Finest Hour 137, Winter 2007-08
Churchill’s Turn in Canadian Politics
By Chris Gainor
Mr. Gainor is a member of the board of the Churchill Society of Vancouver Island, and a Ph.D. student in history. The author would like to thank Jim Hume, a longtime writer for the Victoria Times Colonist, who discovered Churchill’s 1907 speech in old newspaper files, setting the author on the trail of this story.
Although Churchill visited Canada on his 1900-01 lecture trip, he did not travel farther west than Winnipeg, Manitoba. He came only once to the City of Vancouver and the Province of British Columbia, in 1929. Yet a century before the Vancouver Churchill Conference, young Winston was involved in Canadian and B.C. politics.
A century ago Churchill was Under-secretary of State for the Colonies in the Liberal government of Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Because the Secretary of State, Lord Elgin, sat in the Lords, the twenty-three-year-old Churchill was spokesman on colonial matters in the House of Commons.
In 1906, the Dominion Government of Canada reached agreement with the provincial governments on a new system of payments between the two levels of government. The issue of payments between the federal and provincial governments has animated Canadian politics since Confederation in 1867, and it excites controversy in Canada to this very day, when three provinces are quarrelling with Ottawa about payments.
In 1907, this new system of subventions required an amendment of the British North America Act in the British House of Commons. It fell to Churchill to introduce the bill, and to pilot it through the Commons. As always happens in matters of this sort, approval amongst the provinces for the new financial arrangement was not unanimous. The dissenter in this case was British Columbia.
The Province in 1907 was not highly populated, nor was it the economic powerhouse it is today. But its premier was Richard McBride, a feisty figure who stood out even among the many colourful characters who have held that office since. McBride, a Conservative, had introduced party politics to B.C. after three decades of government by faction.
That February, McBride had fought and won re-election on this issue of better terms for B.C. in Confederation. In this quarrel, with the Liberal Prime Minister of Canada, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, he had won a resolution of the provincial legislature and traveled to London to press his case. As Churchill told the House of Commons on 13 June 1907, when he introduced the bill, McBride “has with great frankness and much force placed us in possession of the views and grievances of British Columbia….
“It was said that die special circumstances of British Columbia arising out of her great area of territory which was thinly populated, constituted a claim on the part of the province for a more lavish grant than was offered other provinces,” Churchill continued. “This claim was recognized by other members of the conference, and by the federal government to this extent, that an additional subvention of $100,000 was accorded to British Columbia for ten years.”
The Province objected to the fact that proposed legislation stated that this arrangement would be “final and unalterable.” So while Churchill said that he and Lord Elgin could not entirely accommodate McBride’s wishes, the words “final and unalterable” were removed from the bill.
“I should be very sorry,” Churchill said, “if it were thought that the action which H. M. Government had decided to take meant that we desire to establish a precedent that whenever there is a difference upon a constitutional amendment between the federal government and one of the provinces that H. M. government will always be prepared necessarily to accept the federal point of view as against the provincial point of view.”
The Bill passed the Commons without a division, but Laurier was determined to try and bury the argument over payments to provinces once and for all. In July the bill was amended in a committee of the Lords to include as a schedule to the Act the address from the Canadian Parliament that contained the objectionable words, and passed in this form.
So who won the fight, McBride or Laurier? In the words of McBride’s biographer Brian Smith: “In the past such clauses had never prevented provinces from extracting new terms from the Dominion, even when the province had originally agreed to the insertion of the finality clause.”
Smith was right. While the funding arrangement contained in this bill has long since been superseded, and while the British gave up their power to amend Canada’s constitution in 1982, arguments over funding arrangements have dogged succeeding Liberal and Conservative governments in Ottawa to the present day. As for McBride, Smith wrote, what did matter to him “was the political interpretation he could thrust upon the facts.” In the eyes of Conservatives across Canada, McBride had bested Laurier, and he returned home to a hero’s welcome in British Columbia, with an estimated 20,000 people greeting his train in Vancouver. Many touted McBride for national leadership of the Conservative Party.
McBride’s trip marked the beginning of a friendship and correspondence with Churchill, and McBride gave support to Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty when controversy dogged the Conservative federal government of Sir Robert Borden in its effort to provide financial aid to the Royal Navy on the eve of the First World War.
McBride, who in 1912 became the only B.C. premier to be knighted, also famously purchased three submarines from an American builder just as war broke out, and for three days British Columbia had its own navy! Finally the premier turned the submarines over to the Canadian military.
Although Sir Richard McBride made an indelible mark on the politics of his province, he never moved to the national stage. His political fortunes and health began to fail and he resigned as premier in 1915 after 12 years in office. He became the province’s agent general in London, where he died in 1917.
As for Churchill, he would finally pay his one and only visit to British Columbia twelve years later. He came as someone who already knew something of the province, and had left his mark on it.