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Conscription Crisis of 1917

The Conscription Crisis of 1917 was a political and military crisis in Canada during World War I.

Table of contents
1 Background
2 The Military Service Act
3 The Election of 1917
4 Conscription and the End of the War


At the outbreak of war in 1914, over 30 000 volunteers joined the army, far more than expected. These volunteers were mostly recent immigrants from Britain, as well as unemployed young men from the English-speaking provinces. French-Canadians, led by Henri Bourassa, felt no particular loyalty to either Britain or France. Although Minister of Militia Sam Hughes' training camp was in Valcartier, Quebec, few Quebecois volunteered, since they expected nothing but ill treatment as French-speaking catholics in what were essentially new English speaking regiments filled mostly with protestant men and officers. Young French-Canadians who were looking for adventure or a way to escape the boredom of farm life flocked instead to the few traditional "French" regiments of the Canadian army, such as Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, where barracks life was in French and only the command language was in English. Most of them had to be turned away because the minister of militia and his subordinates were obstinate in their refusal to expand the traditional "French" regiments or to create new ones. However, the government continued to raise its expectations for volunteers, aiming for 150 000 men by 1915.

Unfortunately, as the war dragged on, soldiers and politicians soon realized there would be no quick end, and men stopped volunteering. There were over 300 000 recruits by 1916, but Prime Minister Robert Laird Borden had promised 500 000 by the end of that year, despite the fact that Canada's population was only 8 million at the time.

The Military Service Act

Although an important victory for Canada (if unimportant to the war itself), the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917 cost Canada over 3000 dead and over 7000 wounded. There were very few volunteers to replace them, and efforts to recruit in Quebec had failed. After visiting Britain for a meeting of First Ministers in May of 1917, and talking with Canadian soldiers recuperating in British hospitals, Borden announced that he would be introducing conscription. In July the Military Service Act was passed, allowing Borden to conscript men if he felt it was necessary. English Canada was not unanimously in favour of conscription, but was far more supportive than Quebec, where Bourassa argued that Canada had no business in a blatantly imperialistic European war. Marches against Borden and conscription were organized in Quebec, and riots broke out at anti-conscription rallies.

The Election of 1917

To solidify support for conscription in the 1917 election, Borden extended the vote to overseas soldiers, who were in favour of conscription to replace their depleted forces. For Borden, these votes had an other advantage, they could be distributed in any riding, regardless of the soldier's regular place of residence. Women, who tended to favour conscription to support their husbands and sons in France were also granted the right to vote in this election. Borden's Unionist Party, a coalition between the Conservatives and Liberals, won with a slight majority. However, Borden was opposed not only by Bourassa, but also by Wilfrid Laurier, the leader of the Liberals who had been abandoned by much of his party. Laurier had opposed conscription from the beginning of the war, and privately felt that if he joined the coalition, Quebec would fall under what he perceived as a dangerous nationalism of Bourassa.

Conscription and the End of the War

On January 1, 1918, the Unionist government began to enforce the Military Service Act. The Act called up 400 000 men, but it was vague and offered many exemptions, and almost all of these men were able to avoid service, even if they had supported conscription. In Quebec there were more protests and marches against the Act. On April 1st 1918, four men were killed when the army opened fire on a crowd in Quebec City. The coroner's inquest would later show that these men were pedestrians who had not been involved in the protests.

The government then amended the Act so that there were no exemptions, which left many English Canadians opposed as well. Even without exemptions only about 125 000 men were ever conscripted, and only 25 000 of these were sent to the front. Fortunately for Borden, the war ended within a few months, but the issue left Canada divided and distrustful of their government. In 1920 Borden retired, and his successor, Arthur Meighen, was defeated in the 1921 election.See also Conscription Crisis of 1944