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Prime Minister King on the conscription plebiscite

The Story

For just the second time in the country's history, Canadians from coast to coast are being asked to vote in a plebiscite. The stakes are high: the government wants the right to conscript Canadians to fight overseas, something it had thus far promised not to do. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King uses this special broadcast -- his last before the vote on Monday -- to ask Canadians to "give government a free hand" to defeat the Axis "thugs." 

Medium: Radio
Program: CBC Radio Special
Broadcast Date: April 24, 1942
Guest(s): William Lyon Mackenzie King
Duration: 10:41
Photo: Nicholas Morant / National Film Board of Canada. Phototheque / Library and Archives Canada / C-026989

Did You know?

• During the First World War, the issue of conscription (mandatory military service) bitterly divided English Canadians who reacted with patriotic fervour, and French Canadians who felt removed from England's plight and the Canadian army. When conscription was enacted just before the war's end, there were riots in Quebec. The mood in French Canada during the Second World War was likewise hostile towards conscription.

• At the beginning of the Second World War, King promised Canadians he would not impose conscription for overseas service. In 1940 he enacted the National Resources Mobilization Act, which called for conscription for "home service," defending Canada and boosting wartime production. Service overseas was voluntary.

• By 1941 fewer Canadians were volunteering to serve in the armed forces, Japan had entered the war, and King was forced to revisit the issue. In 1942 he made the difficult decision to ask Canadians directly to release the government from its promise to not implement overseas conscription. As you can hear in this speech, King claimed conscription itself was not the issue; rather, it was a decision to let the government "do its utmost" to defend Canada.

• King's ambiguous approach to conscription was typified by his famous phrase, "not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary."
• The plebiscite was opposed by La Ligue pour le defense du Canada; a group of union leaders, nationalists, rural groups and youth activists who said that the small nation had already done more than enough.

• Even the decision to hold a plebiscite was controversial. The Globe and Mail called the plebiscite "a most abject disavowal of government obligations" and a "cowardly evasion of leadership." Editorials pointed to the devastating effect a negative result could have on the morale of volunteers.

• Others supported the decision. The Hamilton Spectator said that King's government, "far from shirking responsibility, is asking for it to a full degree." The New York Times wrote that since the start of the war, Canada's role has already "far outgrown what anyone then believed she could or should do. Now her people are being asked to complete that splendid record."

• The question posed to Canadians on April 27, 1942, read: "Are you in favour of releasing the government from any obligation arising out of any past commitments restricting the methods of raising men for military service?"
• Pundits had predicted the highest voter turnout in Canadian history, but this didn't happen. Canada's 1942 population was 11.5 million; of the seven million eligible voters, some four million turned out.

• The results revealed a country once again divided along linguistic lines. In Quebec, 72 per cent voted no, while the rest of the country averaged about 80 per cent yes, for a nationwide average of about 65 per cent in favour.
• Despite this mandate, King avoided implementing overseas conscription as long as he could. In 1944, heavy casualties in Europe (including D-Day) finally made overseas conscription necessary, and King sent 13,000 of Canada's 68,000 conscripts abroad.

• In the end, only 2,463 conscripts reached fighting units before the war ended, and 69 died in battle.
• Nationwide referendums, or plebiscites, have been held just three times in Canada. The other two were about Prohibition (Sept. 29, 1898; result: 51 per cent in favour) and the Charlottetown Accord (Oct. 26, 1992; result: 55 per cent against).

• Mackenzie King's diary entry for the day of this speech notes that he had a cold at the time, but got through the broadcast with few difficulties and was pleased with the response.


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