THE BONE IN CANADA’S THROAT has choked off national unity twice in this century, and events may soon threaten to bring it back for a third time. This is the story of Canada’s first conscription crisis—of riots in the streets, of a bomb plot, and of what conscription did to two great prime ministers
TWICE IN THIS LIFETIME Canada has been almost split asunder and destroyed as a nation by military conscription. At least a third of the Canadian population, mostly in Quebec, are violently opposed by tradition, race and fundamental belief to leaving this continent, or having their sons leave it to risk their lives in what they regard as other people's wars.
Most of us have personal memories of the great conscription crisis of 1943 and 1944, which almost wrecked the government of Mackenzie King and with it the First Canadian Army.
It is not so well remembered that this recent battle over conscription sprang from an earlier one in 1916 and 1917. Nor is it so well remembered how similar their two patterns were.
The man who tried most valiantly — and, as it proved, vainly — to overcome the country’s dichotomy was Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Laurier was seventy-five and leader of the opposition when World War 1 neared its climax. Better than anyone else he recognized that, for Canada, the battlefield was not a distant, temporary one. to be won or lost by a few tons of shells. It was a spiritual battle, to be decided within the country's very soul.
Barely a week after the redoubtable Quebec regiment, the Royal Vingt-Deuxième, had led the way to one of the war’s great victories at Courcelette and paid with a third of its fighting strength. Laurier spoke to a recruiting rally of 15,000 in the Montreal suburb of Maisonneuve. Less than a year earlier he had collapsed halfway through a rally in Ontario.
But now he spoke out strongly and clearly. If the special anguish with which he had been living since 1914 might have been detected behind the words he chose, there was no sign of it in his voice.
“There are people who say we will not fight for England; will you then fight for France? I speak to you of French origin. If I were young like you and had the same health that I enjoy today, 1 would join those brave Canadians fighting today for the liberation of French territory. I would not have it said that the French Canadians do less for the liberation of France than the citizens of British origin. For my part I want to fight for England and also for France. To those who do not want to fight either for England or for France l say: will you fight for yourselves?”
It was not among the old statesman’s most eloquent speeches and certainly it was not among the most effective. At the most it could be said that his compatriots would still come to hear him and that they were still willing to hear him out. But it was too late for them to heed him just as it was far, far too late — at least a hundred years too late, in his proud and lonely view — for him to say the things they would have heeded.
They would have listened to a direct appeal to blood and race and the prejudice and animosities built into their past; this he would not utter.
The simple and tragic fact — as events w'ere
THIS LIFETIME IN CANADA
The best of Ralph Allen’s remarkable new book,
ORDEAL BY FIRE
to prove, a fact of far greater tragedy to the country than to him — was that in this late summer of 1916 Laurier was on the way to becoming a man without a country. For a short but crucial time he found himself a foreigner in the land of his ancestors. The most perfectly bilingual of Canadians, bilingual not merely in the dictionary sense but in heart and conduct and spirit, suddenly discovered that neither of Canada's great races really spoke his language at all. “I have lived too long!” he was soon to cry in protest while the gap that he and perhaps he alone could have closed grew deep and ugly.
Two years earlier, for a few incredible and quite misleading weeks, it had seemed possible that the gap was on the verge of being closed forever. During the late summer and early fall of 1914, French Canada and English Canada had given the appearance of being almost perfectly united. Except in the oratorical sense, no one in Canada knew the meaning of war, least of all a war whose scale and methods were without precedent. The war words, “pain” and “blood” and “sacrifice,” had a ring of nobility and excitement but they did not yet carry the bitter echo of real experience or comprehension. When the government called for 25,000 men, the number had a robust sound in which the whole country took pride. When 32,000 answered the whole country was reassured, and it was doubly reassured when Sam Flughes, the minister of militia and defense, declared that he had no thought, now or ever, of allowing any but volunteers to wear their country’s uniform. Every Canadian automatically partook of the grandeur of so swift a reply to the call to arms; everyone who so wished could partake by proxy, enjoying the general surge of exaltation without the CONTINUED ON PAGE 48
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CONSCRIPTION continued front pope 26
The more hotly his critics railed at him, the more coldly and tellingly Henri Bourassa railed back
risk of personal inconvenience or suffering. As had been the habit of nearly all nations on the eve of nearly all wars since time began, Canada judged that those fated to die in her service would do so antiseptically. in small groups, and with their own approval and consent.
