Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Mystique of the Conscription Crisis of 1917

The Mystique of the Conscription Crisis of 1917

By Furano Yukihira
The Daily Magi
November 18, 2059


The Conscription Crisis of 1917 (French: Crise de la conscription de 1917) was a political and military crisis in Canada during World War I. Canada entered World War I on 4 August 1914. Colonel Sam Hughes was the Canadian Minister of Militia and on 10 August he was permitted to create a militia of 25,000 men. Before the end of August 1914 Hughes had already created a training camp at Valcartier, Quebec, which was capable of housing 32,000 men. The first contingent of 31,200 Canadians, dubbed "Canada's Answer", arrived in Britain on October 14 for continued training. Hughes moved with incredible speed to create Canadian battalions which allowed Canadian troops to be kept together as units for the first time.

Relatively few francophones 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 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 traditionally French regiments or to create new ones. However, the government continued to raise its expectations for volunteers, aiming for 150,000 men by 1915. English Canadians did not believe that French Canada was providing a fair share to the war effort. Sam Hughes, in June 1917, informed the House of Commons that of the 432,000 Canadian volunteers fewer than 5% came from French Canada, which made up 28% of the Canadian population at that time. There have been many reasons proposed for the lack of volunteers from Quebec; however, many prominent Canadian historians suggest that the Ontario government's move to disallow French language instruction in Regulation 17 as the main reason.

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 Quebecers, despite 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) 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. Eventually, people learned of the trench conditions and number of casualties in Europe, and men stopped volunteering. There were over 300,000 recruits by 1916, but Prime Minister Robert 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.

After the Battle of the Somme, Canada was in desperate need to replenish its supply of soldiers; however, there were very few volunteers to replace them. The recruiting effort in Quebec had failed, and Canada turned to its only unused option: conscription.

Almost all French Canadians opposed conscription: they felt that they had no particular loyalty to either Britain or France. Led by Henri Bourassa, they felt their only loyalty was to Quebec. English Canadians generally supported the war effort as they felt stronger ties to the British Empire. The Conscription Crisis of 1917 caused a considerable rift along ethnic lines between Anglophones and Francophones.

After visiting Britain for a meeting of First Ministers in May 1917, Borden announced that he would introduce the Military Service Act On August 29, 1917. The Act was passed: allowing the government to conscript men across the country if the Prime Minister felt that it was necessary.

On January 1, 1918, the Unionist government began to enforce the Military Service Act. The act caused 404,385 men to be liable for military service, from which 385,510 sought exemption, 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. The most violent opposition occurred in Quebec, where anti-war attitudes drawn from French-Canadian nationalism sparked a weekend of rioting between March 28 and April 1, 1918. The disturbances began on the Thursday when Dominion Police detained a French-Canadian man who had failed to present his draft exemption papers. Despite the man’s release, an angry mob of nearly 200 soon descended upon the St. Roch District Police Station where the man had been held. By the following Good Friday evening, an estimated 15,000 rioters had sacked the conscription registration office as well as two pro-conscription newspapers within Quebec City.

This escalation of violence along with rumours of an alleged province-wide uprising prompted Quebec City Mayor Henri Edgar Lavigueur to contact Ottawa and request reinforcements. Alarmed by the two days of rioting, the Borden Government invoked the War Measures Act of 1914, which gave the federal government the power to directly oversee the maintenance of law and order in Quebec City. By the following morning, 780 federal soldiers had been deployed in the city, with an additional 1,000 en route from Ontario and 3,000 from western provinces. Despite their imminent arrival, protracted violence continued into the night of March 30, leading in to a precarious Sunday. The final and bloodiest conflict happened Easter Monday, when crowds once again organized against the military presence in the city, which by then had grown to 1,200 soldiers – all of which came from Ontario. Once armed rioters began to fire on troops from concealed positions, the soldiers were ordered to fire on the crowds, immediately causing them to disperse. Though the actual number of civilian casualties is debated, official reports from that day name five men killed by gunfire. Dozens more were injured. Among the soldiers are 32 recorded injuries that day, with no deaths. Monday, April 1, marked the end of the Easter Riots, which totaled over 150 casualties and $300,000 in damage.

The Easter Riots represent one of the most violent disturbances in Canadian history. This stemmed from pre-existing currents in French-Canadian nationalism, which became exacerbated during war time and ultimately erupted over conscription. Curiously, the event itself is rarely studied as anything other than a footnote to the larger political debate around conscription at the time. However, the severity and swiftness of Ottawa’s response serves to demonstrate their determination to impose conscription and prevent a national crisis. Moreover, the military crackdown which lasted in Quebec until the end of the war resulted in an increase in state power in the wake of growing French-Canadian nationalism.

By the spring of 1918, the government had 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 Canadians 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.

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