One of Canada’s most serious political crises was brewing on May 25, 1917. Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden had just returned from a tour of Canadian forces fighting in World War I. Although he had hoped to avoid it. Sir Robert felt that compulsory military service was necessary to fill the ranks, even though it would split the nation.
Quebec Nationalist ministers and members of Parliament opposed conscription. There was opposition from farm and labour organizations and others. The only possibility was to form a coalition with members of the Liberal Party, who had been the official Opposition since the reciprocity election of 1911.
Borden met the Leader of the Opposition, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, on the morning of May 25, and urged him to unite in a government. The cabinet would be composed equally of Conservatives and Liberals. Sir Wilfrid replied that a referendum on conscription, or a general election, should be held first. After some discussion, Sir Wilfrid asked for a few days to think things over.
The talks between the leaders continued well into June. Sir Wilfrid refused to join the coalition, believing that he was being asked to accept a decision already made, not one on which he had been consulted. On June 24, Parliament passed the Military Service Bill by 102 votes to 44. Laurier saw his friends in the Liberal Party slipping away, one by one. When Frank Carvell of New Brunswick, one of his oldest friends, voted for conscription after a moving speech, Laurier sent him a note via a House of Commons messenger: “Frank, that was a noble speech.”
The battle went on until December 17 when an election was held. In the meantime, Sir Robert had formed a Union Government without a single French-Canadian member! It was sustained in the election: Union Government 153, Laurier 82, 62 of which came from Quebec. Laurier had won 42 percent of the popular vote. Mackenzie King was defeated in North York, but the 42 per cent was what he had to build on when he became leader of the Liberal Party in 1919.
Conscription enlisted 83,000 men, of whom 47,500 went overseas. In all, 35,000 French-speaking Canadians served in the armed forces — and with distinction.
Very interesting topic, eh? To read more, I would recommend going to No-Conscription Fellowship, Leaflet, from McMaster University, and The Canadian Encyclopedia for an article called “Union Government”. For an experience (You have to go there to find out what kind), you will want to go to -a0121874398″ title=”The conscription crisis, part III a Canadian tragedy” target=”_blank”Bill Twatio. Finally, I suggest Henri Bourassa and Conscription: Traitor or Saviour? at the National Defence and the Canadian Forces site.