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Conscription Crisis of 1944

The Conscription Crisis of 1944 was a minor political and military crisis in Canada during World War II. It was related to the Conscription Crisis of 1917, but was not as politically damaging.


Canada declared war on Germany on September 10, 1939, and sent one division to Europe, which had no chance for combat before France was completely overrun by Germany. In the election of 1940, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King pledged to limit Canada's involvement in the war, and especially promised not to impose conscription. This promise helped Mackenzie King's Liberals win the election. Most Canadians preferred King's pledge, even as it became obvious the war would drag on for years. Volunteers continued to sign up for military service, but, as in World War I, Britain-born Canadian residents volunteered more often than English and French-Canadians combined. As in World war I young French-Canadians who were looking for adventure or a way to escape the boredom of farm life flocked 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. Again, as in World war I, most of them had to be turned away because the general staff in Ottawa was obstinate in its refusal to expand the traditional "French" regiments or to create new ones. In June of 1940 the government adopted conscription for home service in the National Resources Mobilization Act, which allowed the government to register men and women and move them into jobs considered necessary for wartime production, but did not allow them to be conscripted for overseas service.

The Plebiscite of 1942

By 1941 there were enough volunteers for five overseas divisions. The Canadian army saw little fighting, except at Hong Kong in 1941 and Dieppe in 1942. In both battles they were heavily defeated. Meanwhile the Conservatives were pressuring King to introduce conscription. In April of 1942 King held a plebiscite, which asked the population not to support immediate conscription, but rather to allow the government to rescind its promise made during the 1940 election, so that it could introduce conscription whenever it felt necessary. King's famous quote on the issue, "conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription," reflected the ambiguous nature of the plebiscite. Unsurprisingly, the plebiscite was supported by most English Canadians, who voted 80% in favour, but hardly at all by French Canadians, especially in Quebec, where anti-conscription groups (including one led by Henri Bourassa, the most vocal opponent of conscription in 1917) helped 72.9% of the population vote against the plebiscite. The government then passed Bill 80, repealing the sections of the NRMA that did not allow for overseas conscription. However, many Canadians still did not support immediate conscription; there were a few riots in Montreal, although these were not on the same scale as the 1917 and 1918 riots. Even in Toronto, a strongly pro-conscription region, Conservative Arthur Meighen was defeated in a by-election after promising to help introduce conscription.

Introduction of Conscription

After campaigns in Italy in 1943 and the Battle of Normandy in 1944, combined with a lack of volunteers, Canada faced a shortage of troops. Colonel James Ralston argued in favour of finally introducing conscription, interpreting King's statement on "necessity" to mean the necessity of maintaining an army in the field. King disagreed, interpreting his remark to refer to the necessity of conscripts to win the war. King's French-Canadian ministers, and Quebec in general, did not trust Ralston, and King felt it was politically sensible to replace him as Minister of National Defense with the anti-conscription colonel Andrew McNaughton in November of 1944. Unfortunately, MacNaughton was unable to produce large numbers of volunteers for the army, although there were numerous volunteers for the navy and air force. King's cabinet threatened to resign and bring down the government. Later in November, McNaughton resigned, King finally accepted conscription on November 22. French-Canadians, who preferred a King government to a Conservative government led by Meighen, tacitly accepted the decision. Meighen was still considered an enemy in Quebec, as he had drafted the hated Military Service Act in 1917, while King was respected for doing all he could to avoid conscription.

However, only 13 000 men were conscripted, most of whom were from the home service conscripts drafted under the NRMA, rather than from the general population. Home service conscripts, who had been waiting for two years to be sent overseas, were by this time called "zombies" by many pro-conscription Canadians. The "zombies" had had few opportunities to do anything productive in home service, and they were one of the strongest pro-conscription groups in the country. Few of them saw combat in Europe though, as the war was over within a few months of their call-up. Politically, this was a successful gamble for King, as he avoided a drawn-out political crisis and remained in power until 1948.