Conscription—Behind the Curtain

H. F. Gadsby August 1 1917

Conscription—Behind the Curtain

H. F. Gadsby August 1 1917

Conscription—Behind the Curtain

H. F. Gadsby

WHEN Premier Borden, some six weeks ago, his chin up and his head bumping the stars, announced that Canada would do her whole duty by the men at the front and that there would be Selective Conscription for the Last Hundred Thousand, he launched a crisis which for high flight and sustained vigor has never been equalled in the annals of the Canadian Parliament. People said they had been expecting it, but when Premier Borden reached up to the blue sky, plucked the thunderbolt and hurled it, there was great surprise.

The thunderbolt had a long tail to i t. Conscription was the word, but in its train were . many feverish guesses. A coalition? Cabinet reconstruction? A n extension? A khaki election with Quebec lined up against the rest of Canada? Whô knew? The Ottawa corresponde nts were as lively as ants in a frying pan. To vary Scripture a little the morning and the evening (newspapers) were the first day, and likewise the second and the third and the fourth and the fifth and the sixth, ‘not to mention the Saturday-night Sundays which were the most irresponsible of all. There was a new rumor

EDITOR’S NOTE: — This article was prepared before the vote on Conscription had been taken, and was designed to give a view of things, happening “behind the curtain," to show how national questions are bed-eviled by party considerations. It has neither political -motive nor animus/ and is not intended as on argument for or against conscription. Certainly, however, it is an argument against partyism.

for breakfast every morning, and another for dinner every night, and for lunch as many as one liked. It was a poor cor-

respondent who couldn’t make t ro cabinets a day—good ones at that.

The outstanding topic was, of] course, Quebec. How would she take it? What would Sir Wilfrid Laurier say? What race and creed hatreds would th » crisis engender or revive? Would Que bec become to Canada the thorn that In land is to Great Britain? Would it fir t split and afterwards kill the Liberal party? Was conscription a genuine impulse, of Premier Borden’s heart or a party man-

œuvre invented by the Hon. Robert Rogers?

Was coalition a real offer or a ruse to swallow the Liberal party and digest it so. thoroughly that nothing would be left of it after the war was over? Who were the Liberals behind the coalition talk? Did they love Canada more or Laurier less? What d i d the Toronto group aim at—to save toe Empire or to loosen Laurier’s clutch on the leadership? Who were the weak brothers of the Liberal party, inside the House OT outside, who might be expected to enter a coalition cabinet? If personal ambition led them astray would they be Liberals any longer? These were the questions one heard asked everywhere.

I HAVE seen many crises in my seventeen years in the Press Gallery at Ottawa, bat never one in which the symptoms waxed and waned in such definite order. The crisis passed through four stages—-consternation, agitation, manipulation and contemplation. Perhaps it would be better to say that manipulation and contemplation came together. A little bit of both and calm at that. -The crisis in its last stage was not a crisis. It wás a game of checkers.

The first stage was consternation. The consternation was confined to the Liberal party. It had its root in the fear that annihilation was what the Borden Government had in its mind for the Opposition. The party system is so inflexible at Ottawa that the Members of Parliament on both sides of the House are afraid of an honest difference of opinion in the party ranks. They are not accustomed to shades of opinion as they are in the Parliaments of the Old World where parties live by combination and governments survive by jumping from floe to floe like ’Liza crossing the river on the ice. Ottawa does not favor such hair-raising performances. The United front is everything, and when the united front disappears the party feels like a Senator who has just broken his pivot tooth—nothing to

Many jealousies were aroused, much distrust, dark suspicion. Never since Con* federation was such a witches’ stew and from it each man bore away his reeking goblet of passion or motive to waive under somebody's nose.

keep the rest of the set together. The truth this last crisis conceals is that a party will stretch a long way before it breaks.

Nevertheless, when conscription was first announced the Liberal party felt like a man who is going down for the third time. Even now it feels as if it had been rolled on a barrel. There is a certain soreness at the pit of its stomach—the temporary isolation of Quebec. How* ever, it has ceased courting disasters and is shaking hands with hope. What if the Western Liberals do vote for conscription? The Western Liberals are real Liberals who hold themselves free, as they have always done, to vote according to their lights. Independence is no new thing with them. They are not the inheritors of the old feuds of Ontario and Quebec and are not to be bound by them. No matter what you do if your heart be true; and their hearts are true to the Liberal principles. Who is the greatest free trader, in Canada? Dr. Michael Clark. And why shouldn't he vote and talk for conscription when he has three sons at the front?

