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Authors overstate importance of Canada's 1911 federal election

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Canada 1911

The Decisive Election that Shaped the Country

By Patrice Dutil and David MacKenzie

Dundurn, 378 pages, $30

THE great British writer Rudyard Kipling observed that the Canadian federal election of 1911 was a struggle for Canada's soul.

The protagonists of this struggle were Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Liberal prime minister since 1896, and Robert Borden, leader of the Conservatives.

Ryerson University professors Patrice Dutil and David MacKenzie have written a comprehensive account of the election of 1911, depicting its historical context, its issues, its campaign and its results. It is a well-paced narrative for a popular audience.

However, the authors make claims for the significance of the election that are probably exaggerated.

The main issue of the election in English Canada was "reciprocity," an agreement for freer trade between Canada and the United States negotiated by Laurier's Liberal government.

But reciprocity was not just a trade deal: it had broader ramifications about Canada's place in the world and its relationship to Britain and the United States.

Would Canada maintain its east-west economy and historic links to Britain, or would it reorient its trade toward the U.S. as the geography of the North American continent seemed to dictate?

The Laurier Liberals argued that reciprocity would result in higher prices for the produce of Canadian farmers, and lower prices for Canadian consumers. The Conservatives in rejecting reciprocity did not neglect economic arguments, but emphasized the implications of the agreement for Canadian nationhood; they argued that freer trade with the U.S. would ultimately lead to the annexation of Canada, and undermine Canada's British connection, a message that had considerable appeal in English Canada at the time.

In Quebec, meanwhile, the principal issue was Laurier's naval policy. Laurier proposed to create an independent Canadian navy which, in time of war, could be made available to the British fleet.

Quebec nationalists opposed Laurier's navy, fearing that it would involve Canada in Britain's wars. Ironically, the nationalists were allied with the Conservatives, who were far more likely to become involved in Britain's wars than Laurier was.

Indeed, Laurier was in a difficult position. In Quebec, he was seen as too pro-British; in English Canada, he was seen as not pro-British enough.

Borden's Conservatives won the election with 134 seats; the Liberals had 87.

The authors write that the election of 1911 "shaped the outlines of Canadian politics for much of the 20th century."

But was it such a seminal political event? It hinged on imperial issues that have not been relevant to Canadian political culture for a long time. Moreover, its verdict on free trade with the Americans was overturned by the election of 1988. It seems more likely that it reflected a transitory cultural moment.

What was really remarkable about the election of 1911 was the extent to which it was determined by sentimental considerations, imperial idealism, rather than economic self-interest.

As Dutil and MacKenzie write, "by the time English Canadians went to the polls on Sept. 21, the issues had risen far above the material and economic, and Canadians were deciding... about the future direction of their country and its place in the world."

Dutil and MacKenzie provide a province-by-province breakdown of the results. Manitoba voted Conservative, giving the Tories eight of 10 seats. The Conservative campaign in the province was led by Premier Rodmond Roblin, a vigorous opponent of reciprocity and defender of the British connection.

The election of 1911 was dramatic and fiercely contested. But it had little impact on subsequent Canadian political history. The authors' contention that it shaped Canadian politics for a century remains unconvincing.

Graeme Voyer is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 27, 2011 J7

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