At the onset of Confederation in 1867
Canadian Confederation was the process by which the federal Dominion of Canada was formed on July 1, 1867. On that day, three British colonies were formed into four Canadian provinces...
, political planners in Canada
Canada is a North American country consisting of ten provinces and three territories. Located in the northern part of the continent, it extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and northward into the Arctic Ocean...
and Great Britain
Great Britain or Britain is an island situated to the northwest of Continental Europe. It is the ninth largest island in the world, and the largest European island, as well as the largest of the British Isles...
realized that Canada had substantial maritime interests to protect. Boasting the fourth largest Merchant Marine in the world, and deriving the majority of its foreign capital through maritime trading should have been enough to persuade the Canadian government of the strategic importance of the seas. Adding the fact that Canada was one of the great shipbuilding and ship-owning countries of the world, and it soon made the need for maritime protection obvious.
For Britain's Royal Navy
The Royal Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Founded in the 16th century, it is the oldest service branch and is known as the Senior Service...
, the Canadian merchant fleet represented a ready supply of vessels that could have been converted to auxiliary warships, with some help to procure the necessary armament should a crisis arise. Soon enough, though, sail gave way to steam, and Canada's mercantile fleet became inadequate to complement the British Navy. In 1865, the British Parliament had passed the Colonial Naval Defence Act, which enabled colonies to establish and maintain naval forces for home defenses. Canada's maritime interests needed to be safeguarded, and Britain wanted Canada to assume its fair share.
First tentative steps
In 1878, the Governor General Lord Dufferin stated in a dispatch to the Colonial Secretary that the government of Sir John A. Macdonald ‘would not be adverse to instituting a ship for training purposes if the Imperial Government would provide the ship’. Thus began the first attempt to start a Canadian Navy with the allocation of the old wooden steam-auxiliary corvette HMS Charybdis
Six ships of the Royal Navy have been named HMS Charybdis, after the sea monster Charybdis of Greek mythology.* The first Charybdis was an 18-gun brig-sloop in use from 1809 to 1819....
in July 1891. This ship, acquired with the intent to train a Marine Militia provided for in the Militia Act of 1868, achieved infamous notoriety when she broke her moorings in Saint John
City of Saint John , or commonly Saint John, is the largest city in the province of New Brunswick, and the first incorporated city in Canada. The city is situated along the north shore of the Bay of Fundy at the mouth of the Saint John River. In 2006 the city proper had a population of 74,043...
harbour and caused severe damage to the merchantmen anchored in proximity. Her sorry condition was also responsible for the death of two civilians who drowned in the harbour after falling through her rotten gangway.
Charybdis was the product of a shift in domestic policy stemming from a host of grievances the young Dominion of Canada had towards the Empire's handling of its foreign affairs. The United States of America still represented Canada's surest enemy in the late 19th century, but Britain's attitude became more frequently one of laissez-faire
towards that fast emerging economic and military giant. Canada often felt cheated when, militarily still dependent on the Empire, it failed to see conflicts resolved to satisfaction. One example was the imperial government’s unwillingness to apprehend and prosecute American poachers contravening the fisheries articles of the Anglo-American Treaty of Washington of 1871
The Treaty of Washington was a treaty signed and ratified by Great Britain and the United States in 1871 that settled various disputes between the countries, in particular the Alabama Claims.-Background:...
, and risk a quarrel with the US on behalf of the Dominion.
Another event that led to the acquisition of the training vessel was the looming crisis between Britain and Russia
Russia or , officially known as both Russia and the Russian Federation , is a country in northern Eurasia. It is a federal semi-presidential republic, comprising 83 federal subjects...
over the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. That predicament, which caused Britain to re-distribute its naval assets, demonstrated the relative vulnerability of Canada’s Atlantic
Atlantic Canada is the region of Canada comprising the four provinces located on the Atlantic coast, excluding Quebec: the three Maritime provinces – New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia – and Newfoundland and Labrador...
seaboard. Although this crisis was soon averted with the signing of the Treaty of Berlin, Canada still held on to the idea of making preparations for naval defence. Public opinion of the Charybdis
in the 1-1/2 year of her service to Canada labeled her a white elephant
A white elephant is an idiom for a valuable but burdensome possession of which its owner cannot dispose and whose cost is out of proportion to its usefulness or worth...
