Conscription in Canada

Conscription is the compulsory enlistment or “call up” (sometimes known as “the draft”) of citizens for military service. The federal government enacted conscription in both the First World War and the Second World War, creating sharp divisions between English-speaking Canadians, who tended to support the practice, and French-speaking Canadians, who generally did not. Canada does not currently have mandatory military service.

Conscription is the compulsory enlistment or “call up” (sometimes known as “the draft”) of citizens for military service. The federal government enacted conscription in both the First World War and the Second World War, creating sharp divisions between English-speaking Canadians, who tended to support the practice, and French-speaking Canadians, who generally did not. Canada does not currently have mandatory military service.

How Does Conscription Work?

Under conscription, all males of a certain age must register with the government for military service. In some countries, females are also conscripted. Once registered, these people may be “called up” for military service. Some people may be exempt (or excused) from mandatory military service. This could include people in certain occupations or who suffer from physical or mental illness or disability.

Does Canada Have Conscription?
Canada does not currently have conscription. Although some countries have mandatory military service (e.g., Switzerland, Sweden, Israel), it is unlikely that Canada will reintroduce the draft. During the First and Second World Wars, conscription created deep divisions in the country. This experience has contributed to deep unease about the practice among Canadians.

Conscription in the First World War

In the South African War (1899–1902), several thousand Canadians volunteered to fight for the British Empire overseas. Conscription for Canada’s limited war effort in South Africa had therefore not been necessary. The same was true during the early years of the First World War, when huge numbers of Canadian volunteers — 330,000 overall from 1914 to 1915 — willingly enlisted to fight against the Germans in France and Flanders (Belgium).

By late 1916, however, the relentless human toll of the war and the terrible casualties (soldiers wounded or killed) at the front in Europe were beginning to cause reinforcement problems for the Canadian commanders overseas. Recruitment at home was slowing, and the manpower and enlistment system was disorganized.

Borden, Sir Robert

For Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden, the first necessity was to assist the men in the trenches. In May 1917, when he returned to Canada from the Imperial War Conference in London and from visits to the trenches, he had decided that compulsory service was necessary. He announced his decision in Parliament on 18 May.

Union Government

Borden was concerned that opponents of conscription, including the Liberal Party, would join forces to defeat the Conservative government in the general election that December. Borden decided the best way to bring conscription about — while placating Quebec, where support was weak — was to bring his francophone opponent into a wartime coalition. On 25 May, he offered to form a coalition government with Liberal leader Sir Wilfrid Laurier, promising the Liberals equal seats in Cabinet in exchange for their support for conscription.

After consulting his supporters, Laurier rejected the proposal on 6 June. Quebec would never agree to conscription, he believed, and if he joined the pro-conscription coalition, French Canada would be delivered to the hands of such Quebec nationalists as Henri Bourassa (see Francophone Nationalism in Quebec).

After enormous difficulty, the Military Service Act became law on 29 August 1917. It made all male citizens aged 20 to 45 subject to call-up for military service, through the end of the war.

Virtually every French-speaking member of Parliament opposed conscription, and almost all the English-speaking MPs supported it. The eight English-speaking provinces also endorsed Borden’s move, while the province of Quebec opposed it.

In October, after months of political manoeuvering, Borden announced a Union Government — a coalition of loyal Conservatives, plus a handful of pro-conscription Liberals and independent members of Parliament.

Did You Know?
The Military Service Act (MSA), passed by Parliament in August 1917, initially included Status Indians and Métis men between the ages of 20 and 45. At that time, “Status Indians” were First Nations peoples with official Indian status registered with the Department of Indian Affairs. However, because of challenges from First Nations leaders that conscription violated treaties between the Crown and Indigenous peoples, as well as complaints that men without the federal franchise (right to vote) should not be forced to fight in overseas wars, Indigenous peoples (both treaty and non-treaty peoples) were exempted from the MSA in January 1918. Even though they were not conscripted in 1917 and 1918, more than 4000 First Nations men volunteered for overseas service between 1914 and 1918—not including the many Métis and First Nations soldiers who volunteered without identifying as Indigenous.

Wartime Elections Act

In the controversial Wartime Elections Act, which became law on 20 September 1917, the right to vote in federal elections was extended to nursing sisters (women serving in the Canadian Army Medical Corps) and to close female relatives of military men. Canadian women had previously been denied the right to vote in federal elections (see Women’s Suffrage in Canada). By extending the vote, the Act was meant to entice voters who were likely to support the developing Union Government and conscription.

