The Conscription Crisis
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The Conscription Crisis
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The Conscription Crisis
French Canada erupts in anger when the federal government forces its men to go to war
During First World War, the issue of military service touched the soul of French Canada, sparking violence and bloodshed and ripping open the country's linguistic divide.
The issue of conscription or mandatory military service tore Canada apart during the First World War. Pictured here, soldiers standing by a sign denouncing men who did not sign up for the war. (Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives, SC244726)
The issue of conscription or mandatory military service tore Canada apart during the First World War. Pictured here, soldiers standing by a sign denouncing men who did not sign up for the war. (Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives, SC244726)

When war erupted in 1914, it caused a patriotic fervor in English Canada. Volunteers flocked to recruiting stations and everyone got into the war effort at home, determined to contribute to the British Empire's battle in Europe.

In stark contrast, French Canada felt removed from Britain's plight. They felt little attachment to the Imperial mother country and viewed the Canadian army as an almost entirely English Canadian institution.

French-English tensions were already running high; French Canadians were still enraged that Ontario has banned French as a language of instruction in its schools in 1913.

Of the 400,000 Canadians who volunteered for service in WWI, fewer than one in 20 were French. Of English Canadian volunteers, 70% were recent immigrants from Britain

French Canada felt confident it could remain removed from the action in Europe because Prime Minister Robert Borden had promised no obligatory military service known as conscription.
After visiting wounded Canadian soldiers in a British hospital in March 1917, Prime Minister Robert Borden retreated from an earlier promise of no conscription. (National Archives of Canada, PA000880)
After visiting wounded Canadian soldiers in a British hospital in March 1917, Prime Minister Robert Borden retreated from an earlier promise of no conscription. (National Archives of Canada, PA000880)

By 1917 - after almost three years of fighting - the numbers of dead and wounded mounted overseas. In addition, voluntary enlistment by Canadians dropped drastically as jobs became plentiful at home.

On May 18, 1917, Prime Minister Borden retreated from his earlier promise and introduced a conscription bill, the Military Services Act.

While some English Canadians opposed conscription, nowhere was the outcry greater than in French Canada.

The archbishop of Montreal, Monseigneur Bruchési sent a warning to Prime Minister Borden.

"Dear Sir Robert, Do you not think, in light of our population, that we have largely done our share? The people are agitated. ... In the province of Quebec; we can expect deplorable revolts. Will this not end in bloodshed?"

Wilfrid Laurier, now Leader of the Opposition, was also convinced that conscription would tear the country apart.

"Is it not true that the main reason advocated for conscription - not so much publicly as privately, not shouted but whispered - is that Quebec must be made to do her part, and French-Canadians forced to enlist compulsorily since they did not enlist voluntarily?"

Borden ignored the warnings. The Military Service Act was passed in the House of Commons on July 24, 1917, thanks to the support of nearly all English-speaking Members of Parliament, and in spite of the opposition of nearly all French-speaking MPs.
On May 18, 1917, a conscription bill was introduced in Parliament provoking a general outcry from French Canada. Pictured here, an anti-conscription parade at Victoria Square in Montreal on May 24, 1917. (National Archives of Canada, C-006859)
On May 18, 1917, a conscription bill was introduced in Parliament provoking a general outcry from French Canada. Pictured here, an anti-conscription parade at Victoria Square in Montreal on May 24, 1917. (National Archives of Canada, C-006859)

On August 28, conscription became law and was followed by two days of violence in Montreal. Store windows were smashed and tramway rails ripped up. One hundred and fifty policemen were called in to disperse the crowd, and four were wounded, along with two demonstrators. The following evening, a demonstrator was killed in Philips Square.

But the worst was yet to come.

On Easter weekend 1918, a 23 year-old man named Joseph Mercier was arrested at a Quebec City bowling alley, for not having his conscription registration papers on him. The incident sparked retaliation: a crowd looted the offices of the army registrar, pitched files out in the snow and smashed the windows of English shops.

On Easter Monday, April 1, 1918, after days of rioting, Ottawa sent soldiers into Quebec City. On rue Bagot, they tried to drive the demonstrators back but met with a hail of rocks.

"We heard the thud of hooves of an Ontario cavalry regiment, driven at breakneck speed into rue Saint Sauveur," observed Frank Scott, a soldier on leave in Quebec. "Rioters had put out the street lamps; the Lower City was shrouded in mist and darkness that night. Suddenly, I could make out the fire of several heavy machine guns. It was deafening and gave the impression that a massacre was taking place at the foot of the cliff."

In all, four unarmed civilians were killed and dozens injured. English and French Canada hadn't been so divided since Louis Riel was hanged in 1885.

A few months later - November 11, 1918 - the war ended but the fallout of the conscription issue would continue long after. For many years the Conservative Party, which had brought in conscription, found it hard to get votes in Quebec.

The conscription crisis stuck in the minds of French Canadians in the decades to come. The memories fueled the flames of growing French nationalist passions and created a permanent wedge in Canada's linguistic divide.

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