1911 Federal Election in Canada

Since 1896, Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals had been in power. Laurier had been successful at bridging French and English interests to promote a common purpose, while including the West with policies such as railway building. However, the debate over the Canadian Navy and reciprocity with the United States would once again divide French and English Canada. Laurier was faced with deserters in his own party, and struggled to maintain a base of support in Quebec, a traditionally Liberal province. The 1911 election would be the first single-issue free trade election fought in Canada, and Canadian voters rejected reciprocity. This decision would stand until the next free-trade election in 1988. Nationalist forces in Quebec emerged onto the federal political scene, which would be the beginning of a long tradition of third-party politics in Quebec.

1911 Historical Background

The creation of a Canadian navy and ongoing debate about reciprocity with the USA

Political Party Profiles

Canada’s traditional two parties would start to form outside alliances to gain more voter support.

Party Leader Profiles

Wilfrid Laurier’s French background and Robert Borden’s English background would be important factors in this election.

1911 Election Campaign Issues

The naval question would take centre stage in Quebec, while reciprocity dominated debates throughout the rest of Canada.

The Political Campaign

Borden formed an alliance with Quebec politicians, Laurier focused on the economic benefits of his policies.

1911 Election Results

Voters felt betrayed by Laurier, and put an end to his Liberal dynasty by electing Borden with a majority government.

Historical Significance of 1911 Election

Canadian voters reject free trade and Nationalist forces emerge in Quebec.

Links/Further Reading

Learn more about the 1911 election and the politicians involved.


1911 Historical Background

The creation of a Canadian navy and ongoing debate about reciprocity with the USA

Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals had been in power since 1896, winning elections in 1900, 1904, and 1908. Laurier had become an expert on bridging French and English interests in Canada to win majority governments. The Liberals gained support in the West with policies such as railway building projects.

However, the years immediately leading up to 1911 saw Laurier losing some of his support. The Liberals seemed to be running out of innovative ideas. Several factors would set the stage for the 1911 election:

Creation of the Royal Canadian Navy

In 1909, the House of Commons approved the Canadian Naval Bill. However, when Laurier started to create the navy in 1910, he was met with opposition. He had always expected the bill to be opposed by the Nationalists in Quebec, but he was surprised at the opposition he faced from the Conservatives (mostly French-speaking Conservatives).

Quebec Nationalists were opposed to the creation of a Canadian navy because:

  • They saw it as a pledge for Canadian participation in Britain’s wars
  • They saw it as an abandonment of Canadian autonomy

The Nationalists were led by Henri Bourassa, a Quebec politician. Bourassa had been a Laurier supporter, but could not support him when the naval issue arose. He abandoned Laurier to work with Robert Borden and the Conservatives.

Laurier now faced opposition to the naval bill from the Conservatives and Bourassa’s Nationalists. Faced with an election, he needed an issue that would distract attention away from the naval question. He found that in the free trade agreement.

Reciprocity with the United States

Free trade, or reciprocity, with the United States had been discussed before, but had always met with opposition from Canada. However, Laurier felt that the Canadian economy was strong enough to restart reciprocity negotiations. Laurier also believed that free trade would increase his support among westerners. He and President Taft of the USA began negotiations in 1910, and by January of 1911 they had worked out an arrangement on the following terms:

  • Raw materials would be allowed to flow freely across the border
  • Some manufactured items would be admitted at lower tariffs

This deal initially seemed favourable to Canada. Even Borden was worried that all Canadians would support it. However, opposition to reciprocity soon began to emerge. The Conservatives were strongly opposed to free trade because they felt that Laurier was selling out Canada to the United States.

Revolt of The Eighteen

Some Liberals were also opposed to reciprocity. The most prominent among these Liberals was Clifford Sifton, a western MP and a member of Laurier’s cabinet. He left the Liberal party to work with Borden’s Conservatives against free trade. This inspired the “revolt of the eighteen,” when 18 prominent Liberals issued a manifesto calling the reciprocity agreement “the worst blow ever to threaten Canadian nationality.” They were supported by business, manufacturing, and transportation industries.

