Thursday, June 26, 2014

Russian cavalry and jams

Sir Robert Laird Borden, the eighth Canadian prime minister who played a key role in overseeing his country’s status from colony to nation, was born 160 years ago today. He wrote daily diary entries during the war years which, though brief and often skittish - jumping, for example, from the state of Russian Cavalry to his liking of jam - provide plenty of insight into Borden the man as well as Borden the politician.

Borden was born on 26 June 1854, and educated in the farming community of Grand-Pré, Nova Scotia, Canada. He worked first as a teacher, but then was articled for four years to a Halifax law firm, being called to the Nova Scotia Bar in 1878. He moved to Kentville to join a law firm, and a few years later, to Halifax, to join another one, becoming senior partner in 1889. That same year, he marred Laura Bond, but they would have no children.

Increasingly successful, Borden represented many of the important Halifax businesses, and sat on the boards of various financial companies. In 1896, he helped found the Canadian Bar Association in Montreal; and, by the time he entered politics, he was a wealthy man - his legal practice was considered by some to be the largest in the so-called Maritime Provinces (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island).

Borden first entered parliament as a Conservative in 1896; and in 1901 he assumed the leadership of the Conservative Party. For a decade or so he worked to reform the party, but he failed to win power in the 1908 election. He did, however, succeed in 1911 with an appeal for loyalty to the British Empire rather than closer ties to the US. In 1914, Borden was knighted by King George V, and, in fact, was the last Canadian prime minister to receive the honour.

Borden’s leadership skills though were tested with the onset of the First World War. His wartime government was responsible for the Emergency War Measures Act, the nationalisation of the Canadian Northern Railway, and, after a general election and the forming of a unity government, the Military Service Act in 1917 for conscription. Internationally, he also had a significant impact. He could see how Canada was able to assert itself as an independent power; and thus, in the post-war negotiations, he demanded a separate seat at the Paris Peace Conference. This idea was initially opposed by Britain and the US, but Borden stuck to his position, which led to all the dominions - not just Canada - being able to sign the Treaty of Versailles, and receiving separate membership in the League of Nations.

Borden was Chancellor of McGill University from 1918 to 1920, and, after his retirement from politics in 1920, he was appointed Chancellor of Queen’s University (1924 to 1930). He continued with his business interests, and some statesmanship activities (he represented Canada, for example, at the Washington Naval Conference in 1922 and signed the resulting arms reduction treaty on Canada’s behalf). He died in 1937. Further biographical information is available online at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, The Canadian Encyclopaedia or Wikipedia

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds an original set of diaries written by Borden while he was prime minister, covering the years 1912 to 1918. Recently, the Memorial University of Foundland has digitised a transcribed copy of the diaries, also held by LAC, and made it freely available online.

In her introduction to the online diaries, Dr Kathryn Rose explains: ‘Borden’s diaries are not nearly as personal as historians might wish for, but they highlight themes and issues that he addressed on a regular basis, and provide insight to his approach. Borden, despite his years as a practicing lawyer, was not comfortable with debate or public speaking. He regularly documents the praise received for his addresses, and was quick to comment on the skills of others. His appreciation for the men who served was constant - he enjoyed displays of strength and patriotism of regular parade. More interesting, however, was Borden’s handling of his caucus, particularly the members from Quebec. He constantly dealt with battling members, a situation that often ended in tears, and not from Borden.’

6 August 1912

‘Motored back to London with Laura. Aitken and Bonar Law who smoked all the way. Worked at correspondence all afternoon. Called on Lloyd George by appointment. Had interesting conversation. He talked like a strong Imperialist. Thinks Great Britain will never accept protection. Believes Canada can get a preference in transportation but has no very clear ideas as to mode.’

7 August 1912

‘Parliament expected to prorogue today. Played golf on Combe Hill links with Bonar Law and Aitken. Very good links. Bonar Law good steady player. In Afternoon discussed several questions with Churchill and told him everything depended on strength of his statement. He promised to give it personal attention. Told him I was going to Scotland.’

