Conscription Crisis of 1917

From Academic Kids

The Conscription Crisis of 1917 was a political and military crisis in Canada during World War I.



At the outbreak of war in 1914, over 30 000 volunteers joined the army, far more than expected. This first contingent of 30,000, which became the 1st Canadian Division of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, was assembled at a new camp in Valcartier, Quebec, grouped into numbered battalions, regardless of language or region. The existing reserve regiments were not mobilized, due to the belief of the Defence Minister, Sam Hughes, that a new "efficient" structure was required. In the process, the new structure failed to create French-speaking units, such as those that had existed in the reserves.

Seventy percent of these early volunteers were recent immigrants from Britain. Native-born Canadians provided only 9,000 soldiers, of which 11% were French-speaking. These 1,000 French-Canadian volunteers were scattered into different English-speaking units, while the English-speaking media were dramatizing the perceived refusal of French-Canada to pull its weight (unaware or ignoring the fact that most of the contingent was foreign born). This dispersal of soldiers was not an oversight. Ontario (Hughes's political base) was in the process of forbidding teaching in French, or of French, in the school system (Regulation 17), causing outrage in French Canada and a lack of support for the war of the "king and country" that was perceived as seeking to destroy the Francophone community in Canada.

The second contingent was based, more logically, on battalions raised and trained in the various military districts in which they had been recruited, but still on an impersonal numbered basis (with the exception of some numbered battalions allowed to adopt a Highland or Irish identity).

Relatively few Quebecois volunteered. The experience of the first contingent suggested that they could expect nothing but ill-treatment as French-speaking Catholics in English-speaking battalions filled with what they perceived as mostly Protestant men and officers, unable to communicate with them, and imbued with the spirit underlying the infamous Regulation 17. Young French-Canadians seeking to serve, chose, instead, the few traditional "French" regiments of the Canadian militia, such as Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, where barracks life was in French and only the command language was in English. They had to be turned away because the minister of militia and his subordinates were obstinate in their refusal to mobilize these traditional "French" regiments or to create new ones. However, the government continued to raise its expectations for volunteers, aiming for 150,000 men by 1915.

Political pressure in Quebec, along with some public rallies, demanded the creation of French-speaking units to fight a war that was viewed as being right and necessary by many, despite the Regulation 17 in Ontario and the resistance in Quebec of those such as Henri Bourassa. Indeed, Montreal's La Presse editorialized that Quebec should create a contingent to fight as part of the French Army. When the government relented, the first new unit was the 22nd (French Canadian) Infantry Battalion, CEF. While a few other French-speaking units were also allowed to be created, mostly by Reserve officers, they were all disbanded to provide replacements for the 22nd, which suffered close to 4,000 wounded and killed in the course of the war.

As the war dragged on, soldiers and politicians soon realized there would be no quick end, and men stopped volunteering. There were over 300,000 recruits by 1916, but Prime Minister Robert Laird Borden had promised 500,000 by the end of that year, despite the fact that Canada's population was only 8 million at the time.

The Military Service Act

Although an important victory for Canada (if unimportant to the war itself), the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917 cost Canada over 3,000 dead and over 7,000 wounded. There were very few volunteers to replace them. The recruiting effort in Quebec had failed, as bitterness over Regulation 17 continued and the shoddy treatment of French-Canadian volunteers became widely known.

Moreover, the justification of the war was seen more and more in Quebec in terms of illegitimate British imperial interests. Most French-Canadians, led by Henri Bourassa, felt no particular loyalty to either Britain or France. Indeed, Bourassa said Quebecers had one country - Canada; while English-Canadians had two - Britain and Canada. Bourassa had led resistance to Canadian support of British "imperial" wars since the Boer War.

After visiting Britain for a meeting of First Ministers in May of 1917, and talking with Canadian soldiers recuperating in British hospitals, Borden announced that he would be introducing conscription. In July, the Military Service Act was passed, allowing Borden to conscript men if he felt it was necessary. English Canada was not unanimously in favour of conscription, but was far more supportive than Quebec, where Bourassa argued that Canada had no business in a blatantly imperialistic European war. Marches against Borden and conscription were organized in Quebec, and riots broke out at anti-conscription rallies.

The election of 1917

To solidify support for conscription in the 1917 election, Borden extended the vote to overseas soldiers, who were in favour of conscription to replace their depleted forces. For Borden, these votes had an other advantage, they could be distributed in any riding, regardless of the soldier's regular place of residence. Women, who tended to favour conscription to support their husbands and sons in France, were also granted the right to vote in this election. Borden's Unionist Party, a coalition between the Conservatives and pro-conscription Liberals, won with a 71 seat majority. In the election, Borden was opposed not only by Bourassa, but also by Wilfrid Laurier, the leader of the Liberals who had been abandoned by much of his party. Laurier had opposed conscription from the beginning of the war, and privately felt that if he joined the coalition, Quebec would fall under what he perceived as a dangerous nationalism of Bourassa.

Conscription and the end of the war

On January 1, 1918, the Unionist government began to enforce the Military Service Act. The Act called up 400,000 men, but it was vague and offered many exemptions, and almost all of these men were able to avoid service, even if they had supported conscription. In Quebec, there were more protests and marches against the Act. On April 1, 1918, four men were killed when the army opened fire on a crowd in Quebec City. The coroner's inquest would later show that these men were pedestrians who had not been involved in the protests.

The government then amended the Act so that there were no exemptions, which left many English Canadians opposed as well. Even without exemptions only about 125,000 men were ever conscripted, and only 25,000 of these were sent to the front. Fortunately for Borden, the war ended within a few months, but the issue left Canada divided and distrustful of their government. In 1920, Borden retired, and his successor, Arthur Meighen, was defeated in the 1921 election. Conservatives were virtually shut out of Quebec for the next 50 years.

See also


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