Canada's Part in the War

By Her Emphatic Vote In Favor Of Conscription The Dominion Has Proved Her
Determination to Maintain Her Splendid Record in The Fight For Democracy and Civilization

By Frank Maitland

[Munsey's Magazine, April 1918]

Less than seven weeks after the United States entered the great war Congress had established the selective draft, the system of compulsory service which is now producing such excellent results. Canada, on the other hand, had fought hard for nearly three years before conscription became a live question within her borders. Why this marked difference in policy?

Sometimes it is difficult to realize what changes have been wrought in our ideas and view-points during the present struggle. Our memories are short; it is not easy to think back for nearly four years and recall the old opinions which were so tenaciously held at the beginning of the war.

In 1914 there were no advocates of compulsion in Canada. Every one took the voluntary system for granted. Conscription was believed to be the disgrace of a war-mad continental Europe. Great Britain, "compassed by the inviolate sea," had never adopted it, although urged to do so by Lord Roberts and others who foresaw the German menace. In Canada, or anywhere in the free air of this fortunate and liberty-loving American continent, it was simply unthinkable.

We would have none of the machinery of militarism in times of peace, and we had given no thought to what should be done in case of the emergency of war. Therefore, when war did come, we simply followed our instincts.

Canadian confidence that the voluntary system would produce a large army was justified by the event. The war had lasted thirty-four months when the prime minister announced his conscription bill. In that time some four hundred and twenty thousand volunteers had joined the Canadian army, and at least thirty thousand reservists had gone from Canada to join the armies of the Allies in Europe. Remembering that the total population of Canada at the outbreak of war was about seven and one-half millions, it will be conceded that this is a creditable showing. It is equivalent, in proportion to population, to a voluntary enlistment of six million men in the United States.

Had the war been the short, sharp, decisive struggle which most of us expected, there would have been no serious thought of compulsion in Canada. Had it lasted only the three years of Lord Kitchener's reported prediction—a forecast derided by many who could not believe that modern war could be maintained so long—voluntary enlistment would have supplied all the men required for Canada's armies. But when it became evident that the conflict must go into its fourth year, with no certainty that there might not be a fifth and a sixth, it was plain that the voluntary system in Canada had failed—albeit gloriously—to meet the great emergency.


Long before then, however, there had been a formidable agitation for compulsion. The utter wastefulness, inefficiency, and unfairness of the voluntary system could not be disputed. Time, energy, and money were lost in urging men to do their duty—time, energy, and money which could have been usefully employed for other purposes. Thousands of young single men, with no dependents, turned deaf ears to the call, while thousands of married men offered themselves for the trenches, leaving their families to be supported by the government and the Patriotic Fund.

Agriculture, transportation, and other industries, whose productivity and efficiency were vital to the life of the country, were crippled by the undue enlistment of men who could have rendered more valuable service had they remained at home at their accustomed jobs. Thousands of men employed in non-essential work remained at home. On the other hand, many young men were unjustly denounced as slackers by a public opinion which did not know the reasons that held them back; and they could not effectively answer this slanderous charge, so utterly galling to any man of spirit. Some provinces and communities were bled almost white by heavy enlistment, while one province and many communities in various parts of the country were scarcely affected at all, their men preferring the comforts of home and the high wages of munitions factories to the discomforts of the trenches and a pittance of one dollar and ten cents per day.

Nevertheless, wasteful and unfair as the system was, it was almost impossible to make the change to compulsion while the tide of volunteers was flowing to the recruiting-offices so fast as almost to swamp the military authorities.

On New Year's Day, 1916, the total enlistment for the Canadian army stood at a little less than two hundred thousand men. On that day. Sir Robert Borden, the prime minister, announced that the Dominion must aim at an enlistment of half a million, should the war last long enough to make that large contribution necessary. Conscription enthusiasts jumped to the conclusion that the government must intend to introduce compulsion. It was argued that in no other way could this large number of men be secured within any reasonable length of time, if at all. But when Parliament assembled, a few days later, Sir Robert Borden repeated his previous statement that no measure of conscription was contemplated; and Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the veteran leader of the opposition, emphatically denounced conscription as impossible in Canada.

"Conscription has come in England, but conscription is not to come in Canada," he said.