, with the population wondering what her purpose would be. The MP for Huron
Huron County is a census division and county of the province of Ontario, Canada. It is located on the southeast shore of its namesake, Lake Huron, in the southwest part of the province...
Malcolm Cameron was a Canadian businessman and politician.He was born at Trois-Rivières in Lower Canada in 1808 and grew up in Lanark County in Upper Canada. At the age of 15, he found work in the Montreal area but later returned to Perth to complete his schooling. In 1828, he became a merchant in...
made a motion in the House of Commons that she must be returned to the British Navy, an unfortunate solution that soon ensued. That this first attempt at building a Canadian Navy ended in a fiasco did not terribly bother the British one; the official position was that the Imperial Fleet should be as indivisible as the seas themselves
From colonialialism to partnership
Since the English conquest of Nouvelle-France
in 1763 and the colonizing of the other colonies that would eventually form the Dominion of Canada, Britain and its taxpayers had assumed sole financial responsibility for the defence of the colonies. This was never debated since Canada and the other British colonies afforded Britain with secure supplies of natural resources and ready markets for finished products. The extent to which Britain was dependent on foreign trade for its survival is thus illustrated:
...as late as the 1830s over 90% of the food consumed was also grown in Britain, but by 1913 55% of the grain and 40% of the meat consumed was imported. In raw materials the dependence was even more marked: seven eighths of these came from abroad by 1913.
This almost guaranteed Canada's participation in whatever conflicts were necessary to maintain Pax Britannica
Pax Britannica was the period of relative peace in Europe when the British Empire controlled most of the key maritime trade routes and enjoyed unchallenged sea power...
, to the detriment of a large portion of the population, including many Canadiens of Quebec
Quebec or is a province in east-central Canada. It is the only Canadian province with a predominantly French-speaking population and the only one whose sole official language is French at the provincial level....
At the turn of the twentieth century, the rise of the German Navy
The German Navy is the navy of Germany and is part of the unified Bundeswehr .The German Navy traces its roots back to the Imperial Fleet of the revolutionary era of 1848 – 52 and more directly to the Prussian Navy, which later evolved into the Northern German Federal Navy...
under Kaiser Willhelm threatened to challenge Britain for supremacy of all maritime trade routes. Britain, feeling pressure to modernize and expand its already considerable fleet, asked that the former colonies assume a larger responsibility for the defence of the empire. The preferred choice of the Imperial government for the protection of the empire was the maintenance of a common military system, sustained by direct financial contributions from the former colonies. In return, the Admiralty would be left responsible to defend Canada's coasts.
The Liberal cabinet of Sir Wilfrid Laurier had other plans in mind. At the Imperial Conference of 1902, Laurier refused direct contributions to the maintenance of the British fleet, and instead pushed for the development of a local navy under the Department of Marine and Fisheries. It was felt that Canadians providing the defence of their homeland was a more ambitious plan, and would directly contribute toward the collective security of the Empire. A strong sentiment of the day stated that Canada had no business sending soldiers for the Empire when it had no voice in imperial decisions.
When the British government announced in 1904 its intentions to abandon the Halifax
Halifax is a city in Canada, which was the capital of the province of Nova Scotia and shire town of Halifax County. It was the largest city in Atlantic Canada until it was amalgamated into Halifax Regional Municipality in 1996...
and Esquimalt Dockyards by 1906, Laurier saw another compelling reason for the formation of Canada's Naval Service. The Dominion had the opportunity to avail itself of an existing infrastructure towards the maintenance of its own fleet. Strong feelings of discontent towards Britain were also felt because of the resolution of the Alaska Boundary Dispute
The Alaska boundary dispute was a territorial dispute between the United States and Canada . It was resolved by arbitration in 1903. The dispute had been going on between the Russian and British Empires since 1821, and was inherited by the United States as a consequence of the Alaska Purchase in...
