Government of Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

CHAPTER 3: The Issues Crystallize

Canadians in South Africa (3 pages)

Canada’s First Conflict Decision

Despite the tensions and pressures that this matter generated within his party, Prime Minister Laurier played for time, fearing a crisis like that which had erupted after the hanging of Louis Riel. While he temporized, a confrontation between Britain and the Boer republics became seemingly unavoidable. Major-General Edward H. Hutton, General Officer Commanding of the Canadian forces, used all his influence to secure a firm Canadian commitment at Britain's side. On 5 September he sent a "private and confidential" letter to Oscar Pelletier of the Permanent Militia assuring him that in the probable event of Canada's offering troops to Britain he would suggest that Pelletier command one of the infantry battalions Hutton intended to form. In fact he let it be understood that the Canadian announcement would follow in two days. Yet Laurier continued to procrastinate: To get him into a corner, Hutton devised a stratagem that would cost him his job.

On 3 October Hutton had the Canadian Military Gazette publish mobilization plans for potential contingents for the South African conflict. That same day, the British press published an announcement by Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain to the effect that Canada's commitment had already been studied: Britain would assume control of the troops when they landed in South Africa and would be responsible for paying them. Laurier was still eluding journalists' questions. His unease grew when, on 11 October, both Boer republics declared war on Britain. Two days later, acting against his personal convictions, Laurier gave in - though in his own way. Although the proposal had not been debated in Parliament, the government announced its readiness to equip a maximum of 1,000 volunteers and pay the costs of transporting them to South Africa. Thus Laurier would not have to answer such questions as: Is this a just war? Is Britain really threatened?

The order to mobilize these volunteers came on the 14th. Since there would initially be only one battalion, to be commanded by Colonel William Otter, Pelletier would go as a company commander. Here again, Canada took an idiosyncratic approach. Britain would have preferred to be sent companies it could use as it thought best. Instead, Canada formed the 2nd (Special Service) Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment to recruit volunteers from the Permanent and Non-Permanent Militia along with men who had never had anything to do with the army, in any capacity. These soldiers would be paid on an equal basis with the members of the Permanent Militia, a higher rate than the British troops were paid.

On 20 October the six companies were designated: Company A would be recruited in British Columbia and Manitoba, B in London, C in Toronto, D in Ottawa and Kingston, E in Montreal, F in Quebec City, G in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, and H in Nova Scotia.