National Unity and Conscription in Canada
November 14, 2018 § 2 Comments
The First World War has a complicated legacy in Canada. When the war broke out in 1914, Canada was by and large still a colony of the United Kingdom, despite Confederation in 1867. The young Dominion’s foreign policy was still controlled in London (as was the case for all of the Dominions: South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia in addition to Canada). Thus, the UK went to war, so, too, did Canada. As our historians tell us, by the time the war ended on 11 November 1918, Canada had arrived on the global stage.
The Canadian Expeditionary Force of the First World War had performed more than admirably. The tenacity and valour of Canadian troops became legendary. For example, despite the lack of complete and formal training, the CEF quickly established itself as a forward-leading trench invading force. The performance of the CEF was made all the more impressive, I argue, given the fact that they were not all that well-equipped (this seems to be a constant for the Canadian military). For example, they were saddled with the underperforming and quick-to-jam Ross rifle (due to graft and corruption in Ottawa, of course), and malfunctioning machine guns. And then there was the Canadian knock-off of British webbing that tended to breakdown and disintegrate in trench warfare.
The combination of the performance of the CEF, along with the the diplomacy and leadership of Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden, the international community, and most importantly, the British, realized that the small country across the Atlantic had arrived (South Africa was similarly spoken of). This, ultimately, led to the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931 which finally gave control over their foreign affairs to the Dominions, an important step on the road to independence on Canada’s part.
But. The other side of this argument, and one that seems to be in retreat finally, is that the First World War was the glue that brought Canada together. Canada was comprised initially of four colonies at Confederation in 1867, Canada (modern-day Québec and Ontario), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. At the outset, the Nova Scotians wanted out. Three of those four were Anglo-Protestant colonies/provinces. The fourth was French Catholic. And then the impact of immigration brought people from all around Europe and Asia as the country spread across the Prairies and British Columbia, an old British colony, joined up in 1871. Prince Edward Island finally joined in 1873. And the Prairie Provinces were brought in in 1905. But, this was not a united nation. No, it was a regional one, with local concerns mattering more than national ones.
This is part of what made then-Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Policy so important, as it re-oriented the economies of the new provinces from a north-south axis to an east-west one. This was also the importance of the Canadian Pacific Railway, completed in 1886, from Montréal to Vancouver. Another, older line connected Montréal with Halifax, but it’s worth noting that a few decades before Confederation, Montreal merchants built a railway to connect them to Portland, ME, for a year-round port, rather than Halifax. But even still, old habits were hard to break and Canadians tended to remain local, rather than national.
Hence the narrative that the First World War brought us together. The problem is, of course, that this story is either only a partial truth or a complete untruth, depending on how you look at it.
The partially true version is that the war did unite Anglo Canada, that the concerted war effort across Anglo Canada did work to foster a sort of unity and common cause from Halifax to Vancouver (Newfoundland did not join Canada until 1949). This includes, to a large degree, the Anglo population of Montréal because, of course, the Canadian economy was run from there a century ago.
But, if we flip the view, this narrative is a myth (but, to be fair, countries do need myths, and Canada is a fine example is what happens when there aren’t any, or at least not many). The reason this is a myth is because of Québec.
As noted, Québec is a charter member of Canada and it is the oldest European colony in what became Canada. Québec was and remains a predominately French-speaking culture, heavily influenced by Catholicism historically. And this put it at odds with Anglo-Protestant Canada.
The First World War was perhaps the first time that the rest of the country even noticed something looking like French Canadian nationalism. The editor of the influential Montréal newspaper, Le Devoir, Henri Bourassa, dismissed the First World War as a European and British problem. He spoke for many, both French- and English- speaking Quebecers at the time.
When the 199th Battalion of the Irish-Canadian Rangers began to recruit in the spring of 1916, the commanders found it a tough slog. The Irish of Montréal, both Protestant and Catholic, were becoming increasingly reluctant to sign up (you can read all about this in my book, Griffintown, of course).
But it’s when conscription was enacted in Canada that public anger in Québec boiled over. As Bourassa had continually argued since the onset of war in 1914, French Canadians had no loyalties to either the British or the French (the UK’s ally in WWI, of course). No, he argued, their sole loyalty was to Canada. And this war was a war of imperialism that had nothing to do with Québec.
Nonetheless, through a combination of a crooked election and the political will of Borden, conscription came to Canada and was enacted on 1 January 1918. Of 404,000 men who were considered to be eligible for military service, 385,000 sought exemptions. And in Québec, tensions boiled over.
In Montréal, anti-conscription sentiment was very real. And whilst the traditional narrative tells us that it was French Canadians who were opposed to conscription, that’s only part of the story, as a large number of Irish in Montréal were also opposed. This boiled over in a massive anti-conscription parade and rally on 17 May 1918 in Montréal.
Anti-Conscription Rally, Montréal, May 1917
From 28 March to 1 April 1918, rioting occurred in Québec City, sparked by the arrest of a French Canadian man for failing to present his draft-exemption papers (he was quickly released). The rioting ultimately led to the Canadian military being called in from Ontario, along with the invocation of the War Measures Act. On the final day of rioting, when the protesters allegedly opened fire on the 1200-strong military force, the soldiers returned fire, which caused the crowds to disperse and ending the riots. In the end, over 150 people were hurt and over $300,000 in 1918 money was caused in damage.
And, in the aftermath, it became increasingly clear to the rest of Canada that perhaps French-speaking, Catholic Québec may have different views on issues than the wider nation.
Having said that, the dead-set opposition to Conscription in Québec was a precursor to the rest of Canada. Given the number of exemptions and the on-going problems at getting men in uniform, Borden’s government changed the rules of conscription in the spring of 1918 to end exemptions. Not surprisingly, the rest of the country came to oppose conscription.
Conscription, though, more or less killed the Conservative Party in Québec. In the fifty years after 1918, conservatives were virtually shut out at the federal level in Québec. And in the fifty years from then, conservatives have continued to have difficulty in Québec; only Brian Mulroney and, to a lesser extent, Stephen Harper, have been able to win support in Québec as conservative leaders.