The conscription enthusiasts were sadly disappointed, but it must be admitted that there were sound reasons why the leading men in Canadian public life should hesitate to indorse the policy that was advocated so urgently by men who had not their power or their responsibility.


Canada is at all times a difficult country to govern; there is none more difficult on earth, perhaps, save Ireland. Almost one-third of the population is French-Canadian, isolated from the rest of the Dominion by the difference in language, laws, and customs. The Province of Quebec is almost entirely French, apart from a small proportion of English-speaking citizens in Montreal and in the eastern townships. There is also some French population in several of the other provinces; but everywhere the language barrier tends to keep the French-Canadians a race apart. The unifying influence of the national newspaper or magazine cannot be exerted in Canada, as the French do not understand English, nor do the English understand French.

There is also the religious division, for the church of the French-Canadian is the church of only a minority in the other provinces. Were it not for the ecclesiastical barrier, it is more than probable that this, the chief of Canada's problems, would long ago have been solved by intermarriage of the two races, to the great advantage of each. But the churches frown on mixed marriages, and they are of infrequent occurrence.

It can readily be understood that this isolation leads inevitably to misunderstanding; that the two races are apt to have different views on questions of national importance. As a rule, their relations have been amicable, but there has always been a danger to national unity. There are extremists and unreasonable elements in both races, and their prejudices are easily played upon at election times by demagogues with selfish ends to serve.

No fair-minded man who really understands the French-Canadians would think for a moment of accusing them, as a race, of disloyalty either to Canada or to the empire; but, mainly because of their isolation from the sentiment and thoughts of the other provinces, they have remained colonial in their view-point. They are content with things as they have been. They do not covet national independence for Canada; on the other hand, they have no sympathy with the idea of empire, or of Canada's high place in a community of free British commonwealths. They are content with the old colonial status which most Canadians consider that their country has long since outgrown.

They recognize no imperial responsibilities. While they sympathize with the cause of the Allies, they refuse to admit that this is really Canada's war, or that the Dominion has any duty to perform in it. In short, their attitude is practically that of the benevolent neutral.

There is also in Quebec a party known as the Nationalists, led by two very able and brilliant men, orators of no mean ability, and equally effective in both languages—Henri Bourassa and Armand Lavergne. This is the extremist party, which vigorously opposes every movement for closer imperial cooperation or union.


Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who was for so many years prime minister of Canada, has always been an autonomist rather than an imperialist, and he has been severely criticised by Canadian imperialists because of his cautious attitude toward imperial movements. On the other hand, he has long been denounced as the slave and puppet of Downing Street by the firebrand orators of Nationalism; and his influence in his native province, long the principal source of his political strength, had suffered from these attacks before the war.

When war came, the Nationalist element in Quebec openly discouraged recruiting, and was, of course, prepared to offer determined opposition to any conscription proposal. It is true that the majority of the habitants in Quebec had been accustomed to pay little attention to the inflammatory utterances of Nationalist orators; but it is also true, unfortunately, that from the beginning Quebec has been apathetic toward the war, and scarcely even lukewarm about recruiting. Of the four hundred and twenty thousand men enlisted in the Canadian army up to the date of the prime minister's announcement of conscription, less than fifteen thousand were French-Canadians, although that race constitutes almost one-third of the total population.

It should be remembered that the remainder of the population of Canada is not wholly English-speaking, nor unitedly imperial in its sentiment. Since the beginning of the twentieth century the Dominion has received a heavy immigration. The new citizens who came from the British Isles were indeed the first to enlist for the war. The thousands of Americans supplied very many recruits, although it was scarcely to be expected that new citizens from the United States would have the same imperial enthusiasm as the British or the native born. But there were also some hundreds of thousands of immigrants from central and southeastern Europe—from the enemy countries.

It can readily be seen, therefore, that responsible statesmen in both political parties would hesitate for a long time before deciding to advocate compulsion. English-speaking Canada was by no means a unit in favor of conscription. The old British-Canadian prejudice in favor of voluntary enlistment did not die an easy death. Many people long held to it tenaciously, despite the stern logic of present-day happenings. French Canada was known to be united in its opposition to any compulsion program, and it was certain that there would be formidable opposition from the non-English-speaking elements in the other provinces.