The French Liberals of Quebec are opposed to conscription and will vote against it. But so will the French Conservatives of Quebec. It's a saw off. Who expected them to do anything else? Their affection for Great Britain is of the head, not of the heart. The heart goes farther than the head, but it's good to keep a head on one's shoulders notwithstanding.

The Maritime Province Liberals were not consternated, so to speak. They are a rock-ribbed tribe and it takes more than a conscription bill to shift them from Sir Wilfrid Laurier The greatest fright was among the Ontar i o Liberals who started the coalition talk. They also set afoot the rumor that Sir Wilfrid Laurier might resign, there being one or two moments when some Liberals were disposed to regard Sir Wilfrid as a greater handicap to the party than > he regarded h i nisei f. They also had a notion .that a hint of abdicati on might scare the Old Man into meeting, them more than half way. But L e Vieux Coq didn’t turn a feather.i The White Plume didn’t even quiver.

Sir Wilfrid was not affected by the general consternation one whit. He hai survived many such crises.' At all events the Old Man sat tight. The purpose behind that lofty forehead did not budge. He would not go—as his faithful adherents put it—into a coalition that would assimilate the Liberal party and kill Laurier with Quebec and wash all the Borden Government’s guilty stains away in one healing pool of both parties troubles. He had to withstand Liberals of high purpose who desired a coalition for the good of the country and Liberals of lower purpose who wanted a coalition to keep them in their seats for another year —extension being an admitted corollary of the proposition—but withstand them he did.

-Moreover, he refused to speak or vote for conscription and thus deliver Quebec into the hands of Bourassa, who was waiting to pounce upon it and pass it over to the Conservative party. I am not making an argument one way or another. I am simply quoting the arguments of the Laurier adherents, who .say that ' the psychology of Sir Wilfrid Laurier is based on a deep conviction that it is far more desirable for the unity of Canada that Quebec should love him than that it should love Bourassa. In Sir Wilfrid Laurier s mind two angels fight for Quebec — Ormuzd. the angel of light, and Ahriman, the «lark angel. You have, one guess as to which is which. Sir Wilfrid’s position is that if conscription becomes law Quebec’s duty, is to obey the law. If

Jean Baptiste wields an axe handle by

way of “domiciliary resistance” when the conscripters come to drag away his sons he does it against Sir Wilfrid’s advice, which is to obey the law. But Sir Wilfrid will not do anything to make conscription the law.

. All of wliich is to say that Sir Wilfrid’s head was ^bHbowed beneath the bludgeonings of his followers. They gathered in groups to rave and foam, but they jumped quick enough when he sent for them one by one to talk it out in his office. This is what Sir Wilfrid calls consulting the party—fie makes up his mind first and consults afterwards. He binds up their wounds with kind words and a sunny smile or two. It is good medicine. It may not cure but it goes a long way to take the inflammation out.

OF COURSE, consternation among the Liberals had its antithetical mood among the Conservatives — jubilation. Cock-awhoop? Yes — for almost two weeks. Here was the trump card, the ace of hearts, the big sentimental issue that would cover all the mistakes the Borden Government had committed under the old flag for the last three years and unsow all the seed of criticism the Liberals had sown during the same period. And how it would make Quebec roar so that her roaring would be duly heard ahd noted in the remotest parts of Englishspeaking Canada!

And how Quebec did roar! Bourassa, low and deep like a behemoth with the toothache; Armand Lavergne, high and shrill like an enraged peacock; and Tancred Marcil—well, like Tancred Marcil! And how many windows the Laval students broke! Yes, Quebec roared. In fact everybody roared according to schedule. This was the second stage of the crisis— agitation. Everybody agitated while the agitating was good. The roaring was quite up to expectations—and a little beyond.

Beyond — there was the rtM Other people joined in the ggty Organized labor roared tee—gÊÊÊttSmt Premier Borden had bsafcsu m promise. The farmers roared too—not very loud—but audibly like Bottom, who, as you remember, roared like a sucking dove: This was more

agitation than had been bargained for. Conscription was not, then, as popular as the cheers in caucus would indicate. Agitation was all right, but these labor fellows were overdoing it.

