Naval Service Bill
The Naval Service Bill of 1910 was a piece of Canadian government legislation, which was put forward by Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Prior to the bill's introduction Canada did not have a navy of its own, a state of affairs that left the Dominion dependent on the British Royal Navy for maritime defence. The Naval Service Bill was intended to provide Canada with a separate naval force, but one that, if needed, could be placed under British control during time of war. By the end of 1910, the Royal Canadian Navy was created with a fleet of two former British Royal Navy vessels. Both French-Canadian nationalists and British-Canadian imperialists opposed the bill, which eventually contributed to the fall of Laurier’s government and the Naval Service Bill being replaced by a new bill put forward by Prime Minister Robert Borden in 1912.
During the first few decades after Canadian Confederation, maritime defense was not a priority. Defence of the Dominion was ultimately the responsibility of the United Kingdom and their navy had no equal at the time. The main defence priority at the time of Confederation was deterring a possible attack by the United States, with which tensions were elevated on account of perceived British and Canadian sympathy for the Confederate cause during the American Civil War. However, the vast Canada–United States border limited the level of attention that could be directed to the maritime implications of any hypothetical war with the U.S. In any event, the United States Navy was neglected in the decades following the American Civil War and relations between London and Washington improved after the Treaty of Washington was signed in 1871. The only significant naval arms race in the Western Hemisphere of the late 19th century took place in South America, but this was of little concern for the British (who built most of the ships) or for Canadians since the three powers mainly involved (Argentina, Brazil and Chile) were all on relatively friendly terms with Britain.
Thus, there was no impetus to construct a Canadian Navy to counter any maritime threat based in the Western Hemisphere since no such specific threat existed.
During the early years of the twentieth century, Britain found herself in a naval race with the German Empire. This became a major competition between the two major powers, which led to both sides looking for an edge. Britain’s fear that Germany’s navy would catch up to its Royal Navy has been coined as the ‘Dreadnought’ crisis. At the 1909 Imperial Conference, British officials requested help from the Dominion prime ministers, concerning its navy. This request imposed upon Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier what became known as his ‘naval question’.
Since the time of the American Revolution the British government had become wary of attempting to solicit tax contributions from its remaining colonies, and by the early 20th century direct taxation of the Dominions from London was out of the question. However, once the Royal Navy decided to build its own battleships in large numbers, the British government agreed to request money from the Dominions to help finance this costly project. Australia and New Zealand agreed to the request, and many British Canadians expected Laurier’s Liberal government to follow suit although they generally accepted that an indigenous navy was a better long-term solution as opposed to regular contributions to the British Admiralty. However, French-Canadian nationalists led by Henri Bourassa and others were opposed to Canada having any involvement with Britain’s naval problem. This put Laurier in a very tough position, as the Canadian public was extremely divided.
Laurier’s compromise was The Naval Service Bill, which was introduced in January 1910. It set up the Department of Naval Services, which would operate a small Canadian Navy. Canada’s navy was to be controlled by Ottawa, but during times of war it could be put under British control. Under this new bill Canada was to construct a naval college that was capable of training Canadian naval officers. This Naval College was constructed in 1910 in the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia. It also proposed under the bill that Canada would order the construction of five cruisers and six destroyers in order to create its own navy.
While the British Admiralty was disappointed to hear that Canada's assistance was to come in the form of its own naval force instead of funding British dreadnoughts, they were willing to accept any form of assistance as opposed to none at all. To this end the British authorized the transfer of two old cruisers to Canada. Canada’s first naval ship arrived on October 17, 1910; it was the former Royal Navy cruiser HMCS Niobe. On November 7 the second ship HMCS Rainbow, which was also a former Royal Navy cruiser, arrived in British Columbia. These two cruisers were used mainly for training purposes.
Within Canada itself the Naval Service Bill was very controversial. The bill was strongly criticized by both the French Canadian nationalists and the English Canadians. Imperialistic minded Canadians claimed that Canada was doing too little and/or was not showing enough loyalty to Britain. Conservatives famously dubbed Laurier’s new policy as the “Tin Pot Navy”. The bill was highly criticized by the French Canadian Nationalists, led by Henri Bourassa. Bourassa felt that the establishment of a Canadian navy that could be placed under British control was even worse than transferring cash to the British Admiralty, and that Canada risked being dragged into every single British war. In addition, the French nationalists were concerned that the navy would mean conscription for the Canadian people.
The loss of French-Canadian support for Laurier’s Liberals played a key role in his party's defeat in the 1911 election. He was replaced by the Conservatives, led by Robert Borden. In 1913, Borden replaced the Naval Service Bill with the Naval Aid Bill, under which, instead of building or supplying ships, Canada would give the British Royal Navy cash instead. The bill was defeated by the Liberal-dominated Canadian Senate.
With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Canada found herself automatically at war with the Central Powers and the question of naval assistance quickly became a moot point. Any ships would have been built in British shipyards and with the onset of war Britain was building all that she could. Canada thus became focused upon her own war effort.
Even without a Canadian contribution, the Royal Navy remained significantly larger and more powerful than their German opponent. Even before the outbreak of war, Germany had essentially abandoned its effort to match the Royal Navy and redirected the bulk her resources to strengthening her army. The strength of the British navy, combined with the strength of the French Navy and later bolstered by the entry of Italy and the United States on the Allied side, ensured that Allied control of the Atlantic sea lanes was never seriously threatened and compelled Germany to pursue less costly alternatives, submarines in particular, to project a measure of power on the high seas.
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- Bercusion, David J. and J. L Granastein, Dictionary of Canadian Military History, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1992
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- Hill, Brian, Canada A Chronology and Fact Book, New York, Oceana 1973
- Myers, Jay, Canadian Fact and Dates, Markham Ontario: Fitzhenrt and Whiteside, 1986