Conscription and the 1917 ElectionIn early 1915 the Canadian government sent 100,000 men to Europe. By May of that year, a quarter of them had been killed or wounded. Support for the war would remain high in English-speaking Canada throughout the war, but by 1916 it was clear that Canada could not maintain its troop strength in Europe if it depended solely on volunteers. The prime minister had committed 500,000 troops to the war effort: a breathtaking promise when one realizes that there were only 1.5-million men between the ages of 17 and 40 in Canada. The army needed 80,000 new soldiers a year to keep up with losses, but a quarter of the military-aged men in the country had already enlisted.
Robert Borden’s Conservative government concluded that it needed to bring in conscription —that is, it had to require men to serve in the military. In May 1917 he announced to Parliament that he would be bringing in compulsory military service legislation. Fearing that he might be beaten in that year’s election, he proposed that the Liberals and Conservatives form a coalition government. Laurier rejected the proposal, and the Military Services Act was passed in the summer of 1917. Borden realized that the measure was so controversial he decided not put it into effect until after the upcoming federal election. He also decided to shape the terrain on which that election would be fought.
After failing to draw Laurier into a coalition, Borden began to recruit Liberal members of Parliament into what he called a Union Government. Two of his most important allies in this endeavor were Winnipeg Liberal MP Clifford Sifton and John Dafoe, the editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, which Sifton owned. To force the Liberals into the Union government, and to ensure its victory in the upcoming election, Borden changed the country’s election laws. Soldiers would be allowed to vote simply for or against the government, with their ballots being counted in ridings of their choosing. Borden also gave the vote to some women: military nurses, and the wives, mothers, sisters and widows of soldiers would all be allowed to vote in the 1917 election. To further determine the election outcome, those immigrants from countries with which Canada was at war who had become Canadian citizens after 1902 were stripped of their right to vote. The government also committed itself to exempting farm workers from conscription.
Liberal leader Wilfrid Laurier opposed the measures, but many in his party chose to join in Borden’s new Union government. In addition, the Union government was able to recruit a large number of farm leaders from across western Canada. Along with conscription, the Union platform called for votes for women, prohibition, the introduction of an income tax (which would see that wealthier Canadians would pay for their share of the war effort), and an excess profits taxes.
The 1917 election created divisions within the country’s reform movement, divisions that were most deeply felt in Winnipeg. The reform movement has always seen itself as a movement dedicated to purifying society and improving humanity—and as a result, most of its leaders had been opposed to war. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union for example, had established a Peace and Arbitration Department in the 1890s. Leading Manitoba suffrage campaigners such as Nellie McClung believed that if women were involved in politics, wars would be far less likely to take place. Despite these views, reformers such as McClung and Methodist Church leader Salem Bland embraced the war effort. McClung also supported the wartime election laws that only gave some women the vote while taking it away from recently naturalized Canadians. To Bland and McClung, the war itself became a part of their campaign for moral regeneration.
Other reformers took a very different approach. Fred Dixon, a labour member of the Manitoba Legislature, opposed the war and organized an Anti-Conscription League. Returned soldiers broke up the meetings and assaulted Dixon. When Free Press reporter Vernon Thomas congratulated Dixon on his courage in opposing the war, he lost his job with the newspaper. Francis Beynon and Lillian Thomas, two of the leader figures in the battle for suffrage in Manitoba, broke with McClung and opposed the wartime election laws, saying that all Canadian citizens should have the vote. Beynon concluded that the reform movement’s demands were too modest. Wars, she felt, arose from the underlying social and political pressures of a capitalist economy. As her views became more radical she found that she no longer could continue writing for the Grain Growers’ Guide. Finally, one of the leading figures of the social gospel in Manitoba, J.S. Woodworth, saw his job as the director of the Bureau of Social Welfare disappear when he opposed conscription. Like Beynon, Woodsworth concluded that the prevention of war would require radical changes in the way societies were ordered. This conclusion led him to resign from the ministry and eventually enter politics. Richard Rigg, a leading figure in the Winnipeg labour movement and a member of the provincial legislature was another strong opponent of conscription. Like others in the labour movement, he pointed out that workers were being asked to sacrifice their lives in the war, while wealthy Canadians were actually able to make a profit on the war by purchasing government bonds. However, anti-war labour leaders were not able to rally workers to support them in their opposition to war.
The 1917 election was a smashing victory for Borden and the Union government in western Canada. On the Prairies the Union coalition won 41 of 43 seats. The only Liberal elected from Manitoba was J.P. Molloy, who represented the largely francophone riding of Provencher. Overall the Unionists received 80 per cent of the vote in Manitoba. Conscription was implemented in early 1918. Following a ferocious German attack in the spring of 1918, the government was forced to end its exemption for farm labourers, including farmers and their sons. Ontario farmers held large demonstrations to protest this measure; westerners, however, accepted it as a necessary but unfortunate requirement of winning a war that many believed might otherwise drag on to 1920. Having won the 1917 by only granting the vote to certain Canadian women, in 1918, the federal government followed the lead of most provincial governments by granting all Canadian women the right to vote in federal elections.