The price of free­dom

Up­com­ing an­niver­saries of­fer op­por­tu­nity to learn from past mis­takes.

Canada's History - - CHRISTOPHER MOORE - Christo­pher Moore com­ments in ev­ery is­sue of Canada’s His­tory.

Start­ing in Jan­uary, Canada will start to wrap up a string of an­niver­sary years. Af­ter com­mem­o­ra­tions of the War of 1812, the bi­cen­te­nar­ies of the births of Ge­orge-Éti­enne Cartier and John A. Macdon­ald, and the hun­dredth an­niver­sary of the start of the First World War, we now mark the 150th an­niver­sary of Con­fed­er­a­tion in 1867 and the cen­te­nary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917.

It will of­ten be said in the months to come that Canada “be­came a na­tion” at Vimy Ridge. But vic­tory at Vimy only hap­pened be­cause, in 1917, Canada was al­ready a na­tion — one that could raise, equip, and send over­seas a fight­ing force with the lead­er­ship and es­prit de corps of a na­tional army ca­pa­ble of fight­ing the Vimy battle. The events of 1917 that res­onate most, I’d say, are the ones that oc­curred on the home front.

But first, some con­text. In 1917, Rus­sia was col­laps­ing, the French ar­mies were near mutiny, the Amer­i­can forces had not yet ar­rived, and the Al­lies, in­clud­ing Bri­tain and Canada, were stretched to the limit.

In May 1917, Prime Min­is­ter Robert Bor­den re­turned from the United King­dom moved by the sac­ri­fices of the troops and de­ter­mined to re­dou­ble Canada’s ef­fort to sup­port the war. With Cana­dian ca­su­al­ties greatly out­pac­ing the rate of new re­cruits, Bor­den an­nounced that the govern­ment would en­act con­scrip­tion. Since there were too few vol­un­teers, Cana­di­ans would have to be forced to serve.

Con­scrip­tion di­vided the na­tion. It brought “the seeds of dis­cord and dis­union,” said Op­po­si­tion leader Wil­frid Lau­rier. In the spring of 1917, more Brit- ish-born Cana­di­ans served in the fight­ing forces than Cana­dian-born Cana­di­ans. Que­beck­ers were par­tic­u­larly de­ter­mined not to be forced to fight. There were ri­ots, po­lit­i­cal protests, threats of non-com­pli­ance, even ru­mours of as­sas­si­na­tions.

But the prime min­is­ter pushed con­scrip­tion through. Will­ing or not, con­scripts went over­seas for the bat­tles of 1918.

Que­bec ab­sorbed a great and ter­ri­ble les­son. When English Canada and French Canada fun­da­men­tally dis­agreed on a mat­ter of pro­found sig­nif­i­cance, English Canada would force its will upon French Canada.

That bru­tal les­son en­sured that con­scrip­tion would re­main a bit­ter is­sue long af­ter the war was over. All through the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, the mem­ory of con­scrip­tion shaped French-English re­la­tions and Que­bec-Canada re­la­tions. But in 2017 another les­son from 1917 also stands out.

Late in 1917, a fed­eral elec­tion loomed. Prime Min­is­ter Bor­den knew Que­bec was lost. But what of English Canada, where doubts about con­scrip­tion and the war ef­fort were very strong? To en­sure vic­tory, the govern­ment in­tro­duced spe­cial wartime elec­tion rules.

These new rules en­sured that no women could vote — un­less they served in the forces or had rel­a­tives in uni­form. They al­lowed all sol­diers to vote di­rectly for the govern­ment — so the govern­ment could dis­trib­ute those votes to any con­stituency it chose. Most shock­ingly, they re­moved the right to vote from masses of Cana­di­ans who had im­mi­grated from “enemy coun­tries,” even as early as 1902.

Mil­i­tary his­to­rian Jack Granat­stein has com­pared these mea­sures to a “hob­nailed boot.” And the boot crushed the op­po­si­tion. Con­scrip­tion be­gan. The war ef­fort con­tin­ued.

Bor­den was no tyrant. For fu­ture elec­tions he es­tab­lished the chief elec­toral of­fi­cer to en­sure non­par­ti­san fair­ness. But in 1917 he judged the war ef­fort was more im­por­tant than free elec­tions. Democ­racy had been sus­pended for the Great War for democ­racy.

In 2017, in a nearly per­pet­ual war against ter­ror, Cana­di­ans seek pro­tec­tion from a face­less enemy. And in this an­niver­sary year a trou­bling ques­tion from 1917 looms: How much free­dom should we sac­ri­fice in the name of na­tional se­cu­rity?

Cana­dian sol­diers in Toronto send a mes­sage to men who won’t vol­un­teer for ser­vice, 1917.

A pro-con­scrip­tion poster, circa 1917.

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