World War I
By the fall, after enormous difficulty, Borden had created his UNION GOVERNMENT, and the MILITARY SERVICE ACT became law on 29 Aug 1917. Virtually every French-speaking MP opposed conscription, and almost all the English-speaking MPs supported it. The election of 1917 was similarly divided, and English Canada gave Borden his mandate to put conscription into effect. In Jan 1918 the process of call-ups began, but out of the 401 882 men registered (and despite the lifting of farmers' exemptions in the spring of 1918), only 124 588 were added to the strength of the CANADIAN EXPEDITIONARY FORCE; 24 132 men made it to France by the war's end. As a military measure conscription was a failure; as a political measure it had largely been responsible for the re-election of the Borden government, but it left the Conservative Party with a heavy liability in Québec and in the agricultural West.
World War II
In 1941, as recruitment slowly progressed, more voices were raised in favour of conscription, first within the Conservative Party and later among English Canadians in general. To appease the supporters of conscription, Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie KING decided to hold a plebiscite asking Canadians to release the government from its anti-conscription promises. In Québec, the Ligue pour la défense du Canada campaigned for the "no" side, and on 27 Apr 1942, 72.9% of Québec residents voted "no," while in the other provinces the "yes" vote triumphed by 80%. The government then passed Bill 80, authorizing conscription for overseas service if it was deemed necessary. Québec's BLOC POPULAIRE continued to fight against conscription by presenting candidates for the Aug 1944 provincial elections and the June 1945 federal elections.
By the autumn of 1944 J.L. RALSTON, minister of national defence, was convinced of the need for conscription. Unexpectedly high casualties on the front, combined with a large commitment to the RCAF and the RCN, left the Canadian Army short of manpower. King, who had hoped he would not have to invoke Bill 80, replaced Ralston with Gen A.G.L. MCNAUGHTON, a supporter of voluntary service. On Nov 22, however, the prime minister, acknowledging the open proconscriptionist sentiments of many of his anglophone ministers, reversed his decision in an effort to save his government and announced that conscripts would be sent overseas. Even though only 12 908 conscripted soldiers, unaffectionately known as "zombies", were actually sent abroad, this second conscription crisis again worsened relations between anglophones and francophones in Canada, though to a lesser extent than during WWI.
Authors contributing to this article:
Author RICHARD JONES, J.L. GRANATSTEIN
Links to Other Sites
Sir Robert Laird Borden
This biography of Sir Robert Laird Borden includes interesting details about Canada's role in the First World War and related issues. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
1914 - 1921: The Crucible of War
A brief history of Canada's role on the world stage during peace and wartime from the website for Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. Scroll down the page for historical notes and photographs of major events.
Sir Samuel Hughes
A biography of Sir Samuel Hughes, teacher, militia officer, newspaper proprietor, and politician. Offers interesting details about government policies concerning Canada's involvement in the First World War. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
The Memory Project: Conscription
Listen to an interview with Canadian veteran Jacques Catudal who recounts his experience with conscription during the Second World War. Also check out related interviews and digitized artefacts and memorabilia at this extensive website from the Historica-Dominion Institute.