Sunday, April 8, 2012


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Conscription is a draft, which is a call-up to compulsory military service. In the early stages of World War One, there was no need for a compulsory military service because there were so many men that had volunteered. As the war entered its third year, it was apparent that Canada was losing more men than there were enlisting, and by 1917 the issue became more of a crisis when the number of recruits was less than the number of dead and injured. Prime minister at this time was Robert Borden who decided that something had to be done about the issue.

Canada entered the war prepared to fight for Great Britain. No one knew it would last for four years. Up until 1917, all those that enlisted did so voluntarily. The crisis came in 1917, when Prime Minister Borden was summoned to London, England to participate in the Imperial War Conference. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George wanted a greater manpower commitment from Canada and the other dominions, and following on Canadian success at Vimy Ridge earlier in the year, Borden decided that he had no choice but to implement conscription to keep the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the numbers he had promised. Quebec Conservatives warned him that it would take his party 5 years to rebuild if he introduced conscription. The issue threatened to divide the country as many workers and farmers as well as Quebec people were opposed. Borden hoped that a coalition government made up of Conservatives and Liberals would help. Although Liberal leader Sir Wilfred Laurier refused, 5 Liberals later joined with Borden to carry conscription. August, 1917 Conscription became a law requiring all able bodied men between the ages of eighteen and forty five years of age to serve their country.

When Borden returned to Canada from France, he had determined that the front was in a state of crisis and the Military Act of 1917 was the result. Conscription was necessary. The 1917 election campaign was bitter. Labour leaders were opposed to conscription, and even considered calling a national general strike. French Canadians were the angriest of all, remembering Regulation 1917 limiting the use of French in schools, French Canadians from Ontario opposed conscription. Also French Canadians did not have family or friends in Britain or France therefore they did not feel the need to defend Britain, resulting in few French Canadians volunteers. Farmers too opposed conscription because they were afraid that their sons wouldnt come back from war. They needed their sons as well as hired hands to help out on the farm. They thought that the government was asking for too much, and believed that they were already doing their part in the war by providing the food for the soldiers over seas. Conscription tore the country apart. Never before had an issue caused such a serious split between the English and French speaking Canadians. Yet, regardless of the opposition, the majority of the voters approved the government’s actions. Conscription was applied from the beginning of 1918 to the end of the Great War.

In order for conscription to become a law, an election was placed. Prior to the vote to ensure a win, a coalition was formed between members of the conservative and liberal parties in favour of conscription. The unionist party was born, and would shortly after pass a law that would not permit a vote to immigrants who were most likely to vote against the issue of conscription. To ensure further success, women who had family over seas were granted the right to vote. Also service men, and medical personnel overseas were granted the right to vote on the issue. Many people that voted for conscription voted in favour of it because they had family members over seas, and wanted to see them return alive. They thought that the more soldiers there were at war, the better chances of their returning loved ones. Those that voted against conscription were those in fear of being sent to war, or in fear of having a family member sent. Each side in the election was equal, but when the militaries vote was taken, the conservatives easily won, and conscription became a law.

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Those that opposed conscription were in Quebec. Many French Canadians notably Henri Bourassa led the fight against conscription. Also former prime minister, Sir Wilfred Laurier was opposed to conscription. While Borden wanted Conscription approved by both parties in the Unionist Government, Laurier refused to join the proposed party. Many Liberals in Ontario, and western Canada went against him. They joined Borden in the Unionist government in October 1917. The parliament had already passed the Military Service Act providing for conscription, but many French Canadians and the unions of the farmers and labourers rioted in protest.

Much of the French’s concerns arose from earlier events when many French Canadians had been discriminated against in the earlier days of war. The French declining support for the war was because they had a tradition of suspicion and hostility towards the British Empire. While they were sympathetic to France (Britain’s ally) few French Canadians were willing to risk their lives in its defence. After all, for over a century following the British conquest of New France in 1760, France showed no interest in the welfare of French Canadians.

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