The first disturbance of the new century was the war of 1812 with the United States. Like many wars, it had few clear cut edges or decisive actions, but it held the trade and commerce of both nations behind a barrier of confusion and uncertainty. The fighting in British North America was regarded, to some extent, as a flanking action of the main Napoleonic war which chiefly engaged the British attention. In the event, Canada had to wait for deliverance until the Royal Navy was enabled to commit adequate strength from the main body of the fleet, which was blockading Europe, and until troops could be spared in sufficient numbers. Eventually, in the nick of time, ships, men and naval stores were forthcoming. The sailors marched inland and built, on the Great Lakes and Champlain system, the brigs and sloops and transports which mainly conducted the war. In the meantime, commercial shipping was stillborn on the Lakes and suffered from the deprivations of blockade and privateering off the Atlantic Coast.
From all this activity there arose a side effect which was to have a bearing on the administration of government ships for many years to come the influence of the Provincial Marine. The Provincial Marine was a quasi naval or military force on the Lakes, Champlain waters and the St. Lawrence river, which had been formed by the British in the preceding century. It was manned by Canadian seamen and soldiers engaged for the season, and was stiffened by regular officers and key men, some of whom, both French and English, had served in the Royal Navy and were to have adventurous careers in the war of 1812. The ships themselves were of the smaller kind, suitable for the transport of troops and supplies and for limited operations of war. After the American revolution the Provincial Marine had been allowed to run down somewhat but, when it was seen that the war of 1812 was inevitable, the force was reorganized under the army quartermaster generals department.
In 1813, when strong naval reinforcements arrived in the Lakes from the main British fleet, the Provincial Marine was placed directly under the orders of the commodore commanding naval forces on the Great Lakes, Sir James Lucas Yeo, and was absorbed for all practical purposes into the regular fleet as a mobilized naval reserve. On the conclusion of the war with The United States both countries decided, very wisely, that it would be ridiculous to become involved in a naval armaments race and, in an exchange of diplomatic notes known as the Rush Bagot Treaty, they agreed to limit their forces on the Great Lakes to a few scattered ships ". . . . not exceeding 100 tons burden and armed with one 18-pounder cannon".
But for many years after the war of 1812, which deeply affected the lives of the early settlers on both sides, there was uneasiness about the undefended border which we now take for granted. In these circumstances, the Provincial Marine, which was never allowed to disappear completely, evolved into the waterborne arm of the Canadian Militia and by 1855, to quote the Militia Act of that date, provision was made for marine companies to be trained ". . . as well to the use of small arms, as in the management of gunboats and vessels and the working of the great guns aboard vessels".
By this time the force had no commissioned ships of its own; these were virtually prohibited by treaty. It did, however, have access to a few old gunboats in reserve and, somewhat later, manned them with militia artillerymen, or commandeered local steamers, to go afloat for defence against the Fenian raids. Although there was no direct relationship between the Provincial Marine, which was the responsibility of the Militia Department, and ships which were used by other departments of government for purely civilian purposes, there had now been established a long tradition of voluntary service in government ships under something resembling naval discipline. This tradition was to influence the pattern of life aboard the seasonally manned fishery cruisers of the Department of Marine and Fisheries. These ships would provide a convenient means of training professional seamen in enforcement duties and, before the passing of the Naval Service Act of 1910, would be regarded as a nucleus for the establishment of a future naval reserve in Canada.