At first there seemed to be not a single person of influence either in French or English Canada who doubted the war’s necessity and justness. The quarrels over the old 1911 naval issue, with its charges and countercharges of disloyalty and of jingoism, were almost forgotten. A number of French-language newspapers began printing the Union Jack and the Tricolor side by side on their mastheads. One of them. Fa Patrie, carried the headline: Vive lu I rance et l'Angleterre et Dieu Sauve le Roi.
Speaking in the debate on the Speech
from the Throne at the special session of parliament in August 1914, l aurier undoubtedly spoke for French Canada when he said: “It is out duty, more pressing upon us than all other duties, at once, on this first day of this extraordinary session of the Canadian parliament, to let Great Britain know, and to let the friends and foes of Great Britain know, that there is in Canada but one mind and one heart, and that all Canadians stand behind the mother country, conscious and proud that she is engaged in this war, not from any selfish motive, for any purpose of aggrandizement, but to maintain untarnished the honor of her name, to fulfill her obligations to her allies, to maintain her treaty obligations, and to save civilization from the unbridled lust of conquest and war.
“We are British subjects, and today we are face to face with the consequences which are involved in that proud fact. Fong we have enjoyed the benefit of our British citizenship; today it is our duty to accept its responsibilities and its sacrifices. We have long said that when Great Britain is at war we are at war; today we realize that Great Britain is at war and that Canada is at war also.”
Dissent from this declaration could be
expected from Faurier’s former follower and present enemy, the nationalist fireeater Henri Bourassa. Bourassa was in France when war broke out but he hurried home to write in Fe Devoir, probably as much to his own astonishment as to everyone else’s, that Canada had a “national duty to contribute according to her resources and by fitting means of action, to
the triumph and especially to the endurance of the combined efforts of France and England.” And he went on, “I have not written and will not write one line, one word, to condemn the sending of Canadian troops to Europe.” At the same time scarcely anyone noticed the rider he added: "But to render this contribution effective, Canada must begin by facing her real
position resolutely, by taking an exact account of what can and what cannot be done, and ensure her own domestic security, before beginning or following up an effort which she will perhaps not be able to sustain to the end.”
The attitude of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, to be modified considerably and even more considerably misrepresented in
`the heated years ahead, had at least some features that might have been designed in any good club on Pall Mall or St. James’s Street. The Archbishop of Montreal. Monseigneur Bruchési, declared at once that both religion and patriotism required Catholics to give Britain their support. "If troops have to be sent to the other side, our brave young men will not hesitate to face the ordeal.” he said.
In a joint pastoral letter at the end of September 1914, the Canadian Roman Catholic bishops said, "England counts on our help with perfect right and this help
we are happy to say has been generously offered in men and in money.” In the light of such pronouncements it was not surprising that Ta Patrie could conclude: "There are no longer French Canadians and English Canadians. Only one race now' exists, united by the closest bonds in a common cause.”
This ardent mood could scarcely have continued indefinitely. And things to dampen it soon appeared. Within a week or two Ffenri Bourassa had begun recoiling publicly from his first endorsement of the war. Just as swiftly he was assailed by
shouts of contumely and rage from nine provinces, not the least violent of them from his own. And as was his habit anil his genius, the more hotly his detractors railed, the more coldly and tellingly he railed back.
Thus, Bourassa wrote gently in Le Devoir that the English were to be admired for adhering always to self-interest and Canada could not better demonstrate her loyalty to British traditions than by doing the same; that is by taking care “to unite freely the interests of Canada to those of England when their interests were identi-
cal. to oppose Canada’s interests to those of England when they were contrary, and to separate them when they were divergent.”
And thus Le Patrie urged that Bourassa be tried for high treason while the Toronto weekly. Saturday Night, reflected that “every day in Europe, men who have done no more harm are hung as traitors»” Thus Bourassa icily invited his readers to compare "the liberty enjoyed and practised in England even in time of war and under the ban of censors, and the grotesque and stupid intolerance manifested in Canada against everyone who dares think and say that there are many aspects to the struggle in Europe.”
