WHEN the bombshell burst and Mackenzie King accepted conscription, Ottawa was more surprised than the rest of the country, and up to the very last minute it seemed that the closer you got to the East Block the greater the surprise. Even the Cabinet itself was taken aback.
Outside, in eight provinces at least, people felt only the pressure of conscriptionist opinion, the steady clamor of the Press, the Legion resolutions, the campaign of letters from overseas. It all must have seemed irresistible, a very compulsion to the obvious course. But here we were used to seeing these things ignored. More than that, we know how flatly the action of Nov. 23 contradicted much that had been said privately, as well as some things said publicly, from the beginning of the Cabinet crisis up to, and past, the reopening of Parliament.
Thus it was that when the confidence debate began confidence had been sorely shaken on both sides, not merely one, of the reinforcement dispute.
Three weeks before, when Mr. King produced his four-starred photogenic rabbit and broke the Ralston deadlock in Cabinet, it looked for a day or two as if his tactical surprise had won. Nobody else resigned. By the Friday King supporters were telling people with great earnestness that “the Cabinet crisis is over.”
But it wasn’t. Even as the words were spoken, by men who should have known better, one Minister was engaged in writing out his resignation. He planned to turn it in the next day, and it took earnest persuasion from a group of friends—of whom Col. Ralston himself was one—to get him to hold it back, at least for a while.
A week went by in seeming quiet, with the Prime Minister’s speech coming in the middle of it. But then the answering Ralston statement broke the whole thing wide open again. Two other Ministers spent all that day with their former colleague, advising him in the preparation of a document that came pretty close to being a direct charge against the Prime Minister. It was hard to see how they could be party to such a statement, even indirectly, and stay in the Cabinet.
Maybe the blowup would have come right then if Mr. King hadn’t produced his second rabbit, the calling of Parliament. That move was announced, rather than decided, at a Cabinet meeting when Angus Macdonald was in Kingston, C. D. Howe in Chicago, Colin Gibson off on a speaking tour in Ontario and T. A. Crerar in bed with flu. Of all the Ministers who sided with Ralston—the “certain colleagues excepted” to whom he referred in his letter of resignation—only J. L. Ilsley was present that day, and he didn’t say anything. The break stayed underground for another week.
Meanwhile General McNaughton, with his speeches at Arnprior and at the Legion meeting here, had been tying the Government more and more firmly to La Volontariat. He had seen the documents, he told his audiences, he had studied the facts, and he was convinced the job could be done without coercion. After this it hardly needed ! the assurances of Justice Minister St. Laurent, that conscription would be regarded as a betrayal of Quebec, to confirm anybody’s belief that Bill 80 would never be applied—not in this war anyway.
* * *
And then there was the Prime Minister himself. What was his own resolution on this point?
Distrust of it had begun before the crisis ever
arose, in the incident at the Quebec Reform Club, which was described in this column a fortnight ago, and to which Col. Ralston referred in the third of his four letters to Mackenzie King.
The distrust grew as the crisis wore on. Col. Ralston mentioned Mr. King’s “view, recently expressed,” that the word “necessary” in the Government’s manpower slogan meant ‘ only “necessary to win the war.” The obvious inference was that conscription had been a dead issue since El Alamein.
It all added up to more than some Ministers— half a dozen, in the end—could take. But even they, like Col. Ralston, were not in favor of “conscription for conscription’s sake.” There was still one thing that could have quelled their brewing revolt, silenced their doubts at least for the time being and perhaps for the duration of the war. That one thing was a real success in the campaign to turn Zombies into volunteers.
This campaign was under discussion when Ralston was fired—in fact it was his attempt to put a dead line clause into it that cost him his job, as his letter of resignation makes clear. But it didn’t actually get under way until the third week of November, just eight days before Parliament opened.
The plan was to form second battalions for the four French-Canadian regiments overseas, and try to get NRM A conscripts to go active in a body, as units. With this aim in mind Major-General Leo Richer LaFlèche, Minister of War Services, set forth rather belatedly to carry the fiery cross into his Province of Quebec.
This was, in fact, what General LaFlèche had been elected to do in the first place. Back in 1942, just about the time the Bloc Populaire was founded in the months following the great plebiscite, LaFlèche sold the Government the idea that he was the man to sell “total war” to Quebec. He had already convinced the conscriptionist Press, ^ which was only too glad to hear of one French Canadian willing to stick his neck out. There were discreet hints, too, that the all-powerful support of the Roman Catholic Church might be won to the side of conscription by certain people in certain circumstances.
Anyway, he got the job. They swore him in as Minister of National War Services, and they picked him a seat with elaborate care. It had to be a riding with a French name, it had to be in Quebec, and it had to be one already filled by a French Canadian. But—and this was the real catch—it had to be one with a majority, or near majority, of English votes. They found just the thing in Outremont, a luxury suburb of Montreal, and they got him elected. But a candidate of La Ligue pour la Defense du Canada, parent body of Le Bloc, gave him a hard run and made a sweep of all the solidly French wards in the riding.
All was set, then, for the war crusade in Quebec. They disembowelled the War Services Department, gave its only big job, the callup, to the Labor Department and left nothing but war charities, auxiliary services, salvage and similar odds and ends. The idea was the Minister should be relieved of departmental ties so he’d be free for missionary work.