Borden accepted the aid of the Liberals who had left their party. This caused controversy within the Conservative Party. However, when Borden threatened to resign over the conflict, the party rallied behind him to present a united front in the coming election.

Borden and the Conservatives were convinced that these events meant they could have success in the election. Laurier was heading into the election facing opposition from business interests, the Conservatives, Quebec Nationalists, and even members of his own party.


Political Party Profiles

Canada’s traditional two parties would start to form outside alliances to gain more voter support.

The 1911 election was a traditional two-party election in Canada. However, forces started to emerge which suggested that third-party interests were starting to become more prominent in Canadian politics. Bourassa’s Nationalists were devoted solely to Quebec’s interests, and they were able to exert influence through their alliance with the Conservatives.

The Liberal Party

The Liberals had been in power for 15 years with a majority government. By 1911, Laurier was in ill health and seemed to be reluctant to embrace change. The Liberals had run out of ideas, which prompted them to adopt the controversial naval bill and reciprocity agreements. The Liberals would be plagued with internal divisions. Their 1911 election was not characteristic of the strong Liberal party of the preceding 15 years. Their influence in Canadian politics was starting to decline.

The Conservative Party

In 1911, the Conservatives would form coalitions with several other political interests in Canada to oppose the Liberal policies of free trade and the naval bill. The most important of these would be the Quebec Nationalists led by Henri Bourassa. This Conservative-Nationalist Alliance was able to campaign throughout the election as a united party that was supported by Quebec nationalists, Liberal insurgents who had deserted Laurier, and business interests.


Party Leader Profiles

Wilfrid Laurier’s French background and Robert Borden’s English background would be important factors in this election.

Wilfrid Laurier – Liberal Party

Wilfrid Laurier was born on November 20, 1841 in St. Lin, Canada East. Before entering politics, he worked as a lawyer and newspaper editor. He supported liberal ideals such as progress and democracy. Laurier believed that Quebec and English Canada had to be closely associated in order to achieve liberal ideals. The following are Laurier’s political highlights:

  • Member of the Legislative Assembly of Quebec 1871-1874
  • Elected to the House of Commons 1874
  • Leader of the Liberal Party 1887-1919
  • Leader of the Official Opposition 1887-1896
  • Prime Minister 1896-1911

Laurier died on February 17, 1919.

Robert Laird Borden – Conservative Party

Robert Borden was born on June 26, 1854 in Grand Pré, Nova Scotia. Before entering politics, he worked as a teacher and a lawyer. The following are highlights of his political career:

  • First elected as a Member of Parliament in 1896
  • Leader of the Conservative Party 1901-1920
  • Leader of the official opposition 1901-1911
  • Leader of the Union Government 1917-1920
  • Prime Minister 1911-1920

Throughout World War I, Borden fought for an independent voice for Canada in international affairs. He attended the Paris Peace conference as the Canadian delegate in 1919. After retiring from politics, Borden worked in the insurance and banking industries, and as an author. He died in June of 1937.


1911 Election Campaign Issues

The naval question would take centre stage in Quebec, while reciprocity dominated debates throughout the rest of Canada.

Two primary issues emerged in the 1911 election. The naval question was the primary issue in Quebec, and issues of imperialism went along with it. In the rest of Canada, the question of reciprocity with the United States emerged as the main issue of the election.

Reciprocity with the United States

After Laurier and President Taft had negotiated the free trade agreement, they took the unusual step of agreeing to concurrent legislation rather than a formal treaty to implement it. This allowed the Conservatives to delay passage of the agreement through the House of Commons, and reciprocity became an election issue.

The reciprocity agreement seemed favourable for all Canadians. Liberals argued that the Canadian economy could only improve by lowering tariffs and expanding markets. However, those who opposed it raised the following concerns:

  • Free trade would simply make Canada a supplier of raw materials for American manufacturing
  • It would slow the movement to set up American branch plants in Canada
  • Some Canadian agriculturalists would face stiff competition from Americans
  • Free trade with the USA would run counter to the country’s basic economic policies as started by John A. Macdonald – western expansion to promote east-west trade
  • Since the agreement was to be put in place by legislation and not a treaty, it could be terminated at anytime – this was a precarious situation on which to base Canada’s economy

Although the Conservatives tried to raise other issues in the election, in English Canada, the reciprocity issue overshadowed everything else.

