The Federal Election, WWI Conscription Crisis, Wartime Elections Act, and Canadian War Measures Act

Conscription (noun):

  • The compulsory enlistment or “call up” (sometimes known as “the draft”) of citizens for military service.


1899 – 1902: The Boer War (South Africa)

To truly understand what the Conscription Crisis was, one needs to go back to a similar situation where conscription was avoided through compromise. The Boer War was a fight between Britain and Dutch settlers in South Africa overland with gold and diamond settlements. Tension rose between English Canadians and French Canadians when Britain demanded Canadian troop support. English Canadians wanted Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier to send troops immediately as they were ‘proud to be part of the British Empire’ and thought Canada should do more to help Britain, it’s mother country. However, French Canadians had no connection to Britain and didn’t want Canada to get involved in an ‘unjust imperial war’, feeling as though Canada was getting involved with a war with no benefits. As tension continued to grow (since sending military troops would force Canadians to fight for Britain whether they wanted to or not), Laurier came up with a compromise: Canada would only equip and transport volunteers who wanted to join the fight. This meant there was less support, but no French/English Canadians were forced to fight for Britain. In this case, conscription was not necessary because several thousand Canadians volunteered to fight and enlistment was plentiful.


August 4th, 1914 – January 10th, 1920 (War End): Canadian War Measures Act

The Canadian War Measures Act was a federal law instilled by Parliament on August 22nd,  1914, and has since been replaced by the Emergencies Act. It granted the Canadian government the following power:

  1. a) During WWI, the Federal Cabinet had full power and control in emergencies, bypassing the House of Commons and the Senate
  2. b) In order to protect security and order during war or insurrection, the Canadian Government could suspend the civil liberties of people in Canada who were considered ‘enemy aliens’ (any native, citizen, denizen or subject of any foreign nation or government with which a domestic nation or government is in conflict and who are liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured and removed). This led to controversial mass arrests without charge or trial.
  3. c) The government had “full authority during wartime to censor and suppress communications, to arrest, detain and deport people without charges or trials, to control transportation, trade and manufacturing, and to seize private property” (Canadian Encyclopedia).

The Canadian War Measures Act was used during WWI, WWII, and the 1918 Quebec Anti-Conscription Riots. During WWI, the Act was used to ban 253 publications, including 222 American, 164 foreign-language and 89 leftist publications. Thousands of civilians were interned in Canada when the act went into place. While most internees were recent immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman empires, some were Canadian-born or naturalized British subjects. Another 80,000 people, mostly Ukrainian Canadians, were forced to register as enemy aliens, carry identity papers and report regularly to the police.


1914 – 1915: Early WWI / Late 1916: Halfway through WWI

In the early years of WWI, Canada’s troop numbers were high. 330,000 Canadian volunteers willingly enlisted to fight against the Germans in France and Flanders, Belgium. With Canada only involved because of its ties to Britain, French Canadians and now some English Canadians did not feel a benefit and therefore did not want to fight in the war. Similar to the Boer War, the number of volunteers meant that conscription was not necessary and that the military was solely volunteer. However, battles and situations would change as WWI reached its halfway point. Casualties and high injury/death rates, especially after new weapons were introduced such as poison gas and advanced aircraft and ships, heavily decreased Canada’s troop numbers. Enlistment volunteers were low, numbers of soldiers injured or dead were high, and most of Canada’s remaining troops were stuck in the trenches of war. The current Canadian Prime Minister and part of the Conservative party, Robert Borden, decided that direct action and conscription was necessary.


May 18th, 1917: Prime Minister Robert Borden announces conscription plans

Robert Borden, away in Britain at the Imperial War Conference in London, returned home to Canada in May 1917. He realized that in order to save and assist Canadian soldiers on the battlefield and in trenches, more troop support was necessary. With low volunteer enlistment, Borden determined that more direct action was necessary. He devised a plan for compulsory service subjecting all male citizens between 20-45 years of age to called military service during WWI. On May 18th, 1917, Borden announced his plans to Parliament. However, Borden’s plans were not without opposition. French Canadians, especially in Quebec, were outraged by the idea of conscription and rallied behind Liberal leader Sir Wilfrid Laurier.


