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Sails Away! The Canadian Navy is Born

For the week of Monday May 3, 2010

O n May 4, 1910, the Naval Service Act was given royal assent, marking the birth of Canada’s navy. This year is the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Canadian Navy.

Niobe in drydock
© Library and Archives Canada / PA-028497
Prior to the creation of the Canadian Navy, Great Britain’s Royal Navy was responsible for protecting Canada’s waters. This changed when, in 1904, the Wilfrid Laurier government began to arm ships belonging to the Department of Marine and Fisheries in order to protect Canada’s fish from American poachers. Despite this advancement, Prime Minister Laurier was still under considerable pressure to create a formal navy. Great Britain was losing her position as the world’s greatest naval power, Germany was producing superior ships, and the United States was also expanding its navy. Britain needed financial support and Canada needed defences. After much debate in Parliament, the Naval Service Act was passed and the Royal Canadian Navy was created.

The armed vessels of the Fisheries Marine were transferred to naval control and two ships were obtained from the Royal Navy: the cruisers Niobe and Rainbow. Niobe arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in October 1910 to a large crowd that welcomed the ship with speeches and military salutes. During the First World War, Niobe was called upon to patrol the waters between Halifax and New York, looking for aggressive German ships. 

View of Esquimalt Harbour
© Library and Archives Canada / C-007848

Canada’s second ship, Rainbow, arrived in Esquimalt, British Columbia, about a month after Niobe. Rainbow was essential in protecting the West Coast when war broke out. In her most famous moment, an outnumbered and underequipped Rainbow had to protect two British ships that were in danger of being attacked by German cruisers. Luckily, Rainbow never encountered the German cruisers and escorted the British ships to safety.

In 1968, the Royal Canadian Navy was disbanded and became integrated with Canada’s land and air branches to create the Canadian Armed Forces. Unification took Canada’s military in a new direction, focusing on international peacekeeping and NATO defence missions. Today, Canada’s Navy owns over 30 warships and continues to defend Canada’s coasts.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier was designated a national historic person in 1938. The Esquimalt Naval Sites was designated a national historic site in 1995.

For more information on the 100th anniversary of Canada’s Navy, visit The Canadian Naval Centennial 1910-2010 website of National Defence and the Canadian Forces.

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