Borden, Sir Robert Laird (1854-1937)

Borden was the eighth prime minister of Canada and the last to be knighted. By chance, Borden went from plain Robert to Sir Robert in June 1914, while the Komagata Maru was anchored in Burrard Inlet.        

Borden was an ambitious man from a modest background. His father had been the stationmaster in the Nova Scotia village of Grand-Pre in the Annapolis Valley. His family had lived there for generations without distinguishing themselves. Borden himself had little formal education but was bright and industrious. He began teaching in private academies in Nova Scotia and New Jersey at the age of fifteen and then entered a Halifax law firm as an articling clerk when he was twenty. He topped the class when he wrote his bar exams. Finishing second was Charles Hibbert Tupper, later a Vancouver lawyer who figured in the Komagata Maru story, but who then was inescapably known in Nova Scotia as the son of Sir Charles Tupper, a political heavyweight in the Conservative Party, both in Nova Scotia and in the nation. Young Charles Hibbert Tupper invited Borden into the family law firm, and with that start Borden built a prosperous law practice, became wealthy, and entered politics.

Borden’s advantage in politics was that he was practicing law under the mentorship of the senior Tupper, Sir Charles, who was the leader of the Conservative party for four years up to 1901. Sir Charles handpicked Borden as his successor—no grand leadership convention or national ballot in those days, just a vote of a parliamentary caucus powerfully influenced by the outgoing leader.

Tupper could see that Borden looked the role of leader. He had the features, bearing and manner that conveyed authority and distinction. And he was energetic, intelligent and thorough. But he was not charismatic, and as leader of the opposition he faced a prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who was. Borden’s approach, in the House of Commons or speaking from a country platform, was to try to persuade with information rather than excite with rhetoric. Nor did he change with experience. Instead he focused on issues. One that he developed successfully, only to have it stolen by Laurier, was the abuse of patronage. Borden, in opposition, began promising to introduce a system of examinations for entry into the civil service. Laurier stole his thunder by bringing in the reform himself (the patronage appointment of Malcolm Reid as immigration agent in Vancouver in 1912 was an inconsistency for Borden). But in 1911, Borden had an issue that gripped the nation and brought him into power. This was the matter of reciprocity—free trade with the United States. Laurier had achieved what earlier governments had sought but failed to get: an agreement that promised more open entry into the American market. But Canadian voters turned it down and Borden rode the tide of anti-American nationalism that sent Laurier to defeat.

The Canadian nationalism that Borden represented needs explanation because it is so distant from sentiment in Canada today. Borden was a Canadian nationalist and a British imperialist, and for him the two were inseparable.  In his view, one might be from England or Canada, but one was equally British. Canada’s distinction in his mind was that it represented the future of the Empire, the most dynamic and progressive part, one that would take on a growing role in Empire leadership. Borden was the kind of Conservative Anglo-Canadian who had no idea how to accommodate French Canada. His best hope was that French Canadians would eventually catch up with the rest of the country and fit in. He believed that a country was built through economic development, and he saw the predominantly rural and Catholic French Canadian culture of the time as an obstacle. In this British and development-oriented outlook, he spoke for almost all of Anglo-Canada.

Borden was also the kind of successful, small-town, Anglo-Canadian who was easily enthralled by the celebrity of the British aristocracy, and he was very much taken by the opportunities that he had as a visiting colonial prime minister to mix and mingle with them. If, in reality, they could be as boring as sin, that went unnoticed for someone like Borden.

British Columbia did not loom very large on Borden’s horizon. It was a small province and a long way from his political base in the Maritimes. In a House of Commons of 221 seats, British Columbia had just seven. All of them had gone to Borden’s Conservatives in the 1911 election, for which he was grateful, and that placed a small B.C. lobby inside Borden’s caucus, including the terrier-like Stevens and Martin Burrell, who was Borden’s friend. So Borden definitely heard about Asian immigration and other B.C. issues. But he had to be educated about them by B.C. MPs, just as B.C. Liberal members of the previous government had found with Laurier. British Columbians continually complained that eastern politicians just did not understand their issues.

What Borden responded to was the imperial dimension of the Komagata Maru affair. Through regular channels—his government’s exchanges with the Colonial Office in London—he knew of the concern of imperial government that the Komagata Maru, if badly handled by Canadians, could have damaging political repercussions in India. Borden also got this message personally from Canada’s Governor General, who was at that time was Queen Victoria’s third and favourite son, H.R.H. the Duke of Connaught. So Borden followed the unfolding Komagata Maru story with close attention as the summer progressed. His apprehensions led him to send Martin Burrell to the coast on July 22nd.

Borden was in touch with Burrell all that day, deeply concerned that bloodshed should be avoided and worried about the way things were going, but conscious of how hot an issue this was with the general public in Vancouver. He did not want to antagonize Stevens or his anti-Asian supporters. He believed that law had to be enforced, but it should be done without physical injury to anyone on board. On Borden’s behalf, Burrell said—at the end of that day—that the people of Vancouver could not be blamed for considering the situation more from “a local point of view” than from “the wider aspects.”  For Borden, “the wider aspects” were what mattered most.

Sources: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. XVI, 1931-1941 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998); R.C. Brown, Robert Laird Border: a biography (2 vol., Toronto: Macmillan, 1975 and 1980); Library and Archives Canada, Borden Papers, MG 26, Immigration Files, RG 76.