The agitation was almost too successful.

Quebec’s tail had been pinched and she roared as per schedule, but so had many others. One can have too much of a good thing.

It was natural that ' agitation should have its corresponding mood in the Conservative party, and this we might call hesitation. In course of time the party in power came to doubt whether conscription was as good an election cry as it jeemed at first sight. It ooked like a peach at the ¡tart, but when the pale,

sickly «aak of thought bad got in its

on it, it looked more like a lemon. Many of the members took flying trips to their constituencies only to find there a divided opinion. This, as our good friend Mr. Shakespeare would say, gave them pause.

“I don’t like the way their eyes behave,” one member said. “They shift when I look at them. Specially the fellows who have a son or two that might be conscripted. They talk up real brave with their lips, but what’ll they do to me with their Tittle lead pencils on election day?”

IT WAS in this chastened frame of mind that the crisis entered its third stage — manipulation. Manipulation is the common ground on which both sides got together. That is to say, both sides began to play politics with it in the good old Ottawa way. What scaling-off is is a scarlet fever case manipulation is to a crisis in Parliament. The dangér is past and the patient is well on the way to recovery. Scarlet fever, by the way, is a good metaphor for this particular crisis. What is the Great War but a universal scarlet fever? What is conscription but one of the acute symptoms?

When manipulation took hold of the cane the second or agitation stage disappeared as if by magic. Bourassa and Lavergne ceased to roar. Quebec put a seal on her lips. Organized labor forebore to growl. It was as if Headquarters had issued a general order—peace, be still—and peace was and stillness also. The silence was such that the Hon. Arthur Meighen could almost be heard thinking and the Hon. Arthur runs very deep.

My own opinion is that the bill had a calming effect. As long as no one knew what the bill was going to be the agitation fed on its own alarms. But when Premier Borden brought down his Military Service Act andthe House gave it the once-over, things began to settle down right away. Personally I think the bill is a fair one and the classifications just and reasonable, but critics speak of it as a stuffed club which may never be used, even on Quebec. In fact, if an election intervened, say, betwen now and next October, the Government in power — whether Conservative or Liberal—might forget all about it. Of course, it would be

bat a

brought into force only on of the GoVernor-in-Council, just when the Government plt; may be right away or neverexactly a promise and yet you| it a threat. You take your vote the party-ticket as usual.

One observes, too, that the| Service Act is slow to anger, inery of delay is so ample tha4 may be over before the reli script has finished fighting his appeal courts. Further, there million six hundred thousand choose from and when apprehi spread over that many no one be in a great funk. At one muttered something about resistance.” Jean Baptiste his spare axe handle to the mil law who came to drag his But'Quebec has forgotten all Any resistance Quebec makes s sive and constitutional. It-has bill and has discovered that its worse than its bite.

Military e machthe war t conin the are one men to on is can Quebec liciliary it take of the away, it now. [be pasthe irk is

THE Premier’s speech and S{ frid’s were such as to take maining fever out of the bite, were both weak speeches—very thi| indeed. Premier Borden sought father the Militia Act of 1868, wfcth principle of compulsion inwrought French-Canadian, Sir George Etieni tier, which, of course, is a huge jol cause Cartier was no more responsi! it than any other Father of Confe tion, and because, moreover, the con pulsion clauses looked to an invasioni from the United States, not to a war in inlanders. Sir, Wilfrid replied in similar strain that the Government had gbt its extension on false pretences and tpat a conscription bill was a breach of This being the best the leaders saw |fit do in the way of controversy is it wonder that their followers fail« strike fire?

Indeed, keeping the debate down one of the best things manipulation did. There may have been persons who wa nted to touch the powder off, but the fact remains that nobody did. Even the fellows who usually carry lighted mat Ties for Quebec refused use them, and as for| Quebec members moderation and restraint in the case of a deli ate situation was admir ¡ble to see and hear.

As soon as the Heuse saw that there was li tie to fear either in the bill or the speeches the g tod players on both si les s&id : “Let us work he game for what’s in t” Conscription by this ti ne was not conscription, I ut a game of poker. The main object might be to win the war, but the i nmediate purpose was to win the next electie n. * The good players on Pa rliament Hill never forgft* that.