Thus. Laurier tried to stir Quebec and shame Bourassa with the name of their people’s greatest military hero. “If there are still a few drops of the blood of Dollard and his companions in the veins of C anadians who are present at this meeting, you will enlist in a body, for this cause is just as sacred as the one for which Dollard and his companions gave their lives."
Thus Bourassa retorted; "An explosion of empty and sterile chauvinism.”
Thus, at a public meeting in Ottawa, an army sergeant lurched to the speaker’s platform with a Union Jack and ordered Bourassa to hold it aloft. Thus Bourassa put the flag quietly aside and said: "I am ready to wave the British flag in liberty, but I shall not do so under threats,” Thus the meeting ended in a riot.
Bourassa was not the only influence in Quebec against the "English war.” Some of the factors had very little to do either with the E nglish or the war In some cases it was a lack of tact, a small failure of good will and common sense rather than a large conflict of principle, that began to reverse the flow of sentiment. The most famous example did not materialize until somewhat later, but it reflected Militia Minister Sam Hughes’ main approach to Quebec: his chief recruiting officer in that province was a Baptist clergyman.
Then too Hughes’ officers, with good military but bad political reasoning, refused to allow instruction in Trench. In the
first surge of enlistments it soon became apparent that more men were coming forward than were needed and the recruiting officers sometimes gave a coo! reception to men who spoke bad English. In the entire first overseas contingent only one of the company commanders of infantry was a French Canadian. The feeling that officers of their race were not appreciated or trusted received further impetus among French Canadians when Major-General F.-L. Lessard, the senior Canadian officer, was sidetracked into an administrative job; many of his friends had expected he
would be made commander of the first contingent. After much agitation the government at last authorized the formation of the Royal Twenty-Second as a distinctively French-Canadian battalion, but before this was done Laurier himself had had to make a special, private plea to Borden.
And so Ottawa’s task of keeping the nation united was already made nearly impossible by two main factors—the growing reluctance of the Quebec nationalists to invest in the quarrels of a world they never made, and the clumsiness and want
of diplomacy of the English-speaking majority and of the government.
But it is a mistake to believe, as it is now' commonly believed, that only French Canada had reservations about the degree to which Canada was obliged to participate in the first world war. The country’s selective memory has left the impression with later generations that eight of the nine provinces came to the unanimous agreement that the war must be fought at any cost and that the ninth was unanimous in believing the whole enterprise to be foolish, extravagant, self-defeating and
perhaps even wicked. This assessment is grotesquely oversimplified. There were differences of opinion in Quebec and those differences had many shades. What is less well remembered is that there were similar differences in English Canada. Although there was a patriotic rush to join the colors in August of 1914. people born in Canada were not in the forefront. Even though they had been educated in the tradition of Drake and Kipling, of Elizabeth and Victoria, native-born Canadians supplied only twenty-five percent of the strength of the first armed contingent sent abroad. Two recruits out of every three were immigrants from the British Isles. One whole battalion, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, was composed of men who had served in the Imperial forces before coming to Canada or in Canada’s Boer War forces.
At this time conscription had not been seriously thought of—either in Canada or in England or in any other part of the
“I have lived too long,
Laurier repeated in bitter anguish. Then he turned to write his resignation
Commonwealth. But English Canada had its own hard core of opposition to conscription and when, much later, the issue became a real and urgent one, the Englishlanguage labor unions and the Englishlanguage farm organizations were to speak as firmly against it—even though not so intemperately — as the most rabid of the Quebec nationalists.
It was not until 1917 that official figures on the first military contingent were prepared and released. It was reported then that only twelve hundred French Canadians were included in the initial force of more than thirty thousand. Yet those who cared to maintain that this was a respectable figure — and there were many w'ho did so maintain — could point out that Quebec was preponderantly a rural civilization and the figures of rural enlistment were low everywhere; that Quebec had large families and a high percentage of married men; moreover, and perhaps most tellingly, that if enlistment figures were to be taken as a yardstick of loyalty then French-Canadians suffered not nearly so much in comparison with English Canadians as English Canadians suffered in comparison u'ith Canadians who had been born in the United Kingdom.
