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Was Canadian conscription in World War I justified?
Many people have addressed the issue of Canadian conscription in World War I and debated back and forth as to the justification and necessity of it at the time. The purpose of this internal assessment is to determine whether instituting conscription was a valid decision through an investigation of the different groups affected and their points of views.
To do this, I will use a variety of sources and my own knowledge to look at both sides of the argument and come up with a valid conclusion. In section B, I will examine different viewpoints and their reasons for and against conscription.
In section C, I will evaluate two sources that have very different views as to whether conscription was the right thing to do.
In section D, I will analyse the effect of conscription on the population of Canada, how historians view the issue, and its significance in Canadian history. In section E, I will make a final statement and then give my reasons for it. It is my opinion that conscription was unjustified as it infringed on basic rights, and divided the country as it had never been divided before.
Arguments for Conscription
The arguments for conscription mainly concern the fact that Borden wanted Canada to appear as a strong united country that was capable of holding her own in battle.
i As World War I dragged on, Canada’s volunteer recruitment program was failing. Fewer people were volunteering, and Borden’s promise of 500 000 men was beginning to look outrageous. Not wanting to appear weak, Borden decided his only option was conscription. To justify this, he said that Canada would finally be considered an autonomous state when the world saw the power of her army.ii Borden also justified it by stating that most European countries supported conscription including Britain.iii He simply did not understand that Canadians did not have the passion for war that the British or any other Europeans did for that matter, because they did not feel like the war affected them in any meaningful way.
Arguments against Conscription
The arguments against conscription are many, and most if not all are reasonable and justified. One of the main arguments against conscription was that people did not feel like the war affected them in any way, as it was so far away. People did not really care who won the war, because it could never cross the ocean and affect them, and therefore their participation in the war was pointless and stupid.iv Another argument against conscription was that it infringed on the basic rights of Canadians as human beings. In the constitution, it stated that no man should be forced to enlist in the army, unless a force threatened the territory of Canada itself.v With this argument, many Canadians saw it as illegal for the government to conscript men, as they believed the war did not affect Canada directly.
The Quebecois were especially against conscription, as they felt they were being discriminated against within the armed forces. Once in the army, Quebeckers had to serve under English commanders who knew little to no French, and the Quebeckers were often harassed.vi They also felt no loyalty to Britain as their English counterparts did, and did not feel loyal to France either.vii Another group that was strongly against conscription was the farmers. They felt conscription was wrong because it took away able-bodied men that were desperately needed on the farm to harvest the crops. They argued that without the crops, there would not be enough supplies to feed the men overseas.viii Another strong argument against conscription, were the facts that came out after the war.
Of the 400 000 men who were registered as being up for conscription, only 59 991 were ever ordered to duty. All the others were either granted exemptions, or declared unfit to serve.ix This clearly shows that conscription could not have had that much of an impact if only fifteen percent of men conscripted ever made it to service. Perhaps the biggest argument against conscription, was the loss of so many lives. No matter how hard Borden tried, not many people accepted the loss of so many innocent young men as simply the consequences of a war that half the country did not support.
Morton, Desmond. When Your Number’s Up: the Canadian Soldier in the First World War. Canada, Random House, 1993.
This book, written by Desmond Morton in 1993, is a secondary source that talks about the experiences of Canadian soldiers in World War I. Its purpose is to give information about what it was like to be a soldier in the Canadian forces during World War I through historical research. Its main thesis about conscription is that it was necessary to keep a strong Canadian contingent fighting, not only to help the war effort, but also to show the world what a power Canada was. The main value of this book is that it is written by a well-known and well-respected historian and therefore the information within it is reliable. Its main limitation is that it is a secondary source written many years after the war by someone who did not experience it first hand, and therefore all the information is based on research conducted by him.
Grubb, Edward. Memories of the No-Conscription Fellowship by the Treasurer. Canada: Richard Cobden-Sanderson, 1935.
