Canada And The United States, A Centennial Retrospective

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In isolationist, anti-British Quebec, where reciprocity cut little ice, the Conservatives indicted Laurier for his plan to build a navy and fight Britain’s imperial wars. In the English-speaking provinces his reciprocity scheme was condemned for selling out Britain and serving the imperial interests of the United States. By making political capital of both these grievances, the Conservative opposition hoped to destroy the government.

Yet they could hardly have succeeded without Taft’s help. The American President rashly affirmed that reciprocity “would make Canada only an adjunct of the United States.” And Champ Clark, Speaker of the House of Representatives, added, with peculiar insensibility, “I hope to see the day when the American flag will float over every square foot of the British North American possessions, clear to the North Pole.”

That was all Borden needed. The blundering official voices from Washington instantly invoked the ancient ghosts of annexation, convinced a majority of the Canadian people that reciprocity would engulf their nation, as Borden had warned, and brought him into office. The chance to integrate the continental economy had been lost for another half century at least, and perhaps forever. (A minor footnote to these events may indicate how little the American people understood or remember them. The writer discussed the election of 1911 with Senator Robert Taft, the President’s famous son, not long before his death. He said he vaguely recalled that his father had negotiated some sort of tariff bargain with Canada, but that he had entirely forgotten its contents. When I outlined the reciprocity agreement, he expressed surprise and admiration. Some day. he hoped, it could be revived, even if imports of Canadian foodstuffs might make trouble in the American farm belt. At the proper time he intended to reintroduce some such scheme in the Senate. A few months later, he was dead.)

While Borden pursued a traditional Conservative policy of protection, it was submerged, as a practical issue, by the rapid decay of his synthetic alliance with the anti-Laurier faction in Quebec, and then by World War I. For Canada the war became a long, agonizing hemorrhage of its best blood; but it also became Canada’s passport to nationhood. For the United States it was a brief and comparatively painless interlude. But the two nations were allied for the first time, and their commerce spilled in a rising torrent over the postwar tariff walls erected on both sides of the common border.

Another development of major concern to the United States largely escaped that country’s attention. Having competently managed Canada’s war effort, Borden represented Canada at the Versailles Conference. He insisted, over the objections of Woodrow Wilson and David Lloyd George, that Canada must sign the peace treaty as an independent state within the British Empire. After some unpleasant haggling, the American and British governments grudgingly accepted Borden’s signature. In principle it established Canadian sovereignty, which was further strengthened by separate membership in the League of Nations. Thereafter the United States must deal directly, and not through London, with another state rather than an overseas British territory. The new Canadian status tacitly accepted at Versailles was finally codified, in 1931, by Great Britain’s Statute of Westminster.

Meanwhile the United States discovered that the constitutional entity beside it could be useful as well as irritating. Borden was succeeded, in 1920, by Arthur Meighen, a man of unrivalled intellect and bad luck who could rarely win an election. During his short tenure he persuaded Britain to abrogate its alliance with Japan, solely because it was objectionable to the American government. Meighen raised tariff walls “brick for brick” between the neighbors, but he recognized their growing interdependence, both political and economic.

He also recognized Canada’s unique position as an interpreter between London and Washington. Canada, now a giant trading nation, occupied one vital corner in the North Atlantic trade triangle. It was a vital area of American defense, too, in any future world war, and without its co-operation the undeclared American-British alliance could not work. Though Canada had little power, it controlled a strategic geography and an increasingly rich economy.

These facts, so generally overlooked, were perfectly clear to William Lyon Mackenzie King, who took office in 1921 and remained Prime Minister, with one interruption, longer than any English-speaking statesman in history. This tiny and mysterious personage, with his plump boy’s face, his starched, old-fashioned clothes, and his deceptively innocent look, was a Liberal, a theoretical free-trader, a social reformer—and an ardent spiritualist who frequently conferred through mediums with his dead mother, his beloved Irish terrier, and, after 1945, with his departed friend Franklin Roosevelt. In these séances Canadian-American relations reached a new psychic plane, but their secrecy was well guarded, for King’s Cabinet never heard of them before his death.