, which saw Britain’s representative side with the US in 1903. A precedent was set in 1906 when Australia
Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...
received grudging approval to raise its own navy, although Britain would still view the burgeoning Royal Australian Navy (RAN) as a local squadron of its own force. What more could have Laurier hoped for? As it turned out, the opposition Conservatives of Robert Borden
Sir Robert Laird Borden, PC, GCMG, KC was a Canadian lawyer and politician. He served as the eighth Prime Minister of Canada from October 10, 1911 to July 10, 1920, and was the third Nova Scotian to hold this office...
and Henri Bourassa
Joseph-Napoléon-Henri Bourassa was a French Canadian political leader and publisher. He is seen by many as an ideological father of Canadian nationalism....
had naval agendas of their own.
In order to assert Canadian territorial sovereignty and curb American illegal fishing in territorial waters, the government had reactivated the Fisheries Protection Service in 1886. This was established under the auspices of the Department of Marine and Fisheries. The largest federal department by 1902, it was responsible for all affairs maritime from regulations to arctic sovereignty. The department had acquired since 1891 a force of eight armed cruisers, six icebreakers, and nearly twenty other vessels. The Fisheries Protection Service, were it militarised, would present a substantial start to a new national naval service. Raymond Préfontaine
Joseph Raymond Fournier Préfontaine, PC was a Canadian politician.- Biography :Born in Longueuil, Quebec, he studied at the law faculty of McGill College and was called to the bar in 1873. He was created a Queen's Counsel in 1899.In 1875, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Quebec for...
, the minister responsible, acted toward that end on orders from Laurier. Two ships were ordered for the Fisheries Protection Service in 1904 with the purpose of starting cadet training for the impending Canadian navy: Canadian Government Ships (CGS) Canada
CGS Canada was a Canadian Government Ship that served as a patrol ship in the Fisheries Protection Service of Canada, an enforcement agency that was part of the Department of Marine and Fisheries. She is considered to the nucleus of the Royal Canadian Navy for her role in training Canadian naval...
, for the east and west coasts respectively. The naval legislation drafted by Préfontaine stated that these ships would form the nucleus of training for the Naval Militia.
After the death of Préfontaine in 1905, Laurier appointed Louis-Philippe Brodeur
Louis-Philippe Brodeur, PC, QC baptised Louis-Joseph-Alexandre Brodeur was a Canadian parliamentarian and public servant....
as Minister. Brodeur had the arduous task of whipping his department into shape after a report by the Royal Commission on the Civil Service stated that its administration was characterized by constant blundering and confusion
, with no visible sign of an intelligence purpose unless it be that of spending as much money as possible
. In order to investigate his department, Brodeur called for a Special Commission; on April 1, 1908 the Cassels Commission was formed.
As a result of the Cassels Commission, Brodeur instilled key changes to his department. George S. Desbarats replaced François Gaudreau as deputy minister. For Director of the Marine Service, Brodeur chose a Canadian who had served in the British Navy since 1869, retired Rear-Admiral Sir Charles Kingsmill
Admiral Sir Charles Edmund Kingsmill was the first Director of the Royal Canadian Navy.Charles Edmund Kingsmill was born at Guelph, Ontario in 1855 and educated at Upper Canada College in Toronto. He was the son of John Juchereau Kingsmill, Crown Attorney for Wellington County and Ellen Diana...
. Kingsmill replaced former Lieutenant Osprey George Valentine Spain, an inept administrator who had left the British naval forces under a cloud which still makes it impossible for him to go aboard a British man-of-war
As Rear-Admiral, Kingsmill commanded the Marine and Fisheries fleet from 1908 to 1910. He subsequently served as the Director of the Naval Service of Canada until his retirement in 1920 with the rank of Admiral, which he had held since 1917.
After instilling these changes, Laurier believed he'd get the unanimous support of parliament for his plans to militarise the Fisheries Protection Service into a navy proper. He especially hoped that the appointment of the francophones Brodeur and Desbarats as minister and deputy minister would appease the Canadiens in Quebec.