This source, written by the treasurer of the organization, Edward Grubb in 1935, is a primary source that recounts the No-Conscription Fellowship, an organization against conscription in Canada during World War I. Its purpose is to give information and detailed accounts of what the organization was and what it did to help in the fight against conscription. Its main thesis is that conscription was wrong because it infringed on basic human rights, and therefore it was their duty to oppose it and fight it any way they could. Its main value is that it is a primary source written by someone who lived during the war and fought conscription himself, and therefore the information is a first-hand account. Its limitations are that it only gives one side of the argument about conscription, and it was written around 17 years after the war, and therefore the information may be embellished or changed.
The evidence against conscription far outweighs the evidence for it. This section will analyse what effect conscription had on the population of Canada, and then the opinions of historians on conscription. Finally, I will look at the importance of this issue in the history of Canada.
When conscription was first proposed, there was an instant divide between English and French Canada. English Canada was generally for conscription as they felt they should support Britain as much as possible.x French Canada on the other hand, felt no loyalty towards Britain and therefore was strongly opposed. The issue of conscription threatened to divide Canada. Borden faced a tough decision, he had to decide whether to support Britain and gain international recognition, or save his country from internal destruction.
When Border chose the former, there was instantly civil unrest throughout the country. In Quebec, there were riots protesting conscription and many refused to serve when they were conscripted. It was not only the men being conscripted who rebelled, police in Quebec who were supposed to get the conscripts mostly refused to do it, so Borden had to gather a special conscription force to go and collect the men. The country was divided as it had never been before, and Borden was very worried. French Canadians were extremely angry at the ignorance of Borden and his lack of sympathy for their cause, while English Canadians felt that the French were going against Canada by opposing conscription. Borden had no solution for this problem, and Canada would remain divided for many years to come.
Most historians, when talking about the issue of conscription in Canada during World War I, agree that it was unjustified. One of these historians was Grant Dexter, who wrote an essay specifically on the conscription crisis of 1917. He believed that conscription was wrong because of three main reasons.xi The first, was that it divided the country between English and French and soured relations between the two for years to come. The second reason, was that it infringed on basic constitutional rights set out that said that no man should be forced to fight outside of Canada unless the territory of Canada is threatened directly. The third reason, dealt with obligation without representation, and stated that since Canada had no say in British foreign policy, then she should not be obligated to fight Britain’s war. This is not to say that all historians agreed that conscription was wrong, some still believed that it was the right thing to do.
One of these historians, was Desmond Morton, who wrote When Your Number’s Up, a book that deals with the roles of the Canadian soldier in World War I. In this book, he gives the point of view that conscription was necessary for two main reasons.xii The first, was that more men were necessary to help the war effort in Europe and without it, the central powers might be victorious. The second reason, was that Canada needed to show that she could be a formidable power in international affairs and could hold her own against any other country in the world. Because of these two reasons, Morton felt conscription was the only solution. As is evident from this section, the debate about conscription is not completely one-sided, however the arguments against are far more convincing.
The impact of this issue on Canadian history is very great indeed. This was the first time in Canadian history that men had been forced to go to war out of North America. The divisive consequences of conscription would be evident for many decades to come, as there would always be a certain grudge between English and French Canadians on the issue of loyalty to Britain. Over the years that passed after conscription, the issue would continue to be brought up whenever loyalty to Britain was in question or debate. Because of this, many people see it as both a negative and positive event. It is seen as negative because of the division that resulted from it, but it is also seen as positive because it is hard to question our loyalty to Britain when we were willing to go so far as to force young men to go to war and most likely death, simply to show our support for their cause. Conscription will always be remembered in Canada as an issue that separated Canada, but brought us closer to Britain.
In conclusion, conscription in Canada during World War I was unjustified and wrong. It infringed on the basic rights of Canadians set out in the constitution that stated that no man should be forced to fight outside Canada unless there was a direct threat to Canada itself. It also was never fully supported in Canada, simply by the English Canadians who outnumbered French Canadians and therefore made up the majority. It divided Canada between English and French Canadians in a separation that was never fully mended, as there was always a certain resentment between the two groups. The facts speak for themselves, less than fifteen percent of the men conscripted were sent to duty overseas, which shows how futile and useless conscription was. Finally, and most importantly, many innocent lives were lost as a result of conscription, lives that would never be recovered. It does not matter what benefits we gained from the war, nothing can justify the loss of so many lives.