Centennial of Canada’s navy

It was a humble beginning, but a start which heralded Canada’s exertion of national sovereignty on the world stage.

“With the Union Jack at forepeak, a red ensign with the Canadian coat of arms thereon at the foremast, the Canadian ensign at the mainmast, and the St. George’s cross at her stern, all bravely tossing in a fresh breeze, HMCS Niobe, the pioneer ship of Canada’s navy sallied into her home port (Halifax, Nova Scotia) today (October 21, 1910), greeted with cheers by the soldiers and citizens on the docks, and saluted by guns from the citadel ...,” the Manitoba Free Press reported. “Niobe may not be the biggest warship, but she is big enough ...”

The arrival of the Niobe from Britain 100 years ago signalled the beginning of the Royal Canadian Navy, which would serve with distinction in two world wars, the Korean War, on peacekeeping missions, the Afghan War, and most recently, bringing relief aid to the victims of the devastating earthquake in Haiti.

“The arrival in Canada of this the first Canadian cruiser is an event of historical importance ...,” said Minister of Marine L.P. Brodeur after the Niobe docked in Halifax. “Occasions such as this are few in the history of any country and especially of a young nation like Canada. They are like golden milestones, met at intervals along the pathway of progress and development. As we look back upon the way we have travelled since the day of Confederation (July 1, 1867) ... We can count with pride these landmarks and point to them as examples for practices and models for imitation of the coming generation.”

Brodeur said the appearance of the Niobe “speaks of the mighty stride made by our young dominion along the avenue of our future destiny.”

The formal creation of the navy occurred months earlier, when the Naval Services Act was given Royal assent on May 4, 1910.  

Prime Minister Stephen Harper marked the 100th anniversary in Ottawa on May 4 by saying during a special ceremony, “Over the past 100 years of navy service, more than 600 warships left our ports with the proud prefix HMCS designating Canadian ships.”

Quoting Vice-Admiral Dean McFadden, commander of Maritime Command, Harper said: “The world’s oceans no longer serve to shield Canada from far distant events. Rather they connect us through a vast and intricate web of relationships — political, economic, financial and social — that has made us neighbours with all the world’s peoples.”

In Halifax, the same enthusiasm that greeted the Niobe 100 years ago was replicated. The Halifax Star reported “brass buttons and shined shoes glinted in the sunlight as 1,000 navy personnel marched from HMC Dockyard to the Grand Parade at Halifax city hall.” Hundreds of people lined the parade route, cheering and waving Canadian flags.

“Sailor for sailor, ship for ship,” said Chief of Defence Staff General Walter Natynchuk, “we have the finest navy in the world.”

In Winnipeg, HMCS Chippawa recently celebrated the anniversary with a ball. In Morden, Manitoba, a special presentation was made to the town of a short history of HMCS Morden, the ship’s badge, battle honours and the Canadian Navy Centennial identifier. Since its inception, 320 naval ships have been named for Canadian communities, including HMCS Winnipeg, which recently served off Somalia’s shores to protect the world’s merchant ships from modern-day pirates.

Although this year’s May 4 centennial is being celebrated enthusiastically across the nation, the introduction of Naval Services Act by the Liberal government under Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier in 1910 contributed to one of the more acrimonious debates in Canadian history.

On one side stood the Liberals favouring the establishment of the navy, while on the other stood the Conservatives led by Sir Robert Borden, who felt the creation of the navy was akin to an abandonment of Britain and its Empire. 

“Has Canada ceased to be a part of the British Empire?” Borden asked in the House of Commons when the bill was introduced in January 1910, referring to an earlier statement made by Laurier that the navy would not be used overseas unless approval was given by Parliament. “Can the rest of the Empire be at war with some great naval power and Canada at peace?”

Borden claimed aggression against Canada would result in the whole of the British Empire becoming involved in the ensuing war, suggesting it would be folly for Canadians to isolate themselves from the activities of the world. He said co-operation in trade and defence were essential for the existence of the British Empire. Borden’s solution to protecting Canada and the British Empire was to purchase a dreadnought, as New Zealand had already done, and hand it over to the British Admiralty. In the absence of a dreadnought, Borden suggested the $7 million to be allocated to the navy be given to the British Admiralty to do with as it saw fit.

Dr. William James Roche, the Conservative MP for Marquette riding in Manitoba, said: “The British fleet has espoused Canada’s cause in the past and would do so now, should occasion arise. The proposition embodied in the government’s naval bill does not meet the immediate necessities of the Empire and does not render effective and immediate assistance.”

The cry to give all to perpetuate the glory of the British Empire would be greeted with disdain today, but in 1910, the Empire was looked upon with pride by a segment of the population. Yet, Canada was rapidly evolving, especially with the influx of new immigrants from nations where the British Union Jack didn’t fly. The Laurier government was primarily responsible for this change by promoting immigration from the United States as well as Eastern Europe — the so-called peasants in sheepskin clothes mentioned by then Liberal Interior Minister Clifford Sifton from Brandon.

The fact that the Canada was coming of age was a blow to imperialists. Laurier, who still favoured being tied to the empire as long as Canada wasn’t obliged to become involved in wars the nation couldn’t or wouldn’t support, knew the creation of the navy impressed upon the world Canada’s goal to eventually obtain complete sovereignty over its own affairs. He also knew the importance of such a move to future generations and to Canada’s credibility as a nation.