May 25th, 1917 – June 6th, 1917: The Coalition government offer

With the Federal Election of December 1917 drawing closer, Borden worried that the Liberals and other anti-conscription political parties would outvote the Conservatives. To reduce the chances of lose, Borden offered to form a coalition government with Laurier. In exchange for supporting conscription, the Liberal Party would gain equal seats in Cabinet as the Conservative Party. However, on June 6th, 1917, Laurier declined Borden’s offer. He sided with Quebec and French Canadians as well as other Canadians that did not wish to fight in the war. Quebec was against conscription, and Laurier believed that supporting the coalition would give French Canada over to Quebec nationalists such as Henri Bourassa, one of Laurier’s old friends prior to the Boer War. Some Liberals would still side with Borden in October 1917, creating the ‘Union Government’ consisting of loyal Conservative majority, a handful of pro-conscription Liberals, and independent members of Parliament.


August 29th, 1917: Military Service Act

The Military Service Act marks the beginning of official conscription. After much difficulty, with almost every French-speaking members of Parliament, opposed conscription, the law was passed and Borden’s conscription plan was approved. The service act was supported by almost all English-speaking members of Parliament as well as the eight English-speaking provinces and was opposed by the province of Quebec. Male citizens between the ages of 20-45, if called by the government, were required to enlist in the Canadian army during WWI under the Military Service Act. Conscription was officially underway in Canada.


September 20th, 1917: Wartime Elections Act becomes a law

With Laurier refusing the coalition offer, Borden feared that the Conservatives would be outvoted in the December 1917 Federal Election by anti-conscription supporters, thus negating all work Borden put into instilling the Military Service Act. His solution was the Wartime Elections Act, which gave the right to vote in federal elections to nursing women (women serving in the Canadian Army Medical Corps) and close female relatives to men serving in the war. While this act promoted voters who were more likely to support the developing Union Government and by extension conscription, it also removed the right to vote from thousands of people who were likely to vote against conscription. Any immigrant from enemy countries who had become citizens after 1902 (unless they had a son, grandson, or brother in the war actively fighting for Canada) and conscientious objects (people who refused to go to war because it was against their religious, moral, or ethical beliefs) were stripped of their right to vote in federal elections, therefore ensuring that the Union Government and conscription remained active.


1917: Federal Election (Union Government wins)

With the help of conscription supporters, the Wartime Election Act, and general standings, the Union Government won the majority, taking 153 seats (with only three from Quebec). The Liberal Party, headed by Laurier, won 82 seats (with 62 from Quebec). Despite these Quebec numbers, English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians were not absolutely unanimous in their political views, though on average English Canada supported Borden and conscription while French Canada, whom the conscription call-up would take people away from their family farms, were heavily Liberal.


January – Spring 1918: Conscription call-ups

Starting in January 1918, call-ups for conscription enlistment registered 401,882 men for military service. However, of those call-ups (with some exceptions due to injury or immigration), only 124,588 men joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force, meaning 277,294 men ignored the Military Service Act. To make matters worse and lowering the impact conscription had on Canadian forces, only 24,132 men made it to France, the front lines, by the war’s end, and only 48,000 soldiers were sent overseas. Overall, conscription had a much smaller impact on Canada’s war effort than hoped but had a huge impact on the tension between French Canadians and English-Loyalists.


March 28th – April 1st, 1918: Quebec Anti-Conscription Riots

Anti-conscription riots broke out in Quebec during Easter, with armed rioters marched against and fought Canadian troops. After Federal Officials arrested a man under the Military Service Act (as the man refused to show any papers of exemption from military service), riots broke through the crowd, leading to enraged citizens assaulting officials to the point of requesting backup. The Canadian Government deployed over 6,000 soldiers to quell the riot, using the War Measures Act to detain and arrest rioters. When rioters attacked the soldiers with gunfire, improvised weapons, ice, and bricks, violence stained the streets red with the blood of 150 casualties, including four civilian deaths when soldiers returned fire under orders.


