The Conscription Crisis of 1917
The Conscription Crisis of 1917
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World War I broke out in 1914 and Canada, as an ally of Great Britain, automatically found itself in the fray. Prime Minister Robert Borden's intention to send a large number of soldiers aroused furious debate across the country - debate that would culminate in a real crisis when conscription was carried out in 1917.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT
World War One broke out in 1914 and, as an ally of Great Britain, Canada automatically found itself in the fray. Prime Minister Robert Borden declared that "when Great Britain is at war, Canada is at war, and there is no difference at all." The year 1916 was disastrous for the Allies and the situation was becoming critical. The French and the British had suffered heavy casualties, mutinies were erupting within the French army, German submarines were wreaking havoc and the Russian allies were on the brink of being soundly defeated. A new government came into power in Great Britain and, determined to win the war, asked the Dominions to send fresh troops. On the front, the officers of the Canadian Expeditionary Front were desperate for reinforcements to make up for their losses. Robert Borden, an ardent imperialist, was determined to maintain Canada's participation, and for him this was the only way for Canada to be considered equal to Great Britain, rather than a mere colony.

SUMMARY
The antecedents of this crisis could be found as far back as the Boer War (1899-1902) and the creation of a Canadian navy (1908) when the issue of Canadian participation in Imperial wars arose. In early 1917, Robert Borden travelled to Great Britain to discuss the continuation of the war. He pointed out that Australia, despite a lower population, had more troops than Canada. But volunteers were becoming harder to find, and when he returned home, Borden was convinced of the importance of establishing a forced conscription system to compensate for losses. He thus passed the Military Service Act. There were many anglophones among the farmers, union heads, and pacifists who opposed the idea, but they had no forums in which to make themselves heard. Francophones were almost unanimous in their opposition. Henri Bourassa, the symbol of French-Canadian nationalism, refused to let the government impose conscription as long as Bill 17 was still in effect in Ontario. Borden pushed through the Military Voters Act and the War-time Elections Act, then called an election. Borden's union support was high in all provinces, with the exception of Quebec. However, by eliminating the votes of the military types who supported Borden, the unions would have had a lead of just 100,000 votes. .Applying the new conscription system across the country proved to be difficult. In Quebec, the protest movement hit its zenith on Easter weekend, when a riot broke out in Quebec City, killing four. In March 1918, the Germans launched a series of victorious offensives and the Allies had an urgent need for reinforcements. Borden called in his Cabinet in April and, after a fiery debate, eliminated all exemptions. The country emerged deeply divided by this crisis, and the Conservative Party lost its influence in Quebec and in the West.

Concepts
Dominion
State attached to the British Crown and member of the British Empire. Although a Dominion may control its internal affairs, it must abide by the decisions of Great Britain when it comes to relations with foreign countries.

British Empire
Group that includes Great Britain and its colonies. In 1914 it was the largest empire in the world and its possessions extended to all continents. Canada held the status of Dominion. As relations between Great Britain and its colonies evolved, several colonies began to want more autonomy.

Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF)
Army formed in Canada in 1914 to serve overseas. The contingent was governed by British Armed Forces Law and held the status of a colonial troop.

Colony
Country that is not completely sovereign and is under the authority of another country.

Sovereignty
Characteristic of a State that is not under the authority of another State.

Imperialism
Movement designed to maintain the ties between Canada and the British Empire. Imperialists felt that Dominions must be considered as equal partners with the empire, not simple colonies.

Conscription
Recruiting system that ranks the population (as a rule, men only) by age. Some categories were then eliminated and people who would normally be exempt from duty were forced into service. In Canada, conscription was established by vote in the House of Commons.

Military Service Act
Law adopted on August 29, 1917 to gather 100,000 men as reinforcements for the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The law, which contained numerous exceptions, was applied erratically. Although 99,561 people were conscripted as a result of the law, only 24,100 soldiers actually fought at the front before the end of the war.

French-Canadian nationalism
Henri Bourassa's notion of nationalism lay in the union of two founding peoples (anglophone and francophone) when Confederation was achieved in1867. These two peoples were to be equal and enjoy the same privileges. This was in opposition to the dogma of imperialism.

Bill 17
Ontario government bill passed in 1912, which restricted French instruction in Ontario public schools. The law prompted great resentment among French-speaking populations across the country.

Military Voters Act
Law that extended the right to vote to all men and women in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

War-time Elections Act
Law which extended the right to vote to the mothers, wives, and sisters of the soldiers serving, while at the same time refusing that right to citizens from enemy countries.

Cabinet
Political group comprised of the Prime Minister and his ministers. The latter are from the party with the most deputies in the House of Commons