The History of the Vote in Canada Summary

World War I, known at the time as the Great War, was a major challenge to countries caught up in the conflict. The war involved a massive mobilization of manpower on a scale not seen before, and getting enough men into the military was a difficult proposition for many countries. Canada entered the war early with more than 30,000 volunteers in the army, forming the First Canadian Division of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. In time, tensions developed between the English-speaking Canadians and the French-speaking Quebecois. The latter wer seen as not doing their part, and this belief was bound with a broader effort to ban French and destroy the French-speaking community in Canada. The issue would soon also be bound with a debate over conscription in 1917 as a way of filing the ranks of the army, a debate that would be heated and bitter and that would add to the divisions between the two communities.

World War I

The start of World War I affected Canada as a new Conservative government headed by Robert Laird Borden set out to rally the public to the British cause in the war. At the end of the previous term, Canadians had been divided on the issue, but Borden managed to bring them together after Germany invaded neutral Belgium. It was then that 33,000 Canadian soldiers reached England and fought at the second battle of Ypres. By 1916, there were four Canadian divisions, with a fifth available for reinforcements. Canada’s participation served to bolster the nation’s image in the world and contributed to the end of its colonial status.

Conscription was seen as the way to increase the enrollment of soldiers to provide the needed manpower. This was sought as a solution toward the end of the war. At the time, conscription would have unintended consequences on Francophones who had long been isolated from France and who volunteered to serve in far smaller numbers than their Anglophone compatriots. There were several reasons for this, “including the enforcement of a prewar education policy in Ontario that restricted education in the French language.” Conscription also affected farmers as well. In that era, Canada had many family farms where young adult men were needed to help with the farm work. Before 1917, when there was a crucial election, the government exempted young farmers from the forthcoming draft; after the election, that decision was reversed:

The impact of this reversal was significant in the agricultural sector of the Ontario economy and the Canadian agrarian community in general and was partially responsible for a postwar agrarian political revolt.

A degree of national solidarity had been developing in Canada since 1896, and while this solidarity had been threatened by economic changes, it was a political change that ended it. The solidarity reached a high with the war, part of the enthusiasm brought about by wanting to participate. At the beginning of the war, voluntary enlistment was taken for granted, but voluntary enlistment would be seriously questioned when it did not produce the numbers desired. The number that did volunteer was an impressive percentage of the population. However, Sir Robert set a goal of half a million enlisted men at the beginning of 1916. he had spent sometime in England with the Imperial War Cabinet in 1917, and he returned to Canada in the spring of that year determined to introduce a conscription law to achieve his goal, and this law would be “at once the principal expression of the new wartime national unity and the chief cause of its disintegration.”


This region and the issue of its diversity has been much in the news in recent months because of the vote on whether or not Quebec would secede from Canada and become an independent entity, a vote that failed. Montreal is one of the major cities in the region and has a large French population. It was founded by Jacques Cartier in 1534, but the first French settlers did not arrive for about a century. Their intent was to evangelize the Indians, but instead they encountered conflict. The settlement would become the center of the fur trade, and the traders were followed by farmers and big landowners. They dreamed of a French Canada, but this failed when British forces defeated the French in 1759. The story of Montreal since that time is the story of the Canadian heartland. The city stood as new settlers, now the British, passed on their way west, and the city would become a center that served the west. This was also where the great port, industry, grain depots, leading banks, railroads, and insurance companies of Canada developed.

French Canada remains culturally distinct within British North America because it has maintained a defensive posture as far as any efforts at full assimilation. The diversity itself helped produce the kind of government Canada would have, for it was necessary to form a federation when efforts toward unification were undertaken and finally completed in 1867. Obviously, tensions between the French and the British populations have continued, leading to the recent vote. Language differences have been cited as important, but there is much more to the issue than this. Contention over the language has been used as a political issue in Canada again and again.

