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From the beginning of the war, there had been some variation in the Canadian attitude toward the conflict. Canada never questioned the legitimacy of the war and did not question the need for Canadian participation. There were differences of opinion, though, concerning how extensive the Canadian contribution should be. These variations affected the response to calls for enlistment and divided the country as the towns were more willing than the countryside, the prairies more willing than the Atlantic seaboard, and "it was observed that the proportion of enlistments achieved by any social group appeared to vary almost inversely to the length of its connection with Canada. On the one hand, the British-born -- the new arrivals with a large proportion of unattached males of military age -- gave the highest percentage of their numbers to the armed services, and, on the other hand, the French Canadians unquestionably gave the lowest percentage of theirs." Francophone Canada was not disposed to the war even before the conscription issue, and it certainly was not more disposed to it after. As one historian notes,
For most English-speaking Canadians the war came before all else; for the French it was subordinated to certain national interests. The French press devoted more attention to the Ontario question than to the struggle in Europe, and the nationalist agitation had reached into the farthest backwaters of the province, leaving Quebec ill-disposed towards measures for furthering a war effort which it already considered too great.
In fact, the French Canadians were the oldest of the Canadian groups and had the least respect for Great Britain. They were tied to their homeland and to their community in Quebec:
They were far more concerned to defend the values of their provincial culture in Canada than they were to protect the interests of Canada in the world at large; and naturally, when Ontario established a new regulation limiting the use of French as a language of instruction and as a subject of study in the province, their feelings were aroused as they had never been by the conflict in Europe.
The French Canadians were not the only population antagonistic to conscription, for organized labor was also opposed. The farmers agreed only so long as there was an exemption for their sons. Still, French Canada constituted the largest single bloc of opponents to the conscription legislation.
The move for conscription was surprising in Canada. After the Crimean War in 1855, Canada had established an efficient militia force and relied on voluntary enlistment from then on, and "at the beginning of the War of 1914-18 everybody, including Borden and Borden's government, had assumed that service in the Canadian armed forces would continue to be voluntary."
In the debate over conscription, Borden was on one side and Wilfrid Laurier of Quebec on the other. In 1917, the nation's English-speaking Liberals joined the Borden government to help speed conscription through, while the French-speaking Liberals (and some others) stuck by Laurier. Canada was split largely on racial lines in the election in December 1917, and Laurier was left to lead a mostly French-speaking Liberal opposition party in Parliament:
It should be emphasized that Laurier and French Canada were still acting within the Canadian political system. It was the Liberal party that sat in Parliament, not a French Canadian nationalist party. Bitter alienated though they might be, French Canadians had not abandoned Canada. This was in some ways Laurier's greatest achievement, but it was also his last, for he died shortly afterward, in February 1919.
The Progressive Conservative Party grew out of an 1854 coalition of business-professional and Established Church (Anglican) elites in Ontario, and joined by the French Catholic and Anglo-Scottish business and financial oligarchies in Quebec. Sir John Alexander Macdonald of this party was Canada's first prime minister in 1867. The Conservative government's decision to execute Louis Riel, a Francophone Catholic Metis and leader of an aborted rebellion in Saskatchewan in 1885, severely strained the Quebec segment of the Conservative coalition, and the party's support in Quebec eroded even more because of the government's indecision on the issue of provincial government financial support for Catholic schools. These issues along with the death of Macdonald caused the Conservatives' defeat in the 1896 federal election, and the party remained out of power until 1911 when its new leader, Sir Robert Borden, mobilized a combination of anti-free trade and anti-American sentiment in Ontario and isolationism in Quebec to cast out the Laurier Liberals:
This alliance dissolved during the conscription crisis of 1917. The bitterness of French Canada over Borden's insistence on conscripting men for overseas service in World War I was not dispelled when he retired, and, lacking support in Quebec, the party was defeated in the election of 1921. It remained out of office until it won the 1930 election under the leadership of R.B. Bennett.
One sign of the disunity developing in Canada was that in the election in 1917, when Sir Robert Borden formed a union government of Conservatives and conscriptionist Liberals, that group won an overwhelming victory in the Dominion as a whole, but in Quebec it obtained only 3 seats out of 65.
Other issues of the time were also debated and laws passed with less controversy. That same year, Parliament adopted the Wartime Elections Act and the Military Voters Act, extending the vote to all British subjects even as the conscription debate raged. After this, all British subjects, male and female, who were active or retired members of the armed forces, including Indians and people under the age of 21, could vote, as could civilian men who did not meet the property qualification but who had a son or grandson in the army, at least temporarily. Women with a father, mother, husband, son, daughter, brother or sister who was serving or who had served in the army were also given the vote. In the election of 1917, some 2 000 military nurses would be the first Canadian women to vote in a federal election.
Andrew Theobold states that the conscription crisis is central to the Canadian experience of the Great War and also to collective conceptions of the nation itself. He also says there have been many studies of this time and its meaning. The conscription crisis developed because the allied situation in 1917 was becoming desperate. The war involved prolonged fighting and high casualty rates, and as noted, recruiting efforts were stalled because everyone who wanted to sign up already had. After the Union victory, conscription increased the size of the army so that by the time of the armistice in 1918, 25,000 conscripts reinforced the 150,000 Canadian troops in Europe:
Nevertheless, conscription was deeply resented by many Canadians, in particular, Canadiens, farmers, the labour movement, and ethnic minorities throughout the country. Quebec certainly led the way, but opposition was not confined to that province. As soon as the Military Service Act and its attendant legislation, the Military Voters Act and the War-Time Elections Act, were introduced, farmers, fishers, and labourers requested exemption in front of specially-established local tribunals. A majority of these requests for exemption were granted. Conscription opponents sought to avoid forced enlistment on the grounds that their occupations were essential to the war effort that they lacked the full benefits of citizenship, or that wealth should be conscripted along with men.
In the House of Commons, the vote for conscription was 102 to 44. This was not the last time the issue was addressed, though, for it was raised again in World War II and would be even more divisive when that debate occurred. In addition, conscription created more tensions and divisions within Canada in the early period and would do so again in World War II.
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