The price of freedom
Upcoming anniversaries offer opportunity to learn from past mistakes.
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.