The Canadian federal election of 1917 was a vicious, heated election, which is saying quite a bit considering the 1911 election had enough rhetoric, half truths and mudslinging to make a 21st century politician feel right at home.
The election, held Dec. 17, was between the Unionists (the Conservatives and some Liberals and a few Independents) and the Liberals. It was less than two weeks after the Halifax Explosion.
The Unionists were led by Prime Minister Robert Borden who had been elected in 1911 when the Conservatives became the majority party. The opposition was led by former Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier. Those who remained loyal to him were often referred to as Laurier Liberals. Those who aligned themselves with Borden were called Liberal-Unionists.
The election was fought primarily with one issue in mind: conscription. For this reason, the election is also known as the Khaki Election.
Military Service Act
By mid-1917, 130,000 Canadians had been killed or wounded in World War One. This staggering rate along with a sharp decrease in volunteers meant it was becoming more difficult to replace the men who were lost.
Borden had visited the troops overseas and became convinced the only solution was to enact conscription. This view countered an earlier promise he had made not to make military service compulsory. It was, however, a view that was popular in the majority of the country.
French Quebecers had been against the war from the beginning. When the Military Service Act was proposed, there were riots.
Borden approached Laurier about forming a pro-conscription, coalition government, but Laurier refused. Two months before the election, Borden formed the Union party.
Pro-conscription positions in Quebec faced violence while farmers, who were against both parties, were accused of price gouging and profiteering.
In the end, 125,000 would be called up and 24,000 would serve overseas. The war ended before the Military Service Act could have its intended effect.
Wartime Elections Act
Another issue weighing on the public’s mind was the Wartime Elections Act.
- Allowed soldiers to vote during wartime. They had previously been excluded.
- Enfranchised women who were serving in the medical corps.
- Enfranchised the mothers, spouses and sisters of men serving overseas.
- Disenfranchised immigrants from enemy nations who had arrived in Canada from 1902 onward unless the immigrant had a brother, son or grandson serving in active service.
- Disenfranchised anyone who would be exempt from conscription, primarily conscientious objectors who would be more likely to vote Liberal.
The Liberals opposed the tactics to stake votes in favor of the Conservatives/Unionists, but were powerless to stop it.
The act was repealed by Armistice. By then, all women had been given the federal vote.
Political advertisements and speakers represented the election as a choice between the current government and the opposition. A vote for the government, they said, was a vote for the soldiers and for killing the Kaiser. A vote for the opposition, on the other hand, was a vote for slackers or even an endorsement of the enemy.
In addition, half a million women voted for the first time.
In the end, the Unionists won nearly 57% of the vote. They took 153 of the 235 open seats. Only 20 Liberal seats were won outside of Quebec.
It has been called the nation’s ugliest election.
Do you think the course of the war would have been different had the opposition won the election? Leave a comment below.
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