Questioning Ties to Britain
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Questioning Ties to Britain
As the British Empire goes to war, Canadians debate their allegiance to the Crown
At the turn of the 20th century, no issue divided English and French Canadians more than the countrys relationship with Britain.
During a grand procession to celebrate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, Canadian Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier rode in a carriage directly behind the Queen. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada  C-028727, Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee
During a grand procession to celebrate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, Canadian Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier rode in a carriage directly behind the Queen. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada C-028727, Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee procession)

Most Canadian anglophones felt strong loyalties to the Imperial mother while francophones wanted England to be no more than a distant cousin.

In practice, Canada still had strong ties to Britain. In 1897, Queen Victoria celebrated 60 years on the throne. To celebrate, the Queen rode in a grand procession through the streets of London. Canadas Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier rode in the carriage directly behind her.

At a reception later that day, Laurier made a pronouncement:

"If a day were ever to come when England was in danger, let the bugle sound, let the fires be lit on the hills, ... whatever we can do shall be done by the colonies to help her."

Two years later, Lauriers words were put to the test. Britain waged war against Dutch settlers in South Africa and Britain asked for Canada help in the Boer War.

The country was deeply divided on the issue. English Canadians believed Canada should answer the call to battle. They felt it was their duty and privilege as part of the British Empire. In contrast, French Canadians felt it was a foreign battle being waged on a distant continent that they should have no part of.

At first Laurier refused to help Britain but he eventually changed his mind under pressure from English Canada. He said that Canada would send volunteers overseas but the volunteers would be paid by the British army and be under British control.
In the early 1900s, prominent French Canada politician Henri Bourassa insisted that Canada should distance itself politically from the British mother country. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)
In the early 1900s, prominent French Canada politician Henri Bourassa insisted that Canada should distance itself politically from the British mother country. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)

As the first Canadian volunteers set out for South Africa, the most important French Canadian Liberals gathered at Lauriers home on October 12, 1899 to voice their opposition to the Boer War.

Henri Bourassa, a prominent member of the Liberal caucus, confronted Laurier.

Bourassa: Monsieur Laurier, do you take into account the opinion of the province of Quebec?

Laurier: My dear Henri, the province of Quebec does not have opinions, it has only sentiments. The circumstances are extremely difficult.

Bourassa: It is because they are difficult that I ask you to respect your word. To govern is to have the courage, at a given moment, to risk defeat in order to maintain a principle.

Laurier: Ah my dear young friend, you have not a practical mind.

A few days later, Bourassa announced his resignation from the Liberal Party.

"The question is whether Canada is ready to ... return to the primitive state of a crown colony," he wrote in a letter to Laurier.

In the end, about 8,000 Canadian volunteers took part in the Boer War. English Canadians followed the conflict enthusiastically, taking pride in Canadian achievements in battle. French Canadians were sympathetic to the other side, angry at Britains aggression against the Boer people.

The war lasted three years but the scars remained between English and French Canada. The Boer War also set the stage for a difficult chapter in Canadian history. In the years to come, Britain would again call on Canadas help as "the war to end all wars" exploded on the world stage.

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