At about this time a seemingly minor quarrel broke out about the right of French communities in Ontario to run their schools in French rather than English. Before the quarrel died down a year later it had become a bitter issue between the races, and inevitably had become bound up in the larger division over overseas military service. Laurier finally made a last plea to Canadians to close both breaches.
On the day he stood before the Commons to make his great plea for tolerance and understanding Laurier seemed miraculously and shiningly young again. One newspaper report said: “His years dropped from him like a garment, and he seemed as vigorous and resolute as a man of thirty-five.” But though the defeat of the resolution itself — which called upon parliament to suggest to the Ontario legislature that it would be wise to let Frenchspeaking children be taught in their mother tongue—could not possibly have surprised a man of so much political experience, the break within his own party hit Laurier very hard. "I have lived too long!" he said when an emissary came to tell him that the Ontario Liberals were on the verge of deserting him. He turned aside from the man who brought him the message ahd walked to the window' of his office and looked out for a few' moments in puzzlement and dismay on what was visible to him of his country. “1 have lived too long." he repeated in bitter anguish. And then he added: “I have outlived Liberalism. The forces of prejudice in Ontario have been too much for my friends. It was a mistake for a French Roman Catholic to take the leadership.” Laurier thereupon wrote out a note of resignation as leader of the party. The Ontario dissidents quickly came back into line and persuaded him to remain.
The fight was far from over. In the school question there were wheels w'ithin wheels. The sharpest dispute was not between Protestants and Catholics at all. In Ottawa and the Ottawa Valley a more bitter one erupted between French Catholics and Irish Catholics.
In shanty towns and logging camps and aboard their lumber barges, the Valley's French and Irish had discovered more than half a century before that they had very little in common but their view of God. And so some of the strongest oppo-
sition to the teaching of French in Ontario came from Irish Catholics.
Many of them feared their rights as a religious group might be harmed if they became identified with the — to them — more doubtful and less important rights of a racial and language group.
Simple, one-dimensional figures swirled around the periphery of the debate and added to its aggravations. An Ontario MP
bawled at an Orange rally attended by Sam Hughes: “Never shall we let the French Canadians implant in Ontario the disgusting speech that they use." A Quebec senator bawled back at him: “Brutal maniac and ignoramus!”
But the struggle had more appealing participants. Especially the Desloges sisters of Ottawa.
Beatrice and Diane Desloges were the
earnest teen-age daughters of an earnest Ottawa French-Canadian family. The sisters were teachers at the Ecole Guigues. In the first rounds of the fight over teaching in French a new Catholic Separate School Commission had been appointed in Ottawa. Two of its three members were of Irish descent. They had no inclination to defend the French language if at the same time they might jeopardize the Cath-
olic religion. So when the Desloges sisters refused to help in the gradual liquidation of French as the language of instruction in their school, the commission fired them.
The sisters went back to their school and dug in as for a siege. The commission took out an injunction ordering them out. The teachers led their pupils to a nearby Catholic chapel and kept school there. The commission appointed two other teachers— both French-speaking also—to reopen the school from which Beatrice and Diane and their pupils had decamped. When the new ladies arrived to take over they had to run a gantlet of waving fists and hatpins. The police helped them reach their classrooms in safety, but it was only to find them empty.
The Desloges affair was followed by others much like it. French-speaking teachers in Ontario, and especially in Ottawa, w'ent on strike by the score. Catholic separate schools closed all over the province and stayed closed for months.
At last, in October 1916. the Pope himself intervened. In a letter to Cardinal Bégin and the other senior prelates of Canada. Benedict XV ordered both his Frcnch-Canadian and Irish-Canadian followers to stop "this storm of rivalry and enmity.” “Let the Catholics of the Dominion remember,” he commanded, "that the one thing is to have Catholic schools and not to imperil their existence."
Thus, those who wished to make a Holy War of Regulation Seventeen, the Ontario rule in dispute, suffered one crushing defeat. Very soon another came. Senator Philippe Landry had carried the regulation through the Canadian courts to the highest court of all, the Privy Council in London. The Privy Council ruled it was within the law. These two decrees from the highest ecclesiastical and civil authorities brought a surrender of the strikers. The
schools reopened. But the real cause of their closing was still far from settled. The ancient brew of religion and race was still fermenting.
