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Conscription: WWI & WWII in Canada

Act of Illiberalism

Ellen Lee

on 6 January 2013

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Transcript of Conscription: WWI & WWII in Canada

Act of Illiberalism Investigation:
Conscription in WWI & WWII in Canada Synopsis: Who? Significant Individuals Involved WWI
Prime Minister Robert Borden originally had the confidence and faith of French Canada since he promised no mandatory military service. However, after news of Britain’s progress in WWI, he had a new intention of conscripting men into the armed forces (Canadian Expeditionary Force). In 1917, he finally dropped his previous promise by passing the Military Services Act where many, especially Francophone Canadians, were disapproving.
Wilfred Laurier, leader of the Liberal Party that was the official opposition, was convinced that this Act would tear the English and French apart in Canada.
Henri Bourassa, a man recognized by the Canadian Forces as a traitor or savior, led the French Canadians in their dissent with conscription. He believed that the forced “militarization” of the Dominion was only the first stage of an apocalyptic “imperialist revolution.”
Supporters of Conscription: Anglophones, senior MPs and Cabinet ministers, British immigrants, families of volunteer soldiers
Opposing Conscription: Francophone, farmers, unionized workers, non-British Canadians WWII
Prime Minister Mackenzie King had a very similar attitude as Prime Minister Robert Borden. He also began with the promise that there would be no conscription until the increasing disasters of WWII pressured him to mobilize manpower to defend Canada.
J.L. Ralston, the original Minister of Defense, saw a need to provide conscripts to the Canadian military overseas. However, PM King opposed conscription and replaced him with General A.G.L. McNaughton.
General A.G.L. McNaughton was initially in favor of volunteer soldiers. However, his position on conscription was reversed eventually due to the lack of volunteers and PM King would finally accept this decision to impose conscription on Canadian men.
Supporters of Conscription: Anglophones, senior MPs and Cabinet ministers, British immigrants, families of volunteer soldiers
Opposing Conscription: Francophone, farmers, unionized workers, non-British Canadians Synopsis: What, When, Where, Why, How? WWI

During 1917, when the British were in need of aid in arms, artillery, and resources, the federal government initiated by Prime Minister Robert Borden decided to allow the conscription of young Canadian men since volunteer numbers were not sufficient enough. Pieces of legislation, including the Military Services Act, Military Voter Act, and War-Time Elections Act were imposed on Canadians. There were tense debates on the issue from both sides, mainly a rising conflict between French and English Canadians. As a result, conscription in Canada was ineffective since there were numerous exemptions to the forces and had a minimal effect on Canada’s war efforts. WWII

