The approach to conscription did adapt, but not in the way anyone would expect, as men still were drafted. Prime Minister King’s approach to conscription was adapted in many ways. In WWI, the Borden government introduced conscription and did damage control later on, figuratively and literally. However, in WWII politicians, slowly implemented conscription and made sure that the public had a favorable view of conscription. It certainly paid off because it came out with overwhelming support from every province but Quebec.
During WWII, Prime Minister King learned from how poorly many Canadian citizens saw conscription during WWI. When the Borden government first implemented conscription, he did not implement it slowly, and it was more of the government’s decision instead of the publics,’ and a by-product of this was the incredibly varied views on conscription.
In WWI, conscription was so controversial that Borden implemented the Wartime Elections Act to grant and remove certain groups of peoples voting rights; this made it even more debated among Canadians. When the election rolled around, the Borden government won because of the War Time Elections Act and conscription, but in the end, it was very politically damaging to the Conservative Party as a whole, especially with the 1918 Anti-Conscription riots.
During the First World War, Robert Borden saw that Canada’s army recruitment could not keep up with the supply and demand that the war needed. On May 18th, 1917, Prime Minister Borden announced that he would implement conscription as he deemed it necessary. On August 29th, 1917, the Military Service Act passed, which would draft male citizens aged 20 to 45 into the war.
On the political side, the French Parliament members disagreed with conscription, but the English Parliament members did; knowing this, the Conservative party feared that the Liberal Party would join with other opposing parties to sway the upcoming election in the Liberal’s favor. Borden, to combat this, implemented the Wartime Elections Act, which became active on September 20th, 1917, and this gave women who were close female relatives of military men and women in the Canadian Army Medical Crops the right to vote.
The Wartime Elections Act also removed the right to vote from immigrants who were not citizens of Canada before 1902. This Act would eventually sway the election in Borden’s favor because now he appeals to a whole new demographic. Some Canadian citizens, especially French-Canadian citizens, were not too ecstatic about this because they knew that Borden was trying to swing the election in his favor.
When the Federal election of 1917 rolled around, it was divided as people of both groups, French and English Canadians, had varying views on conscription. In the end, the Wartime Elections Act and conscription did play in Borden’s favor because he won the election that year; it did, though, have a considerable negative political impact on the conservative party.
The tension that slowly built up from conscription and the Wartime Elections Act caused many French-Canadians to riot, and in 1918, Anti-Conscription riots broke out in Quebec, and after the government inciting martial law, around 6000 soldiers were deployed, but the rioters fought back with rocks and guns. Around 150 casualties and four civilians were killed during the riots—all of this damaged the reputation of conscription.
Additionally, King, seeing the absolute disaster that was conscription in WWI, decided that he would change his conscription approach. King, first of all, wanted to avoid conscription because it would be met with firm resistance, and nearly every political member was against conscription. When France fell, King had to rethink how he would approach conscription, so he modified the policy to be home defense conscription only. However, on April 27th, 1942, King passed Bill 80 to allow overseas conscription for active duty.
Shortly after Germany invaded Poland, Canada declared war on Germany on September 9th, 1939. Canadian citizens were not too worried about conscription because the Canadian government renewed its pledge not to conscript soldiers for overseas service, and most of all, Canada’s role in the war was only to provide materials and help in the training of Commonwealth aircrews. Canadian men were discouraged from enlisting in the infantry because of the high expected casualty rate.
When France fell in 1940, Canada was now the second-largest player in the war, and overseas Canadian Allies were in danger of falling to the Nazis; so King changed the conscription policy to only allow home defense by implementing the National Resources Mobilization Act. This Act enabled the conscripted soldiers to use the property and services of Canadians to defend the country. Later on, Bill 80 was introduced and passed on April 27th, 1942, and this allowed for overseas conscription for active duty if it was deemed necessary. Bill 80 was then put into effect after D-Day in 1944 because it was deemed necessary for overseas conscription because of the high casualty rates on the front lines, which left the army short.
As a final point, King’s strategy worked. For the most part, the public did not have the same reaction to conscription as it did in WWI. To keep the citizens calm, King renewed his pledge not to conscript soldiers for overseas service; King also stated that he was against conscription and would not implement conscription. English speaking Canadians had British loyalty, and the public believed that if the British went to war, the Canadians would also want to go to war; this will play a significant part as to why conscription slowly became widely accepted.
Nearing the end of WWI, there was a pledge not to conscript soldiers overseas. These lead Canadian citizens into a false sense of security, especially when WWII started and when Canada joined the war. At that point, Canada played a passive role and only provided other Allied countries with goods or training; King was happy with how it turned out because King wanted to avoid war at all costs because of the apparent repercussions.
After all, the very idea of conscription was frowned upon by Canadian citizens. If a political figure openly supported it or implemented it, it would be political suicide; King knew if he got involved in the war, he would have to implement conscription at some point because of how powerful the Nazis were, and if Canada did fight, there would be a substantial number of casualties and would need extra support from conscripts.
As France fell and Canadian troops needed reinforcements, Canada changed their conscription policy, only allowing home defense for conscription; the public did not have an adverse reaction because they saw it as a necessary step as the war progressed. People started to speak out in favor of conscription because they saw how damaging this war was so far. These circumstances were perfect because King, making sure that he gets public approval, held a vote on whether to allow overseas conscription, and the Bill came with positive reception, and Bill 80 was passed.
Bill 80 would allow overseas active duty for conscripts if deemed necessary and the vote for Bill 80 made sure that Canada’s people could not get mad at the government or King because they voted for the Bill, and when it was used in 1944, nobody ended up getting mad as they felt it was their only choice.
In short, conscription did adapt to how it was implemented. Rather than forcefully implementing it and dealing with damage control later, the government slowly changed it over time as the war progressed and made sure the public would bring conscription upon themselves by making a vote to not cause more outrage towards the government. Slowly changing conscription, people did not feel so pressured, and they thought that conscription was the right way to go for the rest of the war, and they did not have much of choice in the end.
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CBC. “The Conscription Crisis.” Www.cbc.ca, CBC, 2001, www.cbc.ca/history/EPISCONTENTSE1EP12CH2PA3LE.html. Accessed March 14th. 2021.
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 Chu, Angel Difan. “The Conscription Issue in Canada’s Two World Wars.” NAOC, NATO Association of Canada, 17 Dec. 2014, natoassociation.ca/the-conscription-issue-in-canadas-two-world-wars/. Accessed 15 Mar. 2021.
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