There was also another difficulty in the way—one of much practical importance. So long as the United States remained neutral it was almost impossible to prevent the escape across the international border of men liable to conscription. Four thousand miles of open frontier presented easy opportunities of evasion for the determined slacker.

Compulsion might have to come eventually, but, so long as voluntary enlistment continued to supply the necessary recruits, the government was certain to hesitate before making any change. There were many strong and indeed irrefutable arguments in favor of conscription; but to obtain it Canada might have to pay an exceedingly heavy price in racial strife and disunion. Was conscription worth that price? At that time responsible public men thought that it was not, and when enlistment showed some signs of falling off the efforts to secure volunteers were redoubled.


There had been high hopes that victory and peace would come in the summer of last year. Great things had been expected of the combined offensive on all fronts which had been planned for the 1917 campaign. Before it was known that these fond hopes were not to be realized. Sir Robert Borden and two of his colleagues had gone to London at the invitation of David Lloyd George. For weeks they took part in the deliberations of the Imperial War Cabinet, and had access to all the information at the disposal of the British government.

While Sir Robert and his colleagues were in London, the unrestricted submarine campaign developed in all its ruthlessness and destructiveness. The government of the Czar disappeared overnight, and the consequent anarchy and confusion made the collapse of Russian military power inevitable. The Canadian army won imperishable renown at Vimy Ridge, but paid a terrific price, saddening thousands of Canadian homes and emphasizing the urgent need of further reenforcements from the Dominion. The United States entered the war and immediately adopted conscription.

The prime minister and his colleagues returned to Canada with the realization of the bitter truth that victory was still in the distant future, and that sacrifices greater than any hitherto contemplated must be made by all the Allies. If voluntary enlistment could no longer secure the recruits required, there must be conscription in Canada.

Sir Robert found on his return that enlistment was almost at a standstill. The casualties since the beginning of the year had been several times the number of enlistments for the combatant services in the Canadian army. Those provinces and communities which had given most generously of their man-power were angrily demanding a conscription law that would compel other portions of the Dominion to bear their proper share of the burden. It was generally conceded that the voluntary system had accomplished about all of which it was capable.

Canada had four divisions of infantry at the front—about one hundred and thirty-five thousand men, counting all branches of the service—and a fifth division organized in England and ready to cross the Channel. That fifth division has never been sent to France, because of the difficulty experienced in securing reenforcement drafts for the four divisions already there. Indeed, not only was it out of the question to send an additional division to the front, but it would be impossible to maintain for very long the four already there unless the rate of enlistment were greatly accelerated. Accordingly, on May 18. Sir Robert Borden announced that a conscription bill would be introduced.


For a long time there had been an agitation in Canada in favor of a coalition government, in which both political parties would be represented. Following his announcement of conscription, the prime minister made an offer of coalition to Sir Wilfred Laurier, the leader of the opposition. His offer provided for an equal distribution of cabinet portfolios between the two parties, and the new government was to be pledged to draft, pass, and enforce a conscription law.

After some two or three weeks of negotiation, Sir Wilfrid refused the premier's offer, thereby rendering impossible any formal coalition between the two great political parties in Canada.

In spite of the bitterness of party feeling during the election of last December, there are few who question the absolute sincerity of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. It is only natural that he should share, to some extent, the view-point of his French-Canadian compatriots. It has ever been his highest ambition to play the part of the great conciliator in Canadian politics, to harmonize the conflicting sentiments and desires of the two races, to promote a better and more cordial understanding between French and English. Knowing that conscription would be bitterly resented in his own province, that racial recriminations could not be avoided, he shrank from the issue.

In making his decision he undoubtedly missed the greatest opportunity of his long and brilliant political career; but to his mind it was of more importance to preserve peace and harmony at home than to secure a few thousand more recruits by compulsion. He remained blind to the fact, that there could be neither peace nor harmony at home so long as Quebec refused to carry her share of the burden of war.

Sir Wilfrid refused to admit that the resources of the voluntary system had really been exhausted. Other methods, he urged, would secure the necessary volunteers; and when the bill was introduced in the House of Commons he moved in amendment that it be referred to the people in a special referendum vote.


