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Choosing neutrality for Canada

from What do we owe England?
by Henri Bourassa
Montreal, 1915

Henri Bourassa, grandson of Louis-Joseph Papineau, served as a Liberal member of Parliament in Ottawa from 1896 to1907. After opposing Canada’s sending troops to fight in the Boer War in 1900, he grew wary of a growing willingness to send Canadian troops to fight for the British Empire anywhere. In 1910, he founded Le Devoir, a nationalist daily newspaper critical of the turn toward militarism of the Liberal government of Wilfred Laurier. When World War I was about to break out, he travelled to Europe to investigate Home Rule for Ireland, minority rights in Belgium, and the allegiance of Alsacians in what appeared to be a coming war between France and Germany. That war broke out while he was in France. It was this trip which the Globe editorialist scorned in claiming “the unworthy Bourassa fled to a French port and hastened homeward under the protection of the British navy”.

Back in Montreal, in 1915, he published the book , Que devons-nous à l’Angleterre?, (What do we owe England?), from which the following extract (pp. 27-28) is reproduced:

(translation: Carl Stieren)

Choosing neutrality for Canada

One of our new ministers was Thomas d’Arcy McGee. Like all his colleagues, he had to seek re-election. In his election platform, he dealt at length with the views he held on the problems of imperial relations. He stated boldly the doctrine of the neutrality of Canada.

“I am firmly convinced,” he said, “that the tie that binds us to the mother country must rest dear and that that sentiment must not give way to the love of our own institutions. After our duty to England comes that of cultivating our cordial relations with the United States.”

These words were uttered at the moment when England and the United States were again at the point of conflict.

“Responding to the slogans of those who would guide us to one side or the other, I persist in believing that what would give Canada an international status which would preserve us better than any armed force and which would shelter our lands from a bloody war ... would be an arrangement similar to that which established the neutrality of Greece in 1831 and the neutrality of Belgium in 1839 (applause). With an arrangement of that nature, our militia would suffice amply for interior defence and Great Britain would be honourably discharged from the bother and the expense of stationing its garrisons in Canada.”

This audacious declaration of neutrality scandalized no one. The electors of Montreal West acclaimed him to office; the Governor General accepted as one of his ministers the rebel which pronounced these words (1); and four years later, Macdonald and Cartier extended their hands to D’Arcy McGee to become like them one of the Fathers of Confederation.

The Canadians of that era, one can see, had a clear and strong idea of their rights and duties to their nation. They exercised without constraint and without hypocrisy all their liberties as British subjects and Canadian citizens. They did not hesitate an instant to speak of neutrality, independence or annexation. And no one in England dreamed of accusing them of treason or disloyalty. Only a small band of ulta-loyal colonialists used the insensitive and servile language which has become today the leitmotif of all our politicians and the majority of our journalists.

The obligation of Great Britain alone to bear the burden of the defense of the Empire was one with which all - Sir John A. Macdonald and Doiron, Sandfield McDonald and Cartier, Galt and Langevin - were in accord. They only differed as to the degree of responsibility that the colony must take in organizing its own defense. Those who would have advocated that Canada, deprived of all authority in the Imperial politics, must participate actively in the wars of England outside of Canadian territory, would have been taken for good reason as a bad patriot and suspected as an enemy of his country.