Canada came into being in 1867 through an act of the British Parliament creating the Dominion of Canada on July 1, 1867. At the time, the country contained approximately four million people in four provinces — Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. Canada maintained British social and political institutions. Native populations were made wards of the federal government. Even as there has developed a recognition of the importance of aboriginal culture, problems with preserving language are noted. Patrick note the realization that language and language rights have a particular importance in mobilizing political and cultural movements, “uniting Indigenous activists and their communities in the twin goals of achieving ‘nationhood’ and cultural ‘survival.'”

The differential view of Quebec extends back at least as far as the eighteenth century. On September 18, 1759, the French settlement of Quebec surrendered to the British, but the people never surrendered their roots. In 1763, the French signed the Treaty of Paris in which they gave up their claims to this New World. The British renamed the entire area of New France as the colony of Quebec and preceded to attempt to Anglicize its peoples. The attempt failed. The people of Quebec felt their culture, identity, and values were being usurped and worked all the harder to preserve them.

In order to keep a good relationship with these people, the British passed the Quebec Act of 1774. This Act guaranteed French religious freedom, retained French civil law (in British law Catholics could not hold public office or sit on juries), adopted English criminal law, and expanded the colony’s borders. (Grabowski 22).

In 1791, due in part to the inability of the British Protestants and the French Catholics to associate peacefully, Quebec was divided into Upper Canada and Lower Canada. While both areas were governed by British appointees, the French ways and organizations continued in Lower Canada, also known as Canada East, which is present-day Quebec. Upper Canada is now known as Ontario.

The people of Quebec were also involved in disputes over territory, such as that involving Labrador. As part of the Anglo-French Entente Cordiale of 1904, France gave up all claim to the region, though possession of Labrador was disputed by Quebec and Newfoundland until 1927, when the British privy council demarcated the western boundary, enlarged Labrador’s land area, and confirmed Newfoundland’s title to it.

Charles Taylor points out that Canada from the first has had a peculiar structure because of its dual language and dual cultures:

We could never be the standard state with a single clear identity. For a long time, this was felt as a grievous drawback by many people, such as among the British majority in earlier decades… Recently, some Canadians have woken up to the fact that what made their country an odd one out in the nineteenth century aligns it better with the conditions that every one is struggling with at this turn of the millennium.

For Quebec, the attraction has been to have a nation state, one that fully reflects the nation, “which we were cheated of through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by the refusal of binationalism.”

Quebec not only has a sense of being different and of having the right to differential treatment, but the rest of Canada sees this the same way to a degree, meaning that they recognize that Quebec is different, that there are both historical and cultural reasons for this, and that these differences also contribute to tensions which flare up from time to time in threats of secession. This does not mean that other Canadians see Quebec as having any right to secede or to have a sovereignty beyond what other provinces have, but it does mean they fully understand what Quebecers are talking about when they speak of special treatment and complain of past indignities and losses.


From the beginning of the war, there had been some variation in the Canadian attitude toward the conflict. Canada never questioned the legitimacy of the war and did not question the need for Canadian participation. There were differences of opinion, though, concerning how extensive the Canadian contribution should be. These variations affected the response to calls for enlistment and divided the country as the towns were more willing than the countryside, the prairies more willing than the Atlantic seaboard, and “it was observed that the proportion of enlistments achieved by any social group appeared to vary almost inversely to the length of its connection with Canada. On the one hand, the British-born — the new arrivals with a large proportion of unattached males of military age — gave the highest percentage of their numbers to the armed services, and, on the other hand, the French Canadians unquestionably gave the lowest percentage of theirs.” Francophone Canada was not disposed to the war even before the conscription issue, and it certainly was not more disposed to it after. As one historian notes,

For most English-speaking Canadians the war came before all else; for the French it was subordinated to certain national interests. The French press devoted more attention to the Ontario question than to the struggle in Europe, and the nationalist agitation had reached into the farthest backwaters of the province, leaving Quebec ill-disposed towards measures for furthering a war effort which it already considered too great.

