1899: The Boer War & Other Quebec Curios

Part of “The Road to Canada”, 1864-1899

Also known as the South African War, the cause of the Second Boer War’s beginnings depends on who you ask and when. For the British and the English-speaking Canadians of the time, it was a chance to free the Boers from their backwards way of thinking and impose Western (read: British) values onto such a society. Ask an historian today and it might be because diamonds and gold were discovered in the territory in the decades before Britain decided to declare war on the Boers, causing an influx of gold and diamond seekers that caused an uneasy tension between newcomers and those whose roots came long before these settlers.

The Boers are descendants of the Dutch people that settled in South African Republic (now part of South Africa) back in the 1600s. Nomadic farmers, they and their families were suspicious once British rule was imposed over South Africa in the 1800s and forced the Boers to migrate several times. After a passive dissatisfaction with British rule, the Boers turned to conflict, with the First Boer War between the British and the South African Republic breaking out in the 1880s, resulting in a victory for the Boers. The second time around, with the Second Boer War, the Boers would not be so lucky.

Wilfrid Laurier, the Prime Minister, was caught in a bind. Having previously been lukewarm to the idea of sending Canadian troops over to help Britain’s wars, he had to pander to two different bases: the English Canadians, eager to enlist, and the French Canadians, who were apathetic to a war that was halfway across the world. Henri Bourassa, for many the spokesman for the French Canadians, saw British imperialism as generalized manifestation of the same threat of domination of the French-speaking minority in Canada. In a move that tried its best to be a compromise to both sides, Laurier agreed to fund the trips of any Canadian wishing to enlist as a volunteer. 7000 did, with some already having training from being part of the Mounted Police. Forming the First Contingent, the Canadians would fight in battles and skirmishes, fighting against the Boer’s clever guerilla tactics; 280 volunteers would fall during their service.

Despite the anti-Boer War sentiment, surprisingly, Laurier’s Liberals would win most of the Quebec seats in the election following the war’s end. Initially seen by English Canadians as a source of pride in that it was Canada’s first real foray into an international conflict, this pride would be transferred onto a later war in which Canada’s participation was crucial and the Second Boer War is now mostly lost in the Canadian consciousness. The events at home surrounding the Boer War would see a repeat performance towards the beginning of the next century and the election of one man would see Quebec plunge into an era of censorship and corruption. The next chapter of our story deals with tracing the end of this era.