Conscription: World War I and Minister Robert Borden
World War One broke out in 1914. As a loyal ally to Great Britain, Canada became involved instantly. Prime Minister Robert Borden declared that “when Great Britain is at war, Canada is at war, and there is no difference at all.” (Historica). Some nations had more soldiers than Canada. Volunteers were becoming harder to find. When Borden returned home, he was convinced of the need to establish a forced conscription system. The system forced men into service at the battlefront. Conscription became a furious debate across the country and a threat to confederation. This crisis hurt the relationship between French and English Canadians. Majority of Canada opposed the conscription system. Canadian Citizens were angered with the government for their actions during the war. The conscription crisis of the First World War was one of the most diverse crises in Canadian history.
Conscription threatened the relationship between French Canadians and English Canadians. The French did not support conscription or the war because they felt no loyalty to Britain and they did not want to be involved anyway. Most French Canadians still resented France for deserting them during the Battle on the Plains of Abraham 150 years earlier (McCrackin). The English wanted more support at the front, but the French did not want to participate in a war that did not involve them. Disputes over conscription with the French and English led to protests leading to riots in 1918. In Quebec during Easter weekend, a protest movement broke out into a riot in Quebec City that killed four (CBC). Even with the protests being violent, French Canadians still did not give in to conscription which rose tension with the English. The relationship between the two nationalities got scarce when the French felt that conscription was an attempt to take away their heritage. The French had seen the Canadian army as an English institution with English fighting units and manuals. Also Ontario banning French schools in 1913, they felt there was nothing to represent them during the war. With the English not wanting the French to be equal with them and Conscription making things worse, the two sides had a threatening relationship.
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Aside from the English, many Canadians opposed conscription. Farmers were not for conscription because they would lose their farm hands (Historica). With the young men from the farms going to war, farmers would have to support the war effort with no help. Young farm men would be a good group for the war, and by them opposing, it was an upset. Asian and African immigrants opposed conscription because of the disorderly conduct they were getting from the English. After making railways the Chinese had no use to Canada so they were subjected to poor living and bad working conditions with bad wages. The African immigrants were mistreated due to being slaves before coming to Canada. By being treated that way, the Asians and Africans had no reason to fight with Canada in the war so they were against conscription. Certain pacifist groups believed that a peaceful solution was the only answer. These people argued that Canada’s first concern should be its well-being, and that Britain and France would not come to Canada’s help in times of need (McCrackin). The great number of deaths were unfortunate, but by pulling out of the war, no more people would die (McCrackin). Conscription even meant forcing the morally opposed people to war and would have to fight.
Canadians became displeased with the government of Canada and Robert Borden because of their actions towards conscription. The khaki election was rigged so that Borden would win the election and conscription would be passed. To make sure that Borden was re-elected, he made the Military War Measures Act. The act gave all Canadian soldiers at the front the right to vote, regardless of age or citizenship (war museum). By Robert Borden making that act, every soldier would vote for conscription because nothing would be better than more troops and relief to the front. By creating that act Borden already had a great chance to pass conscription. This made the chances of cancelling conscription even harder for the people who opposed conscription. Canadians were furious at the government for allowing Borden to go through with the Military Voters Act. Old- fashioned Canadian citizens were unpleased with the Wartime Elections Act. This act was the law which extended the right to vote to the mothers, wives, and sisters of the soldiers serving (Historica). Robert Borden also forbid enemy aliens to vote. Enemy aliens were Canadian citizens from countries against Canada (war
museum). Now with the women of family ties to the war were able to vote, the amount of people for conscription grew even bigger. No mother, sister, or wife was not going to support conscription because it supported their beloved men in the field. People were furious at the government for not even having a fair vote at the khaki election. Other displeased people were the soldiers coming back to the home front. When the men came back and went to look for work, majority of jobs for soldiers were taken by women. To support the war effort from the home front, women were given jobs at factories to produce things essentially for the war. Now that all the men sent are back to Canada and the women have their jobs, there is a situation to find jobs for soldiers. The government of Canada was not fair to a lot of people and that made a threat to confederation for the troops without jobs after the war.
Conscription polarized provinces, created divides in linguistic groups, and had lasting effects on the country as a whole. Most Canadians agreed with conscription, but a large number were not satisfied. The relationship between the French and English was threatened because of conscription. Majority of the Canadian population opposed conscription due to the occurrence of things back at the home front. Also the Government disappointed many citizens with some of their actions towards conscription. The Conscription system would have a minimal impact on Canada’s war effort. By the Armistice in November 1918, only 48,000 conscripts had been sent overseas. Over half ended up staying in Canada. Some say Conscription is good because it makes everyone equal and people are serving their country in a time of need. However, conscription threatened confederation and it was not worth all the problems Canada faced. Conscription was the most divisive crises that Canada has ever faced as a nation.