In these conflicts the prime minister. Sir Robert Borden, kept trying to introduce a note of calm and Laurier struggled w'ith all his great, defeated genius to help.
But somewhat because of and somewhat in spite of all their efforts and desires a new matter had come to engage the country's mind. 'Ihis was conscription. Conscription had been for two centuries a specially ugly word in Canada. Conscription meant an honest farm boy from Ontario went to fight for the British redcoats, whom he did not even like. Conscription meant, later on, that the Doukhobors and Mennonites, who came to Canada as an active protest against conscription, were now, while exempted from military service, fair targets for the scorn and derision of their neighbors. Conscription meant, above everything else, that the young men of French Canada would be torn from their families to die in a struggle they neither approved nor understood.
Conscription was a witch word, all around the world, even among the nations most deeply committed to the war. The Australians and New Zealanders, when their best young men were dying as volunteers, voted against it. Great Britain did not introduce conscription until halfway through the war. The U. S. adopted conscription but stayed out of the war.
Borden had never made an absolute promise that he would not introduce compulsory service. In one statement, to be plagiarized nearly forty years later by another prime minister, he had said: “1 hope conscription may not be necessary, but if it should prove the only effective method to preserve the existence of the state and of the institutions and liberties
THE TURBULENT LAST YEARS OF SIR WILFRID LAURIER
which we enjoy, I should consider it necessary and I should not hesitate to act.” Laurier had promised explicitly that he would never support conscription. Henri Bourassa goaded and tormented his fellow isolationists with continual reminders that whether they wanted it or not, whether their leaders intended it or not, conscription was sure to come. And in the trail of the Somme, of Vimy and Flanders, conscription did come not as a mere subject for oratory but as an immediate crisis.
For all its brilliant battle record the Canadian Corps was in difficulty. Its Fifth
Division was not, in fact, a fighting unit but a floating reinforcement depot. Even with the help of this subterfuge the other four divisions were having trouble in keeping up their strength. Canada’s first — and then it seemed handsome — commitment of manpower had now been multiplied not by two or three or five but by twenty. The capture of Vimy Ridge, which alone cost more than ten thousand casualties, only magnified a problem that had been building up for many months. Since the start of 1917 battle losses in the Canadian Corps had been outnumbering
enlistments by as much as two to one.
Borden knew the rate of enlistment would have te be stepped up if the force was to be maintained. In 1916 he had introduced a system of national registration. His opponents correctly saw this as the forerunner of compulsory service.
In the spring of 1917 the Canadian prime minister was invited to a special conference of Imperial leaders in England. One of the chief reasons for the conference had been Borden’s own angry complaint to his high commissioner in London:
“During the past four months . . . the Canadian government (except for an occasional telegram from you to Sir Max Aitken) have had just what information could be gleaned from the daily press and no more. As to consultation, plans of campaign have been made and unmade, measures adopted and apparently abandoned and generally speaking steps of the most important and even vital character have been taken, postponed or rejected without the slightest consultation with the authorities of this Dominion.
“It can hardly be expected that we shall put four hundred thousand or five hundred thousand men in the field and willingly accept the position of having no more voice and receiving no more consideration than if we were toy automata. Any person cherishing such an expectation harbors an unfortunate and even dangerous delusion. Is this war being waged by the United Kingdom alone, or is it a war waged by the whole Empire? If I am correct in supposing that the second hypothesis must be accepted, then why do the statesmen of the British Isles arrogate to themselves solely the methods by which it shall be carried on in the various spheres of warlike activity and the steps which shall be taken to assure victory and a lasting peace? . . . Procrastination, indecision, inertia, doubt, hesitation and many other undesirable qualities have made themselves entirely too conspicuous in this war. During my recent visit to England a very prominent cabinet
Borden knew conscription would shake his country. How could he know the shape of every tremor?
minister, in speaking of the officers of another department, said that he did not call them traitors but he asserted that they could not have acted differently if they had been traitors. They are still doing duty and five months have elapsed. Another very able cabinet minister spoke of the shortage of guns, rifles, munitions, etc., but declared that the chief shortage was of brains.”