Canadian men were not required to go overseas as reinforcements, not until the entry of Japan into the war. Following this event, PM King offered a plebiscite to all Canadians, asking for their position on the formation of Bill 80 which would soon allow the National Resources Mobilization Act (NRMA) to be implemented. This legislation gave the government authorization to conscribe men overseas in arms. Although the majority of Canadians voted for the Bill, as much as 73% of Quebeckers voted against it and PM King held back the usage of the Bill until desperately needed after news of the casualties during D-Day in Normandy. The NRMA was placed into effect and this meant that eligible men were to be registered for mandatory military service. Approximately 13,000 Canadians were sent overseas but only 2,500 reached their destinations before the end of the war. These men were known as “zombies” since they did not volunteer to take arms but were bound to die. A) What type of action did the government take? Was it acceptable or unacceptable? At the start of both decisions regarding conscription in WWI and WWII, the government offered a plebiscite or vote to citizens asking for their opinion on whether or not to allow drafting in a state emergency. Although the majority answered "yes", the Canadian government resorted to conscription as a final decision which I believe is unacceptable. Why should young men need to face mandatory duty in service to the military if they do not support the war? There is no reason anyone should place their life on the line when they do not agree with the cause of the action to begin with. This is especially strong on the defense of the Francophone population and Quebeckers since they felt no obligation to provide assistance to Britain or France. Their loyalty was largely towards Quebec. Many French Canadians’ rights were taken away by conscription. In addition to their rightful unwillingness the serve, there were language barriers at the platoons and regiments they were assigned to. This left them unable to communicate efficiently or gain any merit. As a result, Francophone were treated unfairly and conscription could be considered a technique to assimilate them into the English population. Therefore, conscription is an act of illiberalism. B) How effective was this act? Could it achieve its intended goals? Conscription in Canada during WWI and WWII were both ineffective and are considered a failure. There were numerous exemptions. When the Military Service Act was finalized by PM Sir Robert Borden in 1918 and 125,000 men were drafted, only 25,000 were sent overseas before the war had already ended. The act left many Canadians, both Anglophones and Francophone, in bitter attitudes with the government and with each other. Conscription contributed largely to the polarized provinces in political decisions today, let alone the language barrier between the French and English and the discrimination both have for each other. A similar scenario was met by conscription in WWII. 13,000 men drafted under the Nation Resources Mobilization Act let Canada’s shores; however, only 2,500 reached their assignments before the war ended. A repeat of WWI’s conscription crisis only heightened the divide between Quebeckers and remaining Canadians. C) What limits/ restrictions were placed on the people by the government? In what ways were the rights of the soldiers limited during the act? What attempts were made to stifle the act? By whom? Conscription is a violation of human rights. The right to life, liberty, and security is abused when the man’s life is placed directly in danger on the battlefields where simple crossfire will likely claim his life. When the conscript chooses not to volunteer in the military because he does not feel loyal to Britain of France or because he does not agree with war altogether, he is giving a valid reason not to participate. This freedom of thought and alliance is oppressed and conscription gives the government rights that the citizens do not. While the government has the authority to draft men, the men do not have the power to draft each other and therefore, the right of the individual to give consent is abused. Simple democratic rights to vote were also taken away during the Canadian Election in 1917 during WWI. By using the Wartime Elections Act and the Military Voters Act, the government was able to manipulate the election results to favor Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden. Both pieces of legislation gave voting rights to the women and families of soldiers and military personnel; while restricting the participation of immigrants from enemy countries. Sir Robert Borden won the election in December 1917 with great numbers. As for the Quebec and Francophone population specifically, language and identity rights were taken as many soldiers were forced to assimilate with the English during training and execution of war tactics. Of course Quebeckers spent a lot of effort to defend their rights. French presses, anti-conscription organizations, and angry Quebeckers plotted riots throughout Montreal after Bill 80 was signed by Canada’s governor general. Violence continued throughout the 1917 election campaigns and the government could not hold peaceful meetings. Many fled to the woods or declared exemption from the draft and when police finally sent out searching for them, riots broke out in Quebec City. Martial law was taken, and the military fired on the rioting civilians killing five and injuring dozens. D) What results did the act have at the time and later? What positive impact/ consequences did it have? What negative impact did it have? Both conscription in WWI and WWII were considerable failures as they mainly resulted in negative consequences. In WWI, 400,000 men were drafted, 125,000 showed up to duty, and 25,000 reached stations before the war ended. In WWII, 130,000 men were drafted, and 2,500 reached their assignments before the fighting stopped. Conscripts who were not volunteers lost their lives in a vain because they were not quality volunteer soldiers. You cannot expect someone who does not understand why they are fighting for something they do not believe in to be a nationalist willing to die for their country. The most negative consequence was the polarization of French and English Canada and the loss of trust citizens had for the government. Conscription contributed largely to political views and the heavy liability the Conservative Party was left with for Quebec. E) Was the act justified as a means of providing the nation with security and limiting freedoms? I believe the government’s action to conscript soldiers during WWI and WWII is partially justified as a means of providing the nation with security and limiting freedoms. As Japan entered the war and America was threatened by the event at Pearl Harbor, Canada had little choice but to defend itself in order to prevent an attack on our shores. Although there was no initial intention to draft men to the military by the government, the lack of volunteers to protect the nation was a problem, therefore conscription was resorted to. However, I do not see a need to use conscription for any country today. There are military alliances now such as NATO to come to a nation’s aid should they be endangered. Several nations with a strong organized military will step in to defend them. Therefore, I believe that conscription cannot be justified today.
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