Nothing can split a society more than a controversial issue when both sides are passionate about their cause. Such was the case in 1917 Canada when the passage of the Military Service Act split the nation along ethnic lines.
Lines Are Drawn
The Military Service Act was passed, in part, to deal with the shortage of volunteers for the army during World War One. When the war began, there were more volunteers than needed, but as time when on and the death toll grew, the number of volunteers dropped dramatically.
In addition, French-speaking Canadians having no loyalty to the British or their ancestors’ homeland, had volunteered in much-smaller numbers than English-speaking Canadians.
The Act Goes Into Effect
The act was passed in July 24, 1917 and went into effect Jan. 1, 1918.
French speakers immediately disagreed with the act as did others such as conscientious objectors, pacifists, union workers, immigrants, farmers and those who disagreed with the federal government.
Supporters were mainly the families of soldiers, older generations and those with close British ties.
The French felt that they were being singled out because they disapproved of the war while the government felt Quebec wasn’t doing its fair share contributing to the war effort.
Men nationwide age 20-45 were affected by the act, but 93 percent sought exemptions.
Let’s Start a Riot
Before the act’s passage, there had been protests in Montreal, and on Aug. 28 there was rioting.
Anti-war and anti-conscription feelings boiled over again on March 28, 1918, when riots broke out in Quebec City. Police had been actively arresting draft dodgers, which was highly unpopular with the public. In Quebec City, the situation escalated after a man was arrested when he couldn’t show the police his exemption papers. He was later released after his family brought the papers to the police station, but by that time a crowd had descended on the building.
By the time the riot was over four days later, the crowd had grown, buildings were looted, army records were thrown into the street, and the electricity had been cut off. Troops were sent to the city to restore order. Rioters threw rocks at the troops who opened fire. Four men were killed, dozens were injured and property damage was $300,000.
In Vancouver, there was a general strike, after a man sought refuge with a group of conscientious objectors. He had tuberculous and had been told he would not qualify for the draft only to be called up anyway. He was killed by a police officer, supposedly in self defense.
In response to the riots and strikes, the federal government removed all exemptions, angering not just French-speaking Canadians, but many English-speaking ones as well.
By Armistice Day, 124,588 had been conscripted with 24,132 serving overseas.
Politically, conscription gave the Conservatives a black eye, and they would not remain in power for long. In 1921, the Liberal Party won the federal election and would remain in power the majority of the time until 1957.
Do you think Quebecers rioted because they felt that was the only way their opinions could be heard? Leave a comment below.
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