1917 Conscription Crisis

At the outbreak of war in 1914, 30,000 Canadian volunteers joined the army, far more than were expected, most of them recent immigrants from Britain. With a vigorous government campaign to encourage people to volunteer by 1916 the Canadian numbers had swelled to 300,000, but at this point, with the war dragging on, it became clear there would be no quick end and men stopped volunteering. The Prime Minister of Canada, Robert Laird Borden, had promised 500,000 soldiers by the end of that year, even though Canada's population at the time was only 8 million.

Although the Canadians participated in many battles in 1917 and distinguished themselves especially at Vimy Ridge, there were very few volunteers to replace the thousands of casualties these battles caused. Making things worse on the home front, in Quebec the war was seen in terms of illegitimate British interests, and in general the Quebecois volunteers were treated poorly in the Anglo dominated military hierarchy, meaning very few Quebecois volunteered. In May 1917, Borden announced he would be introducing conscription, which received a lukewarm response in English Canada, but was far less popular in Quebec where anti conscription rallies and rioting broke out, provoked by the nationalist Quebecois leader, Henri Bourassa.

To solidify his vote (1917 was an election year in Canada) Borden extended the vote to all soldiers (and female nurses) serving overseas, who were in favour of conscription. Women who had close male relatives serving overseas were also granted the vote, as they tended to favour conscription to support their husbands and sons fighting in France. Bordens Unionist party - an alliance of conservatives and pro conscription liberals - won with a 71 seat majority.

In January, 1918, the government began the implementation of conscription. The Military Service Act called up 400,000 men, but there were so many exemptions and loopholes that most of these managed to avoid service. In Quebec there were more marches and protests against the act. On April 1st 1918 four men were killed in a protest when the army opened fire on a crowd in Quebec City - a later inquest would show that these men were pedestrians who had not been involved in the protests.

The government later amended the act so there were no exemptions, which left many English Canadians opposed as well. Even without exemptions only 125,000 men were conscripted, and only 25,000 of these were sent to the front. Fortunately for Borden, the war ended within a few months of the conscripts being sent into battle, but the issue left Canada divided and suspicious of their government. In the 1921 election the Conservatives were routed, and in Quebec the Conservatives practically ceased to exist as a political force for the next 50 years.

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