War casualties made conscription necessary

By ROBERT BOTHWELL

One of the problems of a bilingual country is, inevitably, national unity. In Canada, national unity usually – though not always – refers to relations between English and French Canadians. Put another way, if the English-language majority leads, will the French minority follow?

It is a question that Canadian politicians do their best to avoid. Having a federal system with a large French-majority province, Quebec, helps by downloading many issues to the provincial level. But there are some issues that cannot be avoided, and of these the greatest is war and peace.

Canada by itself is unlikely to go to war. It is too small, too distant and, blessedly, unencumbered by hostile neighbours. But Canada has gone to war, repeatedly, on behalf of its friends and associates – in 1899 for the British Empire in South Africa; in 1914 in World War I for the British Empire; in 1939 for the Empire, again, in World War II; for the United Nations (and the United States) in Korea in 1950, in the Gulf War in 1990 and Afghanistan in 2001.

The two world wars were fought on a massive scale, requiring hundreds of thousands of Canadian troops fighting on distant and bloody battlefields. (There were over a million men and women in the armed forces in World War II, out of a population of less than 12 million.)  Canadian society was turned inside out to mobilize resources of men, material and money for the conflicts. Sixty-thousand Canadian soldiers, sailors and airmen died in World War I and 42,000 in World War II, while the wounded and disabled were counted in the hundreds of thousands.

These two wars took place in the span of just a generation. Some who served in the first war were still young enough to serve in the second; in other cases, the soldiers of the first war were the officials and politicians of the second. And, as might be expected, the experiences (or as some called them, the lessons) of the first war were applied to the second, and of these experiences the most obvious was what war meant for English-French relations.

In 1914 Canada entered the war under the direction of a Conservative government, headed by Sir Robert Borden. Though Borden was an intelligent man, his cabinet was weak in terms of the quality of its ministers, and it was especially weak in terms of its French-Canadian members. Borden himself was aware of the problem, but did not know what to do; and the problem grew in importance as it became clear that French-speaking parts of the country, mainly Quebec, were not producing troops proportionate to the size of their population. As casualties rose, English-Canadians more and more resented the lack of enlistees from Quebec. The issue exploded in 1917 when Borden decided to impose conscription, compulsory military service. A divisive federal election was held, and the country split mainly, though not entirely, on French-English lines. Sporadic riots broke out in Quebec in 1918, and many men of military age refused to report for duty. What the government would have done had the war lasted much longer remains unknown. The war did end in November 1918, leaving behind a host of unpleasant memories.

The politicians who took Canada into World War II in 1939 were mindful of the strains the first war had placed on the country. Then prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, a Liberal, was a far better politician than Borden, and his cabinet was stronger and, most important, much stronger in Quebec. King and virtually every other politician regardless of party promised no conscription for overseas service. There was conscription for home defence, starting in 1940, but the troops who went overseas – half a million of them – were all volunteers. (As before, the rate of enlistment in Quebec was significantly lower than in English Canada.) But as the war exploded into Russia and the Pacific in 1941 and 1942 many English Canadians became impatient with the no conscription promise. King held a plebiscite in 1942 to relieve him of the promise and, as might be expected, English Canadians mainly voted yes, and French Canadians, no. However, King did not impose conscription until 1944, when casualties overseas demanded it.

Unlike 1918, the conscripts sent overseas in 1944 were already in uniform. And unlike the earlier conflict, there were prominent French-Canadian politicians who supported sending them. King had political credibility, enough to win handily in Quebec in an election just after the end of the war. Though World War II strained French-English relations, they did not break, and the short-term political effects were few. In the aftermath, there was a curious consequence. Canadian war veterans received massive grants after the war – but because there were fewer French-Canadian veterans they did not get the same advantages. It is entirely possible that Quebec after 1945 was less prosperous and less well educated as a result.

Next Instalment: The October Crisis

The Canadian Experience is a 52-week history series designed to tell the story of our country to all Canadians. Sponsored by Multimedia Nova Corporation and Diversity Media Services/Lingua Ads partners, the series features articles by our country’s foremost historians on a wide range of topics. Past articles and author bios are available at http://www.cdnexperience.ca. The Canadian Experience is copyright © 2010-2011 Multimedia Nova Corporation.

 

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