It could be said that no election was built on an issue that divided Canada more than the election of 1917.
Canada had changed immensely since 1911. The country had been at war for three years, with hundreds of thousands of Canadian men going overseas to fight in the trenches of France, and tens of thousands would never return home, or be maimed on the battlefield. This created a need for a steady stream of new recruits, and with recruitment drying up, that meant conscription.
This election came six years after the previous election, the longest gap in Canadian history. An election should have been held in 1916 but due to the emergency of the First World War, Parliament agreed to suspend an election for one year.
It was hoped by the Borden government that the delay would allow for the creation of a coalition government, comprising all the parties, in response to the First World War. A major purpose for the formation of the coalition was the conscription issue, which had bitterly divided Canada between English Canada and French Canada. Earlier in the war, Borden had promised that he would not conscript Canadians into military service but after going to Europe, he assured the other leaders of the Allied forces that Canada would commit more to the struggle.
Borden would say to the House of Commons on May 18, 1917, quote:
“I cannot too strongly emphasize my belief that a great effort still lies before the Allied nations if we are going to win this war.”
The Unionist Government proposal was rejected by Sir Wilfrid Laurier because of conscription, which was strongly opposed in Quebec. Laurier also worried that the coalition would cause Quebec to abandon the Liberals. Losing the historic support of Quebec would have been devastating for the Liberals at the time.
Throughout 1917, the conscription crisis resulted in riots and demonstrations throughout Quebec. Henri Bourassa, the man who helped bring down the Liberals in Quebec in 1911, turned against the Conservatives, stating that Quebec had no obligation to England, and only had to be loyal to Canada.
The Conservatives, who had relied on Bourassa in the previous election, quickly turned on him. They would state in a written message that, quote:
“The teachings of Bourassa and the failure of Laurier to rally his race in the war are bearing fruit in a wave of race bigotry and desire for French Canadian domination and a solid English Speaking Canada, determined to maintain British ideals and British traditions in Canada will successfully cope with a situation pregnant with peril.”
Of course, even though Bourassa didn’t support the Conservatives, he wasn’t supporting Laurier either. On election day, he would state quote:
“The country has no alternative between the policy of the government and that of the opposition and between two evils is necessary to choose the least. For a true Canadian and sincere Nationalist, in the larger sense of the word, the Unionist policy is absolutely evil and the Liberal policy is relatively less evil.”
While the Conservatives pushed a message that the Liberals wanted to quit the war, a written manifesto from Laurier actually stated that the Liberals wanted to stop profiteering from the war, and instead of conscription, a strong appeal for voluntary recruiting, along with a referendum.
On Aug. 29, 1917, the Military Service Act would pass, allowing the government to conscript men aged 20 to 45 across the country if Borden felt it was necessary.
The conscription issue was so bad that for the first time, Quebec began to talk openly about leaving Confederation. One member of the Quebec Legislature would say after the election that Quebec would, quote:
The Unionist Government would still form with English Canadian Liberal MPs joining, while French Canadian MPs, including Laurier, stayed with the Liberal Party.
Two new laws had also come into place that would give more support to the Conservatives in the coming election. The first law was under the Military Voters Act, which allowed soldiers in Europe to choose the riding they wanted their vote to be counted in, or they could allow the party to choose the riding. This gave government officials the ability to guide the votes of soldiers, who were strongly in favour of conscription, to ridings where it would be more useful. Servicemen would simply be given a ballot that said “government” or “opposition”. This allowed the government to use 400,000 votes to influence the election in their favour. When the votes were tallied, 80 per cent of soldiers on the front lines voted in favour of the Borden government.
The other law was under the Wartime Elections Act. This Act would remove the vote from anyone, including those who had lived in Canada for a decade, who were deemed to be enemy aliens. Anyone who had arrived in Canada after 1902 lost the vote if they came from a country like Germany or Austria. This group of people typically voted Liberal, and it would result in a huge loss of votes for Liberals, especially in the Prairie Provinces. The Act also gave the vote to female relatives of soldiers overseas, who were more likely to vote for the Conservatives and conscription.
The German Atrocities pamphlet published by the Union Government Publicity Bureau would state about why women should vote for the government, quote:
“Why should the women of Canada vote for the Union Government? Because they are vitally interested in seeing that the war against Germany and all Germany represents is carried on to the bitter end. Germany’s attitude to women is that of the uncivilized savage. Germans are brutal, fiendish, inhuman. In Belgium, lustful and cruel, they violated women and girls, murdered their husbands, tortured and mutilated children and murdered babies.”
One critic of this act stated it would have been more honest to just state that all who did not pledge to vote Conservative would be disenfranchised.
Margaret Gordon, president of the Canadian National Suffrage Association, said it would have been just as honest to make it illegal not to vote Conservative.
Once these measures were passed, the Liberal-Unionists joined with the Conservatives and Parliament was then dissolved. Those who remained loyal to Laurier became known as the Laurier Liberals.
The election would be called the Khaki Election as a result of the colour of the uniforms of soldiers. It would also be the ugliest election in Canadian history.
Unionists would go on the offensive, attacking the Liberals and questioning their patriotism. The London Free Press would write, quote:
“Every vote cast for a Laurier candidate is a vote cast for the Kaiser.”
For any Unionist who ran in Quebec under the conscription banner, they were threatened and attacked in some cases.
