The First World War

By Sean Mills, under the direction of Brian Young, McGill University


The outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 came suddenly and Canadians, at first, expected it to be a short-lived conflict. As a colony of Britain, Canada was committed to the imperial war effort by the British declaration of war. Eager to enlist, young men, mostly recent immigrants from Great Britain, soon filled the streets of the country's major cities. Despite poor management and unclear instructions, 31,000 men and 8,000 horses were soon sent to Europe. In English Canada, patriotic citizens created mass recruitment drives and, in the name of imperial patriotism, forced Germans and Austrians out of the public service, and pressured Berlin, Ontario, to rename itself Kitchener.

Canada's war effort

It was the lack of French-Canadian participation in the war, however, that preoccupied English-Canadian public opinion and rekindled old ethnic hostilities. Only 13,000 of the (620,000) recruits in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) were French-speaking and, although initially sympathetic to the allied cause, French-Canadian support for the war waned as the conflict progressed. Commanded by British officers and operating in English, the CEF did not make French Canadians feel welcome; nor did French Canadians feel a particular need to defend British imperial interests.

Military Service Act

In May 1917, with the Military Service Act, Prime Minister Robert Borden introduced conscription for single men between the ages of 20 and 35. While many farmers and labourers in English Canada opposed the act, the strongest opposition came from Quebec. Needing to secure a mandate to proceed, Borden, with a new coalition of Conservatives and disaffected Liberals, called an election. To ensure victory Borden extended the franchise to male and female members of the CEF and to the wives, mothers and sisters of soldiers. Immigrants naturalized after 1902, moreover, lost the right to vote. The divided election results reflected the polarized state of the country: although the Union party won 153 seats, the Liberals swept Quebec, winning 62 out of 65 ridings.

Conscription Crisis

With his mandate secure, Borden authorized conscription and, for the first time in history, the Quebec government debated the possibility of secession. Tensions escalated further when, in March 1918, angry anti-conscription demonstrations in Quebec City turned into riots. When Quebec police refused to intervene and disperse the crowds, the federal government sent troops who opened fire and killed four civilians. Although the military impact of conscription was negligible, and only 24,000 conscripts ever saw action in France, the divisive effects of the Conscription Crisis would be felt long into the future.

Aftermath of war

When the Great War ended in November 1918, it was clear that Canada no longer resembled its prewar self. Six hundred thousand Canadians participated in the conflict, and 60,661 lost their lives. Those who did return often suffered from physical and psychological wounds. Because of its great sacrifice to the war effort, Canada did gain a more prominent international profile. Represented in the British delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, Canada, demonstrating some of its newfound independence, signed, for the first time in its history, a multilateral international treaty. In 1918 the Union government, building on the reforms of the Wartime Elections Act, extended the franchise in federal elections to women and, by the 1920s, most provincial governments had also granted women the right to vote. Quebec was the exception; conservative influences there ensured the continued disenfranchisement of women until 1940.

REFERENCES

Conrad, Margaret and Alvin Finkel. History of the Canadian Peoples: Beginnings to 1867 vol. 1. Toronto: Addison Wesley Longman, 2002, p. 209.

Summary 

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