8 August 1912

‘This morning saw Asquith by appointment. He took me all over official residence. Portrait of every Cabinet Minister. One in office only three days. Discussed visit to Germany. He thinks idle to go there with hope of doing any good. Told him that oar action on naval question depended on Churchill’s statement. He said Churchill was good at such work.’

9 August 1912

‘Delegation as to selection of an Irish port as an ocean terminus. Large number present. Arranged to go to Barrow in Furness, Newcastle and Glasgow next week. Am to receive freedom of City of Glasgow.’

10 August 1912

‘Motored to Lord Roberts. Charming place near Ascot. Met Sir Arthur Wilson and others. Delightful luncheon party. Afterwards motored to Cliveden. Discovered that Mrs. Astor had invited the King on Sunday to meet us. He could not come.’

25 June 1914
‘Returned this morning to find that yesterday afternoon there was a tremendous electrical storm and cloudburst in Ottawa. Our new paths on bank of Rideau almost completely demolished. Hindoo question again to the fore and after consultation with White and Burrell drafted a telegram of instructions. Afterwards White talked earnestly to me of his desire to retire. I told him I wished to do the same. Congratulations still pouring in. Played golf with White 5 to 6:30.’

26 June 1914
‘Further confce with White as to Canadian Northern and GTP mortgages. Discussed with Ackland the situation respecting GTP machinists and sent strong telegram to Chamberlain. Answered many telegrams of congratulations as to my birthday. Wrote to Farquar as to departure of Duke and arrival of new GG. In afternoon laid cornerstone of Perley Home for Incurables.’

1 January 1916
‘A rather melancholy New Year with both of us confined to bed under charge of Doctor and trained nurse. Pain still very severe at times. The nurse, Miss McCurdy, seems very faithful and competent. If I make the slightest movement in the night she is at the door at once. My message to the Canadian people published today seems to be very well received. Many telegrams of congratulation, one especially fervent from Dr. Chown, one also from Hon. Edw. Brown, a member of the Manitoba Gov’t. News from front unimportant but Russians seem to be fathering way. Asquith evidently having great difficulty with his conscription measure which threatens to disrupt his Gov’t.’

24 May 1916
‘Waked very early. Delightful water in lake for bathe if one could plunge in quickly. Glorious air. Read and walked around grounds during forenoon. Late in afternoon Rhodes and I started for Left Blower. I caught one grey on fly but no success either there or at Right Bower or Cedar Bay. Mail arrived during forenoon. Nothing very eventful reported. Russian Cavalry had joined British in Mesopotamia. Rhodes says Tiptrees jams &c much better than Cross and Blackwells. Apricot Brandy and Cherry Whisky liqueurs very good. Mrs Yank broils trout very excellently. Splits them, removed backbone and broils in olive oil. Weather very cool and breezy.’

26 June 1918
‘Attended at Imp. War Confce for half an hour in effort to expedite proceedings. Interview with Lord Mayor of York who desires to confer freedom of city. [. . .] Then Confce with Capt. Straight, Capt. Morrison and Lieut. Gunn, repatriated prisoners from Germany who gave thrilling accounts of their experiences. Saxons decent and even kind, Hanoverians cruel and brutal, even more so than Bavarians; Prussians worst of all. Then interview with Long and told him of our conclusions as to means of communication and status of Dominions; direct sam’n to Prime Minister, He admitted need of change but doubted P.M.s time. Then to War Com. where we discussed memo to be submitted to Grand Allied Council respecting Russia, labour men abolished political truce today. Dined at Lord Curzon’s.’

21 December 1918
‘Fine in morning. Early at office. Several callers. Jones came with draft tlgm as to purchase of 800,000 standards of lumber by British Govt and I approved of sending it to White. Dafoe came with draft tlgm. as to naval matters which I also approved. It gave particulars of my action on behalf of Dominions last summer. Hankey brought for my consideration draft of minutes of last Imp. War Cabinet and I gave him suggestions as to revision. [. . .] Worked at documents for Cabinets on Monday and Tuesday, especially Smuts interesting paper on League of Nations. Walked 4 to 5:30. In evening went to Wyndham’s Theatre to see “The Law Divine”; very interesting and remarkably well acted.’

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