The Pollcast: Canada's divisive wartime election

100 years ago, Canada was in the thick of both the First World War and one of the most divisive elections in its history. Pollcast host Éric Grenier is joined by Patrice Dutil, co-author of Embattled Nation: Canada's Wartime Election of 1917, to discuss.

Host Éric Grenier is joined by Patrice Dutil, co-author of Embattled Nation: Canada's Wartime Election of 1917

Unionist posters from the 1917 federal election campaign. (Library and Archives Canada)

The CBC Pollcast, hosted by CBC poll analyst Éric Grenier, explores the world of electoral politics, political polls and the trends they reveal.

It was one of the most divisive elections in Canadian history. Fought over the issue of conscription while the First World War raged in Europe, it nearly tore Canada apart.

After coming to power in 1911 and leading the country through the first years of the war, prime minister Robert Borden sent Canadians to the polls on Dec. 17, 1917. He was re-elected, but not before pitting one part of the country against the other.

"This is the worst election campaign in Canadian history in the worst year in Canadian history," said Patrice Dutil, co-author of Embattled Nation: Canada's Wartime Election of 1917.

By the third year of World War I, Canadian units in the trenches of France and Belgium were running short of men. Voluntary recruits could not keep up with demand and calls were raised to institute conscription to fill in the gaps.

But support for conscription varied widely across the country. Enlistment rates were lower in Quebec than in the rest of Canada, and the province was against the imposition of conscription. Leading the charge against it in French Canada was Henri Bourassa, editor of the Le Devoir newspaper. After urging his nationalists to back Borden in 1911, Bourassa switched sides to support the Liberals under Wilfrid Laurier, leader of the party since 1887 and prime minister from 1896 to 1911.

Unionist campaign poster from the 1917 federal election, linking anti-conscriptionist Henri Bourassa with Liberal leader Wilfrid Laurier. (Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-28-723)

English Canada was strongly in favour of conscription and the Conservative campaign fanned the flames of resentment against French Canadians who were deemed to be not pulling their weight. Campaign posters asked "are the slackers in Quebec to rule Canada?"

Others showed cartoons of Kaiser Wilhelm II, ruler of Germany, saluting Laurier's policy manifesto, described as "desert and betray Canada's boys at the front" — a policy the poster showed as getting the "O.K." from Bourassa.

But the conscription issue did not only divide English and French. It divided Liberals, too, and a number of prominent members of the party broke with Laurier to run as Unionist candidates under Borden. This imposed further challenges on Laurier's Liberals, who risked their support being limited almost entirely to Quebec — a risk that became acute once Borden promised the sons of farmers would be excluded from conscription, a policy crafted to gain support in the West and among rural Ontarians.

Choosing the right voters

Despite Borden's strong electoral position, his government still took steps to ensure the vote would go its way. Voting rights were extended to women, but only those who were related to men serving overseas or who had been killed in action. These were voters the Conservatives believed would vote en masse for their pro-conscription program.

Voting rights were also removed from Canadians who had recently immigrated from Germany, Austria-Hungary and other enemy nations — voters who had traditionally supported the Liberal Party.

"It's really loading the dice in favour of people who will support the government and removing the vote from people who are not likely to support the government," said Dutil.

Unionist campaign poster from the 1917 federal election campaign. (Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-28-739)

To further ensure that the government could secure re-election, great efforts were made to enable soldiers serving in the Canadian Army overseas to cast their ballot. Soldiers were allowed to choose which riding their vote would be counted in, and there were a few cases of soldiers disproportionately choosing to cast their ballot in close contests.

The Union government's approach to soldiers lacked subtlety. One poster told soldiers serving overseas that "a vote against the government means: You are here for life; A vote for the government means: Another man is coming to take your place."

In the end, Borden's Conservatives probably did not need the help. Though the party overwhelmingly won the soldier vote with 93 per cent of ballots cast, it also won a majority among civilian voters. In total, the Unionists took 57 per cent of the vote and 153 of the country's 235 seats.

The Liberals captured 40 per cent of the vote and just 82 seats — 62 of them in Quebec, where Laurier's Liberals won 73 per cent of the vote and all but three of the province's seats.

Borden's victory did not outlast him. He resigned as leader in 1920 and a year later his party, under Arthur Meighen, was defeated by Mackenzie King's Liberals. After nearly tying the Liberals in Quebec in the 1911 federal election, it was not until 1958, more than 40 years after imposing conscription on Quebec, that Conservatives would win the most votes in the province.

Embattled Nation: Canada's Wartime Election of 1917 was co-written by Dutil, professor of politics and public administration at Ryerson University, and David MacKenzie, professor of history at Ryerson.

Professor Dutil joined Pollcast host Éric Grenier to discuss this tumultuous, divisive and downright dirty campaign.

Listen to the full discussion above — or subscribe to the CBC Pollcast and listen to past episodes.​

Follow Éric Grenier on Twitter.