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Mackenzie King's 'not necessarily conscription' policy

With his cautious policies and shrewd political skills, he successfully led Canada for almost 22 years. But behind closed doors, he held secret séances and had frequent conversations with his dead mother. As Canada's longest-serving prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King's public persona was staid and serious. After his death in 1950, however, his fascinating private life slowly came to light.

"Mackenzie King was not a wartime leader, in the sense that he wasn't a warlord like Churchill or a great leader like Roosevelt," asserts political scientist Reg Whitaker. But, as Whitaker explains in this 1984 CBC Television feature on the Liberal party, King was a very successful leader for Canada during the Second World War. He brought the country through the war without igniting further divisions between the French and English over the issue of conscription (mandatory military duty).

French-Canadians were against conscription to serve overseas, while most of English Canada supported conscription if it was deemed necessary. As Whitaker points out, this issue spawned King's now-famous credo, "not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary." For the sake of unity, King delayed implementing conscription as long as possible. When 16,000 conscripts were eventually sent overseas in 1944, the country's unity survived the ordeal.
• As the possibility of war was approaching in the 1930s, the peace-loving Mackenzie King supported British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasing Germany in order to avoid war. When it became apparent that Britain would be declaring war, King — who was always eager to assert Canadian autonomy — announced that he would consult Parliament to decide what to do. On Sept. 10, 1939, Canada officially declared war on Germany, one week after Britain had done so.

• At the beginning of the war, King made a promise to Canadians that he would not impose conscription for overseas service. This was partly because during the First World War the issue of conscription had divided the country along linguistic lines. King wanted to avoid a similar conflict this time.

• Canada had enacted conscription for "home service" in 1940. This allowed the government to register Canadians and move them into jobs considered necessary for wartime production — something that obviously didn't cause the controversy that overseas conscription would.

• Voluntary overseas enlistment was slowing down by 1941. It became clear that the King government would have to revisit the conscription question. In 1942, King decided to hold a plebiscite asking Canadians to release the government from its promise to not implement overseas conscription. The results of the plebiscite revealed a country divided: in Quebec, 72.9 per cent voted no, while the rest of the country averaged about 80 per cent yes.

• King was very sensitive to the damage that implementing conscription could do to national unity. He pledged that the results of this plebiscite didn't mean that there would definitely be conscription. According to many Canadian historians, his now-famous phrase "not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary" embodies King's flair for evasiveness and ambiguity.

• King held off on implementing overseas conscription as long as he could. In 1944 there were heavy infantry casualties in Europe. It became clear that conscription was now necessary. King ordered 16,000 conscripts overseas.
• In a 1944 speech following this decision, King strongly emphasized the importance of national unity: "If there is anything to which I have devoted my political life, it is to try to promote unity, harmony and amity between the diverse elements of this country."

• While many French-Canadians were still extremely upset when conscription eventually took place near the end of the war, historians now believe that King's delay tactics were exactly what was needed to keep the country together during a potentially explosive time. Political historian Michael Bliss has written that one of King's achievements as prime minister was in "dividing Canadians least."

• The war in Europe was officially over on May 8, 1945, while King was still in power. After hearing this news at night on May 7, King penned a very long diary entry. He was pleased about the victory, but also focused on the tragedy of war: "It is sad beyond words…that the multitudes of innocent people have had to suffer so terribly for the guilt and the folly, vain-glorious ambition of a handful of gangsters."
Medium: Television
Program: The Journal
Broadcast Date: June 11, 1984
Guest(s): Reg Whitaker
Narrator: Peter Kent
Producer: David Kirk
Duration: 1:18

Last updated: November 29, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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