Borden’s angry complaint had been largely responsible for the summoning of an Imperial war cabinet. At this conference Bordbn made his first acquaintance with the great South African premier Jan Christian Smuts, and won his support for a resolution in which he put Canada’s position in this way: “The greatest intellects of the Empire in the past have miscalculated the conditions that would develop in the Dominions and have failed to foresee the relations of the Empire under the policy of developing full powers of self-government which was supposed to have the tendency of weakening, if not severing, the ties which unite the Dominions to the Mother Country. The policy of complete control in domestic affairs, instead of weakening the ties which unite the Empire, has very greatly strengthened them. . . . The fact that one million men in the Dominions have taken up arms for the defense of the British Empire’s existence and the maintenance of its future influence is so significant a lesson that one would be unwise not to have it constantly in mind.”
Borden scored his point heavily, and fifteen years later in an historic enactment called The Statute of Westminster, it was to be made official.
Now, on his return to Canada, he felt himself under the stern duty of persuading his country to accept all the penalties of its growth in stature and independence. Conscription, Borden told the House of Commons on his return, could no longer be avoided.
Though he knew' his decision would shake the country to its foundations, Borden had not guessed the shape of every tremor. One thing became instantly apparent. The simple triangle of Canadian politics dissolved and dispersed in all directions. Some of Borden's strongest supporters, particularly among the Quebec nationalists, began deserting him at once. Henri Bourassa did not go so far as to advocate a rebellion, but he predicted one. “Conscription," he cried, "would soon transform the most peaceable, perhaps the most orderly, population of the two Americas into a revolutionary people.” Laurier, once more the man in the middle, could not take so resolutely uncomplicated a stand as either Borden or Bourassa. He had supported Canada’s entry in the war. He had urged his fellow' Canadians to help fight it as free men acting freely. He had done his best to persuade them that the issues were worth fighting for. But he had also promised to do his best to sec that no man would be sent overseas against his will.
Had he been able to guess all that was in front of him, Laurier might have seen that the two horses he was riding could never go in the same direction. Yet he could not ride one and turn the other loose.
He spoke privately, to a friend, of one side of his dilemma: “If 1 were to waver, to hesitate or to flinch, I would simply hand over the Province of Quebec to the extremists. 1 would lose the respect of the people . . . and would deserve it. 1 would lose not only their respect but my selfrespect also.”
This was how Laurier tried to spell out his position toward Quebec. Toward Ontario he had a moment of bitterness and cynicism: “1 am alarmed,” he wrote in another private letter, “. . . Ontario is no longer Ontario: it is again the old province of Upper Canada, and again governed from London."
Laurier made an equally outspoken judgment at a more down-to-earth level:
“How many men will conscription bring in? Just a few slackers, exactly the same as in England."
Laurier knew perfectly well that conscription was inevitable. But when Borden urged him to help form a coalition and put it into effect he refused. He demanded an election. As for conscription itself he did not oppose it outright. All he said was that a national referendum should be held
before it went into force. It remained his contention that while constitutionally every able-bodied Canadian could be required to defend the country against military attack, neither the law nor his natural duty required anyone to fight outside Canada.
Borden went part of the way with this but in his view the political and military necessities demanded that the government introduce conscription first and then ask
the electors to ratify it. In one of their private conversations. Borden—according to his recollections—put the proposition to Laurier this way: “I suggest . . . that we form a coalition government (and] pass the (conscription] bill with the proviso that it shall not come into force until proclaimed by the governor-in-council after a general election. Parliament would then be dissolved and the coalition would make its appeal to the electorate. If it should receive their mandate, conscription would be proclaimed and enforced. If, on the other hand, the coalition gov-
ernment should meet defeat, we shall have done our best and the responsibility will rest on others.”
Borden at the same time offered Laurier the power of veto over the choice of men to run the union government he was about to form. Laurier turned the offer down. Though he had many years ago given up any idea of living with Henri Bourassa, he still felt the need of living against him.
To an Ontario Liberal who knew of Borden's proposal for a coalition. Laurier wrote: ‘I wholly agree » . . that in a struggle such as the present one we must
be prepared to give up the normal party divisions . . . The only solution seems to me this: Have an appeal to the people, have it right away either in the form of a referendum or an election. Let the people decide, and if they decide in favor of conscription. as it seems to me they will . . . whatever influence I may have will be employed in pleading to the Quebec people that the question is settled by the verdict of the majority, and that all must accept the issue and submit to the law: and this will be no light task, but a task to which I will devote myself with all my energy.”
