Rolfe's Paper

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Author: Rolfe Monteith
Published: Jul 21st 2009
Updated: 4 years ago

A general overview of events leading to the very significant Canadian material contribution to World War II and the Cold War

By Rolfe Monteith

In any attempt to record the development of Canada’s industrial base even in the relatively narrow perspective of Naval requirements, it is crucial to reflect on Canada history as a nation.  Historical fact can only be truly relevant if related to the past.

PART 1 - Factors affecting the creation of a Naval Service for Canada.

When New France fell to the British in 1763 the settled population already had a firmly entrenched military tradition  in the form of militias and this was clearly tested during the two incursions by the United  States during the War of 1812.  An additional irritant during the 1800s was frequent raids across the US border by ant-British Irish republicans – the Fenians.  However no permanent naval institutions arose as a consequence – there was total reliance on the Royal Navy even in the Great Lakes region.  Throughout the century the Admiralty was firmly set against local Navies within the Empire.

At the time of confederation in 1867 Canada had become a major maritime trading nation with the fourth largest merchant marine.  By the late 1870s, it was estimated that there were some 90,000 seafarers in the Dominion.   Lumber was a significant trading commodity and this provided the basis for a thriving shipbuilding industry.  But by the late 18880s as sail gave way to steam propulsion and iron/steel replaced wood for hulls, shipbuilding fell into decline.  This coincided with Canada’s national economic focus turning to internal development particularly railways.

Continuing friction with the US over fishing rights continued to be a cause for concern in both Ottawa and London.  The British were unwilling to be drawn into a confrontation with the US and this reality gave rise to a continuing debate within the Dominion as to how best to protect Canadian maritime interests.  In 1870 the new Canadian Government acquired and armed six schooners to create a Maritime Police Force.  Although one might assume that this could be the essential basis for a national naval force, it was not to be – the Force was disbanded in 1871.

However, when it became clear that Britain was reluctant to respond to US poaching, the Fisheries Protection Service (FPS) was established in the mid 1880s and formed the kernel from which the Canadian Navy would eventually spring.  On the broader Naval front it was recognized that there was a need for protection in Canadian waters and in 1881 an aged RN corvette HMS Charybdis was despatched to St John, New Brunswick the home of Canada’s largest ocean going merchant fleet and the then seat of Canadian maritime power.  One must remember that well into the 1880s Canada remained one of the great shipbuilding and ship owning countries in the world.

By the late 1890s the balance of Naval power worldwide had changed profoundly.  The Royal Navy was struggling to maintain superiority over the Franco Russian Alliance.  Germany, Japan and the US were developing ocean going battle fleets.  Britain needed the Empire – but the Empire was divided on how best to address the evolving Naval threat.

One view was to pay a direct subsidy to Britain, the alternative was to use the funds to establish a national Naval presence.  Canada supported the latter proposal but lacked the political will to navalize the Fisheries Protection Service.  But by the turn of the century the Department of Marine and Fisheries had a strength of eight armed cruisers, six icebreakers and nearly 20 other vessels.

In 1904 two modern high speed steel hulled cruisers with quick firing weapons were ordered for the FPS – CANADA a 200 foot vessel purchased from Vickers Barrow for service on the east coast and VIGILANT, the first modern warship built in Canada.  It was constructed at Polson’s Yard in Toronto for service on the Great Lakes.  It was at this time that Britain announced its intention to abandon the imperial garrisons and Naval bases at Halifax and Esquimalt.  The Canadian Government’s response was to take charge of both facilities – this represented a major shift in the Dominion’s defence policy.  The defence budget nearly doubled from $4.2 million in 1904 to $7 million in 1907.

In 1906 Australia announce plans to develop their own Navy rejecting the policy of an annual payment to London.  This was swiftly followed by the Admiralty withdrawal of their objection to local Navies.  Britain hastily convened an Imperial Conference in mid 1909 to address the growing naval crisis.  The Admiralty tabled specific proposals for the two principal Dominions.

It was proposed that Canada have a minimum force of three Bristol Class cruisers and four destroyers, but preferably a fleet consisting of one heavy cruiser, four Bristol cruisers, and six destroyers.  To initiate the new Naval entity, the Admiralty offered to loan two old cruisers.  As might be expected, the Admiralty envisaged that these forces would be part of the imperial fleet in times of emergency.  This, of course, opened up the Canadian political issue of Quebec’s sensitivity to the “Imperial” implication.  Creating a Canadian Navy was one thing, establishing a unit of the Imperial Navy was quite another.  However, it can be accepted that both the Australian and Canadian Navies were born at the 1909 Conference.

In Canada much heated debate ensued but on 10 January 1910 the Government introduced the Naval Service Act.  This envisaged a fleet of 11 warships all to be built in Canada at an annual expenditure of $3 million.  The whole nation became engaged in the issue and the Government narrowly won a federal by-election that month largely fought on the naval issue.

The Naval Service Act of Canada was enacted and became law on 4 May 1910.  The battle for survival began.

PART 2 - Factors affecting development of the Canadian industrial base prior to WWII
1910 -- 1918
1918 -- 1932
1932 -- 1939

This section to be provided by Michael Young


1. Canadian Navy – The First Century by Mark Milner - ISBN 0-820-4281-3
2. The Sea Is At Our Gates by Cdr Tony German RCN (Ret’d) - ISBN 0-7710-3269-2
3. A Country Of Limitations, Canada and the World 1939 - The Canadian Committee for History WWII
4. The Pelican Economic History of Britain – Volume 3, Industry and Empire by E J Hobsbawn - Commissioned by Penguin Books – 1968 Published by Penguin Books 1969