For two years nothing in particular happened. But last month, with the Cabinet crisis zooming to its peak, the Quebec crusade began.
LaFlèche had just eight days in which to show results, and he knew it. He knew the returning M.P.’s would not be content with promises at this late date. Neither would his own colleagues. But for the first half of his time of grace, the crusader’s
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hope ran high, and it was shared by some other Ministers.
It wasn’t as preposterous as it sounded, the notion that the Zombie problem could be broken in a week. If it could be done at all it could be done quickly. One impassioned speech, one appeal thrusting home to the hearts of listeners and the trick would be turned, a unit won over en masse . . .
But it didn’t come off. For some reason the men didn’t respond. When General LaFlèche spoke at Petawawa, two days before Parliament met, he addressed 2,700 trained men. According to creditable report, he got only 200 volunteers. And that, they say, was typical. The Zombie campaign had flopped.
That was the report that lay on the table when the Cabinet met for the last time before Parliament reopened. McNaughton had failed. The figures just wouldn’t add up. Pare as he would, squeeze general service figures as he would, he could not get the December deficit below 5,000 men. He didn’t have the 5,000 trained volunteers and knew he couldn’t get them in time.
They say the Cabinet meeting that day was a humdinger. For the first time the break became open, palpable, seemingly irrevocable. For the first time, too, even Mr. King lost the iron composure that he had maintained under a month of stress. It looked like a smashup.
But though they couldn’t agree, the Ministers couldn’t decide how or on what to disagree. Just what were they going to do? About the only point they were still agreed upon was that dissolution, and a general election, must be avoided at all costs. Partly because it would give the Tories the most giltedged issue they’ve had since Meighen muffed the customs scandal in 1925, chiefly—to do them justice—because they felt an election campaign now, on such an issue, would cleave the nation with a gulf that generations might not bridge. It would be, they felt, a national as well as a party catastrophe.
So what to do? What to do? All day they argued wearily, through dinner hour until midevening, and they broke up undecided. The Government was facing Parliament with its key decision still to be made.
* * *
Mr. King was his usual quiet self when the House opened next day. Formality was scrupulously observed, at least in the opening stages, and the Prime Minister got the customary rattle of applause from the men behind him as he rose to read the correspondence between himself and Col. Ralston
But the applause diminished as he went on. To their intense annoyance Ministers found themselves hearing letters read that they’d never heard or seen before—the King replies. The Prime Minister had never produced them, and Ralston, with his astonishing regard for propriety, had kept them confidential. Several Ministers did not like what they were hearing—especially that reference to Mr. King’s distaste for conscription “on the eve of certain victory.”
Immediately after that brief session of the House the Liberal members went into caucus, expecting to be told what the score was. But there was not any score—the game wasn’t over. Twenty minutes of routine and formality, and the backbenchers were dismissed until next morning. The Cabinet had “new matters” to discuss.
But this time—and again it was the _
first time—the dissident group got itself organized.
There’s a good deal of doubt, even among people who usually know pretty well what’s going on, as to just who supported Ralston, and when. The group that eventually swelled to half a dozen was apparently a good deal smaller than that to start with.
But unless all reports are phony, Angus Macdonald never really wavered in his convictions or in his determination to stand by them—also he was a close personal friend of Ralston and furious at the way the Colonel had been treated. Another Minister who’s said to have been steadfast throughout is 68-year-old Thomas A. Crerar, a Unionist in the Borden Cabinet 27 years ago.
Ilsley, worried to death about his anti-inflation program, and convinced nobody but himself would really put heart into the price control fight, stayed on the fence a long time. Until near the climax of the three weeks’ battle, he kept telling people he’d decided to stay by the job. But those who knew him best never believed him. They knew where he would stand when the chips were down.
C. D. Howe had been away in Chicago when Ralston was fired, and he and Ralston never got along very well anyway. But in the end he went along with the others. Colin Gibson had professed his willingness to give McNaughton’s campaign “a fair trial,” but the fair trial ran out. Finally Pate Mulock, after teetering for weeks, joined up, too, at the last minute.
Between caucus and council meeting on that first day of the reopened session, these six had time to put their heads together and agree to an ultimatum: “Put Bill 80 into effect now, or we all quit.”
* * *
They didn’t really think he’d do it, apparently. That afternoon and early evening the smart guess was that Mackenzie King would make a last fight to carry his point and if he failed, resign. But the smart guess was wrong. Mr. King capitulated all right, but he stayed in the top job.
Next day, as a kind of last straw, Quebec ministers got that limitation clause tucked into the order in council, the one that sets the conscript allowance at 16,000 in stated monthly quotas. Apparently they had an idea this might appease the wrath of their compatriots. Backbenchers knew better—they were stunned at first, and said little in caucus, but they held a caucus of their own next morning and charted their course.
But they weren’t the only unhappy ones. Even among the conscriptionists t here were some who felt oddly let down by the King-McNaughton somersault. They could understand a reasonable man taking either side of this argument —either that national disruption was too high a price to pay for an intact military establishment, once victory was certain; or that no matter what the price, and no matter what mistakes may have caused the shortage, we had to reinforce our fighting men. But they couldn’t see how any man in the space of three weeks could hold both these views.
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