Upon hearing the British declaration to participate in the Great War, many Canadians volunteered to enlist in the army and help the British cause. It was a time of great hopes, hopes that Canada would finally be politically and participate independently on the international stage to support Mother Country. In a sense, there were almost romantic hopes about the war: A new national identity, Canada adored and used by the British Empire, Canadians returning with glory and pride on Canada’s contributions.
What was unpredicted by so many was the impact of the Industrial Revolution that insidiously crept on before the war began, changing warfare forever. Soldiers were fighting a different war from the glorified classical warfares of the past. They were fighting a warfare of industrialization, of machine guns and muddy trenches, of mustard gas and barbed wires. It was no longer a game of glory and heroism. There was nothing in the world that could be less romantic.
What a bloodbath… Hell cannot be this dreadful.
-Albert Verdun, a French soldier at Verdun, 1916
Soon, the Canadians realized the brutality of this war and volunteer enlistment plummetted to as low as 3882 per month. Meanwhile, Canada’s large participation at the battles of Vimy Ridge, Ypres, Somme, (and later Passchendaele), resulted in the deaths of over 130,000 Canadians. In order to continue Canada’s involvement in the war to the end, the Canadian Expeditionary Force needed more reinforcements.
Prime Minister Robert Borden, who had just returned from Europe, faced three options:
- Reduce the size of each division (four Canadian divisions in total)
- Dismiss one (or more) of the bands and redistribute men to strengthen the remaining division.
- Introduce conscription
After witnessing soldiers’ conditions in Europe, Borden concluded that conscription must be necessary, and pushed through with enormous difficulty the Military Service Act which conscripted eligible men between 20 -45 to war. On August 29, 1917, the Military Service Act passed Parliament and became law.
I believe the time has come when the authority of the state should be invoked to provide reinforcements necessary to sustain the gallant men at the front who have held the line for months, who have proved themselves more than a match for the best troops that the enemy could send against them, and who are fighting in France and Belgium that Canada may live in the future[…] I bring back to the people of Canada from these men a message that they need our help, that they need to be supported, that they need to be sustained, that reinforcements must be sent to them.
-Robert Borden speech before House of Commons, May 18, 1917
Immediately, the Military Service Act received strong oppositions from many parts of Canada. Of all the men between twenty to twenty-four who were called up, 94% applied for an exemption. Canadians possessed strongly different historical perspectives at the time, and these divisions in 1917 continue to haunt Canada today. The majority of English-speaking Canada supported the idea, while some Anglophones and almost all Francophones opposed the idea of conscription. Most English- Canadians supported conscription because they treated it as a way to support their serving relatives overseas. English Canadians were still heavily under the influences of Britain, and most wanted to show their support for Mother Country. They also felt that conscription would finally force Quebec to do its share. As early as 1916, complaints in English-speaking Canada were raised against Quebec’s lack of participation in the war. Farmers, however, opposed this Act, for their sons would be conscripted overseas instead of helping at farms.
Image credit to www.warmuseum.ca
As predicted, the province of Quebec was outrage by this Act and hosted many riots throughout the province. Laurier, who initially encouraged Canadian involvement in the war, was also angered by Borden’s movement. One-quarter of eligible men lived in Quebec, yet only 11% of the population applied to enlist(and we don’t know how many were actually French-speaking). The general French-Canadian perspective of the era lacked allegiance to England and believed that Canada was already too involved in the war. They also didn’t want to fight under the imperialistic ideals that Britain was fighting under. To an extent, the French-Canadians have far stronger social autonomy compared to the English, who still maintained cultural connections to Britain.
It has often been wondered why the people of Quebec have not volunteered in large numbers. I am sure that not one man in the province of Quebec has any relatives native of France… I think it maybe truthfully said on the other hand that there is not an English-speaking family in Canada which cannot claim relatives in Great Britain
-Wilfrid Laurier to the House of Commons, 1917
English- Canadians were also surprised that French-Canadians did not want to fight under the name of France. Why?
