. World events were quickly overtaking any plans that Borden had for his government. Laurier realized that the coalition of the Ontario Conservatives and the Quebec Nationalist was one that would be hard for Borden to maintain and the best place to attack Borden would be over his support of British Empire policies. This strategy was indeed sound but would not be successful until after a World War and another election during that conflict.
Robert Borden began to develop a vision of Canada which was to move the nation forward in it's development. He saw that indeed Canada could and probably should support Britain in its move towards stopping German expansion and/or domination of the European scene, but was unwilling to offer this support without British concessions to Canadian control over it's own affairs. Borden, under pressure from Winston Churchill, who was the First Lord of the Admiralty, agreed to have Canada pay for the building of 3 Dreadnaughts. After severe opposition form Laurier in the House of Commons, the bill was passed and sent to the Senate for approval, where it was defeated by the Liberal majority in that House.
These ships could have been of use during the coming war but undoubtedly not as useful as the manpower which Canada supplied as an army. During the golden summer days of 1914 the government was not sitting and Borden was holidaying in Northern Ontario. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been shot in the Balkans and the Germans, Russians, Austrians, and French were all moving towards another international confrontation that had become all too common in the previous decade. The difference this time was that events were allowed to spin out of control and the war by timetable began to run. The reaction in Canada to unfolding events was overwhelmingly to support the British Empire and almost all notable Canadians from every party voiced their support of Borden and his actions to take Canada into the Great War.
Borden appointed Sam Hughes as commander of the quickly expanding Canadian forces that were being trained at Valcartier and being readied for the fight in Europe. Hughes who was a strange, eccentric figure in Canadian history pulled together all of the resources required and got the troops trained, shipped to England and stationed on the Salisbury Plains, ready for action. The British Commander, Lord Kitchener considered the Canadian troops as colonials who would be used as he saw fit and be fed into British units as piecemeal replacements. Hughes with the backing of Borden absolutely refused to let the Canadian troops be broken up and this policy eventually led to the growth of the Canadian Divisions into a Canadian Corp which distinguished itself throughout the war and fought and won one of the most outstanding victories of the First World War - Vimy Ridge.
Vimy Ridge was a moment in Canadian history where all of the nationalist feelings, aspirations and visions of the country came together in an outburst of joy as the news of the stunning Canadian victory over the German forces on the ridge. Some would go so far as to say that this was the event which took Canada from a member of the British Empire to a nation. Borden's Government was hit with two scandals related to the purchase and supply of military munitions and weapons. The first had to do with profiteering in the purchase of artillery shells which died a conspicuous death but the second scandal had to do with the Ross Rifle which was a Canadian produced rifle which had severe problems when overused - it would overheat and jam. Eventually the Canadian troops had their Ross rifles replaced with the reliable British Lee Enfield rifle. The other scandals had to do with domestic affairs and one in particular was to effect Borden's rule and set the tone for his two successors, Arthur Meighen and R.B. Bennett. This scandal was the Canadian Northern Railway which had pushed it's tracks across the continent and reached the Pacific in 1914. The problem was that the railway was not profitable and the government continued to pump large sums of money into it to keep it running. As the controversy raged Meighen and Bennett emerged in the Conservative Party to take opposite sides of the debate, Bennett argued the company should be let go and Meighen argued for another $45 million from the government to help the Great Northern see it's way to survival. Meighen won the debate but lost a lot of support from the Conservative party.
Borden went to Europe to visit the troops and consult with the British Government about the war and constitutional issue. He visited the wounded in the hospitals, meet with troops on the front and reviewed the overall progress of the war. He was dispirited and depressed by what he saw. The war had been going on for more then a year when Borden approached the Liberals about forming a Union government, or a government which would combine members of both parties in order to more effectively prosecute the war. Laurier refused this offer but did agree to extend the life of the sitting Parliament for 1 year. Borden had to face the thorny issue of conscription. The recruits were drying up and men were needed. He had to work out how to get conscription in place without ripping the country apart. The "English Canadians" were all in favour of continued support of Britain and the war, while "French Canadians" were quickly becoming disillusioned with the blood bath and asking what Canada was fighting for. Laurier decided to make it an election issue regardless of warnings by a young colleague of his in the Liberal party, Mackenzie King. King was sure that if Laurier fought the conscription issue, he would loss the support of most of the country except Quebec. He was right. Borden also gave the vote to women calculating that the female vote would mainly support the husbands, brothers, and fathers who were fighting in the war. The other tactic which Arthur Meighen arranged was to apply the votes of the soldiers to whichever riding the votes were needed in to win a Conservative majority. The final count in the election was 153 Conservatives and 82 Liberals. Laurier had won in Quebec but lost the Western Liberals and the election.
The conscription bill was passed and Quebec was passed to the Liberals for 6 decades. Laurier had lost the election but Borden and a the conscription bill turned Quebec against him. Riots broke out in Quebec and other parts of the country. The enlistment numbers fell lower then before the bill was brought in. An ugly gash had been made across the French/English image of a united Canada. Borden had been working hard to support the war and the Empire but had been brushed off by British government officials whenever he request information. He finally demanded a fuller position of participation within the Commonwealth Cabinet and more autonomy over questions effecting Canada.
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