Canada And The United States, A Centennial Retrospective

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At first the National Policy, undermined by a world depression, could not give Canada the expected prosperity. Perhaps free trade with the United States was better, after all? The Liberal party had always thought so, but after one brief term of power, could never dislodge Macdonald’s Conservative ministry. At last, having found in young Wilfrid Laurier a French-Canadian leader of genius, the Liberals proposed to revive reciprocity. They were defeated on this issue, modified their doctrinaire, laissez-faire liberalism, and reached office in 1896, after Macdonald’s death. Reducing the Canadian tariff moderately, Laurier claimed full credit for the good times that followed a world boom.

Reciprocity was no longer practical politics for the time being, but Laurier fleshed the steel skeleton by populating the prairies with massive immigration, started to build two more transcontinental railways, and created a prosperous, workable economy. Meanwhile, like all his predecessors, he was confronted by the boundary problem in a new guise.

In 1903, after the Yukon gold rush, President Theodore Roosevelt had decided that the uncertain line separating Alaska and Canada must be settled, with force if necessary. Canada needed a port on the Alaska panhandle, but Roosevelt intended to hold that entire region and bar the Yukon Territory from the sea.

The resulting arbitration by three “impartial jurists” from the United States, two from Canada, and one from Britain gave Roosevelt all he wanted when the British Chief Justice, Lord Alverstone, sided with the Americans. Britain could not afford to quarrel with the United States, and Canada was still expendable—expendable but enraged by what it considered another British betrayal.

From then on Laurier was resolved that Canada must achieve full control of its foreign affairs in dealing with neighbors who “are very grasping in their national actions and who are determined on every occasion to get the best of any agreement which they make.” The Alaskan boundary settlement powerfully stimulated Canada’s appetite for independence.

Complete national autonomy, however, lay some years ahead, and it would not necessarily exclude reciprocity with the United States. In 1911, Laurier felt strong enough to resurrect that almost forgotten objective of his youth, less for reasons of principle than for the sake of winning a difficult election.

By mere chance a sweeping reduction in tariffs likewise suited the political convenience of President William Howard Taft, and for exactly the same reasons. Overnight, partisan necessities on both sides produced a new agreement, not quite as comprehensive as the old one of the nineteenth century but given the same name. The new reciprocity deal—an agreement, not a treaty—provided free trade in most natural products, and lower duties on some manufactured articles.

Taft could be sure of pushing the necessary legislation through the American Congress. Laurier felt even more confident in a Parliament that he had so long dominated. Though he was past his prime, this majestic, knightly figure with chiselled face, a nimbus of white curls, and a voice that pealed like an organ, equally melodic in English or French, still looked almost immortal to his countrymen. Besides, the Conservatives, discouraged by frequent defeat, surely would rather oppose motherhood than reciprocity, since it promised to open a long-sought American market for Canadian goods. In the nick of time Laurier’s aged and tired government had apparently found a winning issue, thanks mainly to Taft.

But for once the master of Canadian politics had misjudged his people, his political enemies at home, and his friend in the White House.

When the reciprocity agreement was published, Robert Laird Borden, the able, plodding, lackluster Conservative leader, who had never been able to challenge Laurier’s brilliance, sank into despair, as his diary candidly admits. But within a few days Borden began to suspect Laurier’s mistake and his own. Reciprocity was not popular with most Canadians after all. The manufacturing interests and their workers, who had enjoyed the protection of the tariffs, naturally were against it. “I’m out to bust the damn thing,” said William Cornelius Van Horne, the ex-American who had built the Canadian Pacific Railway. The formidable Clifford Sifton, once Laurier’s chief lieutenant, organized the Conservative campaign.

With plenty of campaign funds and a dogged perseverance, Borden launched his attack on reciprocity, calling it a threat to end Canada’s independence. Economic union, he said, must mean political union. Week after week and month after month his blockade continued in the House of Commons—until Laurier lost patience, called an election, and, never doubting the result, took his policy to the voters.

The election of September 21, 1911, was more important to the United States than any in previous Canadian history. It involved nothing less than the continent’s whole economic future, the futures of Laurier and Taft being incidental. In Canadian mythology the election would be remembered as turning on the simple issue of reciprocity. In fact, it turned on a masterpiece of cynical politics to which the honest Borden was a reluctant but consenting party.