Conscription in Canada during World War 1
Canada entered the First World War in August 1914 thinking that it would be over soon. However, the war did not end as predicted thus straining the nation in terms of military personnel. The Conscription Crisis was caused by the forceful enlisting of Canadian men to the military during World War 1 in 1917. When the decision to force men to take part in the military activity in Europe and other parts of the world was reached, major disagreements occurred in the country’s leadership, particularly between the Liberalists and the Unionists. The issue also brought division that threatened conflict between French Canadians that were against conscription and English Canadians who supported the move. This paper argues that the conscription in Canada was not necessary. This topic is addressed by analyzing the arguments brought forth by both groups that supported and those that were against conscription, and also by analyzing the political and legal basis of the conscription decision.
The war dealt Canada a big dent as far as the number of soldiers was concerned. A 1915 letter from Private Herbert Durand – a Canadian soldier read, “This life is sure hell. I don’t know the minute I may get shot. Sometimes the bullets are so thick that it is just like a big rainstorm, and while I am writing this the shrapnel is exploding over heads every minute, and pieces of steel and iron falling all around us.” Seeing the high number of casualties and after hearing of the magnitude of destruction in Europe, men in Canada ceased to volunteer their services in the war. As a result, Robert Borden’s government, in 1917 saw that the only option was to force men to enroll in the military to top up the deficit. However, the call for conscription by the government was ill-advised. This is because the war in Europe did not threaten Canada in any way, meaning that the move of forcing men to enlist for the war had no basis at all. At the time Robert Borden made the decision to enlist soldiers by force, 30,000 Canadian soldiers had already died in the protracted war, and so the move received criticism in the basis that forcing men to go to war to die beat the logic of why Canadians were taking part in the war in the first place. Canada took part in the war with the objective of preserving people’s freedom of choice, and liberty. This clearly shows that despite the fact that the proponents of conscription supported the move on the basis of covering up deficit resulting from the death of volunteers, there was absolutely no need for Canada to go on with the war which implies that conscription was unnecessary. To further emphasize this argument, attention must be paid to the process employed in imposing military service, and the arguments of individuals that were opposed to the conscription decision.
A shortage of military manpower in 1916 is what informed the government to start considering conscription. However, Borden was not hasty to make the move to force people to enroll for military service. Instead, he rallied young men to register voluntarily one last time. If there had been a desperate need for soldiers at that particular moment, voluntary registration would not have been an option. Rather, the government would have made it compulsory immediately after noticing the deficit. Joining the military was imposed on May 1917, which is over six months after the call for people to volunteer. This thus shows that the move to force people to join the army was not so necessary as to require an immediate response from the government. The Military Service Act of 1917 faced opposition from many individuals and groups. The most significant opposition was from French Canada, and the Henri Bourassa led Nationalist Party. These two groups were later joined by the Quebec Press and a number of leaders from the French Catholic Church. The Liberal Party, led by Sir Wilfrid Laurier, called for a referendum in a move that was aimed at doing away with conscription. Regardless of all this resistance, the bill was passed on 29th August 1917. Even though the bill was passed thus allowing conscription, the resistance seen from very influential groups showed that conscription was not seen as necessary by all. The lack of unanimous support for conscription thus indicates that the move to forcefully recruit soldiers was not necessary. The push for conscription can also be seen from a socio-political perspective in that the move was seen to drive the political interests of the then ruling party.
The support and opposition were seen to be divided between French Canada and English Canada. While the French considered themselves Canadians, who had nothing to do with the troubles of Europe, English Canadians felt an obligation take part in the war since they were loyal to the British Empire. As a result, these divisions which were somewhat political led to social divisions between the French and the English people. Due to the fact that there was no war in Canada, the French whose loyalty was to Canada saw no need to engage in the war hence no need for conscription. The English on the other hand, due to their ties with Britain, saw the need to take part in the war despite the fact that Canada was under no threat. This was thus a purely political move and as a result, the decision to force men to take part in the war was unnecessary. Further emphasizing the political motive behind the conscription is the fact that Borden, in a move aimed at gaining conscription more support, gave soldiers who were on duty overseas, the right to vote in the 1917 election, using the Military Voters Act. This right was also extended to women who worked alongside the soldiers as nurses. Women associated with the soldiers that were serving overseas in the war were also given the right to vote under the Wartime Elections Act as a reward for their patriotism. This use of the law to reward protagonists saw the Unionist Party, which was led by Borden win the election with 153 seats against 82 seats that went to the Liberals under Laurier. This clearly shows that the Unionist Party employed conscription as a political tool, first of all to please London, and secondly to win the 1917 election in Canada.
In addressing the question of whether or not conscription was necessary in Canada during World War 1, attention was drawn to the different groups that argued for and against the decision, as well as the influence of politics and the law. In the analysis, it was identified that there was no reason for Canada to take part in the war in the first place. This is because Canada was under no threat from any of the warring nations meaning Canada could have chosen not to take part in the war after failing to get enough volunteers. It was also noticed that the decision to carry out conscription was not unanimous and that the move faced resistance from French Canadians, the French Catholic Church, and the Quebec Press. Also, the political motive behind the conscription move was evident from the fact that the ruling party used the law to reward families of pro-conscription soldiers by giving them the right to vote. All these therefore clearly show that conscription was not necessary in Canada during World War 1. The decision was however reached on purely political reasons that served the interests of the ruling party.
Conscription in Canada during World War 1