Friday, December 15, 2017

Canada’s Conscription Election: One Hundred Years Ago

During the First World War, on December 17, 1917, Canadians elected a federal government that backed the decision of the government of Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden to conscript men to serve overseas in the armed forces.  The election bitterly divided French speaking Canadians from English speaking Canadians, leaving scars on the country that have never fully healed.

French speaking Canadians viewed the war, which began in 1914, very differently than did most of their fellow countrymen.  For them, the war was seen as a British imperial undertaking, leaving most of them lukewarm about volunteering to fight in it.

By  1917, with Canadian casualties soaring and voluntary recruitment waning—130,000 had been killed or maimed--Prime Minister Borden concluded that the government would have to resort to conscription to maintain the armed forces at full strength. 

In August 1917, the Military Service Act became law, opening the way for men to be conscripted for service on the western front in Europe.

The Borden government turned down the proposal of Liberal leader and former Prime minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier to hold a national referendum on the conscription issue.  The Liberal Party proceeded to split with pro conscription Liberals deserting to Borden who recruited a number of Liberals into his cabinet. With Liberals on board, Borden transformed his government from Conservative to Unionist.

The Laurier Liberals fought the bitter election of 1917 in opposition to conscription.   They carried 62 out of 65 seats in Quebec.  However, the Unionists swept English-speaking Canada and thereby retained power, winning 153 seats to 82 for the Liberals.

This enormously consequential Canadian election was conducted under altered electoral rules.  Those who had migrated to Canada from enemy countries since 1902 lost their right to vote and the close female relatives of members of the armed forces serving in Europe gained the right to vote.  It was the first time that any women in Canada voted in a federal election. 

George Etienne Cartier, the Quebec leader, who had been John A. Macdonald’s partner in the struggle for Confederation in the 1860s, had predicted that since Canada would have two major political parties, Conservatives and Liberals, with a large number of French Canadians in both, that politics would never align the English against the French on a critical issue.  Conscription proved his prediction wrong. 

The election of December 1917 divided the country along linguistic lines with almost every Anglophone riding in the country electing a pro-conscription candidate, while nearly every Francophone riding elected an anti-conscription Liberal.

Four days after the election, on December 21, 1917, in an atmosphere of raw antagonism, Joseph-Napoleon Francoeur, a Liberal member of the Quebec Legislative Assembly drafted a resolution calling for the secession of Quebec from Canada.  The resolution received huge attention in newspapers across the country.  Quebec’s Liberal Premier Lomer Gouin finally managed to convince Francoeur to withdraw the resolution, so that this Quebec separatist resolution was never put to a vote. 

In the spring of 1918, anti-conscription riots broke out in Quebec City. The Borden government dispatched troops to the city and anti-conscription crowds filled the streets in protest.  In response to shots being fired at the soldiers from concealed positions, the troops opened fire on the crowds driving them to flight.  Official figures put the number killed at five, with no soldiers among the dead.

In the province of Quebec, thousands of men who were conscripted hid out in the countryside, some of them in armed camps.  In English Canada as well, there was resistance to the draft.  Thousands of men from rural areas failed to report when they were called up. 

In the end, in part as a consequence of exemptions and resistance to the draft, only twenty-five thousand of those conscripted were actually sent to the front.

The Canadian armed forces performed magnificently during the war.  But if Canadians fought well, the political leaders of the country served them poorly, leaving the country scarred and divided.  The conscription crisis placed a question mark in the minds of many Quebeckers about whether Canada or Quebec was their true homeland.