At the turn of the century, Canada had no naval presence and relied upon he Royal Navy for the protection of it's coastline, enforcement of national boundaries and the performance of specific missions. The Imperial drive by the British to form a more integrated defensive system fro the British Empire relied upon Empire counties contributing funds to Britain to build up and support the Royal Navy. Briton was under serious challenge form Germany for high seas supremacy and an arms race had developed with battleships being the main measure of leadership.
Wilfred Laurier realized that Canada would not accept a solution whereby Canada would pay into Britain's naval program, especially French Canada, but felt that he could compromise and satisfy all parties by creating a Canadian Navy and purchasing ships form Great Britain which could be used by England in times of emergency. On May 4th, 1910 Laurier's Liberal government passed the Naval Service Act which established the Royal Canadian Navy and effective created a force with the purchase of two older ships form Britain, the Rainbow and the Niobe. His compromise did not only not please everybody but displeased everybody and contributed to his election loss in 1911 to the Conservatives.
In the meantime the HMCS Rainbow had arrived on the West coast where it began patrol duties based out of the RCN base Esquimalt located near Victoria. The HMCS Niobe was stationed in Halifax and arrived there in 1910. Both ships were essentially obsolete but could be claimed to be the start of imperial contribution if war broke out and Great Britain needed additional vessels.
HMCS Niobe assisting a passenger liner
HMCS Ranbow on the west coast
By 1914 the Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve was established with 1200 men under an Atlantic, Pacific and Lake (Great Lakes) commands. This initial organization was important when war broke out and provided the basis of a rapid and large expansion of the Canadian navy. As rumours of war grew, preparation and expectation grew to the point where the British Columbia government purchased 2 submarines as a gesture of imperial support but both vessels were quickly transferred to the RCN because defence fell under Federal jurisdiction.
When war broke out the main naval threat to Canada was the German Asiatic Squadron which needed to be hunted down in the Pacific. By December 1914 the Pacific was cleared of German warships by the Royal Navy while the HMCS Rainbow patrolled the west coast until 1917 when it was withdrawn from service. The Niobe lasted until 1915 when it was also with drawn from service. Canada did add two more warships to its forces, the HMCS Canada and the HMCS Margaret along with the two submarines from British Columbia.
Canadians that were rushing to volunteer in 1914 were given a choice of the army , the British Royal Navy or the newly formed Royal Canadian Navy, Many chose to serve directly in the Royal Navy and were present on the frontline during Jutland, the only major naval confrontation of the war. As the war wore on, flying observation planes, looking for German U-boats, became the man activity for the RCN.
Supplies from the Empire poured into England and Canada certainly sent it's share of food, war materials, supplies and troops. The main base for naval operations in Canada was Halifax and this became the setting of one of the great tragedies of the war when two ships, one loaded with explosives, collided in Halifax harbour and the resultant fire on the ship carrying the explosives and explosion shattered the surrounding Halifax shoreline.
The navy had been born and Experienced it's first duty of patrolling the Canadian coast line. The tradition was established and by 1918 no major threats had appear but the RCN would Experience a different problem in WWII which was a short 20 years in the future and in which the RCN would grow to be a world naval power and help save Britain from starvation and surrender.