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Canada and the British Empire

Britain rapidly abandoned its ambivalence toward colonies in the late nineteenth century, thereby touching off a spirited debate among Canadians about their countrys role in the empire. In competition with other industrial and military powers, Britain aggressively sought possessions in Asia, the Pacific, the Middle East, and Africa. Canadian groups, consisting primarily of educated and professional anglophones, formed to support British imperial endeavors. The Imperial Federation League, for example, championed Canadas connection to the empire after 1884. A substantial number of politicians, including members of Parliament, joined these organizations. Although the empire had its tireless proponents, imperialism drew sharp criticism from other Canadians. One of the most eloquent empire opponents was Henri Bourassa, a member of Parliament from Quebec and editor of Le Devoir, an influential French-language newspaper. Bourassa and his supporters maintained that Canadians should not assist in the subjugation of Asian and African peoples. The heated debate between imperialists and anti-imperialists framed a larger question of Canadas future. Bourassas Canada was North American in focus, and francophone rights were seen as analogous to those of other oppressed peoples in the world. Conversely, proimperialists defined Canadian nationalism through the dominions connections to the empire. The popular professor and author Stephen Leacock, for example, argued that Canadians would be strengthened in both cultural and defensive dimensions by maintaining close relations with their counterparts in the empire. A conflict that bridged the two centuries, the South African War

(also known as the Boer War) illuminated the sharp domestic divide over the nature of Canadas commitment to imperial expansion. British designs to establish an extended African empire had already involved Canadians. Several hundred volunteers had been sent in the mid-1880s in a failed attempt to rescue the swashbuckling General Chinese Gordon, who was under siege in the Sudan. Later in South Africa, British attempts to shift the entrenched Dutch Protestant settlers known as Boers from their small homelands in the Orange Free State and the Transvaal touched off a brutal war that lasted from 1899 to 1902. These Boers used effective raiding tactics that stymied their opponents. When the British called on Canada to support the war, primarily by providing troops, it placed Lauriers government in a difficult position. Empire enthusiasts claimed that the war was an ideal moment for Canada to show its full support for Britain. Antiimperialists argued that it would be inappropriateeven morally repugnantto send Canadians to repress a minority group that was under British attack. The war sorely tested Lauriers abilities as a compromiser. The governments solution was to raise and fund a modest volunteer force while allowing the British to recruit Canadians as well. Over 7,000 Canadians served in the hostilities, with disease claiming the majority of the nearly 250 casualties. The wars impact on Canada cut in two distinct directions. On the one hand, Canadian troops distinguished themselves in battle, and imperialists, while they may have believed Canadas contribution to be modest, were generally heartened.

Conversely, the war had a divisive impact on Canadians, punctuated by a severe riot in Montreal. To many anglophones, Canadas place was at the side of Britain. To an equally dedicated group of francophones and anti-imperialists, Canadas interests should be North American in focus. The wounds created during the South African War, barely scabbed over, would be reopened in twelve years when Europe ran headlong into the most horrific armed struggle the world had ever witnessed: the Great War.