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 historic importance (if not greater), 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 critical of Canada’s status as a colony of Great Britain, which he viewed as a unbalanced relationship. When the First World War broke out in 1915, Borden did what the British Empire demanded, and sent over a half a million Canadian troops to fight for Britain in parts of Europe few Canadians had heard of. Behind the scenes, however, Borden lobbied London hard to demand Canada be given a greater role in forming any future imperial foreign policy. In 1917 he helped persuade Britain 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. Both before, during, and after the war, Borden’s domestic policies sought to quell political agitation and unrest, though this often took the form of heavy-handed arrests, raids, and bans on anyone suspected of being a treasonous foreign agent, including communists, labour activists, and Canadians of Austro-Hungarian, Russian, or German descent. In 1920 he resigned, citing health concerns. 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.