Conscription for Wartime Service

In many nations, war serves as a unifying force. Canada is not a typical nation, however, and in this country war has been more likely to create tremendous rifts among segments of the population than to unite them. In the past few years there have been many books, articles, films and websites devoted to Canada's experiences in the First and Second World Wars. Many of the resources have been celebratory, though some have raised serious questions about Canada's role in both conflicts that engulfed the world, first from 1914-1919 and then again from 1939-1945.

Conscription, or compulsory military service, divided Canada in both conflicts. In the First World War, Prime Minister Robert Borden promised on New Year's Day, 1916 that Canada would maintain a military force of 500,000 men because he believed that the war was an opportunity to demonstrate to the world, especially to Britain, that Canada was a great nation. He, like so many other Canadians, believed that a nation that proved itself in war would be great in peace. There was praise for Borden in much of English Canada, since the war was for Canada a test of national character. Still, many worried that with a population not much more than 10 million people, Borden's commitment was too ambitious. At the same time, a number of Canadians, particularly within Quebec, believed that Canada had no place in the war, as it was a conflict between the imperial powers of Great Britain and Germany. They would fight to defend Canada, they asserted, but adamantly refused to see Canadian blood spilled in the military affairs of Britain. Only 4.69 percent of men eligible from Quebec volunteered by 1917 compared with 15.5 percent of those from western Canada and 14.4 percent from Ontario.

The crisis came in 1917, when Prime Minister Borden was summoned to London, England to participate in the Imperial War Conference. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George wanted a greater manpower commitment from Canada and the other dominions, and following on Canadian success at Vimy Ridge earlier in the year, Borden decided that he had no choice but to implement conscription to keep the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the numbers he had promised. Quebec Conservatives warned him that it would take his party 25 years to rebuild if he introduced conscription. The issue threatened to divide the country as many workers and farmers as well as Quebecers were opposed. Borden hoped that a coalition government made up of Conservatives and Liberals would help. Although Liberal leader Sir Wilfrid Laurier refused, 25 Liberals later joined with Borden to carry conscription.

When Canada declared war on Germany on 11 September 1939, then Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King knew only too well how the previous war had threatened national unity and destroyed the Conservative Party in the province of Quebec. King had promised the country --though in essence it was a pledge to Quebec -- that there would be no conscription for overseas duty; there was, however, conscription for the defence of Canada. On 21 June 1940 the National Resources Mobilization Act was enacted, giving 'government special emergency powers to mobilize all our human and material resources for the defence of Canada.' The Act called for a national registration of all eligible men and women for domestic defence, but Camillien Houde, the populist mayor of Montreal urged Quebecers to ignore the registration. Houde was interned for much of the war.

Almost immediately some in Canada demanded conscription. Premier Mitch Hepburn of Ontario passed a resolution in the Ontario Legislature on 18 January 1940, condemning the King Government for not being 'vigorous' in prosecuting Canada's war effort. It was Arthur Meighen, the former minister of justice during the First World War, that lead the movement for conscription. When his own minister of defence, Colonel J.L. Ralston, also demanded conscription, King, the able politician, decided to have a national plebescite asking the people of Canada to release the government from its promise not to invoke conscription for overseas service. The issue of conscription was fiercely debated leading to the plebescite on 27 April. The result confirmed the split in the nation with much of English Canada supporting the government and much of French Canada opposing it. With 72.9 percent voting against conscription in Quebec and overwhelming support elsewhere, conscription once again threatened national unity. After the plebescite, King moved slowly, stating his policy in a clever, even elusive phrase 'Not necessarily conscription but conscription if necessary. Still, English Canada wanted conscription and Quebec did not.

By the fall of 1944, it became clear that the Canadian Army needed infantry reinforcements that would be created only if the government invoke conscription for overseas service. King delayed as long as he could and finally agreed that conscription had become necessary. Slightly more than 12,000 conscripts were sent overseas before the war came to an end. That the country did not fragment further during the Second World War was largely a credit to Prime Minister King who strived throughout his long political career to keep the nations united.



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