The Naval Question

This would be the defining issue of the election in Quebec, with reciprocity playing a minor role. At the heart of the naval issue was the question about imperialism. Quebec Nationalists were afraid that the Canadian navy was going to allow Britain too much influence over Canadian affairs. They did not want to see Canada entered into wars which they should not be involved in.

The Quebec nationalist Henri Bourassa led the anti-imperialist fight against the Liberals. He thought that if Laurier was re-elected, he would abandon the interests of French Canada. Bourassa also did not support reciprocity, because he thought Laurier was using it to distract attention away from the more important question of the naval bill. He would lead the Union government in Quebec.


The Election Campaign

Borden formed an alliance with Quebec politicians, Laurier focused on the economic benefits of his policies.

Laurier did not seem worried that his government was threatened by the Conservatives. He was confident that his 15 year political record would lead him to success again.

Liberal Strategy

The Liberals focused on the economic benefits that reciprocity would bring to Canadians. Laurier had experienced strong support for free trade in the West, and Liberal politicians in those areas had a simple message that reciprocity meant “higher prices for our products and a lower price for our necessities.” They dismissed the Conservative accusations that supporters of free trade were being disloyal to Canada and to Britain. For the Liberals, free trade was simply an issue of economic growth for Canada.

In Quebec, where the naval question was the most important issue, Laurier faced a tough campaign. Laurier had always been able to balance French and English interests, but he was accused of deserting his French countrymen by giving into Britain’s demands. He was characterized as an imperialist. To counter this, Laurier pointed out the strange alliance between Bourassa and Borden. He said that a vote for Bourassa was a vote for Borden, and Borden himself was an imperialist despite his relationship with Bourassa. Laurier characterized their alliance as a “black contract,” made despite ideological differences just to achieve political ends.

Conservative Strategy: The Bourassa-Borden Alliance

The Conservative-Nationalist alliance was never formally set out, but Bourassa would run 28 Nationalist candidates as Conservatives. The reason for this was to provide a stronger opposition to Laurier. The anti-Liberal forces, especially in Quebec , needed to work together to defeat the government. Although the Conservatives had previously branded Bourassa a rebel for his anti-imperialist policies, they needed his support to defeat the Liberals.

The Conservative-Nationalist Alliance allowed Borden to focus his efforts in Ontario, where he portrayed Laurier as disloyal to the British Empire through his reciprocity agreement with the United States. Bourassa was left to focus on Quebec, where he attacked Laurier as disloyal to his fellow French Canadians by selling out their military interests to British control.

The Conservatives did not support reciprocity. Although the Liberals emphasized the commercial benefits that free trade would bring, the Conservatives chose to appeal to the sentimental aspects of reciprocity with the USA:

  • They characterized free trade as a policy of continentalism and annexation to the USA
  • The accused the Liberals of being disloyal to Canada and to Britain
  • They rallied the voters who were hostile to the USA by running under a slogan of “no truck or trade with the Yankees”
  • They pointed out that Canadians were sufficiently prosperous, and that they were willing to sacrifice further gains in order to show their resentment towards years of USA hostility and condescension

The sentimental Conservative campaign was aided by Champ Clark (the American Speaker of the House of Representatives). He said, “I hope to see the day when the American flag will float over every square foot of the British North American possessions…” The actual commercial benefits of reciprocity were overshadowed by these kinds of statements, as feelings of national pride and USA hostility became the centre of the campaign.

In Quebec, Bourassa used his anti-imperalist messages to portray Laurier’s policies as “moral evils.” He accused Laurier of abandoning Canadian autonomy in favour of British military interests.


1911 Election Results

Voters felt betrayed by Laurier, and put an end to his Liberal dynasty by electing Borden with a majority government.

Laurier faced problems both inside and outside Quebec. The result was an end to the lengthy string of Liberal majority governments. Borden’s Conservatives won a majority government.