The introduction of this bill played havoc with the usual lines of party division in Parliament. All but two or three of the French-Canadian supporters of the government deserted Sir Robert Borden and voted against the bill. On the other hand, Sir Wilfrid Laurier lost the support of the greater part of his English-speaking following. The bill was opposed by only two Liberal members from the four great Western provinces, and by no more than ten members from the eight provinces outside of Quebec. It passed with more than the usual government majority, the unfortunate feature of the division being that English and French Canada divided strictly on racial lines.

What are the terms of the bill? It authorizes the government to secure one hundred thousand additional men by compulsion—something more than sufficient to fulfil Canada's promise of an army of half a million men. Men between the ages of twenty and forty-five are made liable to draft, but this man-power of military age is divided into several classes.

The first class, which includes single men and widowers without children, between the ages of twenty and thirty-four, can supply more than the number of men now authorized. There are liberal exemption clauses designed to protect agriculture and essential industries and to prevent any unusual hardship in individual cases. Local exemption boards, appointed in such a way as to be above the slightest suspicion of political influence, are empowered to decide the claims for exemption.

While there is no doubt that the Canadian army can be recruited to five hundred thousand men without drafting men from any but the first class, there is, of course, no assurance that Canada's contribution will be limited to that number. Should the war continue into a fifth winter, as now seems probable, other classes will almost certainly be called upon.

There has been criticism because the conscription bill applies to all military districts in the country. There are provinces and military districts which have already given voluntarily considerably more than their proportionate share of the half-million men promised. Is it fair that the draft to complete the half-million should apply to these districts, as well as to others that have fallen far short of their proportionate quota?

There is some force in this objection, and many practical politicians urged the prime minister to adopt a contrary policy, which would have aroused bitter resentment in Quebec, but would have been exceedingly popular in those portions of the country that would thereby have escaped the draft. He refused to consider the proposal, however. He desired to be more than fair to the province that most resented his compulsion policy; and more than fair he has been, even at the price of some apparent injustice to other provinces.

By the terms of the constitution, the Canadian Parliament elected in 1911 was legally dead in the autumn of 1916; but, in order to avoid a war-time election, an extension of one year was arranged in 1916 by the mutual consent of both parties. This was in accordance with the precedent set in Great Britain. There would no doubt have been another extension had it not been for the conscription issue. The introduction of this contentious measure produced a demand for an election from Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and accordingly Parliament was dissolved early in October of last year.


Formal coalition with the Liberal party was made impossible by the refusal of Sir Wilfrid Laurier to agree to conscription, but that issue caused a new alinement of parties. There was formed, under the leadership of Sir Robert Borden, a national or union government, half the cabinet being composed of conscriptionist Liberals. For a time, at least, the old Conservative party practically passed out of existence, all the supporters of the government being known as Unionists.

This formal union of the conscriptionist elements was accomplished only after weeks of negotiation and patient effort on the part of Sir Robert Borden, who persisted in his attempts to form a union government in spite of the opposition of influential elements in his own party and the undisguised suspicion and lukewarmness of many conscriptionist Liberals. He could not have succeeded had it not been for the strong public opinion that compelled the lesser politicians on both sides to drop their differences on issues of small importance and unite their forces in support of the all-important policy of conscription.

When the formation of this union government was announced, last October, there was a general hope and expectation that the election contest would be a mere formality. It was recognized that the Unionist cause was hopeless in Quebec, but it was believed that the anticonscription cause was equally hopeless in the other provinces. Hence it was expected that there would be few actual contests. It was thought that the Quebec opposition would be elected by acclamation, and that in the other provinces very few of the government candidates would have any opponent to face. These hopes were doomed to disappointment, and despite the war and the sorrow and anxiety in so many thousands of Canadian homes the Dominion found itself plunged into a bitter war-time election, in which, up to the very last, the issue seemed to be exceedingly doubtful.

Canadians have always taken their party politics seriously, and the party spirit died a hard death. Sir Wilfrid's promise of a referendum after the election provided a plausible excuse for thousands of his followers who differed with him on the conscription issue; and for more than a generation there has been a wonderful magic in the name of Laurier.

Moreover, the original Borden government had made some mistakes during its six years of office. Political considerations had decided some military appointments. During the first year of the war, before the organization of capable purchasing commissions, there had been "graft" and waste in the purchase of military supplies. There had been much complaint of profiteering which the government had failed to check.