At the same time, the Wartime Elections Act removed the right to vote from thousands of people who were likely to vote against conscription. This included immigrants from enemy countries who had become citizens after 1902 — unless those citizens had a son, grandson or brother on active duty in the Canadian military. The law also removed the right to vote from all conscientious objectors (those who refused to go to war because it was against their religious, moral or ethical beliefs).

Election of 1917

The federal election of 1917 was divided. While neither French- nor English-speaking Canadians were unanimous in their views on the subject, English Canada, broadly speaking, gave Borden his mandate to put conscription into effect. The Union Government won a majority, with 153 seats, including only three from Quebec. Laurier’s Liberals won 82 seats, 62 from Quebec.

The process of call-ups began in January 1918. But out of the 401,882 men registered for conscription — and though certain exemptions from call-up were lifted in the spring of 1918 — only 124,588 men were added to the strength of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Only 24,132 of those made it to France by the war’s end.

As a political measure, conscription was largely responsible for the re-election of the Borden government. However, conscription left the Conservative Party with a heavy liability — and feelings of betrayal — in Quebec and in the agricultural West (where the call up took people away from family farms).

1918 Anti-Conscription Riots

Anti-conscription rally in Montreal, 1917.

Anti-conscription riots broke out in Quebec. In 1918, the government used the War Measures Act to quell the anti-conscription Easter Riots in Quebec City between 28 March and 1 April 1918, proclaiming martial law and deploying over 6,000 soldiers. Rioters attacked the troops with gunfire and with improvised missiles, including ice and bricks. The Easter Riots grew increasingly violent and resulted in as many as 150 casualties, including four civilians killed when soldiers returned fired on armed rioters.

Conscription in the Second World War

Recruitment Campaign

Two decades later, as the threat of a new war in Europe became serious, the question of military conscription again caused lively political debate. However, in March 1939, both the Liberal Party and Conservative Party accepted a program rejecting conscription for possible overseas service.When Canada declared war in September 1939, the government renewed its pledge not to conscript soldiers for overseas service.

In June 1940, as Belgium and France fell to Nazi Germany, the public began to call for a more concerted Canadian war effort. In response, the government passed the National Resources Mobilization Act on 21 June, providing for enlistment only for home defence. Registration took place almost without incident, except for the public opposition of Montreal mayor Camillien Houde, who was interned for four years after he urged constituents to ignore their call-up papers (see Internment in Canada).

William Lyon Mackenzie King with Winston Churchill

In 1941, as recruitment slowly progressed, more people spoke out in favour of conscription, first within the Conservative Party and later among English-speaking Canadians in general. To appease supporters of conscription, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King decided to hold a non-binding referendum asking Canadians to release the government from its anti-conscription promises.

In Quebec, the Ligue pour la défense du Canada was established in order to campaign for the “no” side. On 27 April 1942, 72.9 per cent of Quebec residents voted “no.” In all other provinces the “yes” vote triumphed by some 80 per cent. The government then passed Bill 80, authorizing conscription for overseas service if it was deemed necessary. Quebec’s Bloc populaire, formed in response to the Mobilization Act, continued to fight against conscription by presenting candidates for the August 1944 provincial elections and the June 1945 federal elections.

After D-Day operations and the Normandy campaign in 1944, J.L. Ralston, the minister of national defence, was convinced of the need for overseas conscription. Unexpectedly high casualties on the front, combined with a large commitment of manpower to the Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Canadian Navy, left the Canadian Army short of recruits.

King, who had hoped he would not have to invoke Bill 80, replaced Ralston with General A.G.L. McNaughton, who did not support conscription. On 22 November, however, the Prime Minister acknowledged the open pro-conscriptionist sentiments of many of his anglophone Cabinet ministers (who threatened to resign over the matter) and reversed his decision. He announced that conscripts would be sent overseas.

In Hollywood movies of the era, zombies were the soulless and mindless living dead. After conscription during the Second World War, the term was used to describe the 60,000 men drafted under the National Resources Mobilization Act who had not volunteered for active service overseas. It was a derogatory term used to shame conscripted soldiers.

Only 12,908 conscripted soldiers, disparagingly known as zombies, were sent to fight abroad — a tiny number compared with the hundreds of thousands of Canadian volunteers, including French Canadians, who fought overseas. Only 2,463 reached the front lines before Germany surrendered in May 1945. Still, this second conscription crisis worsened relations between anglophones and francophones in Canada, though to a lesser extent than during the First World War.

Further Reading

  • Patrick M. Dennis, Reluctant Warriors: Canadian Conscripts and the Great War (2019).

    J.L. Granatstein and J.M. Hitsman, Broken Promises (1977).

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