Population of Canada (1911): 7,204,527

Number of electors on list: 1,820,742

Total ballots cast: 1,314,953

Voter turnout: 70.2%

 

Seats won

% of popular vote

# of candidates

# of valid votes cast

 Liberal

 87

 47.7

 220

 623,554

 Conservative

 134

 50.9

 218

 666,074

 Other

 0

 1.4

 23

 17,900

 Total

 221

 100

 461

 1,307,528

Provincial Breakdown

 

 Conservative

 Liberal

 Other

 

# of seats

% of vote

# of seats

% of vote

# of seats

% of vote

 NS

 9

 48.8

 9

 50.8

 0

 0.3

 NB

 5

 49.2

 8

 50.8

 0

 0

 PEI

 2

 51.1

 2

 48.9

 0

 0

 PQ

 27

 48.1

 38

 50.2

 0

 1.7

 ON

 73

 56.2

 13

 43.1

 0

 0.7

 MB

 8

 51.9

 2

 44.8

 0

 3.3

 SK

 1

 39.0

 9

 59.4

 0

 1.6

 AB

 1

 42.5

 6

 53.3

 0

 4.1

 BC

 7

 58.8

 0

 37.5

 0

 3.6

 YK

 1

 60.8

 0

 39.2

 0

 0

 Canada

 134

 50.9

 87

 47.7

 0

 1.4


Historical Significance of 1911 Election

Canadian voters reject free trade and Nationalist forces emerge in Quebec.

The 1911 election marked the end of 15 years of Liberal domination in Canada – the second of the long-lasting regimes in Canadian politics. Wilfrid Laurier had been very skillful at creating stability in the French-English relationship in Canada , but his clever negotiations did not work in 1911. As Laurier tried to make too many concessions, both sides ended up feeling betrayed.

There were several aspects of the 1911 election that made it one of Canada ’s most significant:

The Emergence of the Nationalists

The demands of French Canadians in Quebec had been met satisfactorily by Macdonald and Laurier for many years. However, the naval bill of 1910 was such a controversial issue in Quebec that many felt the two major political parties could not address the best interests of Quebecois. The formation of the Nationalists, led by Henri Bourassa, marked the first time that a third party had become a player on the federal political scene. This marked the beginning of a long tradition of nationalist parties to emerge out of Quebec.

However, Bourassa’s attempt to create a strong Nationalist party ultimately failed. By creating an alliance with Borden, he was really supporting the more imperialistic of the two national parties. Although the Nationalists’ primary goal of knocking Laurier out of power was achieved, Borden would still have had a victory even if the Nationalists would have deserted him. However, Bourassa’s alliance with Borden ultimately undermined the goals of the Nationalists, and Bourassa’s party failed to become a significant political force.

The Free-Trade Election

Free trade elections in Canada have always been controversial and intense. Although the 1891 election saw free trade as an important part of the election platforms, it never emerged as the dominant issue. The 1911 election was the first time that reciprocity had become the defining issue of the election. The election strategies that were employed be each party would become characteristic of how free-trade elections are fought. In 1911, as in the 1988 election, sentimental and emotional aspects of free trade took precedence over the actual economic and commercial aspects of the arrangement. Opponents of free trade portrayed supporters as disloyal and treasonous Canadians. Just as Robert Borden accused Wilfrid Laurier of negotiating “annexation” to the USA in 1911, John Turner accused Brian Mulroney of “selling out” Canada to the USA in 1988 (Ironically, the position of the Liberals and Conservatives were reversed in these two elections). Free trade elections have always been emotionally-charged, bitterly fought elections in Canada. In 1911, Canadian voters made the historic decision to reject free trade with the United States.


Links/Further Reading

Learn more about the 1911 election and the politicians involved.

J.M. Beck, Pendulum of Power (Scarborough: Prentice Hall of Canada, Ltd., 1968).

John Duffy, Fights of Our Lives: Elections, Leadership, and the Making of Canada (Toronto : Harper Collins Publishers, 2002).

Paul Douglas Stevens, The 1911 General Election: A Study in Canadian Politics (Toronto: Copp Clard Publishing Co.), 1970.

For More Information:

Library and Archives Canada Website,

Government of Canada

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