The Military Service Act became law on 29 August 1917. It was a politically explosive and controversial law that bitterly divided the country along French-English lines. It made all male citizens aged 20 to 45 subject to conscription for military service, through the end of the First World War. The Act’s military value was questionable, but its political consequences were clear. It led to the creation of Prime Minister Borden’s Union Government and drove most of his French-Canadian supporters into opposition.
More than 300,000 Canadians signed up to fight overseas in the first two years of the First World War. This was a huge number for a country of only eight million people. By the end of 1916, however, volunteering had nearly dried up. Canada did not have enough recruits to reinforce the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The Force’s numbers were being depleted by the awful toll of the fighting in France and Belgium.
After returning from a visit to France in the spring of 1917, Prime Minister Robert Borden was shocked by the enormity of the conflict. He was determined that Canada should play a significant role in the war and announced that compulsory service would be necessary.
The debate over conscription consumed and divided the country. Some French Canadians supported it and some English Canadians did not; but for the most part, English Canada backed Borden on conscription while other groups were opposed. The opponents were primarily farmers (who disliked the recruitment of their labouring sons); trade unionists; non-British immigrants; pacifists; and most of French Canada, including almost every French-speaking Member of Parliament. Riots over the issue broke out in Quebec, where support for the war had always been lukewarm.
Liberal Opposition leader Sir Wilfrid Laurier refused to endorse Borden’s call for a unified, coalition government on the matter. Still, Borden managed to push the Military Service Act through Parliament; it 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.
“If we do not pass this measure,” Borden had told Parliament, “if we do not provide reinforcements, if we do not keep our plighted faith, with what countenance shall we meet (the soldiers) on their return?”
A few weeks later, in preparation for a federal election, Borden cobbled together a Union Government. It was made up largely of English-speaking Conservatives, Liberals and independents. The election of December 1917, known as the “Khaki Election” (after the colour of the army’s uniforms), was fought on the issue of conscription. It was a bitter contest that the Unionists won; they received a large majority in the House of Commons.
The Act and Indigenous Peoples
The Military Service Act 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, some First Nations leaders challenged conscription on the grounds that it violated treaties between the Crown and Indigenous peoples; they also argued that men who did not have the right to vote should not be forced to fight in overseas wars.
As a result, Indigenous peoples (both treaty and non-treaty peoples) were exempted from the Act in January 1918. But even though they were not conscripted, more than 4,000 First Nations men volunteered for overseas service between 1914 and 1918. This was in addition to the many Métis and First Nations soldiers who volunteered without identifying as Indigenous. (See also Indigenous Peoples and the World Wars.)
The Military Service Act was unevenly administered. There were numerous evasions by called-up recruits, and many exemptions were granted. Thousands of young men refused to even register for the selection process. Of those that did register, 93 per cent asked for exemptions.
Call-ups began in January 1918. Of the roughly 400,000 men who registered for conscription, about 100,000 were actually drafted. Of those, only 24,132 served on the front lines in Europe. Conscript soldiers were a small portion of the 425,000 Canadians who served overseas throughout the war; but they helped bolster the depleted divisions of the Canadian Corps during the final, important battles of 1918.
Ultimately, the Act’s military value was questionable; but its political consequences were clear. It led to the creation of Prime Minister Borden’s Union Government and drove most of his French-Canadian supporters into opposition. French Canadians were seriously alienated by this attempt to enforce their participation in what they considered a British imperial war. More broadly, the conscription crisis bitterly divided the country along French–English lines.