THE first bit of man ipulation was Ho i. George Graham’s resolii-

tion to conscript wealth as well«s*iea. A» far as I can find out this resolution had three objects in view—to do what it said, to put the Borden Government in a hole, and to head off the ambitions of Mr. Rowell and his Toronto group who, so the Old Guard say, seek to loosen Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s clutch on the Liberal leadership. I name the three objects in the reversed ¿order of importance. The resolution did fairly well what it was intended to do. Ii beat Leader Rowel! to a highly popular sentiment and it certainly gave the Borden Government a hot time - in caucus. The caucus lasted three hours, only broken by moans of anguish whenever conscription of wealth was mentioned. When a vote was taken the moans had it

Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s amendment was the next bonne bouche for the manipulators. Sir Wilfrid no doubt proposed a referendum in good faith, but that is no reason why the smart fellows shouldn’t use it to play both ends for the middle.’ For example, there are many Liberal constituencies in Canada where opinion is about equally divided on conscription. It follows that the sitting member, if he wants to keep his hold on his seat, must vote so as to please everybody. To such as he Sir Wilfrid’s referendum améndment is a godsend. Knowing that it will be defeated in the House he can vote for it with perfect confidence and thus please the anti-conaeriptionists at home. Then, having done his duty toward that shade of feeling, he can turn round, and vote for the conscription bill and thus please the other half. It’s an ill Wind that doesn’t blow both ways. By the same token it’s a stupid fellow that can’t Vote his way through this muddle.

Manipulation is like hope—it springs eternal in the human breast. Time was

•when (imi4 souls looked on, saw one English-speaking Liberal after another deserting Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and thought it was a landslide. They saw in it the destruction of the Liberal party. That was in the first stage of the crisis —the consternationCktage when everybody’s fat was lealOng into his boots. Not so in the manipulation stage. There everything is manipulation—even what appear to be cruel blows.

Does George Graham bid a fond, but wavering, farewell to Sir Wilfrid Laurier on the conscription question? Manipulation! Does Fred Pardee tear himself away with a heart-felt sob? Does Hugh Guthrie say au revoir, but not good-bye in a statesman-like manner? Manipulation! All manipulation ! What you thought

was the deluge was only the bath-tap running over. Manipulation! What are these clever fellows manipulating? Their own constituencies. They aim to be elected again. Far from being abandoned Sir Wilfrid is aiming at a fine strategic position. He holds Quebec solid. His followers keep Ontario where she is, or try to. Manipulation! I am rather fed up on manipulation. It seems to.me that the manipulators overdo it. They give nobody credit for sincerity. Perhaps they are right.

IT IS conceivable that before this article sees print the Military Service Act will have seen a good deal more manipulation for party purposes, but at this writing the latest stroke is Barrette’s. Barrette represents Berthier in the House of Commons and is a big man if you take Dr. Watt’s system of measurement — the mind. Petit Barrette he is known as, and sometimes as Little ' Casino. And a neat little bit of manipulation was Petit Barrette’s amendment to give the bill

itKe"six months lioist. It shows that all the best manipulators, plain and fancy, are not on one side of the House.; It was such clever manipulation — Barrette’s amendment—that the House guessed that Blondín had suggested it or perhaps Hob Rogers.

How was it clever? Pourquoi? Because up to that time the Liberals had the French Nationalists in a hole. In order to vote against conscription, as they must if they would be true to Quebec, they must vote against the Borden Government for Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s referendum. “Ha! ha!” chattered the wicked Grits. “It’s a saw off. The English Liberals walk out on Sir Wilfrid and the French Conservatives walk out on Sir Robert. Horse and horse!”

The party could not stand for such mocking laughter. Hence Barrette's amendment which cheats Sir Wilfrid Laurier of his prey and lines the Nationalists up behind a resolution of their own —a resolution as hostile to conscription as Sir Wilfrid’s and considerably more noncommittal. At least that is the comeback the French Liberals urge against the Barrette amendment. They say that Sir Wilfrid’s amendment asks that the question be settled right away by a vote of the people, but that Petit Barrette’s amendment staves it oft. In other wprds, that Sir Wilfrid faces the isaue whilóMr. Barrette and his fellow Nationalists seek to dodge it.

As I write this article the manipulation stage of the crisis is gradually drifting into the contemplation stage. Contemplation is a frame of mind muck praised by the poets and philosophers. It bespeaks dangers passed and storms outridden. Already Parliament is looking back óver its shoulder and akking what all the row was about.