Guiding Question/Historical Significance: “To what extent did global conflicts between 1914-1945 allow Canada to become socially, politically, and/or economically autonomous?”

Conscription in Canada was at first a social and political obstacle on the path to British independence. During the 1899-1902 Boer War, conscription meant supporting Britain and forcing French Canadians to fight. Tension rose between English-Loyalists, who viewed themselves as British citizens, and French Canadians, who viewed themselves as having a separate identity from Britain. Laurier’s decision to compromise with volunteer-only troops was a major step in Canada’s Britsh independence. However, only 15 years later, Canada would once again be forced into a decision between English Canadians and French Canadians, this time siding with conscription. As WWI had yet to directly impact Canada other than the volunteer soldiers supporting Britain on the front lines, conscription was a step back in political autonomousness for Canada. French Canadian identity, on the side of the spectrum, increased in independence, with the 1918 Quebec anti-conscription riots and political sidings with Laurier’s Liberals against Borden’s Conservative party. Social autonomy within Canada grew, with internal struggles caused by conscription and immigration/’enemy alien’ restrictions caused by the Canadian War Measures Act leading to riots and controversial uses of emergency government power.


Cause and Consequence: What were the causes and most important aspects of your chosen event related to the guiding question? (5Ws).

Who: Most directly involved were Robert Borden & his Conservative party/English-Canadians vs. Wilfrid Laurier & his Liberal party/French-Canadians

What: Canadian volunteer military enlistments dying down in 1916 and high casualty rates on the front lines left Canadian troops stuck without backup. Borden determined that conscription was the only way to get support to soldiers in the trenches, and attempted to compromise with Laurier with a coalition government. However, Laurier refused on behalf of French Canada that would be negatively impacted by conscription, leading to the Wartime Elections Act, Borden’s Union Government, and eventually the Military Service Act

Where: Canada (specifically Ontario and Quebec)

When: 1916-1918 was the most impactful era, with high Canadian troop numbers in 1914/1915, the Federal Election/passing of the Wartime Elections Act and Military Service Act, and conscription dying down in impact after 1918.

Why: If volunteer numbers had remained high (similar to the Boer War), conscription would not have been a ‘necessary’ course of action to support Canadian troops on the front lines of WWI. In addition, the coalition government between Borden’s Conservatives and Laurier could have resulted in a better compromise for French Canadians (at least giving the Liberals equal seats in Cabinet). However, the outcome might still have been the same, as the Quebec riot was built solely on the values of French Canadians and not the Liberals.


Historical Perspective: How was your researched event viewed by Canadians at the time? How do you know?

Conscription was a divided issue in Canada. English Canadians and specifically English-Loyalists clamoured for the Military Service Act, while French Canadians were against conscription. The evidence rests in the Federal Elections of 1917, which was heavily influenced by the Conservative rush for conscription and the Liberal anti-conscription views. In the end, the Conservatives/Union Government won the majority, taking 153 seats (with only three from Quebec). The Liberal Party, headed by Laurier, won 82 seats (with 62 from Quebec). French Canadians, on average, voted for the Liberals against the Military Service Act while English Canada voted for the Conservatives. Following the Federal Election, tensions from the Military Service Act and Canadian War Measures Act exploded into the Quebec anti-conscription riots, forcing Canada into an internal social and political struggle.


Continuity and Change: To what extent did this event or idea affect Canadian social, political, or economic norms or values?

The Canadian War Measures Act was used in controversial ways by the Canadian Government to protect security and order. Given the right to suspend the civil liberties of people in Canada who were considered ‘enemy aliens’ (any native, citizen, denizen or subject of any foreign nation or government with which a domestic nation or government is in conflict and who are liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured and removed), the Federal Government used the Act to arrest immigrants without charge or trial. While for the most part the Act wasn’t used without reason, the social norm of the time led to many immigrants living in worse states or under constant government watch. In addition, the Military Service act contradicted the social and political values at the time as conscription went against Laurier’s compromise from the Boer War as well as today’s Canadian standard on volunteer troops. Forcing French Canadians to fight for a country they had no ties to kept Canada from becoming politically autonomous from Britain.


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