Conscription in Canada

In Canada, conscription was a contentious and divisive issue. It has often been seen as a clear divide between the French-Canadians, who opposed it, and the English speaking Canadians, who were for it. As always, however ,it is never that simple.

The campaigns, both for and against, were equally matched in their viciousness. Those that supported conscription accused the anti-conscription campaigns of being cowards, of disloyalty, and immorality. Those that opposed conscription accused their opposition of being stupid, bloodthirsty, and imperialistic. An individual’s stance on conscription was perceived as their stance against the war as a whole. It became an issue of either ‘for’ or ‘against’ which detracted from the complexity of the issue. The conscription debate paralleled public divisions on many contemporary issues such as education, agriculture, religion, and the rights of women and immigrants. There were people throughout Canada who opposed conscription for many different reasons, but opposing conscription did not mean they necessarily opposed the war.

High unemployment rates, economic downturn, a surplus of young men, and enthusiasm for the war created a country rich for recruitment. Two-thirds of the Canadian volunteers who signed up were born in Britain. Recruitment among French-Canadians was not as effective. Sam Hughes, the Canadian Minister of Militia and Defence, was prone to anti-Catholic sentiments and was not well liked among French-Canadians. He agitated tensions further by forcing them to speak English during training and sent English-Canadians to recruit them.

As the casualties and news of defeats increased, the number of volunteers decreased. Prime Minister Robert Borden looked to conscription as a way of maintaining numbers. As the conscription legislation moved forward, Borden was forced to compromise. Exemptions were promised to farmers, their sons, and conscientious objectors. The age range for those eligible was also narrowed to male citizens between the ages of 20 and 45.

To increase his support in the December 1917 federal elections, Borden introduced two major changes to election laws: the Military Voters Act and the Wartime Elections Act. The Military Voters Act allowed military voters to assign their vote to any riding in which they had normally been resident. Military voters were defined as any active or retired member of the Canadian Armed Forces; this included women, men under 21, and immigrants. It was the first time some women could vote in Canada. Rather than voting for a specific candidate, as was the norm, the military voter would vote for the current government or the opposition. If the voter had not specified a constituency, the party they voted for could assign the vote to a constituency where the vote would be most beneficial to the party. The Wartime Elections Act gave spouses, widows, mothers, sisters, and daughters of anyone serving or who had served, the vote. At the same time it denied the vote to those born in an ‘enemy’ country who became naturalised after 1902; anyone convicted of an offence under the Military Service Act, and conscientious objectors. Conscientious objectors included religious groups such as the Doukhobor, a religious group of Russian descent who were pacifists.

These Acts solidified victory for the Union government and conscription was introduced. It made all male citizens between 20 and 45 subject to military service and exemptions that had been granted for farmers were later revoked. Applying the new conscription system across the country was difficult. Efforts to arrest draft dodgers were highly unpopular and it fuelled civil unrest.
Opposition to conscription had increased with people resisting recruiting officers, signing petitions, and attending anti-conscription meetings. Some of the protesters turned violent with a mob nearly lynching a recruiter and dynamiting the summer house of Sir Hugh Graham, a fervent imperialist and critic of French-Canadians. In the spring of 1918 the unrest reached its climax with the Easter Riots in Quebec City.

In the end conscription had minimal impact on Canada’s contribution to the war effort. By the Armistice in November 1918, only 48,000 conscripts had been sent overseas, only half of which ultimately served on the front. Over 50,000 conscripts remained in Canada.

It may not have had a significant impact on the war but the issue of conscription in Canada left lasting wounds. It polarised provinces, communities, families, and ethnic and linguistic groups. For some it was an important and necessary measure, for others it was an oppressive measure enforced by a dishonest government.