Laurier's two alternatives
The British government was advised that Britain was losing the naval arms race against Germany. This shocking revelation, made on March 16, 1909, spread panic throughout the empire, and led to several offers of funds for the construction of dreadnoughts from New Zealand
New Zealand is an island country in the south-western Pacific Ocean comprising two main landmasses and numerous smaller islands. The country is situated some east of Australia across the Tasman Sea, and roughly south of the Pacific island nations of New Caledonia, Fiji, and Tonga...
and several Australian states' governments. Pressure was exerted by the Canadian Imperialists to follow suit. This crisis changed the Canadian Navy question from a local issue to one encompassing the naval defence of the whole empire. The ensuing resolution was presented to the House of Commons by one-time minister of Marine and Fisheries conservative MP Sir George Foster from New Brunswick and stated:
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 benefits 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.
The two options were the establishment of the Canadian Navy, or continued financial support of the one in Britain. The former became the position generally supported in the House. As the debate ensued, it became clear that Laurier's scheme of militarising the Fisheries Protection Service was inadequate and would not garner unanimous support. The amended proposal was that of a small navy, given that 'The House will cordially approve of any necessary expenditure designed to promote the speedy organization of a Canadian naval service'.
At the Imperial Conference of July and August 1909, the Admiralty stated that, to be effective in contributing to the defence of the imperial sea lanes, the Canadian Navy should comprise a minimum of three Bristol
-class cruisers and four destroyers. A fleet of one Boadicea-class heavy cruiser, four Bristols
, and six destroyers for an annual spending of £600,000 was considered much preferable. The Admiralty offered to loan two cruisers to Canada to begin training. This led to accusations from Laurier’s opposition that what was really attempted was the creation of a unit of the Imperial Navy, not a Canadian Navy proper. The Naval Service Act, proposed to the House of Commons 10 January 1910, called for a fleet of eleven warships: one Boadicea
, four Bristol
-class cruisers and six torpedo-boat destroyers. All ships were to have been built in Canada, at an annual cost of $3 million.
The opposition Conservative coalition, the imperialists under Sir Robert Borden and the Nationalistes led by Henri Bourassa, vehemently opposed Laurier's plans for a Canadian Navy, but for totally different reasons. Bourassa founded the daily newspaper Le Devoir
Le Devoir is a French-language newspaper published in Montreal and distributed in Quebec and the rest of Canada. It was founded by journalist, politician, and nationalist Henri Bourassa in 1910....
, with the express purpose of defeating the Naval Act through insinuations and allegations that conscription would soon follow. His camp claimed that the cruisers proposed were more than Canada needed for fisheries and sovereignty protection, but were sufficient to attract the attention of other navies. He further stated that Canadian squadrons, paid by and for Canada, put under the command of the Admiralty in times of war, meant an automatic involvement on every imperial war
. This would put Canada in danger of being drawn into distant conflicts as a result of its ships operating under the White Ensign
The White Ensign or St George's Ensign is an ensign flown on British Royal Navy ships and shore establishments. It consists of a red St George's Cross on a white field with the Union Flag in the upper canton....
The Borden camp, on the other hand, charged that the Liberals were insufficiently loyal to the empire. They contended that the proposal was not enough to secure Canada's coasts or help Britain in its current arms race crisis against Germany, and that the only viable option was to vote money for the construction of battleships to expand the navy in Britain.
The Canadian Navy
The Naval Service Act establishing the Canadian Navy became law May 4, 1910. In addition to a Regular Force, the act included a Reserve and a Naval Volunteer Force, and a Naval College
The Royal Naval College of Canada was a naval college set up in Canada by the Royal Navy; it existed from 1911 to 1922. The school educated about 150 students until it closed due to declining numbers and cuts from Ottawa. The aim of the college was to instruct recruits a course of study that...
located in Halifax. The administrative and discipline regulations adopted were the same as those of the British navy, the "King's Regulations and Admiralty Orders" (KR&AI), and the British Naval Discipline Act of 1866. These two key documents would remain in practice for the next forty years. Training was to be conducted to standards that coincided with those of Britain; pay, promotions and service experience were to be transferable, and a common promotion list was adopted.
