By 1917, the failure of voluntary recruitment in Canada to sustain a 500,000-man army was contributing to an atmosphere of national crisis, but not of despair. More and more Canadians now believed that the country was not simply fighting at Britain's side -- it had become Canada's war.

Canada; An Illustrated Weekly Journal, 24 March 1917. ©Chinook Multimedia Inc

Borden Visits the Front, n.d.

Before deciding on conscription, Sir Robert Borden, Canada's Prime Minister, went to Europe to survey the situation for himself. Here, he is seen in France inspecting a battalion of Canadians of which his cousin was the commanding officer.

In order to maintain Canada's strength, Borden announced that the conscription of men for national service had become a military necessity. The men at the front had to be reinforced. Borden also wanted Canada to have a voice in shaping imperial policy. To have that voice, Canada had to pull its weight. Canadian men, Canadian interests, and Canadian liberty were all at stake. The introduction of conscription in 1917 would provoke the greatest political crisis of the period. It would split the country along French-English lines.

French Canadians had no sentimental attachment to France or to Britain, and they believed that Borden was indifferent to their interests. No separate French-Canadian divisions existed in the military, and French-Canadian officers were not promoted to senior positions. French-Canadian attitudes were also shaped by resentment of the treatment of French-speaking minorities in Ontario and Manitoba. In both provinces, guarantees for French-language schools were overturned during the war. Partly in consequence, enlistments in Quebec were much lower than in the rest of Canada. Moreover, French Canadians did not believe that English Canadians cared about their concerns.

In contrast, English Canadians did not believe that French Canadians were doing their duty by participating fully in the war effort. While English Canadians gave their lives, French Canadians had contributed only five per cent of all enlisted men, even though that province made up about one third of the national population. In the spring of 1917, when more than 20,000 Canadian casualties were recorded in Europe, Quebec produced less than 100 volunteers. Many English Canadians talked about forcing French Canadians to contribute their share at home and abroad.

The Military Service Act, 1917, Statutes of Canada 1917, c. 19.

Military Service Act


Prime Minister Robert Borden chose to support Canada's fighting troops and the war effort by passing the Military Service Act. It basically made all men between 20 and 45 eligible for military duty. Riots followed in Montreal and in Quebec City, where four people were killed. Henceforth, Canada's volunteer effort would be reinforced with compulsory measures.

National Archives of Canada (C-006859).

Anti-conscription Parade in Victoria Square, Montreal, Quebec, ca. 24 May 1917.


Borden subsequently invited Laurier to join a coalition government with his Conservatives. Laurier declined because he would not support conscription and because he believed the creation of a coalition government would hand Quebec to Bourassa and the nationalists. Many Liberals from Ontario and Western Canada, though, broke with Laurier and joined the new Union government.

National Archives of Canada (C-093222, artist unknown).

This 1917 election poster equates a vote for Laurier, the Liberal leader, with a vote for Germany.


To ensure itself of victory in the subsequent federal election, Borden brought in two more important pieces of legislation, the Military Voters Act and the Wartime Elections Act. Both pieces of legislation were designed to improve the government's chances of re-election and further intensified animosities between French- and English-speaking Canadians. When the government realized that farmers also opposed conscription (because they argued that they were supporting the war effort by supplying food), the Union government granted exemptions from conscription to farmers' sons, just two weeks before the election. (These exemptions were revoked early in 1918 -- after the election.)

The Military Voters Act, 1917, Statutes of Canada 1917, c. 34.

Military Voters Act.

The Military Voters Act gave all members of the military, male and female, the vote. The statute also provided that soldiers would be asked to cast their ballots for or against the government, rather than for a specific candidate. If a riding was not indicated, the government could assign the vote to any constituency that it wished.
The War-time Elections Act, Statutes of Canada 1917, c. 39.

Wartime Elections Act.

The Wartime Elections Act gave close female relatives (wife, widow, mother, sister or daughter) of servicemen the vote. All immigrants who had arrived from enemy countries since 1902, or who possessed German or any language from the Austro-Hungarian Empire (a list that included Ukrainian) as their mother tongue, lost the right to vote. Opponents of the war were also disenfranchised.

The election produced a decisive victory for the Union government; it took 153 seats to only 82 for the Liberals, 62 of which came from Quebec. Not surprisingly, the soldiers voted overwhelmingly for the Union government.

J. Castell Hopkins, Canada at War: A Record of Heroism and Achievement, 1914-1918 (Toronto: Canadian Annual Review Limited, 1919). ©Chinook Multimedia Inc

Preparing to Vote, 1918.

Members of the Canadian Cavalry are studying the list of electoral districts before casting their ballots in the war election of 1918.
Adapted from Series Y75-198. Votes polled in federal elections, by party and province, 1896 to 1974 (concluded): Statistics Canada's Internet Site, 11516XIE/sectiona/ seriesY75-198.csv, [23 November 1999].

Votes Polled Among Soldiers, 1917 Canadian Election.

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