Even in Ontario, there was division between voters. On Nov. 24, Borden went to Kitchener for an election rally. The press would report, quote:
“This is certainly a red letter day in the history of the city and the riding and a glorious opportunity for all to hear the great statesman speak upon the vital issues of the hour.”
Kitchener had been named Berlin until the name was changed earlier in the war. It also had a high German Canadian population, and many of those individuals could no longer vote. W.G. Weichel was the incumbent and sided with the Unionists, while W.D. Euler, the former mayor of Berlin, represented the Liberals and called the actions of the government, quote:
“A nightmare of disregard for the public rights without parallel in Canada.”
About 200 Euler supporters paraded down the street and 400 anti-Unionist supporters split into three groups inside the auditorium. As soon as Borden began to speak, the anti-Unionists began to chant “We want Laurier”, to which Borden responded, quote:
“Whenever you get through, I am ready to begin.”
After several attempts to begin his speech, Borden gave up and stated, quote:
“An organized effort to prevent free speech here tonight, and I do not propose to waste my time trying to discuss these important issues under such circumstances.”
The effects of this event would last for weeks as several companies outside Kitchener felt Borden had been disrespected and threatened an economic boycott of Kitchener. Even other towns in Waterloo County discussed removing Kitchener as the county seat, or forming a new county without Kitchener in it.
On Dec. 6, eleven days before the election, the Halifax Explosion destroyed Halifax, killing 2,000 people and leaving the entire city in ruins. In that explosion, Borden would lose several friends in the disaster. Nonetheless, the election would go on and was held on Dec. 17.
On the day of the election, the Toronto Mail and Empire would print an editorial that stated, quote:
It went further by stating that if a man voted for the Liberals, while having a son overseas, he was betraying his son.
Liberal newspapers were no less dramatic. The Winnipeg Free Press stated, quote:
“December 17 will be Doomsday. The contest is not an election but a destiny and beyond all reasonable doubt it is a contest for the soul of this nation.”
While the election was decisive over the issue of conscription, the new laws had the proper effect that the Conservatives were hoping for. The Unionist Government would win 153 seats, the largest amount of seats in Canadian history to that point, and the most until the Liberals won 173 seats in 1935.
With some women having the vote, they voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Unionist government. A Mrs. M. Wilson voted with her three female friends in Winnipeg, and stated after, quote:
“We have done all we could to put the Union government back into power.”
The reason for the high vote for the Unionists was since the women had family fighting overseas, they wanted conscription to come in so new recruits could be sent over, and their family members could come home.
The Conservatives dominated every province from British Columbia to Ontario. From British Columbia to Ontario, the Liberals only won 10 seats, and all in typically French-speaking area. One seat they won was in Kitchener, where Euler emerged victorious.
The Kitchener contest was not without drama on election day though. The Montreal Gazette would report, quote:
“Supporters of W.D. Euler, the successful candidate, while marching past the Unionist committee rooms, attempted to rush them. There was a free-for-all fight, in which fisticuffs were exchanged and W.G. Weichel, the Unionist candidate, called upon the mayor, suggesting that troops be summoned to quell the disturbance. The order was given but the news got around and later returns being favourable to the celebrations, they dispersed and the order for the troops was countermanded.”
The party would also win 10 seats in the Maritimes, again in French-speaking areas. In Quebec, Conservative support completely collapsed. The party would only win three seats, its worst showing ever, while the Liberals dominated with 62 seats in total. The Conscription Crisis would end support for the Conservatives in Quebec for nearly half a century. It would not be until Diefenbaker’s massive election win in 1958 that the Conservatives would defeat the Liberals in the province.
The New York Times would write of the election result, quote:
A Major Cooper was quoted in the Vancouver Daily World, stating quote:
“A straight answer to the Huns and the boys in the trenches. Canada will carry on.”
Sir Robert Borden would address the election with a statement, saying quote:
“The people of Canada have fully realized and splendidly fulfilled their duty. The Union Government will have a majority of at least 50 in the New Parliament…It was not a party victory in any sense. If party lines are to be taken into account, it is a triumph as much for Liberals as for Conservatives…It was a notable test of democracy. The Canadian people, after more than three years of heroic devotion and untold sacrifice, were called upon to say whether Canada’s effort in the war should be maintained.”
One man who was courted by the Unionists was William Lyon Mackenzie King. He was from English Canada but he remained loyal to Laurier. His refusal to go against Laurier would end up having a lasting impact on his life. When Laurier died in 1919, King would take over as leader, a role he would stay in until 1948, during which time he governed Canada for 21 total years. While King would lose in the 1917 election, he would return two years later in 1919 and remain Parliament until 1948.
Following the election, 125,000 Canadians, 25 per cent of who were eligible, were conscripted into service but only 24,000 would be sent to the front lines.
This would be the last election for both Laurier and Borden. Laurier would die only two years later, having led the Liberals from 1887 to 1919, and he would be replaced by King, who would lead the Liberals until 1948, and through another world war.
Borden would retire from politics in 1920, and his mantle would be passed to Arthur Meighen. Unfortunately for Meighen, the 1917 election would loom large in the 1920s, and the Conservatives would have trouble staying in power for the entire decade because of the decisions made in 1917.
The damage had been done through, and Canadian unity would be impacted by this election for generations to come. Borden had won the election, but it came at a great cost. The country would be fractured, and even today, those divisions still exist, haunting us over a century later.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, TVO, Toronto Star, Valour Canada, Canada’s History, Dynasties and Interludes, The Vancouver Sun, Montreal Gazette,