But the old leader of the Liberals, for all the careful study of his position and all the care with which he proclaimed it, was in a fast diminishing minority. His own party was breaking away from him. In the West it was in open rebellion, with Sir Clifford Sifton, the most influential of all Western Liberals, the leading defector. In Ontario and the Maritimes Laurier’s strength fell away by the day and his despair mounted by the hour: “I have often thought of resigning,” he wrote, “but whenever I sat down to think the matter out, my courage rose up against the difficulties which 1 saw' impending were I to give up the fight, now especially that the fight has become a losing battle. Oh! but what a wrench at all my heart’s strings!” Though he was greatly disappointed
when his old adversary refused to join him in government, Borden understood the reasons quite plainly and put them plainly and generously in his memoirs many years later.
“Sir Wilfrid Laurier was then in his seventy-eighth year. If he had been ten or fifteen years younger. I am confident that he would have entered the proposed coalition. He held an unrivaled position in the affection and reverence of the French Canadians; and he was convinced that he would lose this pre-eminence if he should commit himself to a policy of compulsory military service. I am convinced that he underrated his influence and that Quebec would have followed where he led.”
Borden was still resolved that he had to bring in conscription and that since an election over it was now inevitable, he had to find his support wherever he could. Accordingly, after nearly five months’ negotiation, dealing and intriguing he swore ten of Laurier’s rebellious, pro-conscription supporters into his new Union government as cabinet ministers and parliamentary secretaries. In turn he lost all but one of his Nationalist supporters from Quebec.
These shifts among the politicians had far less impact on the nation than the new upheaval of its basic feelings. Riots broke out throughout Quebec. As had been the case in the disputes over the schools, the Catholic Church spoke with no single voice. In the main its leaders urged the country’s Catholics to obey the call to national registration because that was the law. But when it became evident that conscription was to follow, their opposition became clear-cut and violent.
Thus, Cardinal Bégin, the most influential of Canadian clerics, sternly forbade his churches to encourage a boycott of registration. But when the order for registration was followed by a proposal for conscription—a proposal which refused to exempt student priests — Bégin declared categorically: “This conscription law is a menace. .. .”
Similarly the influential Archbishop Bruchési supported registration but denounced conscription: “We are nearing
racial and religious war," he declared.
At more junior levels, some — though not all — of the Catholic clergy were far less deferential to the civil power. One paper which, though it held no official standing, was widely read by the clergy urged that Quebec withdraw' from confederation: "We are already crushed by an enormous debt, and today they wish to impose by force a law as unconstitutional as it is anti-Canadian, which will send our sons and brothers to the European butchery, like so many cattle, to satisfy the appetite of a master."
Bourassa’s chief ally, Armand Lavergne, in spite of refusing Sam Hughes’ invitation to recruit a battalion for overseas service, still held the odd tactical advantage of being a colonel in the militia. He proclaimed: "Canada was already practically bankrupt through this war, and now she is taking another step toward ruin and annexation." He would never accept conscription: "1 w'ill go to jail or be hanged or shot before. . . .”
In another speech, Lavergne cried to a huge audience: “If the government passes this damned law, if you have a heart, if you are still descendants of those who were sent to the scaffold crying "Vive la liberté, vive l’indépendance!’ you should take a pledge to disobey it.”
No one sought to shoot, hang or even silence Lavergne. although a highly public attempt—carried ultimately into the courts and there lost—was made to expel him from the Quebec Garrison Club.
Passions had risen so high that even the passionate Bourassa published a warning in Le Devoir against “sterile violence.” But he was not in time, even if he really intended to be. Thousands of his followers went storming through the streets of Quebec and Montreal, smashing the windows of proconscription newspapers and one little group of them actually made plans to blow up the home of the publisher of the Montreal Star; one of the plotters committed suicide when the police were closing in on him.
These were by no means the only factors that destroyed whatever hope of calm there might have been for the election of 1917. Borden was persuaded to make drastic and monstrously undemocratic changes
in the rules of voting. Although Canada as yet had no female suffrage, a new bill gave the vote to the mothers, wives and sisters of all men in the army. Presumably they would vote for conscription although the government gave more pious reasons for introducing the new' measure. In another provision all immigrants who had come from Germany, Austria and other enemy countries and had been in Canada less than fifteen years were denied the right to vote.