Let’ s review the settlement of New France and its defeat at the Battles of Plains fo Abraham 200 years. In the previous Document of Learning, which can be read here, we learned that New France (which colonized Canada before the English) was conquered by James Wolfe in 1759. From here, it’s safe to infer that Canada no longer attracted many French immigrants. Whereas French-Canadians were most likely descended from the New France colonies 200 years ago, many English- Canadians were recent immigrants from Britain thanks to the open-policies during the Laurier Era. French Canadians have long abandoned their allegiance under the French flag, but their cultural difference also prevented them to demonstrate strong feelings towards the English Crown.
With the general election looming near, Borden was concerned that his government would lose popularity (which they certainly did in Quebec), and that conscription would be cancelled if Laurier’s Liberals won the election. Robert Borden employed many strategies in order to manipulate the election, such as forming the Union government and establishing the Wartime Elections Act, which you can read more about on Sid’s Document of Learning. The tension between Laurier’s liberals and Borden’s Union government grew quickly, and soon enough Borden’s government launched a campaign condemning those who did not want conscription (slackers).
In this event, Robert Borden was attempting to achieve international and political autonomy for Canada on the world stage, demonstrating our powers for the first time as an independent force. The decisions of Borden’s government to control Acts without thorough processes of democratic negotiation is also a significant step towards political autonomy (representational democracy? It’s more likely than you think). However, the government’s decision to conscript the citizens to warfare is not only morally controversial but also detrimental to individual Canadian autonomy. Although conscription was proposed to support the Canadian cause and to strengthen national pride, the sad truth is that neither of the two goals was achieved.
After Borden’s sweeping victory in the elections, around 400,000 men registered. Of these men, only 100,000 were drafted, and within THIS number, only 24,132 were actually sent to the front lines before the war ended on November 11, 1918. This number is only 9% of all of the 250,000 Canadians who fought overseas, proving the bitter price of French-English division to be a rather futile one.
As discussed before, Canada’s national unity was heavily injured during the First World War. For most nations at the time, conscription inspired strong nationalism amongst the population and strengthened unity. War helped clearly define what was “them” and what was “us”. For Canada, however, the issue of conscription brought long-lasting scars of division between English and French Canada. French-Canadians increasingly distrusted the English and believed that they treated unfairly by the mass English majority. The English Canadians thought that the French- Canadians were selfish and demanding. These feelings would never heal after the war.
The First World War was the first great test for this young nation to prove its internal and external resilience on such a world scale. It was also a time when Canada experienced scarring brutalities of warfare and drastic outcomes of industrialization. Such events sparked dilemmas of citizen autonomy in Canada and its value under national crisis. With the employment of the War Measures Act (established in 1914) and the Military Service Act, Canadians faced challenges to their liberty from their own government. Conscription meant that the nation’s values behind warfare were being imposed on the citizens, stripping away their right to choose whether this value was worth the risk of their lives. However, conscription also meant more support and higher chances of survival for those who did fight in the war. Without conscription, those who volunteered are essentially abandoned by the rest of Canada to fight with its shrinking divisions.
But when is it appropriate for the government to decide for its citizens the benefits of warfare? If the government performs such actions under the name of nationalism, why would citizens of the nation object? Why are there deviations between individual Canadian’s autonomy and the Government’s autonomy? And to what extent is the government stray from national interest justifiable? Who defines nationalism? The government or the people?
The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that “A free will and a will under moral laws are one and the same”. Therefore, individual”freedom” and consequently, “autonomy”, in Kantian terms is equal to the autonomy of a moral government. The dispute seen during conscription crisis can be treated as an imbalance of these Kantian ideals; the conscription crisis either lacked morality in the government’s decision, or freedom on the individual’s part.
Through the Federal Election and Conscription, Canadians learned the fragility of autonomy, especially the ease in which disagreements between state (political) and individual (social) autonomy can cause significant damages to national unity.