The Admiralty proved reluctant to allow the Canadian government to exercise full control over its fleet. This contentious issue of jurisdiction beyond the three-mile limit was resolved at the Imperial Conference of 1911, with the formation of the Canadian Atlantic and Pacific Stations, covering the waters North of 30°, and ranging from 40° to 160° West. It was also decided that the new colonial navies, Canadian and Australian, although exclusively controlled by their respective governments, would act on behalf of the British Government on occasions when on foreign stations. If and when the Dominion ships were placed at the disposal of the Imperial Government by the Dominion authorities
in times of war, they would form part of the British Royal Navy and remain under control of the Admiralty for the duration of the war. It was up to the Dominions themselves to decide what naval assets were placed at Britain’s disposal, as Laurier had pledged.
The first warships of the RCN were the cruisers HMCS Niobe
and HMCS Rainbow
, acquired from Britain. Niobe, an 11,000 ton Diadem-class protected-cruiser
The Diadem class cruiser was a class of "First-Class" protected cruiser built for the Royal Navy during the 1890s that served in the First World War...
, had been launched in 1897. Although relatively young, she had been deemed obsolete by the British because of her lack of side or deck armour; she did possess an armour belt over her vital installations amidships. She reached Halifax 21 October 1910. Rainbow, much smaller than Niobe at 3,600 tons, was herself an Apollo-class cruiser
The Apollo class were a class of second-class protected cruisers built for the Royal Navy in the late 19th century that served during the Boer War and World War I....
launched in 1891. She was dispatched from Britain bound for Canada two months before Niobe, but because the Panama Canal
The Panama Canal is a ship canal in Panama that joins the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean and is a key conduit for international maritime trade. Built from 1904 to 1914, the canal has seen annual traffic rise from about 1,000 ships early on to 14,702 vessels measuring a total of 309.6...
had yet to be completed, did not arrive in Esquimalt until 7 November.
Newspapers of the day were quite critical of this embryonic service. A Toronto Tory newspaper indicated Niobe was on her way to the scrap heap, while Bourassa's Le Devoir proclaimed her canadienne en temps de paix, impériale en temps de guerre
(Canadian in peacetime, Imperial in wartime). The Mail and Empire called Niobe a cruiser which the Royal Navy has discarded
. The Naval Service of Canada was eventually given Royal consent on 29 August 1911, and was from then on officially designated as the Royal Canadian Navy.
Fall of the Laurier Government
On September 21, 1911, Sir Robert Borden's Conservatives defeated the Liberal government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. The Naval issue had ranked far behind that of trade reciprocity with the US in most of Canada during the election campaign, but Henri Bourassa made sure that it took center stage in Quebec. It cost the Liberals eighteen seats in Quebec. Although Laurier's other losses in the rest of Canada were sufficient to ensure his defeat, the loss of the Quebec seats would set the tone for Borden's naval policy. This almost doomed the RCN to languish and suffer an apparent slow and unnoticed death over the years leading to the Great War.
At the urging of the Admiralty's First Sea Lord
The First Sea Lord is the professional head of the Royal Navy and the whole Naval Service; it was formerly known as First Naval Lord. He also holds the title of Chief of Naval Staff, and is known by the abbreviations 1SL/CNS...
Sir Winston Churchill
Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, was a predominantly Conservative British politician and statesman known for his leadership of the United Kingdom during the Second World War. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest wartime leaders of the century and served as Prime Minister twice...
, Prime Minister Borden agreed to finance the construction of three dreadnoughts for $35 million. This plan was far more costly than Laurier's original plan of the Canadian-built fleet, and would reap no benefits to Canadian industries whatsoever. On December 5, 1912, Borden introduced the Naval Aid Bill as a one-time contribution to the Britain's navy. After bitter debate, the Bill passed third reading in Parliament the second week of May 1913, but was soundly defeated by the Liberal-majority Senate. Canada was left with a Naval Service Act on the books, but no naval policy.