By Ellen Hills
In 1914, Canada was a self-governing dominion of the British Empire, but it did not control its own foreign affairs, legally the country was at war the instant Britain declared one. In 1914, most, but by no means all, Canadians would have agreed with the 1910 statement of Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier that “when Britain is at war, Canada is at war. There is no distinction.” They nevertheless debated vigorously the size and nature of Canada’s war effort and, increasingly, its relationship with Britain. Canadians marched and sang in the streets at the declaration of war in early August 1914. Those who opposed the war largely stayed silent. Even in Quebec, where pro-British sentiment was traditionally low, there was little apparent hostility to a voluntary war effort.
By war’s end, some 619,000 Canadians had enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force for service overseas. This was an enormous contribution from a population of just under 8 million in 1914. Approximately seven percent of the total population of Canada was in uniform at some point during the war, and hundreds of thousands of additional Canadians worked on the home front in support of the war.
Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden and his Cabinet quickly agreed to meet Britain’s request for a Canadian contingent of 25,000 troops. The government also passed the War Measures Act, giving it the authority to do whatever it thought necessary for the “security, defence, peace, order and welfare of Canada.”
In an unprecedented burst of patriotic enthusiasm, Canadians enlisted from across the country. Because pre-war Canada had a very small permanent armed force, citizen-soldiers would form most of the new Canadian Expeditionary Force.Thousands showed up at their local recruiting stations eager to “do their bit,” many of them with strong emotional ties to Great Britain. The first contingent was 70 percent British-born, although many had lived in Canada for years and considered themselves Canadian. The percentage of native-born Canadians would increase throughout the war until, by 1918, more than half of the Canadian Expeditionary Force would be Canadian-born.
The federal government decided in 1917 to conscript young men for overseas military service. Voluntary recruitment was failing to maintain troop numbers, and Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden believed in the military value, and potential post-war influence, of a strong Canadian contribution to the war.The 1917 conscription debate was one of the fiercest and most divisive in Canadian political history. French-Canadians, as well as many farmers, unionized workers, non-British immigrants, and other Canadians, generally opposed the measure. English-speaking Canadians, led by Prime Minister Borden and senior members of his Cabinet, as well as British immigrants, the families of soldiers, and older Canadians, generally supported it.
The conscription debate echoed public divisions on many other contemporary issues, including language education, agriculture, religion, and the political rights of women and immigrants. It also grew into a test of one’s support for, or opposition to, the war as a whole. Charges of disloyalty, cowardice, and immorality from avid pro-conscription advocates were matched by cries of imperialism, stupidity, and bloodlust by the anti-conscription camp.The campaign’s viciousness sometimes obscured the debate’s complexity. Many anti-conscription advocates fully supported the war, for example, while not all pro-conscription voices argued their case by using linguistic or racial smears to diminish their opponents.