Military Service Act: Canada’s Conscription Crisis of 1917

Coverage of Canada's 1917 conscription crises in The Globe

Military Service Act: Canada’s Conscription Crisis of 1917

Nothing can split a society more than a controversial issue with two equally passionate sides. Such was the case in Canada when the passage of the Military Service Act of 1917 split the nation along cultural lines.

Lines Are Drawn

The Military Service Act passed July 24, 1917.  The legislation was designed, in part, to deal with the shortage of military volunteers. When World War I 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 either the British or their ancestors’ homeland, volunteered in much-smaller numbers than English-speaking Canadians.

Military Service Act Goes Into Effect

A 1917 Canadian political cartoon
Prejudice was high in the English speaking parts of Canada in 1917

The act went into effect Jan. 1, 1918.  Men nationwide age 20-45 were required to register, but 93 percent sought exemptions.

French speakers immediately disagreed with the act. Others did as well, including conscientious objectors, pacifists, union workers, immigrants, farmers and those with a grievance against the federal government.

Supporters were mainly the families of soldiers, older generations and those with close British ties.

French descendants felt they were being singled out because they disapproved of the war.  The federal government felt Quebec wasn’t doing its fair share contributing to the war effort.

Strong Anti-Conscription Feelings

A group of protestors demonstrating against Canada's 1917 conscription act
A group of protesters demonstrating against Canada’s 1917 conscription act

Protests broke out in Montreal before the Military Service Act’s passage, 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 actively were arresting draft dodgers, which was highly unpopular with the public.

The situation escalated in Quebec City after a man was arrested for being unable to show the police his exemption papers. When his family brought the papers to the police station, he was released, but by then, a crowd had formed outside the building.

The riot lasted four days. Buildings were looted, army records were thrown into the street, and the electricity was 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 totaled $300,000.

In Vancouver, there was a general strike, after a man sought refuge with a group of conscientious objectors. He had tuberculous and was told he would not qualify for the draft but was called up anyway. A police officer killed him, 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 men had been conscripted with 24,132 serving overseas.

Politically, conscription gave Conservatives a black eye, and they would not remain in power for long. The Liberal Party won the federal election of 1921 and would remain in power the majority of the time until 1957.

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Updated:  21 October 2020
Melina Druga
Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.
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