Furthermore, the high cost of living was an almost unbearable burden in thousands of homes, and, of course, the government was blamed for an economic condition which it was powerless to prevent. Thus it was that the opposition came to resemble a cave of Adullam to which, it was feared, there would rally ''every one that was in distress and every one that was in debt and every one that was discontented." To this campaign the union government presented a united front. The new cabinet—half of it Liberal—refused to accept responsibility for any of the shortcomings of the old. The one all-important issue was presented to the people. Immediate reenforcements for the army at the front were urgently required, and only by the Military Service Act could they be obtained. Was Canada to decide to "carry on," or was she to quit the war?


Canada's answer, recorded by the election of December 17, was the most decisive verdict in her political history. It left no shadow of doubt that she is in the war to the very last. Her sacrifices have already been tremendous, but she will not desert her sons at the front.

In his message of thanks to the Canadian people, after the result was known. Sir Robert Borden very properly expressed his appreciation of the support given him by the women voters. This was the first federal election in which any of the women of Canada had the right to vote.

This time only those women who are the next of kin to Canadian soldiers or sailors received the franchise; general woman suffrage is promised for the next election. The women voters in this election, therefore, were those who are most deeply interested in the question at issue; and there is no doubt that more than ninety per cent of them voted for the immediate reenforcement of their men-folk at the front.

All over Canada—except in Quebec—there were crowded meetings at which the women listened to the speakers pleading for support of the government; and as they listened many a furtive tear dropped on their knitting—for the Canadian women did not neglect their knitting for the excitement of an election meeting. No one who traveled through the country and saw the intense earnestness of the women voters could doubt that their ballots would be the deciding factor in the contest. Sir Robert Borden was right in attributing to them a large share of the credit for his decisive victory.

The women of Canada had little patience with the plausible argument that the Dominion has already done her full share. Opposition speakers pleaded that this young country, still in need of men to develop her resources, had already given of her best most generously, and that to give more would be to bleed the Dominion white. It was urged that the principal need of the Allies was not men; that the entrance of the United States into the war made further sacrifice of Canadian man-power unnecessary; that the principal need of the Allies was foodstuffs; and that our agricultural industry is already crippled for lack of labor.

The answer given was that Canada is responsible for her own armies; that they cannot be reenforced from the United States; that it would be a lasting disgrace if her four divisions at the front were to be allowed to dwindle down to the vanishing-point, as must happen if immediate reenforcements were not provided. All Canada was thrilled by the appeal sent from France by Major-General Sir Arthur Currie, the Canadian commander of the Canadian army at the front:

From the agony of the battle-field goes forth our prayer that the homeland will not desert us in the hour of our need and of our approaching triumph.

Had this eloquent and touching appeal gone unheeded how could any Canadian hold up his head in the world to-day?


The unfortunate feature in the resulting situation is that Canada is more than ever divided upon racial lines. Quebec, by her attitude on the war, has been completely isolated from the rest of the Dominion, and there is no thinking Canadian who does not sincerely deplore that fact. Sir Wilfrid Laurier carried sixty-two of the sixty-five seats in Quebec, the other three being those of the English-speaking constituencies in Montreal.

Canada had many weeks to wait for the final returns from the soldier vote, for the ballots had to be collected from the ends of the earth—from Great Britain, France, Flanders, Mesopotamia, Macedonia, the United States, from ships on the high seas. When collected, they had to be allocated to the various constituencies. At the time of writing this article, the exact figures of the vote were still unknown; but there was no anxiety. The sentiment of the soldiers was well known. The soldier vote would leave Sir Wilfrid Laurier with a mere handful of parliamentary supporters from the English-speaking provinces; and nearly all of these few would owe their election to the French-Canadian vote in their constituencies.

The verdict means that Quebec, having failed to do her part voluntarily, must do it by compulsion. Under wiser guidance she might have responded to the call of country just as readily and enthusiastically as did the other provinces. Stupid and short-sighted leadership has put her in a very unfortunate position. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that she will submit to the decision of the majority, and that her sons will carry the banner of Canada to France and Flanders, where they will battle with the gallantry and chivalry that have from time immemorial been characteristic of their race.

Fighting and dying side by side with their brother Canadians who speak the tongue of the majority race, it may be that they will realize a genuine comradeship in arms, and that from this bitter quarrel will ultimately come a better understanding between the two races which make up the Dominion. The war may yet achieve a united Canada.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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