In fact, the French Canadians were the oldest of the Canadian groups and had the least respect for Great Britain. They were tied to their homeland and to their community in Quebec:

They were far more concerned to defend the values of their provincial culture in Canada than they were to protect the interests of Canada in the world at large; and naturally, when Ontario established a new regulation limiting the use of French as a language of instruction and as a subject of study in the province, their feelings were aroused as they had never been by the conflict in Europe.

The French Canadians were not the only population antagonistic to conscription, for organized labor was also opposed. The farmers agreed only so long as there was an exemption for their sons. Still, French Canada constituted the largest single bloc of opponents to the conscription legislation.

The move for conscription was surprising in Canada. After the Crimean War in 1855, Canada had established an efficient militia force and relied on voluntary enlistment from then on, and “at the beginning of the War of 1914-18 everybody, including Borden and Borden’s government, had assumed that service in the Canadian armed forces would continue to be voluntary.”

In the debate over conscription, Borden was on one side and Wilfrid Laurier of Quebec on the other. In 1917, the nation’s English-speaking Liberals joined the Borden government to help speed conscription through, while the French-speaking Liberals (and some others) stuck by Laurier. Canada was split largely on racial lines in the election in December 1917, and Laurier was left to lead a mostly French-speaking Liberal opposition party in Parliament:

It should be emphasized that Laurier and French Canada were still acting within the Canadian political system. It was the Liberal party that sat in Parliament, not a French Canadian nationalist party. Bitter alienated though they might be, French Canadians had not abandoned Canada. This was in some ways Laurier’s greatest achievement, but it was also his last, for he died shortly afterward, in February 1919.

The Progressive Conservative Party grew out of an 1854 coalition of business-professional and Established Church (Anglican) elites in Ontario, and joined by the French Catholic and Anglo-Scottish business and financial oligarchies in Quebec. Sir John Alexander Macdonald of this party was Canada’s first prime minister in 1867. The Conservative government’s decision to execute Louis Riel, a Francophone Catholic Metis and leader of an aborted rebellion in Saskatchewan in 1885, severely strained the Quebec segment of the Conservative coalition, and the party’s support in Quebec eroded even more because of the government’s indecision on the issue of provincial government financial support for Catholic schools. These issues along with the death of Macdonald caused the Conservatives’ defeat in the 1896 federal election, and the party remained out of power until 1911 when its new leader, Sir Robert Borden, mobilized a combination of anti-free trade and anti-American sentiment in Ontario and isolationism in Quebec to cast out the Laurier Liberals:

This alliance dissolved during the conscription crisis of 1917. The bitterness of French Canada over Borden’s insistence on conscripting men for overseas service in World War I was not dispelled when he retired, and, lacking support in Quebec, the party was defeated in the election of 1921. It remained out of office until it won the 1930 election under the leadership of R.B. Bennett.

One sign of the disunity developing in Canada was that in the election in 1917, when Sir Robert Borden formed a union government of Conservatives and conscriptionist Liberals, that group won an overwhelming victory in the Dominion as a whole, but in Quebec it obtained only 3 seats out of 65.

Other issues of the time were also debated and laws passed with less controversy. That same year, Parliament adopted the Wartime Elections Act and the Military Voters Act, extending the vote to all British subjects even as the conscription debate raged. After this, all British subjects, male and female, who were active or retired members of the armed forces, including Indians and people under the age of 21, could vote, as could civilian men who did not meet the property qualification but who had a son or grandson in the army, at least temporarily. Women with a father, mother, husband, son, daughter, brother or sister who was serving or who had served in the army were also given the vote. In the election of 1917, some 2 000 military nurses would be the first Canadian women to vote in a federal election.

