The Conscription Crisis

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It was an event that nearly tore the country into two. It would also have political ramifications that lasted for decades, reshaping the politics of Canada and helping the Liberal Party become the dominant party of the 20th century in Canada.

It is the Conscription Crisis, and today we are going to look at this monumental event in Canadian history.

It would all be fought around the 1917 federal election, the most divisive election in Canadian history.

In the first two years of the First World War, over 300,000 Canadians had signed up to serve in France. Considering Canada only had eight million people, this was a huge amount of recruits.

The problem was that by 1916, volunteering was beginning to decline and Canada did not have enough troops coming in to replace those who were shipped away from the front lines, or died in the war.

In the spring of 1917, Sir Robert Borden journeyed to France and he saw the size of the conflict and believed that the only way to win the war was with more troops. This solidified in him his decision to bring in compulsory service to Canada.

The idea of compulsory recruitment was popular in English Canada, but deeply unpopular in French Canada.

By the time the 1916 Quebec election had come around, Canada was two years deep into the First World War. While there was a great deal of recruitment in English Canada, recruitment remained slow in French Canada. Premier Gouin, for his part, supported Canada’s participation in the war and he would attend a rally on Oct. 15, 1914 in Montreal where he spoke about the duty of French Canadians to help both England and France. Throughout 1915 and into 1916, he would appeal to Quebecers to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He would also work with the federal government to encourage the war effort.

Despite this, only five per cent of the total Canadian fighting force were Francophones. Of the 262 Infantry Battalions raised for overseas service, only eight addressed themselves to enlisting Francophone recruits, letting them use their own language.

 There are many reasons for this, including the lack of advancement within the army for French soldiers, animosity from officers towards Francophones and Regulation 17, which disallowed French language instruction in Ontario.

While Gouin supported the war effort, he knew supporting conscription was political suicide and he was strongly opposed to conscription when it came about after the election.

It was not that the French were disloyal, as was often portrayed by the government and some media. They simply did not feel loyalty to either France or England. Their loyalty was to Canada.

Other critics to conscription included farmers, who did not want their sons leaving the farm to fight, trade unionists and pacifists such as the Doukhobors.

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.

In his New Year’s Eve address in 1916, Prime Minister Robert Borden said,

“On this last day of the old year, the authorized force will be 500,000. This announcement is made in token of Canada’s unflinchable resolve to crown the justice of our cause with victory and with an abiding peace.”

Authorizing such a large force was not going to be easy, given Canada’s population and the fact enlistments were slowing down.

As the year went on, the casualties overseas continued to be high. From January to August, there were 67,810 casualties in the Canadian ranks. At the same time, new enlistments were only 47,927.

The idea of conscription was something former Prime Minister and l leader Wilfrid Laurier was very against. He stated it would break the country in two and he refused to join with the Borden government to create a coalition government.

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.

Future prime minister and close friend of Laurier, William Lyon Mackenzie King, wrote in his diary,

“He said he did not like the idea of a coalition, it was unsatisfactory to him. Besides, he was opposed to conscription and thought the people should pass on it. He had told Borden so.”

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.

In May 1917, he announced in Parliament that he was going to introduce conscription. Quickly, Parliament was divided along French and English lines and this same effect would be seen across the country.

Borden would say to the House of Commons, 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 day after the speech, Mackenzie King wrote in his diary,

“I hope our party will see the wisdom under the circumstances of granting an extension of at least six months. It would ease my mind greatly if this could be definitely decided.”

The law was passed incredibly quickly, authorizing the force of 500,000 from men who were aged 21 to 30.

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.

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:

“Be disposed to accept the breaking of the Confederation Pact of 1867 if, in the other provinces, it is believed that she is an obstacle to the union, progress and development of Canada.”

In Montreal, a petition was submitted to city council on May 24, signed by 10,000 people, asking that council oppose the conscription plan of the federal government. The Montreal Gazette stated,

“Such a measure was alleged to be contrary to the traditions and interests of the country and further that the enforcement of the Militia Act for overseas service without a plebiscite is contrary to the constitution.”

On May 26, a crowd began to throw stones at the windows of Montreal City Hall, despite protest organizers asking that they remain peaceful. Police quickly responded to both this protest, and one at Laval University that same evening when 200 young men congregated in their own parade against conscription. As the men marched against conscription, two young women yelled Up With Conscription at them. The men in the crowd responded with Go back to your own country. The police pushed the crowd along before any violence erupted.

In another march, Private H. Franklin, who was standing nearby to one march in Montreal was left with fractured ribs, a black eye and contusions over his left eye.

The Mayor of Montreal, Mederic Martin, stated that while it was important to do all that they could for the British Empire, he did not agree with how the conscription was being implemented.

He said,

“We should do all that is humanly possible for the Empire. It is our duty to do all that is possible, but that does not mean that the prime minister has the right to engage the people of Canada without their consent.”

He asked that citizens do not conduct acts of violence and to respect the opinions of others.

On May 29, 4,000 young men marched through Ottawa and Hull, yelling “Down with conscription” and “Canada forever, conscription never.”

In Toronto, city council put forward a motion that it favoured conscription without a referendum. Meanwhile in Sherbrooke, a meeting was held where members of the junior bar denounced bringing in conscription without consulting the people. The meeting was attended by over 4,000 people.

The Quebec Council, by a vote of 19-2, adopted an anti-conscription resolution. The two aldermen who voted in favour of conscription were subjected to a hostile demonstration by the large crowd who had assembled there.

