When Robert Borden unseated Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier (1841-1919) in the 1911 federal election, many doubted he could fill the big shoes of his long-serving Liberal predecessor. Yet Borden would prove to be a prime minister of equal, if not greater, historic importance, guiding Canada through World War I (1915-1918) and securing the country greater independence within the British Empire.
A Nova Scotia lawyer by trade, Borden was elected to Parliament in 1896 and reluctantly agreed to lead the Conservative Party in 1901, following the unsuccessful tenure of Sir Charles Tupper (1821-1915). Borden toiled as opposition leader for 10 years and two elections before finally beating Prime Minister Laurier in 1911, railing effectively against a Liberal plan for free trade with the United States.
A moderate conservative who was not afraid to challenge his party’s consensus, Borden was somewhat skeptical of Canada’s ties to the British Empire, which he considered a deeply unbalanced relationship. When the First World War broke out in Europe, Borden did what the Empire demanded and sent thousands of Canadian troops to assist the British in vicious, bloody battles over places few Canadians had heard of, but also lobbied London hard behind the scenes to demand Canada be given a greater role in forming imperial foreign policy. In 1917 he persuaded Britain to agree to recognize its self-governing colonies as “autonomous nations” and after the war ended, he was equally successful in demanding Canada be recognized as a full “country” in the League of Nations.
Borden participated the Paris Peace Conference (1919-1920) that helped reshape to the postwar world, but returned to a Canada facing increasing strikes and economic turmoil, born from the ongoing social unrest of industrialization. Not particularly keen to fight a war at home after just finishing one abroad, he resigned citing medial concerns in 1920. Today, Borden is usually singled out as one of Canada’s greatest leaders, for both his wartime leadership and important role in helping assert Canada’s right to an independent foreign policy.