Even without these special aids. Borden would have been in an almost unassailable position on election day. Bourassa at the last moment had decided to support Laurier but he did no more than confirm the anticonscriptionists in the decision they had already made to support the Liberal leader. At the same time many potential Laurier supporters—especially in Ontario and the West — took it that a vote for Laurier w'as a vote for Bourassa and decided this was a course they could not possibly follow.
When the results came in, conscription was overwhelmingly approved. But the division of the country — a division so sternly fought against since the time of Wolfe and Montcalm, sometimes forestalled and remedied, sometimes yielded to — had reached another climax. Borden's Union government, with its core of Conservatives and its disaffected Liberals, w'as elected with a great majority. Borden won seventy-four seats in Ontario to Laurier’s eight. In the West Borden won fifty-five seats and Laurier won two. In Quebec, Laurier won by sixty-two to three. It was closer in the Maritimes, but there Borden had an advantage of two to one. Canada had lost nearly as much ground in its struggle for unity as it had won in the previous one hundred and fifty-eight years since the Plains of Abraham.
After its noisy preliminaries, conscription turned out to be an equally noisy failure. There were many categories of exemptions and when the Act went into force the hearings of appeals took fat more time than the swearing in and training of new soldiers. It was not only French Canadians who tried to evade the draft. Farmers' sons had been granted exemptions under certain conditions. They were
demanded and granted in large numbers and sometimes, when refused, they caused public demonstrations. In one of them, at Perth. Ont., five hundred farmers jammed the streets. In another small Ontario town the local paper declared: “Every man taken from a Canadian farm makes more terrible the cry of starving women and children for whom our men are fighting.” A wealthy Winnipeg man created a cause célèbre by trying to buy his young and able son out of the draft by offering to subscribe to half a million dollars worth of war bonds.
By the end of March 1918. the draft law had produced no more than 22.000 reinforcements, far less than a tenth of the total Canadian force then serving overseas. Only two thousand of the men actually enrolled under the compulsory system were from Quebec, where the appeal boards were more sympathetic than in other parts of the country and the appeals were more numerous. The loud assaults against what little was left of the country’s unity grew as the inevitable search for draft dodgers began.
In Quebec City a mob wrecked the local recruiting office and partly destroyed the offices of two local newspapers. The city was put under martial law and a military detachment from Ontario was rushed in to enforce it. The situation had become truly desperate, so much so that even the fiery Armand Lavergne was pleading for moderation.
The ugly climax: four dead
But there was now no hope of ending the first small disturbance without a much greater one. Angry young anticonscriptionists had been assaulting the soldiers from Ontario with axe handles and once or twice with their hunting rifles. Inevitably the troops were ordered to strike back with fixed bayonets and the swords of their cavalry. At last the ugly climax arrived on the long night of April I. Four civilians were killed and half a dozen soldiers were wounded.
A kind of order was restored, but young Québécois fled by the hundred into the Laurentian hills and some of them were heavily armed and in effect dared the police to come and get them.
The conflict between French Canada and the rest of Canada obscured and has almost blotted from the pages of history the fact that there were other conflicts over conscription too. Not long after the culmination of the Quebec riots five thousand farmers marched in a body on Ottawa demanding that the cancelled exemptions to farmers’ sons be restored by the government. Although a large number of the delegation were from Quebec, more were from Ontario.
One of Borden’s cabinet ministers, F. B. Carvell, told the House of Commons, in a blunt answer to the growing wave of hostility tow'ard Quebec: “There are thousands and tens of thousands, yes, hundreds of thousands, of people in the rest of Canada who have tried assiduously to evade military service.”
In addition to those who took refuge in the woods and mountains, hundreds of young men, not all from Quebec, fled to the United States. One party of Maritimers simply departed on a long voyage with the fishing fleet. In the lumbering camps of Ontario and British Columbia there were other defaulters.
By the time the war ended conscription added eighty thousand soldiers to the army and nearly fifty thousand of these actually got overseas. About twenty thousand of the draftees came from Quebec; about the same number from Quebec, through one device or another, simply refused to report to their draft boards. -fc