The Federation of Labour Clubs of Montreal passed a resolution that they ask the federal government to send the citizens of Allied countries to war first, before those born in Canada. The leader of the organization stated that 50,000 Belgians of military age lived in Canada and should be sent first to war.

That same day, at one anti-conscription march in Quebec, police responded quickly in Verdun when 200 anti-conscription supporters hit the street. Only one man was arrested. Most of the crowd was made up of young men aged 15 to 20.

On June 2, the Liberal caucus met and were split down the middle, half opposed conscription, while half supported it and joining the Conservatives.

In an effort to win the election and pass conscription, Sir Robert Borden and the Unionist Government began rewriting the election rules in their favour.

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 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.

By Nov. 2, Mackenzie King wrote in his diary,

“I would prefer taking the bold course and coming out and saying I would not conscript a single man unless there were conscription all around, conscription of wealth of resources etc.”

The election was not a pleasant one for anyone. For any Unionist who ran in Quebec under the conscription banner, they were threatened and attacked in some cases.

On the day of the election, the Toronto Mail and Empire would print an editorial that stated, quote:

“A vote for a Laurier candidate was a vote for Bourassa and against the Canadian army at the front. It was a vote against the British connection and the Empire and a vote for Germany, the Kaiser, Hindenburg, von Tirpitz and the German soldier who sank the Lusitania.”

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.

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.

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.

With conscription now in place, 401,882 men were registered. Thousands of young men refused to register for the selection process, and many exemptions were granted. Of those who did register, 93 per cent asked for exemptions. Many who avoided enlistment had supported conscription prior to being registered for it. This was the case in Western Canada as well. In Calgary, 1,367 reported for service, while 11,953 applied for exemptions. In Winnipeg, 1,367 reported, but 9,886 asked for exemptions. In Toronto, 2,113 reported for service and 21,584 wanted to be exempt.

In Quebec, there was intense anger over the entire situation.

From March 28 to April 1, riots were sparked throughout the province. Now called the Quebec Easter Riots, they began when police detained a French-Canadian man who failed to present draft exemption papers. The man was released but a mob of 200 people descended on the St. Roch Police Station where he had been held.

Calgary Herald reported on March 28,

“Serious disorders occurred here tonight when a squad of Dominion police, engaged in apprehending deserters under the provisions of the Military Service Act was attacked by a crowd of civilians.”

This riot soon began to grow and by the next evening, 15,000 people were ransacking the conscription registration office and attacking two pro-conscription newspapers in Quebec City.

As the registration office burned, the crowd apparently sang O Canada.

The Calgary Herald reported,

“Rioting broke out afresh in Quebec tonight at 9 o’clock and mobs of young men paraded the main streets of the city. The unruly elements in the throng soon got the upper hand and attacks were made upon the newspaper offices.”

The Ottawa Citizen stated,

“There have been no arrests and, so far as is known, no serious injuries resulted. Chief Detective Tom Walsh had his face badly cut while attempting to make an arrest, and two clerks in the Chronicle office were hit by flying glass and slightly cut.”

The mayor of Quebec City contacted Ottawa to ask for reinforcements and using the War Measures Act, Borden and his government took over law and order in Quebec City.

The next day, 780 soldiers were deployed in the city, with 3,000 more coming from the Prairies and 1,000 from Ontario.

This did not stop the rioting, and on March 30, rioting continued as Easter Monday approached.

On that day, crowds in Quebec City stood in defiance of the 1,200 soldiers in the city who had been ordered in by Borden. These soldiers had all come from Ontario.

Armed rioters in concealed positions began to fire on the soldiers, who returned fire into the crowds causing the rioters to flee from the area.

The Ottawa Citizen reported,

“Three people were shot and slightly wounded during the renewal of the anti-conscription riots here tonight. The shooting took place during a mix-up between the rebellious element and soldiers who were removing firearms from a hardware store.”

It is not known how many died for sure that day, but five deaths among civilians are listed in official reports. Among the soldiers, 32 were injured but none were killed.

In all, the riots had caused $300,000 in damages and resulted in 150 casualties.

The Calgary Herald reported,

“After a stormy, riotous night, during which two newspaper offices and the premises of the Registrar were destroyed, with the military patrolling the streets, Quebec was very quiet this morning. The regiments in quarters in Quebec came from Ontario, and they have been reinforced by local militia.”

Mackenzie King wrote in his diary on April 4,

“The Quebec riots have simply justified all I said in my campaign in North York of the dangers of conscription. The bad feeling and bad blood engendered will last for years in this country. It is doubtful if the help we can give in extra men will equal the injury already done.”

Call-ups began in 1918 and of those registered, nearly 125,000 were drafted into the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Of those who were drafted into the force, almost 100,000 passed their physical, and the remainder were found unfit for service. In Edmonton alone, 60 per cent were unfit for military service. The Edmonton Journal stated,

“Flat feet and broken arches are the chief complaint. Office employees fall down badly in tests.”

One man apparently cut off two of his own fingers to prevent himself from being conscripted.

Heading overseas, 47,509 men who were conscripted actually made it there and only 24,132 actually served in France.

The damage had been done to Canada, and it would take decades for the rift to heal and its impact is still felt to this day.

Borden would say,

“No more severe trial of the self-endurance of a democracy was ever made.”s

Information from Macleans, Canadian Encyclopedia, Did The French Canadian Cause the Conscription Crisis of 1917, Dynasties and Interludes, Canadian War Museum, Wikipedia, Library and Archives Canada, Montreal Gazette, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, The Edmonton Bulletin, Calgary Herald, Ottawa Citizen,

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