At Laurier, Between the Klondike, London and Washington

Laurier. Orange Line. Opened 1966.
Laurier. Orange Line. Opened 1966.

In 1896, the year Wilfred Laurier became Prime Minister, Canada didn’t have a foreign policy. There was no need; most English speakers rejoiced in being imperial subjects and thought of themselves as British and while French Canadians felt no love for the empire, they were content for their imperial masters to respond to the threat of U.S. annexation.

In 1897, three events occurred which would make a foreign policy essential. On the west coast, hundreds of thousands of prospectors headed north into U.S held Alaska and the Canadian held Yukon in the Klondike Gold Rush. In London, the Colonial Conference between Britain and its most developed colonies, Canada at their head, celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria and discussed the future shape of the empire. In Berlin, German politicians demanded a place in the sun equal to Britain and France under the welt-politick of Wilhelm II. The first of these is the most closest to home and makes the need for a Canadian foreign policy most obvious.

The United States had bought Alaska from Russia in 1867, months before Confederation in Canada. The two events meant the U.S. and Canada inherited a border dispute between Russia and the Hudson Bay Company, which for the sake of a few million square miles of frozen ice could largely be ignored in favour of post-Civil War reconstruction and breaking in Canadian constitution. The discovery of gold and the arrival of thousands of prospectors changed this. Inconveniently for all concerned, the disputed territory included the Lynne Canal, a 140 kilometer fjord, and the main access to the trails into the Yukon.

To resolve the question a tribunal of six judges was established, 3 from the U.S., 2 from Canada, and 1 from Britain, but even to Laurier the U.S. case seemed solid. History and the politics meant that Canada didn’t stand a chance. Most of the maps of the time placed the Canal in U.S. territory. Further, it was U.S. citizens who were settling there and controlled it militarily, a point underscored by John Hay, Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, who talked hard and waved a big stick:

The land in question is ours … It was held by Russia in accordance with treaty from 1825 to 1867, and has been ours ever since. We shall never think of giving it up. No administration could abandon it and live a minute.

With threats like Hays’ the outcome was predictable: the British would not risk a war with the United States. All Laurier could hope for was a split in the tribunal from which he could extract concessions.

As the tribunal was reaching its conclusions in 1903, it appeared to Clifford Sifton that the British judge, Lord Alverston was siding with the Americans. Laurier instructed Sifton to threaten that “If we are thrown over by the Chief Justice [Alverston], he will give the last blow to British diplomacy in Canada.” He was right: Alverston sided with the Americans, there could be no concessions, and in English Canada the decision was viewed as nothing less than a betrayal of the British by the British:

Nothing is surer than that Canada has suffered incalculable loss and despoilment through the dealings of British diplomatists with Canadian interests and Canadian territory.

– Toronto News

The feeling is strongest in those who stand firmer than ever against annexation, and who are not disposed towards independence. Because they are “Sons of the Blood” they resent injustice, even from the British.

– Toronto Globe

Speaking in the House of Commons, Laurier expressed his frustration:

I have often regretted that while they [the U.S.] are a great and powerful nation, we are only a small colony, a growing colony but still a colony … I have often regretted also that we have not in our hands the treaty making powers which would enable us to dispose of our own affairs …. So long as Canada remains a dependency of the British Crown the present powers that we have are not sufficient for the maintenance of our rights. It is important that if ever we have to deal with matters of a similar nature again we shall deal with them in our own way, in our own fashion, according to the best light that we have.

Had Canada such powers, it is doubtful that the Canadian border with Alaska would look any different. “According to the best light”, Canada could not have responded to Hay’s threats militarily, but in small steps Laurier got his way. He found a surprising ally in Washington. Overwhelmed by the volume of cross border correspondence, James Bryce, the British ambassador to the U.S., suggested in 1908 that Canada needed “a sort of Foreign Office.” In 1909 Laurier created a small Department of External Affairs in 1909, two years after Canada had independently negotiated its first treaty, with Japan over immigration.

Yet for all the assistance of Bryce, Canada’s greatest foreign policy difficulty came not from Washington, but from London. The empire had become too vast and too rich to be defended by Britain alone. That might mean greater autonomy for Canada, but it also meant demands of money and soldiers that might tear it apart.

Consulted for this post

André Pratte, Wilfrid Laurier. Trans. Phyllis Aaronoff and Howard Scott. Toronto: Penguin Books, 2011

Peter Waite. “Between Three Oceans”. Illustrated History of Canada. Toronto: Key Porter, 2002

“A Sort of Foreign Office, 1909-39”. Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. Ottawa: Government of Canada, 2011.

For more about life in the Klondike, take a look at this great post on Bite Size Canada about the racketter Soapy Smith .

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