Andrew Theobold states that the conscription crisis is central to the Canadian experience of the Great War and also to collective conceptions of the nation itself. He also says there have been many studies of this time and its meaning. The conscription crisis developed because the allied situation in 1917 was becoming desperate. The war involved prolonged fighting and high casualty rates, and as noted, recruiting efforts were stalled because everyone who wanted to sign up already had. After the Union victory, conscription increased the size of the army so that by the time of the armistice in 1918, 25,000 conscripts reinforced the 150,000 Canadian troops in Europe:

Nevertheless, conscription was deeply resented by many Canadians, in particular, Canadiens, farmers, the labour movement, and ethnic minorities throughout the country. Quebec certainly led the way, but opposition was not confined to that province. As soon as the Military Service Act and its attendant legislation, the Military Voters Act and the War-Time Elections Act, were introduced, farmers, fishers, and labourers requested exemption in front of specially-established local tribunals. A majority of these requests for exemption were granted. Conscription opponents sought to avoid forced enlistment on the grounds that their occupations were essential to the war effort that they lacked the full benefits of citizenship, or that wealth should be conscripted along with men.


In the House of Commons, the vote for conscription was 102 to 44. This was not the last time the issue was addressed, though, for it was raised again in World War II and would be even more divisive when that debate occurred. In addition, conscription created more tensions and divisions within Canada in the early period and would do so again in World War II.


Ameringer, Charles D. Political Parties of the Americas, 1980s to 1990s: Canada, Latin America, and the West Indie.

Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Bothwell, Robert. History of Canada since 1867. Washington, D.C.: Association for Canadian Studies in the United States, 1996.

Boudreau, Joseph a. “Canada and the First World War: Essays in Honour of Robert “Canada and Worlod War I,” the History of Canada (2007),

Brown, George W. Canada. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1950.

Craig Brown.” American Review of Canadian Studies 36(2006).

Creighton, Donald. A History of Canada: Dominion of the North. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958

Creighton, Donald.. The Story of Canada. London: Faber and Faber, 1959.

Durnford, Hugh. Heritage of Canada. The Reader’s Digest of Canada, 1978.

Grabowski, John F.

Canada. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1998.

The History of the Vote in Canada,” 2002,

Lee, Douglas B. “Montreal.”

National Geographic (March 1991), 65-67.

Ring, P.E. “Invisible No More – Native Americans of the Northeast Have Eluded Extinction.” World and I, Volume 16, Issue 10 (October 2001), 36.

Taylor, Charles. “Sharing Identity Space.” In Quebec-Canada, John E. Trent, Robert Young, and Guy LaChapelle (eds.).

Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1996.

Theobald, Andrew. “Divided Once More: Social Memory and the Canadian Conscription Crisis of the First World War.” Past Imperfect (2006),

Wade, Mason. The French Canadians, 1760-1945. New York: Macmillan, 1955.

Canada and Worlod War I,” the History of Canada (2007),

Joseph a. Boudreau, “Canada and the First World War: Essays in Honour of Robert Craig Brown,” American Review of Canadian Studies 36(2006), para. 5.

Ibid., para. 5.

Donald Creighton, a History of Canada: Dominion of the North (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958), 447

Douglas B. Lee, “Montreal,” National Geographic (March 1991), 65-67.

P.E. Ring, (2001, October). “Invisible No More – Native Americans of the Northeast Have Eluded Extinction,” World and I, Volume 16, Issue 10 (October 2001), 36.

John F. Grabowski,

Canada. (San Diego: Lucent Books, 1998), 22..

Hugh Durnford, Heritage of Canada (the Reader’s Digest of Canada, 1978), 114.

Grabowski, 22.

Charles Taylor, “Sharing Identity Space,” in Quebec-Canada, John E. Trent, Robert Young, and Guy LaChapelle (eds.). (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1996), 122.

Mason Wade, the French Canadians, 1760-1945 (New York: Macmillan, 1955), 725.

Donald Creighton, the Story of Canada (London: Faber and Faber, 1959), 213.

Robert Bothwell, History of Canada since 1867 (Washington, D.C.: Association for Canadian Studies in the United States, 1996), 20.

Charles D. Ameringer, Political Parties of the Americas, 1980s to 1990s: Canada, Latin America, and the West Indies (Westport, Conecticut: Greenwood Press, 1992), 161

George W. Brown, Canada (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1950), 135.

The History of the Vote in Canada,” 2002,

Andrew Theobald, “Divided Once More: Social Memory and the Canadian Conscription Crisis of the First World War,” Past Imperfect (2006),

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